With Hamlet being generally labeled as the best tragic hero ever created, it is ironic that his tragic flaw has never been as solidly confirmed as those of most of his fellow protagonists. There is Macbeth with his ambition, Oedipus with his pride, Othello with his jealousy, and all the others with their particular odd spots. Then there is Hamlet. He has been accused of everything and of nothing, and neither seems to stick. Flaws are carved out of obscure conversations when he may or may not be speaking truthfully and alleged from instances of his own self-discipline. They are bored into him with the bits of psychological drills invented long after Shakespeare’s hand crafted him. But Hamlet is made of that which resists these things. He has no obvious flaw or internal fault.
And so, it seems that perhaps the perception of the tragic hero and his flaw must be re-evaluated. “Flaw” is a bad way of describing the very qualities which make the hero heroic. It carries with it a connotation of a weakness, a gap, a self-destructive crime hidden furtively from view. Having such traits makes not a hero but a villain. It need hardly be stated that there is a profound difference between a villain’s punishment and a hero’s upward fall to the stars and immortal death. The hero’s “flaw” is exactly not what the term implies. It is a strong point, an ungiving, inflexible perfection. It does not fit into the imperfect slot that society gives the hero to occupy. For the hero is always placed in the imperfect world of his author, as he must be, if he is to have any meaning at all. And it is against this cleanly cut strong point that the fissured edges of the broken world grind. And so there is deadly conflict. The hero cannot be ground down forever and remain a hero. He cannot win, because we all know that the world is not the perfect world of absolutes for which he fights. And so he dies, not because of his flaw, but because the flawless ideal cannot coexist with the pockmarked real.
Most heroes’ strong points are unique for their possessors. They have few others. And so, the tension is concentrated upon those spots and they are quickly and noticeably scratched. And the interpreters leap upon the battle wound and call it a flaw. It is given a name, “ambition”, “arrogance”, or other words that society likes to use to demonize a rise above mediocrity and indecision.
All this, of course, has been tried on Hamlet, and none are universally accepted as right or even slightly viable. He has no one point on which to concentrate the attack. He smashes against the ragged walls of his cell with inflexible force. He alters his environment on all fronts, from his own appearance to the psychological states of others (most notably Ophelia). His “flaw” is the strength of his strengths, the consistency of his consistencies.
There is, first of all, what he says of himself. He says to the ghost, just as the plot gets underway, “thy commandment all alone shall live / Within the book and volume of my brain.”(Act 1, Scene 4, 102,103) Then, again, the message comes, soon after the climax, in the form of: “My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth!”(Act 4, Scene 4, 66)
He then dedicates himself entirely to his cause. He feigns madness to the point of starving himself, and transforms himself into a ragged shadow of the former appearance that Ophelia bewails. In thus degrading himself, he places a tremendous hobble on his chances of ascending to the throne, his expected position since birth.
And as is blatantly obvious in the tense aftermath of the performance of “The Mousetrap”, he is not satisfied with the technicality of revenge. He will wait until Claudius is “about some act / That has no relish of salvation in’t,”(Act 3, Scene 3, 91,92) though it mean that he must endure the corruption longer and act at a time which could warrant “a more horrid hent”(Act 3, Scene 3, 88) upon his sword. Despite his own self doubts, he carries through with his revenge quite rapidly. He, of course, being a man of perfect absolutes is disappointed with his efforts, for they are not and cannot be, in the real world, absolute and immediate. But one must look at others to get a true picture of his speed. Claudius, the proven intriguer, is caught almost completely off guard by the performance of “The Mousetrap.” Polonius, representative of all that is confused in the world, is left completely in the dust.
But as Hamlet strives for thoroughness in his revenge, he strives for thoroughness in all else as well. He is not governed or given justice by the legality and loopholes of mortal law. When contemplating his revenge, he worries not of earthbound justice, but of eternal consequences. He despises “the law’s delay, / The insolence of office”(Act 3, Scene 1, 72,73) in his most famous soliloquy. And so, being at odds with the laws of the world, he comes to odds with the world at every corner.
As Claudius points out, the most practical thing for Hamlet to do after his father’s death is to get over it. There is no provision in the world that expressly demands that a son sorrow long for his father. In fact, the king is able to bring forth many reasons not to, including duty, precedence and even some parts of religion. But Hamlet does not see goodness in passing over such an event. Since he cannot wear white, he wears black.
There is nothing legally wrong with the marriage of Claudius and Gertrude. Such practice was not uncommon with medieval royalty. Technically it is not true incest, the two are not really related by blood. But Hamlet dislikes “the uses of this world.” His mother was his father’s wife, is his father’s wife and always will be. He remembers how “she would hang on him, / As if increase of appetite had grown / By what it fed on.” (Act 1, Scene 2, 143,144) This immediately contrasts with reality and leaves him angry and disillusioned, but still he tries to set things right by convincing her (once he knows she was not knowingly a part of the king’s murder) to give up Claudius.
The demise of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is particularly exemplary of Hamlet’s “flaw.” They are disloyal, shallow, foolish and opportunistic. They are the embodiments of the things which Hamlet, dedicated, contemplative, planning and solitary, hates. They are the flaws that rake against Hamlet’s virtues. Escape from them is not enough. Half-victory and a muddling of affairs is victory for them and their kind, not Hamlet. His dealings with them must be final. He must “delve one yard below their mines,” not to confound them, for they are already confounded, but to “blow them at the moon.”(Act 3, Scene 4, 209,210)
It would be pleasant, satisfying, to end a description at that, as it would be pleasant and satisfying to end the play with a complete victory for the protagonist. But that is intoxication, smashing together the true and the false into one jagged aggregate that glitters and pleases and does no good. That is the form of the imperfect world. A tragic hero cannot survive there. So Hamlet must go to his death, as he does, having purged himself of doubt and contradiction, driving through to immortal purpose. Hamlet’s truest “flaw” is that he is trapped in a world of personal injustices, and that he must endure through them toward their final resolutions, all the while in conflict with his own mind. It is thus that Hamlet’s “flaw” is himself, with his indecisions and his own humanity eating away at him. It thus remains in great irony that the advice given to Laertes by Polonius would have been in great use for Hamlet as a person: “to thine own self be true”.