What is Hamlet's tragic flaw?

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lcassidy | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Assistant Educator

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A tragic flaw is the failing of a tragic hero, a character who suffers a downfall through the tragic flaw in mistaken choices or in personality.

Hamlet’s tragic flaw is his inability to act to avenge his father’s death, although it must be said that he has valid concerns that prevent him from knowing how to act as he makes clear when he discusses the nature of ghosts that can be sent to ensnare and entrap an innocent in actions leading to the punishment of Hell.

When the Ghost, his dead father, appears to him and charges him with the arduous task of taking revenge for his most foul murder, Hamlet is compelled to accept the challenge even though he fears to: As a Protestant educated at Wittenberg, the university of Martin Luther, he is forbidden to act in revenge because revenge is for God to take, not humankind.

As the play progresses Hamlet finds it difficult to execute his vengeful task. He is stymied from both sides: He needs proof that the Ghost is indeed that of his father and not some foul fiend of the spirit world, and he needs proof that Claudius is himself truly a foul, murdering fiend in the flesh.

In order to uncover the truth of Claudius's guilt before killing Claudius, Hamlet plans to act crazy hoping it will force Claudius to expose his guilt or innocence. Instead, Claudius chooses to send him to England in an assassination plot.

Hamlet also devises the “mouse-trap scene” in a play that is commissioned to be performed. He asks the troupe of actors to enact a scene similar to how Hamlet envisions Claudius's regicide murder his brother and Hamlet's father, Old King Hamlet.

In the final analysis, Hamlet’s tragic flaw, his inability to decide--about the Ghost and about vengeance--and then to act to take revenge for his father’s death, leads him and many others, including his mother, Polonius, Laertes and Ophelia, to their bloody graves.

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jumiry | College Teacher | (Level 1) Adjunct Educator

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While it is true that Hamlet hesitates, Hamlet's flaw is not one single thing.  In addition to hesitation, Hamlet is fated to his own destruction.  When he says "O wicked spite that ever I was born to set it right," Hamlet is acknowledging that he is fated to the act and the tragic consequences of that act.

As many have said, one of Hamlet's tragic flaws is hesitation.  In the opening moments of a classic film version of Hamlet starring Laurence Olivier, the voice-over says, "This is the story of a man who could not make up his mind."  

His other flaw is hubris, the sin of thinking oneself godlike.  Consider Hamlet when he has the golden opportunity to kill Claudius in the chapel, shortly after Hamlet has the proof he sought of Claudius' guilt.  He can act, and, if this is the right thing to do, he should act.  But he does not.  Why?  

Hamlet wants to ensure that the soul of Claudius goes to hell.  At that moment Hamlet dooms himself.  Any human being could take the life of another, but taking the soul of another? That is God's province, and when Hamlet decides that he will act as God in this instance, he has completed the circle which will lead to his own destruction. 

His fatal flaw then is threefold: hesitation, fate, and hubris.

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parkerlee | Teacher | (Level 2) Educator

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Most everybody agrees that Hamlet's tragic flaw is procrastination - he has a hard time passing from thought to action. In a nutshell, he "puts off until tomorrow what he should do today."

Other critics defend Hamlet's indecision, saying that it was his rash stabbing of Polonius (thinking it was Claudius) which set off a chain of events he couldn't stop. If he had hesitated at this moment as he did at other times before taking action, the bloodbath which followed could have been avoided. 

It is also worth noting that Hamlet also has a conflict of loyalties. He feels the compulsion to vindicate his father, but at the same time he wants to salvage the vestiges of his mother's "honour." He even goes so far as to encourage her to renounce her marriage to Claudius. (She, of course, cannot bring herself to do this. For Gertrude "honour" is 'saving face'....)

The duplicity of Hamlet's nature makes him an elusive character to study. His indecision, his hesitation, but also his tempestuous nature all  lead to his downfall.

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Jamie Wheeler | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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This question has had several interesting answers. Click the links below to see them:

What is a tragic flaw? What is the tragic flow of Hamlet and is Hamlet destroyed by his flaw?

Does Hamlet realize his tragic flaw?

It seems that Hamlet has had a slight change of heart at the end of Act II. Is he serious or is he merely expressing his tragic flaw?

You might want to also visit our free, online lessons on Hamlet which address your question. Just go to the Lit101 course on Hamlet. There you can view complete discussions of each scene, browse our questions and answers or contribute questions on your own and receive answers.

Thank you for using eNotes! 

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mrs-campbell | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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I actually feel that his tragic flaw was the opposite of idealism:  cynicism.  He takes the horrible events that have occurred, and extrapolates them over everyone and everything.  Because of his father's death, and his mother's hasty marriage, "how weary, stale, flat and unprofitable, seem to [Hamlet] all the uses of this world!" (II.ii.133-4). He has cast the entire world in shadow.  Because of his mother's fickleness, and  his uncle's evilness, Ophelia should "get thee to a nunnery"(III.ii.122), women make men "monsters" and men "are errant knaves, all" (III.ii.144,131). 

