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Hamlet: A Tragic Hero with No Tragic Flaw

Why Hamlet has no tragic flaw and suggesting why other common theories may be wrong.

William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a tragedy, and like any other tragedy, it is supposed to have a tragic hero who has a tragic flaw, which leads to his downfall. This tragedy, however, has a tragic hero who does not have a tragic flaw. Hamlet, like all other tragic heroes, does have a downfall, but it is not caused by a tragic flaw. This downfall is instead caused by a series of extremely depressing events that he endures, which drive him to act abnormally.

Before discussing Hamlet’s lack of a tragic flaw, “tragic flaw’ should first be defined. A tragic flaw is: “A flaw in the character of the protagonist of a tragedy that brings the protagonist to ruin or sorrow.” (American Heritage). By this definition, in order to have a tragic flaw, the tragic hero must have a flaw in character which leads to his downfall. A good example of a tragic hero with a tragic flaw is the character Oedipus in Oedipus Rex by Sophocles. Oedipus’ tragic flaw is his over ambition to find his father’s killer. In his quest to find his father’s killer, he finds out that it is he, and because of this he is humiliated and blinds himself out of anger. In Oedipus’ case, ambition was the character flaw that caused his own downfall.

Critics have suggested many possibilities of Hamlet’s tragic flaw, but since the character of Hamlet is one of the most complex in all of literature, there is no consensus. One critic, Ernest Jones, wrote that Hamlet’s tragic flaw is that he has an “Oedipus Complex,” meaning that Hamlet, like Oedipus, has the desire to kill his father so that he can be his mother’s only object of affection. Jones supports this theory by pointing out that Hamlet is constantly fighting with Claudius for his mother’s love, and that he is very upset by Gertrude’s sleeping with Claudius (Jones 129). This theory, however, is unpersuasive. Hamlet wants to kill Claudius not because he is sleeping with Hamlet’s mother, but because he killed Hamlet’s father.

Other critics identify Hamlet’s fatal flaw as “thinking too well,” that is, having looked truly into the essence of things, (Bloom 393, quoting Nietzche), or feeling too much. T.S. Eliot wrote about the latter in relation to Hamlet’s exaggerated feelings of disgust towards his mother, which Eliot thought were out of proportion to the situation. Eliot believed that Hamlet never understood those feelings and therefore allowed them to poison his life and obstruct his action (Eliot 90). This is also unpersuasive, because although Hamlet’s feelings towards his mother are important, they are not the most important in Hamlet. More important are Hamlet’s feelings towards Ophelia or Claudius, for example, because his relationships with these characters are integral to the action and outcome of this play.

The writer Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe viewed Hamlet not as having a tragic flaw, but as being unfit for the responsibilities heaped upon him by Shakespeare. In Goethe’s words, the duty to avenge was, “laid upon a soul unfit for the performance of it” (Goethe 43). To him, Hamlet lacked “the strength of nerve which forms a hero,” (Goethe 44) and sank beneath his burdens. Although an interesting and insightful analysis, this is not exactly what Shakespeare meant. Shakespeare crafted Hamlet so as to show periodically that there is no inherent flaw in Hamlet’s character (Hammersmith 249). Rather, that Hamlet was a normal person, who because of the many traumatic events that happened to him, became overwhelmed.

The first of these catastrophic events is the death of King Hamlet. Hamlet, as would almost any normal person, is devastated by the death of his father. While he is still mourning his father’s recent death, to make matters worse, his mother marries Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius. This marriage takes place within months of his fathers’ death, and because of its hastiness Hamlet questions it, and believes that his mother may have planned this marriage before his father’s actual death. Next, his new step-father does nothing to make Hamlet’s life, which at this point is sad and depressing, any easier. When Hamlet asks Claudius if he can return to the University, Claudius tells him he may not. Polonius then decides that his daughter, Ophelia, should stop seeing Hamlet. This is also crushing news to Hamlet; he is not allowed to see the girl he loves.

Finally, Hamlet meets his father’s ghost and learns that his father was killed by Claudius, and that his father wants Hamlet to avenge his death. This is the pinnacle of Hamlet’s depression, learning that his father was murdered, and that this murder was committed by his new step-father. These terrible events, occurring one after the other, send Hamlet into an abnormal state, where he becomes suicidal and does things he normally would not do.

