To what extent is Hamlet responsible for his own downfall and the tragic ending of the play?

Hamlet is partly responsible for his own downfall and the many tragic deaths, but he is mostly the victim of circumstances. A much larger share of the responsibility belongs to Claudius. As a fundamentally moral person trying to function in an amoral society, Hamlet often becomes confused and frustrated. Although many people lose their lives because of his indecisiveness, the path he chose does ultimately rid his country of Claudius, so his sacrifice is not in vain.

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Hamlet continues to intrigue readers and audiences because of his all-too-human complexity. The more confident he becomes that he has chosen the right path going forward, the more difficult he finds it to begin following that path. Some of the responsibility for his own death and those of many other...

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characters can be laid on his doorstep. The most basic problem, however, is that he has inherited a terrible situation. As one person, despite his princely status, he cannot change society overall. To the extent that anyone can be held accountable for the massive bloodshed, it isClaudius.

Hamlet is a moral person who is out of place in an amoral or “rotten” society. Aware that he is in over his head, he even contemplates suicide. Hamlet suffers keenly from the loss of his father, but understands that his personal grief must take a backseat to his efforts to solve the nation’s problems—to eradicate the “rot” in Denmark.

The irony that William Shakespeare introduces is directly related to Hamlet’s goodness and fairness. He wants to be sure that Claudius is guilty before he acts against him. Because he worries about sin and its consequences, Hamlet does not want to kill anyone—including, he finally decides, himself. Until the last scene, the only person that Hamlet has actually killed is Polonius. It can be argued that, even though Hamlet arranges for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to be killed, Claudius is to blame for their deaths as well.

Mistakenly stabbing Polonius and breaking Ophelia’s heart, which were doubtless factors in her death, contribute greatly to his demise because Laertes must avenge his family. Ultimately, it is Claudius’s secret poisoning plot that leads to the last round of deaths. Hamlet loses his own life, but his sacrifice is not in vain, for tyranny will no longer rule Denmark.

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I think, for many reasons, Claudius can be held, ultimately, to blame for Hamlet's downfall and the tragic ending of the play. He's the one who killed Hamlet's father, took the crown, married the queen, and tried to kill Hamlet. Were it not for Claudius's actions, Hamlet would never have lost his father or become irate about his mother's remarriage. He would never have killed Polonius because Polonius would not have been listening behind the arras in his mother's room. Ophelia, then, would probably not have gone mad because her father would not have been murdered by her ex-boyfriend. Laertes, therefore, would never have become incensed and returned to avenge his father's death. The duel between himself and Hamlet would never have happened, and so they would both remain living. Since Laertes would have had no reason to plot with Claudius, Gertrude would have lived as well. Finally, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern would never have been called to Elsinore, and they could have avoided death as well.

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Certainly if Hamlet were to go straightway and kill King Claudius, he may well have gone on to live a full and happy life. Of course, as many critics have pointed out, we wouldn't have had much of a play then. What then was it about Hamlet that casused his own downfall and lead to the tragedy that so many were involved in?Hamlet, himself, (in Act 1, scene 4) alludes to that fault in one's character that can bring about one's own ruin:

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'erleavensThe 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 corruptionFrom that particular fault. The dram of evilDoth all the noble substance of a doubtTo his own scandal.

So, what is Hamlet's vicious mole? What is his "tragic flaw" the "chink in his moral armor?"I think it's his intelligence. He's so smart that he's stupid. He thinks so much, looks at so many facets and possibilities of the truth, that he thinks (and talks) far more than he acts. And yes, he has lots to think about: the ghost, his mother, his uncle, his girlfriend, revenge, life and death. He knows well enough that too much thinking is not a good thing (Act 3, scene 1):

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,And thus the native hue of resolutionIs sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,And enterprises of great pitch and momentWith this regard their currents turn awryAnd lose the name of action.

