The notion that each of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes must have single easy-to-define tragic flaw can be traced to the writing of A C Bradley (Gibson 2002 p 87) and there has been general critical agreement that Hamlet’s ‘flaw’ is hesitation and that he delays taking revenge on Claudius because he vacillates and is uncertain. It is true as well that in the play itself hamlet criticizes himself or this very trait. Hamlet in Act 4, scene 4 watches Fortinbras’s army cross the stage on their way to fight over Norwegian possession of a disputed piece of land in Poland. As he watches them, in his soliloquy, Hamlet says:
Now whether it be.
Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple
Of thinking too precisely of the event –
A thought which quartered hath but one part wisdom,
And three parts coward – I do not know
Why yet I live to say ‘This thing’s to do’,
Sith i have cause, and will, and strength to do it. (lines 39 – 46)
“This thing” is to kill Claudius and revenge his father’s murder. Earlier in Act 2, scene 2 he had criticized his own lack of action, calling himself “a dull and muddy-mettled rascal” (line 572) and “John-a-dreams” (line 573). It has become commonplace to accept that Hamlet delays and hesitates too much, but, when we look at the play in the context of the Revenge Tragedy tradition, it may be felt that far from being a flaw, Hamlet’s delay and hesitation is an admirable quality. To assert that he has one single flaw is also too simple: Harold Bloom (quoted in Gibson 2002 p 91) said that “categorizing Hamlet is impossible.”
Revenge tragedies were a very popular type of play in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, and Gibson (2000 p 52) states that “Hamlet contains many of the conventions of revenge tragedy.” At the start of most revenge tragedies, the hero discovers that a member of his family has been killed by or on the orders of someone in power and authority. In most revenge plays, the plot then revolves around the revenger getting close enough to the person who has wronged his family in order to kill him, and this process is not always easy – powerful rulers are protected and remote from ordinary people, and it is difficult for the revenger to get close enough to kill the original killer. But in Hamlet the situation is completely different. Hamlet is Claudius’s step-son: he has no difficulty getting close to him, no problems of opportunity, and Shakespeare uses this situation to explore the moral dimensions of revenge. Gibson (2002 p 68) asserts that “Hamlet is a tragedy, and it is about revenge, but it does not fit neatly into the category of revenge tragedy. Unlike conventional revengers, Hamlet does not obsessively pursue vengeance. He delays, beset by all kinds of doubts and distractions.”
One of the main reasons Hamlet delays is that he is not sure how far to trust the ghost: the ghost looks like his father and sounds like his father, but, because the supernatural is capable of anything (it could be a vision conjured by the devil), he feels he must gain real evidence of Claudius’s guilt before he acts. This is why he gets the actors to stage ‘The Mousetrap’ in front of Claudius, so that he and Horatio can watch Claudius’s reaction. This evidence that the ghost was telling the truth does not come until Act 3, scene 2 (halfway through the play), so it seems unfair to criticize Hamlet for delaying because he wants proof of the truth. Rather than a flaw his delay seems more like the intelligent scrupulousness of an intelligent man. He is also aware that murder is a very serious crime, and the murder of a king even worse. In other words, despite what he knows from the ghost, he knows that murder is a sin and wonders what will happen to him if he does kill Claudius – will he himself go to Hell for this sin? He admits his own fears of death and the after-life which he refers to as “The undiscovered country from whose bourn/No traveller returns” (Act 3, scene 1, lines 79 – 80).
After Hamlet has the proof of Claudius’s frightened, panicky reaction to ‘The Mousetrap’, he has the perfect opportunity to kill Claudius. He comes across Claudius praying, but chooses not to kill him, because if he kills him at that moment, Claudius’s soul may go to heaven. Hamlet explains to the audience:
Now might I do it pat, now he is 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 the same villain send
To heaven. (Act 3, scene 3, lines 73 – 78)
Hamlet has another good reason to delay at this point: he is on his way to see his mother – the first time he has been alone with his own mother since the beginning of the play. Although Hamlet never makes this explicit, it is clear that he wants to discover how far his mother was involved in his father’s murder – if at all. It is in this scene that he mistakenly kills Polonius. He lashes out, knowing that someone is hiding behind the arras and hoping it was the king; he says to the dead Polonius “I took thee for thy better” (Act 3, scene 4, line 33). This is not the action of someone who is delaying. Because he has killed Polonius, he is put under guard and shipped off to England, meaning he has no opportunity to kill Claudius.
On his return from England Hamlet seems a changed man, rejuvenated by his adventures with the pirates and being absent from the stifling atmosphere of the Danish royal court. He is more philosophical about his own fate and death, and is resolved to act whatever the consequences. He says to Horatio, “a man’s life’s no more than to say ‘One’” (Act 5, scene 2, line 74). He has accepted that he may well die himself in the act of taking his revenge – and he does.
Thus it can be argued that Hamlet’s supposed ‘flaw’ – his tendency to delay – is actually the quality of a sensitive, thinking man who has moral scruples about murder. Shakespeare takes this popular genre of play, and changes the convention by making his revenger a thoughtful, intelligent man who thinks through the consequences of his actions and requires real proof before he will act.
Gibson, Rex. Shakespearean and Jacobean Tragedy. 2000. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Gibson, Rex. Hamlet. 2002. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. 1996. Oxford: Heinemann.