The traditional understanding of “tragedy” is that the tragic hero has some terrible flaw that leads to his or her downfall. Hamlet seems to subvert that understanding somewhat. What is Hamlet’s flaw? To what extent is his flaw the reason for the tragic events of the play? What else contributes to the tragedy?
As a tragic hero, Hamlet definitely evades the quick, simple labeling that can be applied to Shakespeare’s other flawed protagonists like Romeo, King Lear, and Othello. Initial evaluation seems to point to indecisiveness and hesitation as Hamlet’s primary flaws; for example, it is conceivable that the tragic ending of the play might have been avoided had Hamlet chosen to kill Claudius in the chapel or conceived of a plot less suspicious and complex than the elaborate set up of the Mousetrap to determine Claudius’s guilt. On a deeper level, however, all these decisions or lack thereof ultimately stem from Hamlet’s tendency to obsessively analyze and debate the merit of every possible course of action, leading him to make few effectual choices throughout the play. This inclination to philosophize rather than act is shown not only when Hamlet debates when Claudius will be “fit and seasoned for his passage” (III.iii.86), but also when Hamlet considers matters mostly unconnected to his revenge. For example, Hamlet contemplates “whether [it is] nobler in the mind” to struggle with harsh reality or end his pain through suicide (III.i.57), which, upon examination, is a somewhat strange and impractical way to consider ending one’s own life. Rather than consider the repercussions of suicide on his family and county or the fact that Claudius would probably get off scot-free without Hamlet’s presence and knowledge, Hamlet chooses to focus a large amount of time and thought on the philosophical implications of suicide rather than the real effects such an action may have. This penchant for fanciful pondering eventually delays Hamlet enough that he is unable to stay under his uncle-dad’s radar, and once Claudius catches onto Hamlet’s act, Hamlet’s demise becomes almost inevitable.
It’s difficult to call this a flaw in a strict sense; in general, careful consideration of outcomes, well-developed stances on ethical issues, and a generally discerning mind are considered to be strengths rather than weaknesses, but these characteristics afforded Hamlet only delays and setbacks. While the saddening (and frustrating) aspect of most of Shakespeare’s tragedies seems to be the ease with which catastrophe could have been averted, in Hamlet, the final events seem less avoidable, especially the fates of characters like Ophelia, because the protagonist seems to be doing almost everything in his power to make wise decisions, short of actually exposing or killing Claudius. Hamlet’s intense planning also causes him to fall short when he finally has a chance to reveal Claudius’s secret to someone in a position of power, Gertrude. His strange behavior and the suggestion of Hamlet’s insanity discredit his claims about Claudius’s deeds in the eyes of Gertrude, who reports to Claudius after the confrontation in her bedroom that Hamlet is “mad as the sea and wind when both contend/ who is mightier” (IV.i.7-8). While Hamlet’s plan to feign insanity as his cover may have seemed a clever idea early on, the setup ultimately backfires on him, leaving the audience to wonder whether Hamlet’s fate may have been better had he taken the more straightforward (albeit difficult and dangerous) route of plainly exposing the murder.