Hamlet ponders whether life is even worth living any more, then concludes that only cowardice alone-another cyncial label for humans-keeps us from death.  His cynicism and bitterness for what has happened poisons his entire perspective, and leads to the death and harm of almost anyone who cares about him.

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amy-lepore | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Hamlet is indecisive.  Because of this, he finds it difficult to move forward on anything.  For instance, he wants to believe the ghost, his father, but who's to say the ghost isn't lying?  So, he writes a scene in the play for the visiting players which is supposed to solidify everything for him and help him make his decision.  He watches Claudius, and gets the reaction Hamlet is hoping for, yet he still can't decide what to do.  Indecision, procrastination and stagnation...Hamlet is a hopeless case until it is way too late to do anything about it.  By that time, Claudius is on to him...Claudius is a man of action.  Hamlet is a thinker.  Hamlet spends too much time thinking of what to do or not to do, while Claudius makes a plan and works the plan.  As a result, nearly everyone Hamlet loves is dead by the end of Act V.

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lsumner | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Senior Educator

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Hamlet's tragic flaw is his inability to believe the worst. He is not certain that Claudius has killed his father. It is often hard to believe that anyone could kill your father. This is an error on Hamlet's part. He does not want to believe something as terrible as the murdering of his father, especially not by his Uncle. Hamlet's delay to avenge his father's death causes his own downfall. His Uncle Claudius acts upon his instincts and banishes Hamlet, plotting to have Hamlet murdered. While Hamlet's inabililty to act and avenge his fathers death could be considered honorable, especially since he is not certain that Claudius has killed his father, his delay gives Claudius time to act and ultimately set up the murdering of Hamlet. Hamlet's honorable characteristic of not believing the worst leads to his own downfall.

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amymc | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Associate Educator

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Another angle you might want to consider is that Hamlet is an anti-hero.  He tried to be the hero, but ultimately, he falls short.  This failing is not based upon a tragic flaw such as greed, pride or envy, it is a flaw of simply NOT being heroic.  He is intellectual; he is sensitive; he is philosophical.  None of these qualities mesh with the quick, violent action needed to aveng his father's murder.  We all have personality modes that lend us toward certain careers, activities, and goals.  A meek, non-competitive person would not survive on Wall Street or as an NBA player.  A competitive and aggressive person would not suffer committee planning very well.  Perhaps the tragedy here is simply that Hamlet is not the man for the job.  And that he is the only man for the job.

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misslacey | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Adjunct Educator

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What is Hamlet's tragic flaw?

What is Hamlet's tragic flaw?

I would say that Hamlet's tragic flaw is his indecision and that his famous "To be or not to be" soliloquey is a perfect example of this. Hamlet spends so much time thinking through whether or not he should act (avenge his father's death), that he misses multiple ample oppertunities to do so. I believe he does this out of fear. As a result, he ends up acting impulsively at inoppurtine times (when he accidently stabs Polonius from behind the curtain, for example). It is rash events like this that eventually lead to his tragic downfall.

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rishakespeare | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Adjunct Educator

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My take on his flaw is somewhat different than the obvious " indecision and lack of timely action" flaw.  This is true, but I think the play fairly plays out that his biggest flaw may have, in fact been his greatest strength.  Hamlet is a moral individual, an idealist who believes the earth is a wonderful place, and man is the pinnacle of the universe.  He is forced, however, to accept a decaying, filthy world in which morality is realtive.  His greatest flaw is his inability to readily accept the world and humans as essentially flawed.

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susan3smith | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator

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Hamlet's tragic flaw is his decision to avenge his father's death.  For Hamlet, the tragic flaw is not a character flaw, such as too much pride, ambition, or jealousy.  Instead, it is the decision he makes to act in accordance with the ghost's request and murder Claudius.  This decision, however reluctantly made, is the beginning of Hamlet's downfall.  It begins a series of events that results in his alienation from Ophelia, the murder of Polonius, the murder of his childhood friends turned spies, and ultimately his own death.

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lyndaa | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Adjunct Educator

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What is Hamlet's tragic flaw?

What is Hamlet's tragic flaw?

Many believe that Hamlet's tragic flaw is his inability to make a decision, which leads to his inability to act.  His questioning of himself as well as others leads to not only his demise but the demise of others involved.

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spencke | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Adjunct Educator

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Hamlet's tragic flaw could also be his tendency to make rash decisions.  His spur-of-the-moment murder of Polonius shows this hamartia quite well.  On the other hand, he also has a hard times with other decisions.  This idea really emphasizes the person-versus-self conflict that encompasses Hamlet.

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iridawn | (Level 1) Honors

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I would say Hamlet's flaw is his inability to act. By stalling what should have been long done, not only does Hamlet stretch the play, but he stretches his mind in such a manner that he loses his sanity and his agency. When he finds out who his father's killer is, instead of going to murder him right away he stalls and stalls when in the end most likely the killer does not even know why he dies. Laertes is a foil; he acts right away when he understands that Hamlet has killed his father and is ready for revenge. 

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