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Home :: Archive :: 2009 :: July ::
What is Hamlet's flaw?
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 20.0386  Friday, 17 July 2009

[1] From:   Sally Drumm <
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     Date:   Thursday, 16 Jul 2009 22:33:07 -0400
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0380 What is Hamlet's flaw?

[2] From:   Alan Pierpoint <
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     Date:   Friday, 17 Jul 2009 00:31:47 -0400
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0380 What is Hamlet's flaw?

[3] From:   Conrad Cook <
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     Date:   Friday, 17 Jul 2009 04:54:30 -0400
     Subj:   What is Hamlet's flaw?

[4] From:   John Drakakis <
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     Date:   Friday, 17 Jul 2009 13:56:50 +0100
     Subj:   RE: SHK 20.0380 What is Hamlet's flaw?

[5] From:   Hannibal Hamlin <
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     Date:   Friday, 17 Jul 2009 12:04:34 -0400
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0380 What is Hamlet's flaw?

[6] From:   Terence Hawkes <
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     Date:   Friday, 17 Jul 2009 6:43 AM
     Subj:   FW: SHK 20.0380 What is Hamlet's flaw?


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Sally Drumm <
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Date:       Thursday, 16 Jul 2009 22:33:07 -0400
Subject: 20.0380 What is Hamlet's flaw?
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0380 What is Hamlet's flaw?

The tragic flaw would of necessity be the correlative of the character's 
most exquisite virtue. Hamlet's most exquisite virtue is his love of 
family, particularly his love for his father, the Past, The Ancient, 
which is essential to his sense of honor. The most intense tragedy in 
the play is Hamlet's undoing, the undoing of the royal lineage, which 
results from his tragic flaw -- his need for revenge to reinstate family 
honor. Love, as is always the case in Shakespeare and in Life, is the 
great equalizer in virtue and vice. Because Hamlet cannot forgive the 
past, the future is lost. This is Hamlet's great lesson.

Sincerely,
Sally Drumm

[2]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Alan Pierpoint <
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Date:       Friday, 17 Jul 2009 00:31:47 -0400
Subject: 20.0380 What is Hamlet's flaw?
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0380 What is Hamlet's flaw?

In III.i, Hamlet admits to extreme pride, vengefulness, and ambition, 
plus other unnamed vices, but I don't think we're expected to take this 
as a confession since he temporizes by implying that all other men are 
just as bad. At the end, he shows no sign of self-blame that I can see; 
on the contrary, he charges his only friend with the task of restoring 
his "wounded name." I agree in general with L. Swilley's last statement. 
Laertes' dying confession is an invitation to Hamlet to confess his own 
guilt, but he passes it up. Laertes gains stature at the end; Hamlet 
loses some, I think.

Antigone embraces death without acknowledging the faults of which she is 
accused; Creon sees his fault too late, and makes a full confession at 
the end. Isn't he, then, the real tragic figure of the 3rd Theban play?

-Alan Pierpoint

[3]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Conrad Cook <
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Date:       Friday, 17 Jul 2009 04:54:30 -0400
Subject:    What is Hamlet's flaw?

Louis Swilley <
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 >wrote:

 >"Thus the hamartia, or shortcoming, in a tragic person may refer to
 >something within the man, or to an outward act, a particular shortcoming
 >or case of misjudgment, which brings about his downfall." --  Lane
 >Cooper. Aristotle on the Art of Poetry.
 >
 >Cooper offers that Hamlet's flaw is his delay of action  --  then his
 >sudden, rash deeds.
 >
 >But is it [also?] his failure to make use of friends about him (Does
 >that account for Horatio?) . . .
 >
 >Or is it his failing to understand that, having presented himself as
 >mad, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (and Polonius?) naturally
 >believe him deranged -- as he intended all should -- and are kindly
 >trying to bring him to his senses -- although he interprets their
 >conduct as betrayal, as siding with Claudius against him?
 >
 >And does he ever realize what he has done to bring this disaster on
 >himself?
 >
 >And does he blame himself for that?
 >
 >I cannot see that Aristotle requires the tragic figure to finally
 >realize and regret his error, yet it seems best that he should  --
 >otherwise is he not somewhat innocent of it?

Correct:  Aristotle does not. He considers that there are two kinds of 
tragic play, one with and one without a realization.

 >(Lear certainly realizes
 >his error ["Take physic, pomp, etc."] and regrets it.). Yet, William
 >Arrowsmith, I believe, made the point that the tragic figure is "deaf"
 >and remains so. Yet that such a figure should NOT realize his error
 >makes his demise less justified, less dramatically effective.

Turn the problem on its head:  What does Hamlet do wrong that causes 
_Hamlet_ to be a tragedy rather than a comedy?

The tragic outcome can traced to two errors: his failure to kill 
Claudius in the chapel, and his killing of Polonius in his mother's 
closet. From the symmetry between them, we can infer that both errors 
reflect and are about a similar character flaw in the prince. (This is 
going with Aristotle's almost mechanical view that a good moral 
character is that which causes one to do good things.)

Then look at the relevant passages:

Hamlet:  ... am I then reveng'd,
     To take him in the purging of his soul,
     When he is fit and seasoned for his passage?
     No.
     Up, sword, and know thou a more horrid hent.
     When he is drunk asleep; or in his rage;
     Or in th' incestuous pleasure of his bed;
     At gaming, swearing, or about some act
     That has no relish of salvation in't-
     Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven,
     And that his soul may be as damn'd and black
     As hell, whereto it goes. My mother stays.

Hamlet chooses not to kill Claudius in the chapel because he wants to 
micro-manage Claudius's damnation; and he believes Claudius to be 
confessing himself and purifying his soul. (We also know this is not 
true: Claudius ends this scene, "Words without thoughts never to heaven 
go.")

