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Loneliness and the Tragic Hero in Shakespeare

Dernière mise à jour : 7 avr. 2023

Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet (1899)

Extract from :

Loneliness and the Tragic Hero in Shakespeare’s Works

by I. A., Rebeca Alina Romaniuc

"For Hamlet and heroes such as him, loneliness represents fulfilment, even if on another level. Man is the only being who knows he is alone. Even from the beginning of his work, Shakespeare had a dominant feeling of the tragic, as a consequence of a vision of Man’s fall from the horizon of the sacred and into history, vision that left behind a powerful state of dissolution and estrangement. That is why Shakespeare was able to create in his works some of the most spectacular tragic heroes who fully develop this character trait.

It is very interesting to see and analyse the depth and the measure of their isolation, the mechanism of their intricate psyche, under the pressure and the tensions of the oppressing society they are part of. Such characters are prone to develop an inner discourse, which becomes their dialogue with themselves or with the unknown audience that seems to share thus their tragic state and are given, therefore, the possibility of purification through catharsis.

During the Renaissance, solitariness represented a statement of individualism, a sense of self-love far greater than the love one might feel for the other, it is in fact a proof of the attempt at detaching from the unbecoming crowd and unveiling the feeling of individual superiority.

One of the great individualists of the Shakespearian world is Richard III :

What do I fear ? Myself ? There’s none else by:

Richard loves Richard; that is I am I.

Is there a murderer here? No; -- yes, I am:

Then fly. What, from myself ? Great reason why:

Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself ?

Alack, I love myself. Wherefore ? For any good

That I myself have done unto myself ?

O, no ! alas, I rather hate myself

For hateful deeds committed by myself !

I am a villain: yet I lie, I am not.

Fool, of thyself speak well: -- fool, do not flatter.

My conscience hath a thousand tongues,

And every tongue brings in a several tale,

And every tale condemns me for a villain.

Therefore, in the world created by Shakespeare, individualism is a sign of villainy, a certain corruption of the human soul by power and materialism. The tragic hero, however, shows neither an unthinking, nor a stoical retreat; they recognize and endure the agony of their pain, being fully aware of their vulnerability. More than that, the tragic hero is a well-conceived and highly individualized character. He is endowed with the power of expression, which is equal to his power to endure and prevail, hence the protagonist’s solitude.

Night time is the period when sleeplessness, brooding restlessness and tense anticipation of what is to come, culminate in some of the most intense manifestations of solitary characters – soliloquies are at night time developed and further expanded. The character’s thoughts begin to take a shape at night time. We are always prepared for the character’s solitude through the background, a special kind of scenery or through words that make the necessity or the wish for solitude explicit.

It is not by chance therefore that Hamlet and Macbeth speak the most significant soliloquies in the tragedies. Their inner loneliness is combined with the compulsion to conceal their thoughts from those around them. Much the same can be said about Brutus and Lear. In the development of the soliloquies, such lonely characters never separate the inner vision from the events of the outer, living world; abstract postulations are always related to the concrete present reality of the play.

They address fictitiously an imaginary partner of conversation; his ego, his own heart or heavenly and earthly powers, people absent or sometimes even those present (but out of earshot), or he may address personifications, often moon and stars, real or imaginary objects (such as the dagger in Macbeth). They impart more of their true being in soliloquy than in dialogue and they provoke a response that oscillates between sympathy, withdrawal and doubt. The audience is made to feel that they are being taken into the speaker’s confidence.

Solitude can either be a character trait or is the consequence of the character’s deeds within a certain train of events. A character may use madness as a shield of protection as a defence of his inner freedom. Hamlet, for instance, chooses to protect himself by using a cocoon of alleged madness. In his world, there is no room for love.

Hamlet loves Ophelia, but he know that he is being watched and love gradually fades away: Prince Hamlet says he loves her – and perhaps he does love her – but Ophelia must remember that a prince is not like ordinary men who are free to choose wives for themselves. Moreover, Hamlet is not only isolated by his social status but also by his reflexive character.

According to the Italian Renaissance philosopher Matteo Palmieri (1406-1475)

"He who loves solitude can be neither just, nor strong, nor experienced in those things that are of importance in government and the affairs of the majority.”

Princes such as Hamlet and Machiavelli’s "principe” are individualists and play the role of tragic heroes. As a tragic hero, Hamlet is destroyed because of a major weakness; his flaw is irresolution – the uncertainty on how to act or proceed. Because of his uncertainty, Hamlet is seen unable to act and thus tends to generalize over subject such as death, life, love, social status.

He declares “conscience does make cowards of us all” and that the ruddy nature of one’s intent, or resolution upon an action is “sicklied” over with the “pale cast of thought.” This makes an individual second guess his own actions and often times take no further action at all, to his own irresolution.

The play abounds mostly in reflections on human life. Hamlet sparks an internal philosophical debate on the advantages and disadvantages of existence. He uses the pronouns “we” and “us”, the indefinite “who”, the impersonal infinitive, he speaks explicitly “of us all” and of “what flesh is heir to”, of what “we” suffer at the hands of “time” or ”fortune”.

However, we realize that he is not of the same nature as the other personae of the play. His loneliness and his disillusionment set him apart from the others, making him an outsider, an outcast. Furthermore, estrangement is but a trial, a detachment from the originary matrix, from society, a separation from a substance which has become poisonous, as Coriolanus evokes:

I’ll never

Be such a gosling to obey instinct; but stand,

As if a man were author of himself,

And knew no kin.

Lonely characters are in a continuous search for unity with the Self. They condemn themselves to solitude hoping to encounter within themselves, in isolation, the answers to the problems that exclude them from within a chaotic society.

For Hamlet and heroes such as him, loneliness represents fulfilment, even if on another level. And from this point of view, Hamlet’s loneliness appears more like the one of the later Goethe’s romantic hero. His ruling passion is to think not to act in a world where people impose their will on others. He is full of weakness and melancholy and there is no harshness in his nature.

Madness allows Hamlet to say things that a sane man would not be permitted to say and this fact distances him from other people, who, if they could get closer, might be able to discern his real motives. Consequently, Hamlet lives out of himself, in a world of imagination, just as Romeo does in a world of love. Both are absent and self-involved, and this is a main source of their inner seclusion.


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