Why do some critics take a deteministic view of Hamlet, arguing that the prince's inability to act and his tendency toward melancholy constitute a "tragic flaw"?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Some critics take a deterministic view of the main character in William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, arguing that the prince’s inability to act and his tendency toward melancholy constitute a “tragic flaw.” There are numerous reasons that some critics take such a stance. Some of them assume, for instance, that the prince’s delay in acting results from some deep-seated paralysis of the will.  They assume that almost immediately after Hamlet learned about the ghost’s charges against Claudius, he should have killed Claudius. They assume that some flaw or defect in Hamlet’s character prevents him from acting immediately.

Other analysts have argued, however, that the prince is perfectly sensible to delay any plan for vengeance. According to these analysts, the ghosts may be deceitful or an illusion. He may be an evil spirit who intends to seduce Hamlet to take vengeance into his own hands, even though the Bible explicitly forbids private vengeance. Rather than acting precipitously, Hamlet waits until he can acquire really convincing proof that his uncle is guilty – something that makes perfect sense in the opinion of some analysts. He acquires such proof (apparently) during the play within the play, but, until then, he apparently still has some doubts.

Ironically, by pretending madness, Hamlet may be behaving in a highly reasonable way. He wants to be sure that he is acting reasonably and justly before he acts at all. Otherwise, he may be killing an innocent man. Doing so would not only be enormously unfair to Claudius (to say the least) but would also put Hamlet’s eternal soul in jeopardy. To have acted quickly may not really have illustrated strength of character but just the opposite. From one point of view, Hamlet’s delay is not evidence of any paralysis of will or tragic flaw but is instead evidence of good sense and wise caution.

As Hamlet himself puts it when he is planning the play within the play,

The spirit that I have seen 
May be a devil; and the devil hath power 
T' assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps 
Out of my weakness and my melancholy, 
As he is very potent with such spirits, 
Abuses me to damn me. I'll have grounds 
More relative than this. The play's the thing 
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King.