Hamlet uses his intelligence to plan and carry out the perfect revenge for the father he loves so much. He wants to punish Claudius, make him feel afraid and guilty before he kills him. This is all well and good, but, no matter how well thought out this perfect revenge is, it takes much too long and involves too many relatively innocent people. And time is Hamlet's enemy; for in its span, Claudius can formulate his own nefarious plans.

When it comes to killing and avenging a suffering ghost, a dagger in the heart of King Claudius would have sufficed and would have saved time and many lives... all but one.

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Is Hamlet responsible for his own downfall?

Hamlet is often faulted for what many scholars and writers believe is his tragic flaw of indecisiveness. This flaw is demonstrated in his inability to avenge his father's murder by killing his uncle, Claudius, who usurped his father's throne and married Hamlet's mother—a marriage which Hamlet condemns as "incestuous" (1.2.160; 3.3.92).

Hamlet has ample opportunity to kill Claudius throughout the play—most notably while Claudius is alone and on his knees praying in act 3, scene 3—but, for one reason or another, Hamlet simply fails to act.

At first, Hamlet is reluctant to believe his father's ghost without more proof.

HAMLET. The spirit that I have seenMay be a devil; and the devil hath powerT' assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhapsOut of my weakness and my melancholy,As he is very potent with such spirits,Abuses me to damn me. I'll have groundsMore relative than this (2.2.593–599).

When Claudius reveals his guilt while watching the performance of The Murder of Gonzago, which Hamlet arranged specifically for that purpose, Hamlet again vows to avenge his father's murder, but he does nothing.

Later, Hamlet is reluctant to kill Claudius while he's praying and risk sending him to heaven rather than to hell (3.3.76-98), and once again does nothing.

This argument for Hamlet's tragic flaw of indecisiveness assumes, however, that Hamlet must necessarily avenge his father's murder, and, by doing so, become a murderer himself.

Shakespeare's audience knew that under Elizabethan law a revenge murder was nonetheless considered murder. According to religious precepts of the time, revenge was considered a sin, whether it involved murder or not (Romans 12:19). Vengeance belonged to God, not to man (Deuteronomy 32:35).

Nevertheless, Elizabethans considered revenge a sacred, moral duty.

This paradox is highlighted in the play by Hamlet's indecisiveness, which Shakespeare emphasizes by comparing Hamlet's indecision and inaction with Laertes's straightforward approach to the matter.

While he's away in France, Laertes learns that his father, Polonius, has been killed. In act 4, scene 5, Laertes returns to Elsinore to avenge his father's death. He breaks into the castle and confronts Claudius. Laertes doesn't care who killed Polonius, even if Claudius himself did it. Laertes is intent solely on revenge, and he's unconcerned about any consequences that might befall him.

LAERTES. Let come what comes; only I'll be revengedMost throughly for my father (4.5.145–146).

Claudius tells Laertes that Hamlet killed Polonius. The question arises as to why Laertes doesn't simply track down Hamlet in the heat of that moment and kill him, but that would bring the play to a screeching halt and to an unsatisfactory dramatic resolution. Instead, Laertes conspires with Claudius to kill Hamlet, and the conspiracy plays out in the final scene of the play.

Early in the play, Shakespeare arouses the audience's emotions toward Hamlet, and at the same time, involves the audience in Hamlet's revenge against Claudius. At first, the audience wants Hamlet to avenge his father's death. Over the course of the play, however, the audience becomes far more interested in Hamlet himself than in any other aspect of the play.

Hamlet is an Elizabethan revenge play in which the acts of revenge are wholly incidental to the play itself. Claudius's death at the end of the play—particularly in the midst of the deaths of Gertrude, Laertes, and Hamlet—is almost an afterthought. Hamlet wasn't motivated to kill Claudius at that moment to avenge his father's death, but by the immediate circumstances of that scene.

No doubt Hamlet's indecisiveness and inaction contribute to his downfall, but his downfall isn't entirely self-inflicted. Characters like Claudius and Laertes, who conspire against him, as well as events over which Hamlet has no control, bring about his fateful and fatal end.

