What Harry Potter could have learned from Hamlet

Despite his best intentions, Emsworth has occasional brushes with popular culture. A few years ago, for example, he fell prey to the addictive tales of J. K. Rowling. What a story-teller! But the way she concluded her Potter story in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, released about a year ago, was hugely unsatisfactory.  Now, after spending some time with Shakespearean tragedy (for example, see Emsworth’s review of Hamlet at the Stratford Festival in this post), Emsworth is in a position to explain why.

J. K. Rowling simply failed to respect the rules of tragedy. For six heart-racing volumes, the Harry Potter saga was shaping up as one of the grand tragedies in our literature. But in the end, Rowling lacked the intestinal fortitude needed to end her tale properly.

The rules of tragedy have been well understood since Aristotle laid them down 2,000 years ago, and I summarize them here, not intending to patronize any readers, but merely to refresh them on what they learned while studying Julius Caesar in ninth grade. A tragedy must, first, be a serious story about a conflict between a hero and a great malign force. In a tragedy, moreover, the hero must undergo a change of fortune, preferably because of his own mistake or flaw, leading to a disastrous, heart-rending denouement.

Consider Lear, that warrior king and grand personality, whose fatal mistake is to misjudge the characters of his daughters and to surrender his kingdom prematurely. With his world aligned against him, he loses everything. King Lear ends, oh so satisfyingly, with a stage strewn with corpses. Kent and Edgar, who survive, rule in Lear’s place.

Consider Othello, that great general and commanding figure, whose fatal weakness is to trust the sociopathic Iago and to allow him to plant fatal seeds of jealousy in his bosom. Weakened, Othello loses everything, and the play ends (once again, most gratifyingly) with blood and bodies everywhere. Gratiano, a minor character, succeeds to Othello’s place.

Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter in "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix"

Now consider Harry Potter, a hero among heroes, a wizard prodigy, a born leader and Quidditch captain, whose destiny is to battle the world’s greatest wizard. Like Lear, Othello, and Hamlet, Harry has a fatal weakness: a powerful connection with Voldemort tempts him to the dark side. Harry flirts too closely with evil and, in a moment of ambition and weakness, betrays his friends. Too late, he repents, and the story ends with bodies (including his own) and wands broken and strewn over the great hall at Hogwarts. The wizard world starts anew; a minor character, Neville Longbottom, succeeds to the place in the world of wizards that Harry might have held.

Only, of course, that’s not how J. K. Rowling wrote it. Because she lost her nerve plotting and writing the final volume, Harry never makes a fatal mistake, never loses his way, and rises safely and blandly from the wreckage of the final battle.

And so do Hermione and Ron. And so does practically everyone else. In fact, after all the hullabaloo and speculation by Potter fans over what would transpire, who among the Order of the Phoenix actually dies? An elf. The werewolf. The duplicitous Severus Snape. One of the Weasley twins (the twins do not have distinct personalities). Tonks (you probably don’t remember who she was, either).

J.K. Rowling lost her nerve in "Deathly Hollows"

In fact, at no point in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — for that matter, at no point in the series — are readers called upon to deal emotionally with the deaths of any character they have truly come to care about, except Dumbledore, and his age and infirmity take the sting out of his loss. J. K. Rowling flinched at her final task, which was to break our hearts.

She even shrunk from disposing of her villains. What possible reason could Rowling have had for letting Percy Weasley live? When a character in a tragedy has lost his way and gone over to the enemy, he must perish, even if he has belatedly seen the light. J.R.R. Tolkien understood this; that’s why the great warrior Boromir was slain at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring.

And why, oh why, does Draco Malfoy survive? In a properly staged final battle, Harry’s arch-enemy would repent and, in a moment of high drama, would strike a critical blow on Harry’s side. Then, having atoned for his earlier wickness, and in a state of grace, Draco would die fighting. At the very least, Draco should die at the hand of the Dark Lord, so as to punish his parents for their wickedness. But nothing of the sort happens. Readers are not even told what happens to Draco after Harry last encounters him.

Let there be no mistake: J. K. Rowling wanted to write a tragedy. Why else would she have attached an epigraph to the Deathly Hallows in the form of a quotation from the playwright Aeschylus, the father of Greek tragedy (died 455 B.C.)?  But when it came down to cases, she lacked the stomach for the tragic conclusion that her story deserved.