In the midst of these depressing events, Shakespeare shows the reader flashes of a normal Hamlet. The first glimpse the reader sees of Hamlet’s normal self is when Hamlet is visited by his school friends in Act I, Scene ii, as follows:

HORATIO: Hail to your lordship!
HAMLET: I am glad to see you well. Horatio–or I do forget myself!
HORATIO: The same, my lord, and your poor servant ever.
HAMLET: Sir, my good friend. I’ll change that name with you. And what make you from Wittenberg, Horatio? –Marcellus?
MARCELLUS: My good lord.
HAMLET: I am very glad to see you. [To Bernardo] Good even, sir. — But what, in faith, make you from Wittenberg?
HORATIO: A truant disposition, good my lord.
HAMLET: I would not hear your enemy say so, nor shall you do mine ear that violence to make it truster of your own report against yourself. I know you are no truant. But what is your affair in Elsinore? We’ll teach you to drink {deep} ere you depart.
HORATIO: My lord, I came to see your father’s funeral.
HAMLET: I prithee, do not mock me, fellow-student. I think it was to {see} my mother’s wedding.
HORATIO: Indeed, my lord, it follow’d hard upon.
HAMLET: Thrift, thrift, Horatio. The funeral baked meats
did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables. Would I had met my dearest foe in heaven or ever I had seen that day, Horatio! (Ham. I. ii.165-190)

In this dialogue, Hamlet is fooling around and having fun speaking with his college friends, whom he will not be allowed to see in the future because of Claudius’ decision to prohibit him from returning to Wittenberg. As Oscar James Campbell described in his essay entitled “What is the Matter with Hamlet?”, when Hamlet is with his friends in this scene, his “natural charm and graciousness shine forth,” (Campbell 104) once again, as it did in his untroubled past. His light-hearted demeanor is in stark contrast to the depressed behavior he exhibits before his friends enter the scene, and shows the reader the normal Hamlet.

Shakespeare provides the reader with another example of the normal Hamlet when Hamlet and Horatio meet before the play in Act III, Scene ii:

HAMLET: What ho, Horatio!
Enter HORATIO
HORATIO: Here, sweet lord, at your service.
HAMLET: Horatio, thou art e’en as just a man as e’er my conversation coped withal.
HORATIO: O, my dear lord-
HAMLET: Nay, do not think I flatter, for what advancement may I hope from thee that no revenue hast but thy good spirits to feed and clothe thee? Why should the poor be flattered? No, let the candied tongue lick absurd pomp and crook the pregnant hinges of the knee where thrift may follow fawning. Dost thou hear? Since my dear soul was mistress of her choice and could of men distinguish, her election hath seal’d thee for herself for thou hast been as one, in suffering all, that suffers nothing, a man that Fortune’s buffets and rewards hast ta’en with equal thanks; and blest are those whose blood and judgment are so well commeddled, that they are not a pipe for Fortune’s finger to sound what stop she please. Give me that man that is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him in my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of heart, as I do thee. (Ham. III. ii.54-79)

In this passage, Hamlet playfully flatters Horatio, and Horatio pretends to act bashful. Hamlet also tells Horatio what a valuable friend he is, and compliments his steady character. The ease with which they speak to each other and their openness both signify a long-standing relationship which reminds the reader what Hamlet was like before the onset of his depression.

Hamlet’s high spirits continue after the play ends, when he and Horatio again joke back and forth noting Hamlet’s “excellent” acting ability and rejoice at the play’s success:

HAMLET: Would not this, sir, and a forest of feathers (if the rest of my fortunes turn Turk with me) with {two} Provincial roses on my razed shoes, get me a fellowship in a cry of players?
HORATIO: Half a share.
HAMLET: A whole one, I. For thou dost know, O Damon dear, this realm dismantled was of Jove himself, and now reigns here a very very– pajock.
HORATIO: You might have rhymed.
HAMLET: O good Horatio, I’ll take the ghost’s word for a thousand pound. Didst perceive?
HORATIO: Very well, my lord.
HAMLET: Upon the talk of the poisoning?
HORATIO: I did very well note him.
HAMLET: Ah ha! Come, some music! Come, the recorders! For if the king like not the comedy, why, then, belike, he likes it not, perdy. Come, some music! (Ham. III.ii.301-321)

This scene is another good example of Hamlet’s normality. According to Campbell, “many cultivated gentlemen of the Renaissance,” enjoyed the theatre (Campbell 104). Hamlet, a man of the Renaissance, enjoyed the play for its theatrical qualities, but also enjoyed watching Claudius’ discomfort. In both respects, Shakespeare shows he is perfectly normal.

In addition to periodically depicting Hamlet as a playful and humorous young man, who acts gracious and charming with his friends, and who enjoys plays just like other Renaissance men, Shakespeare uses another mechanism to show the reader that Hamlet is normal and does not have a tragic flaw. Shakespeare creates Horatio as a mirror image of Hamlet, except with less prominence (Hammersmith 249-250). Horatio is supposed to be exactly what Hamlet would be like had he not experienced the chain of catastrophic events that sent him into a depression. The two characters’ parallels are many: both studied at Wittenberg, both are “scholars of contemplative nature,” and neither is a man of action.

