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Tragic Loss of Potential in Hamlet

23 Nov 2017Essay Samples

Tragic Loss of Potential in Hamlet, King Lear and Richard III

According to Aristotle, one of the elements of tragedy is the pain of watching potential greatness denied. Tragic figures from classical drama through Renaissance drama signify not just individual loss but communal injury, as a character raised to immense height by the gods (or God) falls publicly. Such is the situation for three very different examples of Shakespeare’s tragic protagonists, young Prince Hamlet, old King Lear, and ambitious King Richard III. Though these characters bear little resemblance to each other aside from their noble blood, all their deaths evoke a sense of communal loss, a recognition of what might have been, and their respective tragedies are all, in a sense, tragedies of denied potential.

Hamlet, as a prince, is the embodiment of kingly potential. His father, Old Hamlet, is described as a “goodly king” (1.2.187), and the play ends with Fortinbras (someone who has no reason at all to lie, and the agent of restored order in the play) claiming that Hamlet would have been a good king as well: “he was likely, had he been put on, / To have prov’d most royal” (5.2.397-98). Hamlet is indeed a paragon, intellectual, witty and loyal; his early death without ever ascending his father’s throne represents great personal loss. In fact, Horatio, a steadfast voice of reason and loyalty throughout the play, attempts to kill himself as his friend dies and is only stopped by Hamlet’s request that he live to tell his story (5.2.340-49). In addition, however, the loss of Hamlet and his potential kingship causes suffering for the whole of Denmark. In fact, Denmark, in effect, ceases to exist, because Hamlet’s death leaves the throne open for the former enemy Fortinbras to sweep in and take over. Hamlet represents the last of the true nobility of Denmark, and when he dies the kingdom goes to a foreign enemy with a very distant claim, erasing the Denmark of the Hamlets: “For me, with sorrow I embrace my fortune. / I have some rights, of memory in this kingdom, / Which now to claim my vantage doth invite me” (5.2.388-90).

The irony, of course, is that Hamlet’s death is the result of his fight to defend the integrity of the kingdom of Denmark represented by his father’s legacy. For the Renaissance audience, nobility and kingship are ordained by God; thus, Claudius’s crime is not simply against his brother and king but against God and His universal order. The problem with which Hamlet struggles throughout the play is that of his faith in that order. He sees Claudius rewarded for his crimes and wonders if perhaps the world is indeed an “unweeded garden,” a place where there are no universal laws, a place where “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” (2.2.249-50). Ultimately, though, Hamlet decides to retain his faith and fight for the order in which he believes, even to his death: “There is special / providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, / ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if / it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all. / Since no man, of aught he leaves, knows what is’t to / leave betimes, let be” (5.2.219-24).

Thus, the audience is left at the end of Hamlet much like the citizens of Denmark, watching the kingdom of such proud legacy conquered by a foreign enemy without a fight. Hamlet, the embodiment of the potential future Denmark, can only acquiesce to Fortinbras’s taking of his crown as he dies. The tragedy of Hamlet, then, lies in the death of a loyal son and prince and of an entire kingdom. Hamlet’s passionate defense of the integrity of Denmark and the universal order designed by God, culminating in the sacrifice of his life to those ideals, indicates that he would have been a careful and honest leader of his kingdom. What Fortinbras’s rule will be like, no one can say.

King Lear, by contrast, is a tragic figure who survives beyond his potential and becomes a sacrifice to the new self-interested chaotic world that Hamlet denies. Kermode suggests that, “As a man he has—just, perhaps because he failed to distinguish not only between love and professions of love but between his mortal nature and his borrowed majesty—‘but slenderly known himself’” (1251). Lear, a remnant of the old system of order, fails to consider the possibility that “nature” may not induce his daughters to love or loyalty, much less to integrity in the governance of his kingdom. The potential mourned in this play is, somewhat paradoxically, the extension of the past into the future; with Cordelia’s death we know that Lear’s past glory will not influence the future of his kingdom. Unlike the end of Hamlet, in which there is at least a restoration of kingly order in Fortinbras, the end of King Lear suggests that transcendent order has finally been demystified and dismantled. From now on, Machiavellian self preservation will drive humanity’s actions.

The famous scene in Act III in which the old king rages in the storm reveals him as terribly mortal when stripped of kingly trappings. Kennedy argues, “Lear's dementia during this scene is often thought of by critics and readers as having two possible meanings: (a) a representation of a psychological regression--old age simply slipping and reverting back to childish petulance as a result of stress and exposure to the harsh elements, or (b) an allusion to a crowned Christlike figure” (Kennedy 61). As a Christ figure in particular, Lear becomes a martyr, a sacrifice to the new order, in which kingship means nothing universal and bears no relationship to God. Lear is forsaken: “Close pent-up guilts, / Rive your concealing continents, and cry / These dreadful summoners grace. I am a man / More sinn’d against than sinning” (3.2.57-60).

