The Tragic Flaw

Hamlet (1602)
by William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

In Hamlet’s struggle with duty, morality, and ethics
are mirrored the hopes, fears and despair of all mankind.
  Frank N. Magill

Hamlet’s tragic flaw, his indecision, his reluctance to act, is indeed the universal tragedy confronting humankind in the Global Village today. Failure to make a wise choice dooms every individual and every community to a life filled with despair.  “Through the medium of the most profound and superb poetry ever composed, Shakespeare transforms a conventional revenge tragedy into a gripping exploration of the universal problems of mankind.”[i]

As we all do, Hamlet struggles with his worldview, his identity and his actual or imagined behavior. Consciously or unconsciously, every person on our planet could find a reason to identify with the Prince of Denmark and his struggle to move away from darkness toward the light. “A mixture of tenderness and violence, a scholar, lover, friend, athlete, philosopher, satirist, and deadly enemy, Hamlet is larger than life itself.”[ii]  Or more accurately, Hamlet is exactly as large as life itself.

Because he was too divorced from the guidance of his intuition to make healthy choices Hamlet succumbed to a series of disastrous reactions. The plot is set in motion when King Hamlet, Hamlet’s father is poisoned by his brother Claudius who then marries Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother. The ghost of King Hamlet appears to Hamlet to tell him that Claudius was his murderer.

Events as tragic as any found in Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides begin to unfold rapidly sweeping Hamlet along before he can find his footing. Hamlet accidently kills Polonius, the Lord Chamberlain, who is also the father of Hamlet’s lover Ophelia. Hamlet rejects Ophelia who goes mad and is drowned.

Former schoolmates Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are involved in a plot to have Hamlet killed when he flees to England, but Hamlet outsmarts them and arranges to have them murdered. Returning to Denmark Hamlet arranges a court entertainment involving the presentation of a play which will trick Claudius into revealing his guilt. The details of Hamlet’s plan during the play go awry.

Poisoned drinks and poisoned swords get mixed up and all the principles end up dead. Laertes, son of Polonius, conspires with Claudius to kill Hamlet and both die by the sword along with Hamlet. Gertrude accidently drinks from the cup of poison and joins all the major characters, who, unable to resist the temptations of the false self make ultimately self-destructive choices.

The powerless characters in Hamlet were not only typical of those found in Renaissance drama but are representative of all people caught up in the tragedy that is P-B today. Human moral and ethical dilemmas are timeless. “What we watch in Hamlet is an agonizing confrontation between the will [True self] of a good and intelligent man and the uncongenial role [false self] which circumstances [P-B] calls upon him to play.”[iii]

We are all searching for the courage to face the reality of our circumstances. Are we in denial of our self-destructive behavior because we believe we are morally obligated to play the role that has been assigned us by our community, to stay on script in support of the other actors? Or are we guilty of cowardice because we refuse to listen to the promptings of our conscience, the still small voice that whispers that something is rotten in Denmark?

As we watch the play we can hear the clock ticking for Hamlet; he does not have an unlimited amount of time in which to make choices that are critical to his destiny. For all of us in the audience as well, we are faced with the same choices facing Hamlet and our time is also running out. By acting sooner with compassion, Hamlet might have been able to minimize an unavoidable tragedy. Luckily for many of us, we still have the option of rewriting the last act of our lives.

The Tragic Flaw

[i]     Magill, Frank N. [ed.]. Masterpieces of World Literature. New York: Harper, 1989, page 355.

[ii]     Ibid.

[iii]    Ibid., page 357.


Find a much more in-depth discussion in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.

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