No one, however, would call Horatio “flawed” or “defective” simply because he is not, say, a soldier of Macbeth’s stamp – he is not, as it happens, particularly a man of action at all. Horatio thinks a lot. He performs no action in the play which would lead an audience to regard his character as in any way superior to Hamlet’s “too contemplative” nature. (Hammersmith 249)

Because the two characters are so alike, they are distinguished by their circumstances. Nothing traumatic happens to Horatio, but everything happens to Hamlet. He is unfortunately saddled with the burden of avenging his father’s death, a circumstance which, according to Hammersmith, calls for a predisposition to action, a character trait Hamlet does not possess. As Hamlet himself says, “The time is out of joint. O cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right!” (Ham. I. v. 210-211) Horatio, on the other hand, is never called upon to take any action, let alone an action contrary to his predisposition. His contemplative nature, therefore, never presents a problem. If the same events happened to Horatio, he probably would have had the same response as Hamlet, and been a victim of circumstances, like Hamlet.

“Hamlet is a tragedy, the tragedy of a genius caught fast in the toils of circumstance and unable to fling free. Shakespeare unfolds to us the full horror of Hamlet’s situation gradually, adding one load after another to the burden he has to bear until we feel that he must sink beneath it” (Wilson 39). And sink beneath it he does through no fault of his own. Hamlet is just an average man, to whom many bad things unfortunately happened.

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13 Responses to “Hamlet: A Tragic Hero with No Tragic Flaw”
  • Caroline
    November 14th, 2008 at 9:13 am

    Loved it. But I have one question…
    Works citied?

  • Jess
    February 25th, 2009 at 11:01 pm

    Wow, excellent essay. Very useful :)

  • Kamie
    May 10th, 2009 at 9:42 pm

    NO! Hamlet has a tragic flaw- it is his passionate nature. He is so emotional, unlike his foil and stoic best friend Horatio, that he cannot act or acts too brashly. Hamlet is also the opposite of the stoic Brutus in Julius Ceasar. Brutut’s tragic flaw is his lack of emotion, Hamlet’s tragic flaw is his excess of emotion. An excess is either direction is a flaw in the Elizabethan world, the world of Shakespeare. One must be balanced. Hamlet is unbalanced, of course.
    :)

  • kate
    October 15th, 2009 at 7:56 pm

    This is a bad essay. Hamlet does have a tragic flaw, if not one but many. You may to read deeper into the play or watch the movie.

  • Laura
    January 6th, 2010 at 5:14 pm

    If you really read through Hamlet it would be obvious that his tragic flaw is his over analytical nature which plagues him with indecision. Had Hamlet acted on a whim rather than over analyzing every possible outcome of each situation he would have accomplished the original task at hand.

  • D
    April 19th, 2010 at 5:22 pm

    but then don’t we all have some sort of ‘tragic flaw’ when placed under some sort of unfortunate circumstance? and wouldnt that tragic flaw then be considered normal?
    it’s cyclical. the ‘over-analytical’ nature, driven by hamlet’s emotions, is as much the flaw that makes him an anti-hero, as it is the characteristic that make him ‘normal.’ if anything, it is Horatio who seems less normal, his character bearing the sole sense of balance in the play.

  • justinmeyster
    May 2nd, 2010 at 10:21 pm

    i loved it as well. and ya, works cited? lol

  • TBucks
    January 18th, 2011 at 3:58 pm

    Just because you disagree does not mean I am wrong, the works cited got cut off sorry.

    I’m glad you all are enjoying this.

  • Geoff
    August 19th, 2012 at 11:04 pm

    it was shit

  • Frank
    August 19th, 2012 at 11:07 pm

    Geoff that is really inappropriate

  • Hue Jaas
    August 19th, 2012 at 11:11 pm

    This essay is quite the piece, full of emotion and imagery, very well written… Geoff I disagree :(

  • Harry Scrotum
    August 20th, 2012 at 10:27 pm

    I want you so bad!!

  • Emily
    November 8th, 2012 at 1:56 pm

    Reread the works of Ernest Jones.

    “Hamlet wants to kill Claudius not because he is sleeping with Hamlet’s mother, but because he killed Hamlet’s father.”

    That’s irrelevant to Jones’s analysis.

    Hamlet’s inability to kill Claudius is because he subconsciously relates to Claudius. Claudius did the very thing that Hamlet wanted to do: kill his father and marry his mother. In seeking revenge on Claudius, he would in turn be seeking revenge on himself.

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