Research Paper on Hamlet and Willy Loman as Tragic Heroes

Published: 2021-08-16
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Vanderbilt University
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Research paper
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Aristotle defines a tragic hero as one with great attributes but errs in their choices, and that mistake becomes their Waterloo (Leech 33-44). In his description of a tragic hero, Aristotle assigns given traits that qualify one for the title tragic hero, and those traits include hamartia, peripeteia, anagnorisis, and hubris, among other characters. Trying to operate within Aristotles ideas, many authors have assigned their characters traits of a tragic hero; however, the big question is as to whether those fictional characters qualify to be classified as tragic heroes as the artists would wish to portray them. A consideration of all the conditions of becoming a tragic hero and the character traits of Will Shakespeares Hamlet and Arthur Millers Willy Loman shows that the dual are perfect examples of tragic heroes as per Aristotles description.

Aristotles Tragic Hero

Aristotle gives five basic features of a tragic hero: admirable, hamartia, peripeteia, anagnorisis, and catharsis (Murnaghan 755-773). First, they are admirable in the fact they belong to the noble class in the community because they are either heroes or leaders. Hamartia simply defines the condition that leads to the heros downfall; it is that misjudgment that the hero has to suffer its consequences (Murnaghan 755-773). Peripeteia defines the eventual outcome of the hamartia; it is the total change of a heros fortune due to their miscalculation (Murnaghan 755-773). Anagnorisis, on the other hand, describes the aspect of lesson learned from ones hamartia; the tragic hero gains insight of a different perspective of themselves after the peripeteia (Murnaghan 755-773). Finally, catharsis defines the feeling that the audience has on seeing their hero fall; it is that pity that a reader gets when they see their best characters former position in the community distorted (Murnaghan 755-773). The five are the most fundamental traits that define a tragic hero as per Aristotles supposition.

Aside from the five, analyses have broadened the list of characteristics of a tragic hero. One trait is hubris, which implies that tragic heroes are often proud, maybe because of their esteem in the community, and it is that egotism that leads to their downfall. Another character is endless suffering, which supposes that things do not go the way of such heroes in most situations. Further, the heroes downfall comes due to their actions, not by nature as it would occur in some cases. What is more, their nobility implies that their downfall affects not only them but also the entire community that looks up to them. Finally, most tragic heroes are male, very few are female. Need to note, these set of traits are highly dependent on the first five; thus, they are not of much significance in the analysis of the viability of ones classification as a tragic hero.

The Character of Hamlet

Hamlet is William Shakespeares protagonist in Hamlet; he is the son of the late king, and thus, should have become king (Shakespeare and Rokison-Woodall). His father is murdered by his uncle, Claudius, who assumes power immediately and inherits Gertrude, Hamlets mother (Shakespeare and Rokison-Woodall). The storyline is determined when Hamlet sees his fathers ghost asking him to avenge the kings murder (Shakespeare and Rokison-Woodall). The ghost goes ahead to describe the murder of the king; thus, it identifies not only the killer but also the approach used in the assassination. Further, the figure advises Hamlet to rush his revenge at any opportune moment (Shakespeare and Rokison-Woodall). To confirm his doubts, Hamlet performs a play before Claudius mimicking the murder of the king as described by the ghost. To his astonishment, the ghost was right after all; Claudius feels guilty, and he storms out of the room. In other words, Hamlets plan works efficiently, and his findings define his next course of action.

In the subsequent sections of the book, Shakespeare talks about Hamlets initiatives to take revenge. He finds a good chance to kill Claudius (when the latter is praying), but he does not do it, owing to the belief that that would only send him to heaven. Hamlet kills many people before he can actualize his desire to murder the king; for instance, he kills Polonius (Shakespeare and Rokison-Woodall). All that while, the king plans on better ways to kill Hamlet before the latter kills him; example, Claudius sends his nephew to England, where he would hire assassins to kill him. Hamlet is finally killed in a fight against Laertes; the king poisons both the celebratory wine and Laertes sword (Shakespeare and Rokison-Woodall). Either way, Hamlet would die because if defeated then he would have suffered a cut from the sword and if a winner then he would drink the poisoned wine (Shakespeare and Rokison-Woodall). That fight marks the end of Hamlet.

The Person of Willy LomanWilly Loman is Arthur Millers fictional character in his Death of a Salesman who thinks that success is when people like him and he accumulates vast material possessions (Miller). As a result, he lives his entire life in self-denial; he believes that he is an influential, successful man despite the many failures that he poses throughout his life. He admires his brother, Ben who is very rich, owing to his decision to venture into the extraction of diamond in Africa (Miller). He spends the better part of his life remembering the past as if he had the chance to change history; for example, he remembers the job Ben offered him, but he declined. However, he convinces himself that things did not go as they went; he imagines that he did not reject the job (Miller). Further, he remembers when people like Biff used to adore him, unlike the current situation where his son does not trust him anymore. In other words, Arthurs fiction presents a character that does not want to accept the reality and live by it.

