All heroes of tragic tales are marred by a fatal flaw, rendering them unable to act immediately upon what their hearts desire most, and the melancholy prince Hamlet, with wild thoughts of revenge nestled in his heart, is no exception to this rule. The beauty as well as complexity of his character is rooted exactly in this: that the human condition itself is tragic and simultaneously comic, and one needs all his wits about him to reach proper, reasonable conclusions and then act on them. Thus, Hamlet’s tragic flaw lies in the fact that he is a deeply intellectual, philosophical persona, whose need to prove a point with certainty, which allows no doubts, leads him on a dark road of revenge towards tragic consequences.
One of the most noticeable characteristics with which Hamlet manages to charm the readers is his mysterious persona, where he himself claims that there is more to him than meets the eye. His soliloquies all conceal a moral, while giving a personal meaning to all the twists and turns of the drama, making his words carry tons of different meanings. A university student, whose university days are cut short due to the tragic death of his father, Hamlet’s consciousness is marred by extreme contemplation periods, during which he ponders on issues such as life and death, suffering and suicide: “O that this too too solid flesh would melt,/ Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!” (Shakespeare I.ii.131-132). He wishes for a way out of this painful existence, but acknowledges his conditioned, religious upbringing in the realization that God did not want any human to take his own life: “Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d/ His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God! O God!” (Shakespeare I.ii.133-134). All he sees around him is pain and suffering, an enormous feeling of betrayal and sadness at the death of his father, and rage at his mother who rushed towards what he refers to as an incestuous bed: “A little month; or ere those shoes were old/With which she followed my poor father’s body/ Like Niobe, all tears; - why she, even she, -/ O God! A beast that wants discourse of reason,/ Would have mourn’d longer” (Shakespeare I.ii.147-151). Thus, he is unable to stop thinking of the tragic events that have befallen him and which are now, occupying his entire subconscious being, making him unable and afraid to act, because they are swarming in his mind, like bees out of control, until they will finally sting Hamlet himself and force him to make a move.
Hamlet is in desperate need of more proof, of certainty without flaw, so that he can finally exert his revenge upon Claudius. However, as it is in real life, there is no such thing as certainty without a doubt and Hamlet is not granted this either. He cannot reach the final piece of information that will make all his doubts disappear. All events that happen to him can be questioned, whether they are real or not. Without undeniable proof, he believes he cannot act on his revenge and the questions arising are numerous: Is the ghost a real phantasm or an evil entity residing in Hamlet’s own, disturbed mind? Is it possible to know a person’s character, his emotions, his very soul, simply by watching his actions? Do people who commit suicide really go to Hell? All of these questions, and more, are plaguing Hamlet’s already distressed mind, they are all “in [his] mind’s eye,” and thus, these uncertainties that arise out of these questions are the ones making Hamlet reluctant to act, before he has all the facts open before him (Shakespeare I.ii.394).
Shakespeare denotes the idea of acting as one very closely intertwined with the notion of certainty. Can one, and should one act without certainty? Hamlet seems to believe this cannot be. His rational considerations are extremely difficult to be clarified in the vagueness of his mind, but when he finally manages to do so, other factors come into play, such as his emotional state connected with Ophelia, questions of what is moral and how one should act. He does not possess enough information and thus, he cannot form a proper course of action that will lead to a desired outcome. For Hamlet to act, he needs to know all the information in order to exact his revenge on those who have wronged him. For now, he thinks and waits, forced to take “the whips and scorns and time,” until his philosophical nature decides that waiting time is over (Shakespeare III.i.60).
However, when he finally acts, he does so without thinking twice, quickly, uncontrollably and violently. It is exactly because he thinks so much about acting, about the abstract nature of it, how to go about it and what the best way of action would be, that he is basically helpless when the situation he finds himself in requires him to act. Other characters for example, do not have this problem, simply because they are not philosophers such as Hamlet, and do not spend a lot of time thinking what the best course of action would be, and prefer to act, rather than simply think of acting. Like most humans, they are led by emotions and they act according to how they feel, which sometimes has good, sometimes bad consequences. Still, since they mostly face bad consequences in the play, this makes Hamlet right in his need to first think very hard and only then decide to take proper action. For instance, Claudius kills his brother, with a swift and decisive action, but is afterwards wrought with feelings of fear for his life and guilt: “O, my offence is rank, it smells to Heaven;/ It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t, A brother’s murder!” (Shakespeare III, iii, 39-41). Thus, Hamlet appears to be correct about needing further information, undeniable proof to be able to act successfully.
Finally, his errant thoughts, plaguing him night and day, transform him from a highly esteemed young prince, educated and well mannered, in love and ready for commitment, into an erratic madman, who ponders on the insight of suicide, whose actions frighten those who once loved him and held him dear. One of the most prominent soliloquies in the history of English literature, his famed “To be, or not to be” speech, shows exactly these traits of his state of mind (Shakespeare III.i.58). He feels pain and heartache, does not know where to search for the truth, trapped in hostile surroundings of the real world, out of which he thinks suicide may be the only escape. He is obsessed with numerous philosophical notions, such as suicide, the meaning of life, etc. but can find no real answer to these questions. In the end, all this thinking affected him deeply and resulted in the tragedy at the end of the play, when he finally overcomes the fear that he has, of acting without being one hundred percent certain of his cause: ““conscience doth make cowards of us all/ And thus the native hue of resolution/ Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought” (Shakespeare III.i.86-88).
Thus, Hamlet’s highly logical capacity to ponder on the moral issues and larger questions in life will prove to be his downfall, creating a barrier that he will not be able to overcome. His thought processes continue to distract him from taking decisive action, urging him to seek more and more proof, more information, until undeniable certainty is reached. However, since this is an impossible notion, in real as well as fictional life, Hamlet does not achieve what he seeks and is forced to act decisively, swiftly, violently and tragically, not only for himself, but for most characters in the play.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. New York: Simon & Brown, 2011. Print.