The last potential for an ordered future dies with Lear and Cordelia. Albany predicts that the unnatural behaviors of Lear’s daughters will disrupt the ordered universe and allow humans to behave as animals: “If that the heavens do not their visible spirits / Send quickly down to tame these vild offenses, / It will come, / Humanity must perforce prey on itself, / Like monsters of the deep” (4.2.46-49). In fact, he is right, and the play’s final scene reinforces the idea that the world Lear leaves is irrevocably changed for the worse, as Kent exclaims, “Vex not his ghost. O, let him pass, he hates him / That would upon the rack of this tough world / Stretch him out longer” (5.3.314-16). Kent further explains that Lear represented a system that humanity no longer supports: “The wonder is he hath endur’d so long, / He but usurp’d his life” (317-18). Thus, while Hamlet is able to claim some redemption through his adherence to the old order, Lear’s inability to recognize that the old order is being compromised until it is too late brings about his downfall.

The tragic nature of Richard in King Richard III is more difficult to identify. In a sense, the play seems more a history than a tragedy, though as Rackin explains, “The protagonists of tragedy, like those of history, were understood to be characters of high rank. Moreover, in the Renaissance as in antiquity, plays identified as tragedies frequently took their subjects from history” (47). Even so, Richard’s historicity makes him a complicated tragic figure, for he is, unlike Hamlet and King Lear, a villain, an inveterate liar, murderer and usurper.

Richard is, of course, noble in ancestry. In exhorting Richard to accept the throne, Buckingham refers to “The sceptred office of your ancestors, / Your state of fortune, and your due of birth, / The lineal glory of your royal house” (3.7.119-121). However, Richard’s death hardly evokes the catharsis of pity and fear identified by Aristotle; in fact, his death is a relief, for the killing of “the bloody dog” (5.5.3) allows Richmond to restore order in the kingdom:

England hath long been mad and scarr’d herself:

The brother blindly shed the brother’s blood,

The father rashly slaughter’d his own son,

The son, compell’d, been butcher to the sire.

All this divided York and Lancaster,

Divided in their dire division,

O now let Richmond and Elizabeth,

The true succeeders of each royal house,

By God’s fair ordinance conjoin together! (5.5.23-31)

Even Richard understands that he is not pitiable, saying “I shall despair; there is no creature loves me, / And if I die no soul will pity me. / And wherefore should they, since that I myself / Find in myself no pity to myself? (5.3.200-203).

Richard, though a villain, is tragic in that his nobility is squandered for greed and ambition. Richard recognizes this truth himself, to some degree: “I have set my life upon a cast, / And I will stand the hazard of the die” (5.4.9-10). As discussed above, Shakespeare presents kingship and nobility as ordained by God and usurpation as a crime against nature and God’s will. Thus, Richard represents a perversion not only of ambition but of self destruction; he pollutes his own noble blood and potential through his actions. When Richard offers his “kingdom” in exchange for a horse he does not receive one, because a horse is worth more than the false kingdom Richard claims; humans may claim kingship and take the throne, but a kingship not ordained by God is still worthless.

The tragedy of Richard, then, is that of his potential, thrown away like a toss of the dice for a chance at a place higher than the one for which he is meant. Like Claudius, he receives immense blessing from God in his birth, yet he chooses to ignore God’s will and try to reorganize the universal order to his own benefit. Unlike Claudius, Richard displays an impressive intellect and wit, allowing audiences to feel some remorse for the loss of what Richard might have been. By fashioning himself as God’s enemy, though, Richard tragically denies that potential. Need dissertation on Shakespeare's Hamlet? Our dissertation writing service can help with any topic and any types of paper.

Works Cited

  • Kennedy, Joy. “Shakespeare’s King Lear.” Explicator 60.2 (2002): 60-62. Academic Search Elite. EBSCOhost. 6 December 2003 .
  • Kermode, Frank. Foreward. The Tragedy of King Lear. By William Shakespeare. The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974. 1249-54.
  • Shakespeare, William.
    • The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974. 1135- 1197.
    • The Tragedy of King Lear. The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974. 1255-1305.
    • The Tragedy of Richard the Third. The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974. 708-64.
  • Rackin, Phyllis. “Engendering the Tragic Audience: The Case of Richard III.” Studies in the Literary Imagination 26.1 (1993): 47-66. Academic Search Elite. EBSCOhost. 6 December 2003 . 

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