When reality finally dawns on Willy, he accepts that indeed he is a loser who has always failed throughout his life. He cannot forget Biffs words to him, "You fake! You phony little fake!" (Miller). That statement makes him see himself as a failure in front of his own sons eye; thus, he cannot continue to live in self-denial as he has always done in the past. What is more, realizes the intense need to do something good for once, just to change what other people think of him. However, it strikes him that he has no other asset apart from his insurance benefits; so, he decides to commit suicide to enable his wife the opportunity to enjoy the money as a benefactor (Miller). Ironically, at the point of his death, he still imagines that many people would come to his burial ceremony (Miller). So, it is evident that the character realizes his weakness in the last minute when he has no chance to change history.


To judge as to whether the two are tragic heroes, one has to analyze their characterization with regard to Aristotles five major traits of a tragic hero.


While Hamlet is noble, Willy is not admirable at all. Hamlet comes from a royal family, and he is supposed to be crowned king (Indira 94). So, a vast majority in the society looks up to him as not just a leader but also a savior, the one who would deliver them from Claudius. On the other hand, Willy is a total failure in the community. In fact, his son, Biff, is disappointed in him. So, from this criterion, Hamlet qualifies, while Willy does not fit as a tragic hero.


The concept of hamartia applies in the lives of both characters. Starting with Hamlet, he misses the mark when he does not kill Claudius, yet he has the chance to do so (Indira 93). Shakespeare acknowledges that the ghost tells Hamlet to avenge his fathers death within the shortest time possible, but the character ignores that advice by not killing Claudius. On the other hand, Willys hamartia is the decision to live in self-denial. Throughout his life, he does not accept his weaknesses; thus, he does not give himself the chance to improve. Indeed, both Hamlet and Willy commit mistakes out of ignorance.


The concept of peripetia applies in both of the two characters lives. Hamlets fortune is reversed in that he ends up not killing Claudius; instead, the latter kills him. Hamlet has all the reasons to murder Claudius; for example, the latter has not only killed the formers father but also committed incest with Gertrude. So, it is only just for Hamlet to kill Claudius, being the only person who can do that. On the other hand, Willys peripetia is seen in the sense that the character turns out to be a total failure despite his desire to succeed. That is, in both cases, the outcome of the hamartia is a change in fortune.

AnagnorisisAnagnorisis is not seen in the case of Hamlet, but in Willys case, it is quite palpable. Need to note, the former does not live long enough to realize that he had made a big mistake by sparing Claudius life when he had the chance. On the contrary, Willys story is entirely based on this principle; the character remembers his past and realizes that indeed he made a mistake. In fact, Willys regrets make him commit suicide; he believes that he would be more important while dead than he is while alive.


In both cases, a reader feels some pity for the character in question. In the case of Hamlet, for example, he has to pay for his miscalculation with his life. Besides, he dies by the sword, which is very painful. Likewise, Willys story sounds so touching; he has lived his life as a loser and now he loses the adoration of his son. Arthur presents a character who comes to his senses when it is too late for him to reform. Consequently, he commits suicide as the only way to make himself useful. In short, both of the two characters sudden deaths that only leave the audience pitying the fictional people.

Discussion and Conclusion

From the analysis, it is clear that Aristotles three characteristics of a tragic hero, catharsis, peripeteia, and hamartia, are common between the two fictional characters. Unlike Hamlet, Willy is just a commoner who has nothing admirable; however, he becomes a hero among the common people. Arthur makes him a common hero to remind the less privileged in the society that heroism is not about social class. Elsewhere, though anagnorisis is not quite applicable in the case of Hamlet, his struggle after sparing the kings life could be his lesson. Therefore, one cannot fully overrule the applicability of the two traits in the lives of the two characters respectively.

Following Aristotles description of a tragic hero, one can claim that both Hamlet and Willy are tragic heroes. The analysis shows Hamlet as a noble character who makes a wrong decision that he not only regret but also leads to his downfall as the audience pity him. On the other hand, Willy is conspicuous among the lowly in the society being one who makes a wrong decision and follows the course that he lives to regret, as the readers pity him. So, in both cases, Aristotles understanding of a tragic hero is clearly shown. Thus, both Hamlet and Willy are tragic heroes.

Works Cited

Indira, Davi P. "Tragic Flaw in Shakespeare's Hamlet." IUP Journal of English Studies, vol. 9, no. 4, 2014, pp. 93-97.

Davi Indiras analysis is entirely based on the play Hamlet; it identifies the character Hamlet as a procrastinator. According to the author, Hamlets procrastination is the primary cause of his downfall; thus, it is the heros tragic flaw. Further, the writer shows some background information regarding Hamlets procrastination; he argues that the character is in a dilemma situation as he does not know whether it is moral to take his uncles life, but at the same time he wants to avenge his father. The article supports the thesis statement by showing that indeed Hamlet commits hamartia that...

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