From the dark tone of the fifth and sixth books, we were fully justified in expecting that (a) the forces of good would, in the final conflict, sustain serious losses and (b) that even if the Dark Lord were defeated, the wizard world would never be the same. In The Lord of the Rings, for example, to which the Harry Potter saga owes much, the defeat of Sauron marked the end of an age and the departure of the elves from Middle-earth.

Instead, Rowling left readers in a wizard world where all was copacetic, where the survivors were happily mated up, and where their little wizard offspring were happily heading off to Hogwarts. Sentimental rubbish, and a good tragedy wasted.

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  1. […] https://emsworth.wordpress.com/2008/08/04/what-harry-potter-could-have-learned-from-hamlet/ I like this comparison of Harry Potter and Hamlet, which basically comes down to “JK Rowling had one of the grandest tragedies ever written shaping up, until she lost her nerve.” […]

  2. […] https://emsworth.wordpress.com/2008/08/04/what-harry-potter-could-have-learned-from-hamlet/ I like this comparison of Harry Potter and Hamlet, which basically comes down to “JK Rowling had one of the grandest tragedies ever written shaping up, until she lost her nerve.” […]

  3. first of all, i am not a native English speaker, so sometimes i found it hard to express precisely what i want to say in English. But i’ll try my best, because i think your opinion is interesting. And here is my opinion:

    first, imagination is free.there’s no rules in the world of imagination. so, i don’t agree with your opinion that Harry Potter and the deathly hollows should’ve followed the ‘standard pattern’ of a tragedy story. Harry Potter is Rowling’s. it’s hers, so it’s up to her about where she wanted the story plot to go.

    second, in my opinion, it’s understandable why harry never went to the dark side throughout the story. i mean, would you really unite with the person who killed your parents mercilessly, and made you live with your uncle, aunt and cousin – who don’t even want you to live with them and never gave you enough food, and proper clothes and treated you like dirt- and turn your life into a total misery? i don’t think so.

    And it’s not like Harry was described as a perfect kid. he has flaws. is he genius? No. yes, he excelled at Defense against the dark art, but was so bad at Poison, and was just so-so in other subjects. He’s got bad temper, and there were moments when he felt jealous to his friends. He has his dark side, but that never got the best of him, because he was always surrounded by people who always find ways to keep him in the right track, whether it’s intentional or not. So, i don’t think Harry is a perfect kid. he’s just a normal (as normal as a wizard could be) kid who was surrounded by good (but not perfect) people.

    and the fact that not all bad characters in the book got proper punishment made the story realistic to me. because, hey, i know that’s not how things work in real life. Bad people don’t always get punished.

    to put my points in a nut shell, i think Harry Potter is a good book, it is a very good conclusion of the whole story, and i love it.

  4. Well, I just barely remember Hermione Gingold on TV (thoroughly dating myself), so I knew the name.

    As for being children’s books, sort of: So were the _Little House_ series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, sort of. But each was written in language approximately suitable to the age of the in-story Laura. I was hoping for something like that from Rowling.

    Finally, as rewrites of endings go, yours for Harry Potter is better than Peter Jackson’s of _LoTR_! Thank you for the food for thought, Emsworth. (I won’t call you “Mr.” because I don’t know, and don’t want to know, if it’s your first, last, or screen name.)

    Do pardon my disparate 3-cents’ worth, but that can happen when I come in a year late.

  5. In fact I believe that JK Rowling has stated in interviews that Hermione was named after the character in The Winter’s Tale. However, she said it wasn’t so much because she felt the characters were similar, she just wanted a unique name and the name from that play happened to be one that she liked and felt was unique. And it certainly is, because I wasn’t familiar with the name either until I read Harry Potter.

  6. Well, perhaps you’re right, Becky — I can’t say I felt very sad when Lupin was knocked off, but losing Sirius was a tough one, even for me. So I guess I overstated.

