Hamlet’s HamartiaHamlet’s Hamartia
Hamlet is the most written about tragedy in the history of man. But, why is it a tragedy? Is it because Hamlet has a tragic flaw that creates his downfall? Or is it that all the cards are stacked against him since the beginning of the play and there is no way he can prevail? I believe that it is a tragedy because of Hamlet’s tragic flaw. Hamlet’s tragic flaw is that he cannot act on impulse for things that require quick, decisive behavior, and that he acts on impulse for things that require more contemplation than is given by him.
Hamlet speaks of his father’s tragic flaw that ultimately led him to his death, but it applies equally well to himself:
So, oft it chances in particular men,
That for some vicious mole of nature in them,
As, in their birth, wherein they are not guilty
(Since nature cannot choose his origin),
By the o’ergrowth of some complexion,
Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason,
Or by some habit that too much o’er-leavens
The form of plausive manners–that these men,
Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect,
Being nature’s livery, or fortune’s star,
Their virtues else, be they as pure as grace,
As infinite as man may undergo,
Shall in the general censure take corruption
From that particular fault. The dram of evil
Doth all the noble substance of a doubt
To his own scandal. (1.4.23-38)
Hamlet speaks of the one defect that is in particular men from birth, and the fact that that one defect is his particular fault. Hamlet says that this fault will corrupt the man. It seems to be an excuse from Shakespeare for why Hamlet will not act on impulse. As though he is giving the audience a hint that Hamlet has a tragic flaw. Shakespeare writes As, in their birth, wherein they are not guilty / (since nature cannot choose his origin) (1.4.26). Hamlet gives reason of his own flaw here. Although he is talking about his father having a tragic flaw, he states particular men (1.4.23), he is not denying that his character does not have a tragic flaw. Hamlet is making an excuse for any possible flaws that might arise in the play.
Shakespeare shows us that Hamlet retains his the ability to think lucidly and in depth with his monologue (3.1.56-89). Anytime that Hamlet has to act on something, such as in the church when he has the opportunity to kill Claudius while he was praying, He stops to think before he acts. There is no clear evidence of wrong doing until Claudius confesses his sins to God, his nephew, and the theater at large (Scott-Hopkins 1). The thinking eventually leads him to doubt, which leads him to inaction. He takes the time to reason and reasons himself out of acting. Hamlet speaks of his inability to take
action, his tragic flaw:
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action. (3.1.83-88)
Hamlet knows of his own flaw and knows how it has affected his relationship with Ophelia also.
Another example of when Hamlet cannot act on impulse is in act 3,2 when he puts on the play to try to show proof to the rest of the court that Claudius murdered his father. He could not act on the ghost’s words alone. It would have been easier if Hamlet did not alert Claudius to the fact that he knows who murdered his father.
Hamlet acts without rational thought in a couple of scenes throughout the play. In Act 1, 4 Hamlet threatens Horatio and Marcellus to let him go so he can follow the ghost. He does not have a rational thought about it. He simply follows the ghost even with Horatio trying to talk him out of it.
Another example to support Hamlet’s irrational acts is when he is in the Queen’s chambers in Act 3, 4 when he stabs Polonius through the arras, without knowledge of who it is. As soon as he hears someone speak, What, ho! help! (3.4.22), Hamlet, with little thought, draws his sword and speaks How now, a rat? Dead for a ducat, dead! (3.4.23-24) and stabs through the arras killing Polonius. It is this action, taken without
thought, which ultimately seals Hamlet’s fate.
Hamlet is a tragedy because Hamlet could have avoided his own death. Hamlet had many opportunities to kill Claudius, but did not take advantage of them. He also had the option to tell the public that his father died by Claudius’ hand. Yet he did neither. He did neither because his tragic flaw kept him from achieving his goals. That is until the end. In the end after he realizes that his death is imminent and Claudius caused the death of his mother, he lets his anger overcome him. Hamlet kills Claudius in an impulsive act, thus overcoming his own ‘tragic flaw’ (GermanGirl2005 p.1).