How far, and in what ways, do you agree that the story of Polonius and his children is a tragedy within a tragedy?

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How far, and in what ways, do you agree that the story of Polonius and his children is a tragedy within a tragedy?

‘Hamlet’ is a revenge tragedy; a genre originally developed by plays such as ‘The Spanish Tragedy’ by Thomas Kyd from 1585-1590. The genre is characterized by the inclusion of death, murder, betrayal, madness, poison, surveillance and the supernatural in the narrative – themes that all frequently occur in ‘Hamlet’. However to what extent does the story of Polonius, Ophelia and Laertes conform to this idea of a revenge tragedy; and more broadly, how does the story of the family conform to the genre of tragedy as a whole?

One issue is how to define a tragedy; Thomas Heywood wrote:

“Comedies begin in trouble and end in peace; tragedies begin in calm and end in tempest”, ‘Apology for Actors’, 1612.

By this definition, tragedy generally can be summarised as a sequence of events that lead to the destruction of the majority of its characters. In this sense, the story of Polonius and his family conforms to the basic skeleton of a tragedy - by the end of the play Polonius, Laertes and Ophelia are dead. However the family’s story does not conform as simply to other definitions of tragedy.

‘[Tragedy] would look with a sceptical eye at what was happening in the world around’, M. Mangan (1991).

‘Tragedy would look with a sceptical eye’ implies that tragedy has the role of both viewing and criticising society. This concept can be applied to Polonius, a character remarkably similar to Queen Elizabeth I’s spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham. Shakespeare spent the majority of his life under Elizabeth’s rule; hence the Elizabeth’s gentry may have aided Shakespeare in creating his constructs. Polonius is characterized by his long, rambling speeches, for example in Act 2 Scene 2;

‘Either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastorical-comical, historical-pastoral, tragic-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral unlimited’

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The absurd repetition of the words ‘tragedy’, ‘comedy’, ‘history’ and ‘pastoral’ emphasize the loquaciousness of Polonius, but is perhaps also mocking Sir Francis Walsingham. Shakespeare is crafting a stereotype that spymasters are loquacious, obsequious characters. Perhaps Shakespeare is criticising society; society does not require spymasters spawning insincerity and deceit. If so, Shakespeare is using satire as a tool to portray this viewpoint. Polonius may be used by Shakespeare as a means to act as such a ‘sceptical eye’ on society, conforming to Mangan’s concept of the relevance of tragedy in real life.

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A confident commentary on the nature of tragedy, exploring a number of models and concluding with a strong case for Shakespeare not only examining but also transcending many of the conventions of his day. Much more could be made of the detail of the text in order to put this a 5 * category, but this is nevertheless clearly conveyed and shows a knowledge of the text.