    Still, the battle of Hogwarts was a literary battle of Armageddon. What would the odds have been that Ron, Hermione, and Harry all would have survived, and that only minor characters would have died? Same odds as going through a life in which the only deaths that touch you involved uncles, grandfathers, and cousins, never a parent, brother, or wife. I still think Rowling got cold feet. Perhaps she sensed the astounding emotional attachment so many young people had developed to the three leading characters, and was afraid there would be suicides. Or perhaps she was insecure, doubting her own ability to write an effective scene in which one of the three was killed.

    Perhaps Shakespeare came to a point in his life in which he valued happy endings, as you do. Here I’m thinking of The Winter’s Tale, which we saw just three weeks ago in a show that so good I still don’t have it out of my mind. There wasn’t a dry eye in the theater at all the joyful reunions at the end. Yes, I suppose it’s important, as you say, that some of our stories turn out well.

    There’s a Hermione in The Winter’s Tale, too! I’ve often wondered why Rowling picked such an obscure name for her leading female character. I didn’t even know how to pronounce it at first. (Maybe it’s more common in England, I don’t know.) I wonder if Rowling was a fan of The Winter’s Tale; I can’t think of any other very notable Hermiones in literature.

  7. Your post is really intriguing. However, I don’t really think it’s fair to say that there were not any emotional deaths in the series (aside from Dumbledore). Sirius is a pretty hard blow in book 5, and in 7 you really do lose a lot of characters that many readers did have emotional ties to, such as Lupin and Dobby. Just because one of the main three in the trio didn’t die doesn’t mean there weren’t any emotional deaths.

    Aside from that, I like a lot of the points that you make. Indeed, I certainly expected Draco to die. But I just honestly don’t think she ended the book the way she did because she was too cowardly. I think a book with many tragic elements but ultimately a happy ending is a really important type of book to have, and probably more realistic than the ending of your typical tragedy, such as Hamlet. Our world is full of tragedies every day, but the fact is that everyone keeps on living the world keeps going, and that’s kind of how I see the Harry Potter series.

    Hope you don’t “critizize” my comments too much.

  8. Dude:

    Well, you’re quite right — Rowling was under no obligation to write her book in accordance with any particular formula. In fact, isn’t that one of the most remarkable things about the Harry Potter books? — they don’t fit very well into ANY genre: they’re not children’s books, or teen books, or fantasy, or anything exactly. And I certainly agree that great art often happens when people see ways to break the rules. One thinks of Cezanne. Or Chuck Berry.

    You should understand that I was writing somewhat tongue-in-cheek about Rowling’s failure to finish off her “tragedy”. But I stick by my point, to a degree. She STARTED to write a tragedy, or something a lot much like it. Many of the traditional elements of “tragedy” were there at the end of the sixth book. But whether you call it tragedy or something else or nothing at all, she veered sharply off course in the final book. She set us up for something she didn’t have the guts to deliver.

    Yes, I don’t suppose I’ll ever forget Ben Carlson’s Hamlet at Stratford. Have you seen many other shows at Stratford (or at the Shaw Festival)? Carlson was lights out in Julius Caesar this summer — I saw it twice!

    I thought the earlier “crizitizers” were a scream — that’s why I left their comments up there.

    Emsworth

  9. Hey dude,
    I am amused to have read the comments on your article. I, too, would like to ‘crizitize’ your review. I certainly felt that she lost a bit of her nerve in killing off characters who are extras or have extra copies of themselves. However, I really don’t like the notion that she should of followed the rules of a tragedy. Art advances because people change things. Not saying I like the ending, just saying that I think by attacking it on grounds of ‘rules’ you’ve taken the wrong tack.

    By the way, I got here by way of wanting to find information on that version of Hamlet Stratford put off a couple years ago; man that was a good performance.

  10. Children’s literature? Yes, I suppose it is, insofar as the main characters are children and the stories deal so largely with the problems of teenagers. And of course the range of the vocabulary in the books tops off at a level markedly short of adult literature. But what other children’s literature has had such wide appeal to adults? I haven’t been a teenager for nearly 40 years, and I’ve read all the books at least twice. I’m with you on Snape — though I’d probably say he’s the most interesting character, not that he’s my favorite. A complex figure.