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Is Hamlet responsible for his own downfall?

Although Hamlet has inherited a terrible situation, and Claudius is primarily responsible for Hamlet's tragic death, one could argue that Hamlet bears some responsibility for his own downfall. In the play, Hamlet is portrayed as a lost, depressed individual who is significantly disturbed by his mother's incestuous marriage and conflicted about avenging his father's death. Despite vowing to seek revenge on Claudius for assassinating his father, Hamlet is hesitant to take action and allows his conflicted emotions to sway his decisions. Hamlet's decision to "put on an antic disposition" ruins his relationship with Ophelia and his mixed emotions toward her contribute to Ophelia's suicide, which in turn negatively impacts Hamlet's mental health.

Hamlet also has the perfect opportunity to avenge his father's death by killing Claudius while he is attempting to pray but refrains from taking action. Hamlet's hesitation allows Claudius to live and eventually manipulate Laertes into carrying out his bloody plan to kill the prince. When Hamlet does act, he does so imprudently and accidentally kills Polonius, who is hiding behind an arras in Gertrude's room. Hamlet's accidental murder persuades Claudius to send him to England, where he plans on having Hamlet killed. Polonius's death also incites Laertes's rage, motivating him to kill the prince when he returns from France.

When Hamlet survives his harrowing journey and returns to Denmark, he once again behaves impulsively by leaping into Ophelia's grave, further offending Laertes. His decision to participate in the duel is another mistake that leads to his downfall. At his point in the play, one would presume that Hamlet is intelligent enough not to trust Claudius and recognize that Laertes wants him dead. However, Hamlet throws caution to the wind by participating in the fencing match and is fatally wounded by Laertes's poison-tipped sword.

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To what extent is Hamlet's tragic downfall a result of his own choices and actions?

Hamlet's delay (and the actions of others; namely, Claudius') leads to his tragic fall. That fall (fault) is what leads to the deaths of Ophelia, Gertrude, Polonius, Laertes, Claudius, and himself. Polonius' death was an accident as was Gertrude's (she drank from the cup poisoned by Claudius). If Hamlet had killed Claudius immediately, the rest of the bloodshed would probably not have occurred. 

This is one of the most popular debates about Hamlet. Why does he delay? Hamlet is too philosophical, and he knows this. He longs to be more like Fortinbras who acts as much as he thinks. Also, since Hamlet is so grief-stricken at his father's death and upset with his mother for marrying Claudius so quickly, when he does decide to avenge his father, he wants to do so in the most dramatic way possible: to make a statement. This causes further delay. For example, he has an opportunity to kill Claudius when he is alone; but since Claudius is praying, Hamlet reasons that this will not be complete revenge because he is praying; killing Claudius would send him to heaven. 

                          And am I then revenged

To take him in the purging of his soul, 

When he is fit and seasoned for his passage? 

No. (III.iii.84-87) 

In delaying and stretching out the drama, Hamlet is simply trying to enact his revenge in the best way possible. But over the course of that delay, he accidentally kills Polonius. He also alienates Ophelia and her depression leads to her suicide. Laertes becomes his enemy because of this. Then Laertes and Claudius find themselves allies against Hamlet. They plot to get rid of Hamlet either with a poisoned sword in a duel or the backup plan of having Hamlet drink from a poisoned cup. Gertrude drinks from the cup.

As a moral philosopher debating the meaning of life, revenge, and/or suicide, and in the wake of his father's death (and seeing his ghost), Hamlet's philosophical pontifications are understandable. However, his delay does inadvertently lead to these other tragedies. That is not to say they are all his fault. Claudius is the instigator and continues to conspire against Hamlet, thus Claudius also extends the potential for tragedy. So, Hamlet is only partly responsible for his tragic fall. Claudius set the wheels of tragedy in motion. Hamlet, attempting to stop those wheels in the most significant way, kept those wheels going because of his delay. As the wheels kept going, tragedy kept occurring. 

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