What is a tragic flaw? What is the tragic flaw of Hamlet, and is he destroyed by it?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

A tragic flaw, as its name suggests, is a negative character trait that ultimately leads to a character's downfall. Shakespeare implements tragic flaws in many of his tragedies (Macbeth's ambition, Othello's jealousy, Lear's naivety), and Hamlet is no exception.

Famously, Hamlet 's tragic flaw is his hesitancy...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

A tragic flaw, as its name suggests, is a negative character trait that ultimately leads to a character's downfall. Shakespeare implements tragic flaws in many of his tragedies (Macbeth's ambition, Othello's jealousy, Lear's naivety), and Hamlet is no exception.

Famously, Hamlet's tragic flaw is his hesitancy to act. He is full of indecision throughout the play, as is evidenced in the "To be or not to be" speech. Often, Hamlet uses various excuses to hide his hesitancy. Take this moment for example, when Hamlet is given the chance to kill Claudius but eventually decides not to:

Now might I do it pat. Now he is a-praying.
And now I’ll do ’t. And so he goes to heaven.
And so am I revenged.—That would be scanned.
A villain kills my father, and, for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
To heaven.
Oh, this is hire and salary, not revenge.
He took my father grossly, full of bread,
With all his crimes broad blown, as flush as May.
And how his audit stands who knows save heaven? (3.3.74–83)

Here, Hamlet is saying that he does not want to kill Claudius because he would be sent to heaven, having just prayed away his sins. Hamlet suggests that this would be doing Claudius a favor and thus decides against it. While many critics have taken Hamlet at his word, I think we should at least be suspicious of his decision in this moment. Perhaps Hamlet is telling the truth, but it seems to me that it is more delaying. Does Hamlet even believe in praying sins away? Throughout the play, he seems to express rather atheistic views and never mentions Christianity except in this moment.

Ultimately, Hamlet is destroyed by his tragic flaw, though it is possible that he would have been destroyed without it as well. Should Hamlet have chosen to kill Claudius in this moment, it is unlikely that things would have gone much better for him. However, other lives may have been saved, and perhaps their deaths are the true consequence of Hamlet's flaw.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

A tragic flaw is a character's weak point or vulnerability, the place where he can be destroyed.

Hamlet's tragic flaw is his indecisiveness. He overthinks avenging his father's death and clearly is torn about murdering his uncle, much as he dislikes him. He is so conflicted about the situation that he fantasizes about suicide. Because he dithers, and then acts impulsively, accidentally killing Polonius, he allows events to get out of control, offering Claudius a chance to act against him, and giving Laertes a motivation to try to kill him.

What makes Hamlet such a fascinating and much debated character is the very nature of his flaw: it is not a clearly evil trait, such as Macbeth's ambition, that causes his downfall. The play constantly brings into question how great a "flaw" this flaw really is: is introspection a flaw? Is it not better to test the words of the ghost thoughtfully than simply to rush in and murder someone? Is not Fortinbras going overboard—as Hamlet suggests in his late soliloquy—in raising an army and invading a country to avenge one single person's death? Is revenge the best way to go? Is it worth it? Hamlet's flaw brings up many questions and no easy answers. But in the end, his hesitation causes many people to die, including Hamlet himself.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

A tragic flaw is a characteristic of a tragic hero that causes or contributes to his downfall. The flaw can be poor judgment, pride, weakness, or ambition. The tragic hero usually recognizes his tragic flaw and its consequences, but only after it's too late to change the events.

Hamlet's tragic flaw is his delay in avenging his father's death. Hamlet is still devastated by his father's death when the ghost appears to him, and he is unable to carry through with his revenge until the end of the play. Hamlet's delay in punishing Claudius not only causes his own death, but the deaths of everyone else in his life except for Horatio and Fortinbras. 

Hamlet's character lends itself to a possible motivation for his reluctance in killing Claudius. He's sensitive, a scholar, and a student of theology. It's a moral dilemma for Hamlet to kill without just cause, or even to kill at all. He wants proof of the part his uncle and his mother played in his father's death. His royal birth leads him to consider his responsibilities to his country. This is Hamlet's internal conflict throughout the play. Critics still disagree with why Hamlet delays in his revenge for his father's death.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

A tragic flaw is a defect in the protagonist's character that leads him/her, and often others, to ruin or at least great grief.  Hamlet's tragic flaw is his inability to act. 

Unlike his father, the dead king, Hamlet is ruled by his intellect rather than his bravery.  When he has an opportunity to do away with Claudius, thus avenging his father's murder, he hesitates, reasoning that if he kills the man while he is at prayer, Claudius would have asked for forgiveness and have been absolved of his sins (and thus free to enter Heaven). 

Hamlet reasons that he should wait for a more opportune time.  His tragic flaw of having an inability to act does ultimately lead to his own death, and also the deaths of Gertrude, Ophelia, Laertes, and eventually, Claudius. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team