  11. Your comments re Harry Potter as tragedy make sense, except that the series is, at least nominally, children’s literature. There might be a greater lesson learned if Harry were to perish, but think of all the poor little broken hearts, plus what is the lesson if you try really hard to do what is right and to be good, but end up dying anyway. In my fantasies, good wins over evil and there is a “happily ever after.” My favorite character was Snape, who is, I believe, a tragic character in the classic sense. I’ve always thought this was really dark for a children’s story.

  12. Will Coats: I’m sure you’d be great! Good luck displacing Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort!

  13. I was a big Harry Potter fan I have read every one of the books and my moms side of the family is from England. I was wondering if I could play voldemort in the 7th movie.

  14. I think J.K Rowling will be okay, with or without Emsworth’s criticisms. (I’ve heard, by the way, that Emsworth never DOES make a mistake, spelling or grammatical, anyways.)

  15. Grater,

    I appreciate your thoughtful comment. Engaging with someone on an intellectual level is fun, isn’t it?

    And I learned a new word — “eruditic”! Thanks.

    Emsworth

  16. You seem to take every flaw in a great book and emphasize it, often to the point of mockery and strife. I suggest you cease with all actions of snooty, eruditic(if you could call it that), mind-blowingly selfish review. And go fix yourself a flaming sack of crap, the reason being I don’t know which doorstep is yours. Ding-dong.

    Sincerely,
    Green Mountain Grater

  17. When I said I was “so sorry” I was being sarcastic. You are unbelievable. Do you just sit around on your computer and critisize people? I am glad I am not you! This will be the last I am speaking to you! I hope you have a more productive life than this!

  18. I am one of the best spellers in my grade, and I was the valedictorian for my graduation. So what if people make mistakes? I bet you make some too. So please Emsworth, don’t act like the perfect guy.
    Very, very sincerely,
    Bubba
    P.S. this is the last you’ll hear of me. This is a waste of time

  19. And Nikki, Lear is by Shakespeare, so the “Shakespeare or Lear” comment is just silly.

  20. Nikki:

    Why should you be sorry? Please don’t be.

    Not sure what you meant by your last phrase: “any feat of which you would surely fall short on.” These words just don’t seem to go together.

    Regards, Emsworth

  21. You might use fancy words and have good sources but none of this applies to Harry Potter. The book was a success and I agree that there should have been a little more tragedy, but this isn’t Shakespeare or Lear. I am so sorry if J.K. Rowling didn’t meet your expectations, but she met the world’s expectation, any feat of which you would surely fall short on.

  22. Bubba, “whether” is usually spelled with just one “r”. You have also written a run-on sentence. And when you refer to a word as a word, you should put quotation marks around it. (Perhaps you’ll cover that when you get to eighth grade.) So your comment should have looked like this:

    I don’t care. I’ll spell “critizizing” however I want, whether it’s correct or not.

    But you really shouldn’t have left this comment at all — you’ve made it seem that you’re proud of your inability to spell.

  23. I don’t care I’ll spell critizizing however I want, wherther it’s correct or not.

  24. Bubba, you’ve hit it square on the nose. My tendency to find fault is my worst shortcoming. By the way, “criticizing” is usually spelled with just one “z”. — Emsworth

  25. I think you really should be careful with that mouth of yours. Some people LIKED the happy ending, and it’s a children’s book for Lord’s sake. I was sad when Tonks, Lupin and Fred died. Imagine if you were Teddy Lupin and your parents died fighting Voldemort. How would you feel? And you know what? I think you should get a life and stop critizizing GREAT pieces of literature.

  26. And let’s not forget that there’s a movie deal at stake here. Surely the powers-that-be are well aware that a pleasant ending is going to get a significantly greater number of butts into seats. I wouldn’t want to question Rowling’s integrity, but Hollywood can influence even the greatest literary ambitions. Take Faulkner …

  27. I think that this blogger cannot presume to know just exactly what it was that JK Rowling was hoping to write- and she can hardly be compared to Shakespeare (if we are comparing her to anyone, it should be to Steven King who also cannot not seem to tell a story in under 500 pages). I think that we can easily find satisfaction in Dumbledore’s death, a wound that we carry with us for over almost 800 pages. I think that the ending works for the same reason “Star Wars” worked -episodes IV, V and VI that is. Good triumphs evil at some cost – but it is still worth it.


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