Therefore, Hamlet decides, he'll wait until he can catch Claudius doing 
something really nasty -- until he's in bed with Mom, maybe. And, as 
soon as he (thinks he) sees Claudius in Mom's bedroom, he does indeed 
kill -- but the wrong guy.

So, Hamlet is in fact remarkably consistent in his reasons for not 
killing Claudius:  before the Mousetrap, it is because the Ghost might 
be a devil who has taken the form of his father, deceiving Hamlet to 
damn him; after the Mousetrap, it is because he might have caught 
Claudius at a moment when his soul was pure. Hamlet's tragic flaw is an 
excess of faith:  a lawyerly kind of faith, and over-eagerness in seeing 
to his great enemy's damnation.

(If you reread the Ghost's instructions to him, you'll see that this is 
entirely outside of his commission:  his job is to remove the usurper 
from the throne and see worldly justice done.)

Had Hamlet killed Claudius (and not killed Polonius), the whole series 
of events that lead to his own death and the deaths of so many others 
would not have happened. And, possibly, Hamlet could have argued his 
case to a horrified court at Elsinore on the basis of Claudius's 
response to the Mousetrap:  not an ideal situation, but one that he is 
clearly willing to enter into, since at the end of the Mousetrap he 
considers Claudius killable.

That Hamlet's two errors, in not killing Claudius and in killing 
Polonius, can be seen logically -- they are a dramatization of what we 
now call type I and type II errors -- and in Claudius's instructions to 
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to find Polonius's body and bring it to the 
chapel (where Hamlet did not kill Claudius); and in the First Player's 
enactment of Pyrrhus's delay in killing Priam -- his sword seems in the 
air to stick (Hamlet failing to kill Claudius); Pyrrhus minces Priam's 
limbs (Hamlet's treatment of Polonius's body) and to the queen's instant 
burst of clamor (Gertrude's "Ay, me, what hast thou done?"). Seeing the 
player's performance causes Polonius to beg the enactment to end; and 
when in Gertrude's closet he calls out for help to end Hamlet's 
performance, Hamlet ends Polonius's.

Conrad.

[4]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       John Drakakis <
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Date:       Friday, 17 Jul 2009 13:56:50 +0100
Subject: 20.0380 What is Hamlet's flaw?
Comment:    RE: SHK 20.0380 What is Hamlet's flaw?

I wonder whether this is the best way to deal with Hamlet's 'dilemma'? 
It confuses a structural question with a psychological one, and implies 
that the problem with Hamlet (and 'Hamlet') is a psychological one. 
Isn't the protagonist faced with a series of impossible choices? He's 
damned if he makes them and he's damned if he doesn't. This seems to me 
to be much closer to 'hamartia' than the idea of a flaw in his 
'character' implies. It also makes for a much more complex and 
interesting play.

Cheers,
John Drakakis

[5]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Hannibal Hamlin <
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Date:       Friday, 17 Jul 2009 12:04:34 -0400
Subject: 20.0380 What is Hamlet's flaw?
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0380 What is Hamlet's flaw?

The first response to this question should surely be that Aristotle's 
description of tragedy may simply not apply to Shakespeare. As Terry 
Eagleton makes clear in his Sacred Violence, there are as many theories 
of tragedy as there are theorists, and no theory of tragedy covers all 
instances of tragic literature. (Hence the tendency of theorists to mark 
as illegitimate any tragedies that don't conform to their definition.) 
It's not even clear that Aristotle got it right for Sophocles, 
Euripides, and Aeschylus (and do they conceive of tragedy identically?), 
and there is considerable debate, as Cooper's statement indicates, about 
what hamartia actually means. When it comes to Shakespeare, Aristotle 
may be of no use at all. One model for tragedy Shakespeare inherited, 
for instance, was that of the Wheel of Fortune, which lies behind all 
the Mirror for Magistrates stories. According to this model, there is no 
tragic flaw, and the actions of the protagonist may be irrelevant, since 
everyone is bound to the wheel, which goes round and round regardless. 
Shakespeare's own understanding of tragedy may or may not involve flaws, 
mistakes, fate, and so forth. Perhaps it's best examined on its own 
terms, rather than in terms of Aristotle's anachronistic and rather 
opaque description. I'm not even sure that Shakespeare has one single 
sense of tragedy. Can we really say that tragedy works the same way in 
Richard III, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Coriolanus? To be human is to 
have flaws, we might say, but I'm not sure a character's flaws are 
always essential to their tragedy. Lear really is a man more sinned 
against than sinning, for instance, and certainly Gloucester is (despite 
Edgar's weird pronouncement that he had it coming). There is perhaps a 
sense in which what transpires is the consequence of certain of their 
actions (the misguided love test and rejection of Cordelia, the adultery 
of Gloucester and his credulity about Edgar). But to press this too far 
ends up in an account of tragedy according to the Butterfly Effect (a 
butterfly flapping wings over Tokyo leads to a thunderstorm across the 
world).

Hannibal

[6]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Terence Hawkes <
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Date:       Friday, 17 Jul 2009 6:43 AM
Subject: 20.0380 What is Hamlet's flaw?
Comment:    FW: SHK 20.0380 What is Hamlet's flaw?

Louis Swilley asks of Hamlet 'And does he blame himself for that?'

I think we need the notes of Hamlet's social worker before we can reach 
a decision. There have been those mysterious meetings with Osric in 
which the issue of drug dependency cannot be ruled out, and the question 
of Claudius's paternity will always be a complicating factor. Sadly, 
Hamlet is now convinced that Ophelia is a man.

T. Hawkes

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