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Home :: Archive :: 2009 :: July ::
What is Hamlet's flaw?
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 20.0397  Thursday, 23 July 2009

[1] From:   Hardy M. Cook <
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     Date:   Thursday, July 23, 2009
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0389 What is Hamlet's flaw?

[2] From:   Martin Mueller <
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     Date:   Wednesday, 22 Jul 2009 14:01:54 -0500
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0389 What is Hamlet's flaw?

[3] From:   Scott Shepherd <
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     Date:   Wednesday, 22 Jul 2009 15:17:27 -0400
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0389 What is Hamlet's flaw?

[4] From:   Mari Bonomi <
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     Date:   Wednesday, 22 Jul 2009 20:54:16 -0400
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0389 What is Hamlet's flaw?

[5] From:   Steve Roth <
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     Date:   Wednesday, 22 Jul 2009 18:10:36 -0700
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0389 What is Hamlet's flaw?

[6] From:   David Basch <
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     Date:   Thursday, 23 Jul 2009 10:45:32 -0400
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0389 What is Hamlet's flaw?

[7] From:   Richard Regan <
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     Date:   Thursday, 23 Jul 2009 11:08:42 -0400
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0389 What is Hamlet's flaw?

[8] From:   John Drakakis <
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     Date:   Thursday, 23 Jul 2009 18:05:05 +0100
     Subj:   RE: SHK 20.0389 What is Hamlet's flaw?


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Hardy M. Cook <
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Date:       Thursday, July 23, 2009
Subject: 20.0389 What is Hamlet's flaw?
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0389 What is Hamlet's flaw?

Dear SHAKSPEReans,

I shutter every time a thread on _Hamlet_ begins. I have found over my 
twenty years of association with this list that _Hamlet_ is one of if 
not the most written about plays in the canon. I have also found that 
apparently some members know _Hamlet_ better than any other play in the 
canon. Some even apparently believe they understand it better than 
anyone else and are ready to point out everyone's misunderstandings and 
to set others straight. I do not contend that this is the case with any 
of the posts on _Hamlet_ that I will send out today, but I feel 
compelled to issue a warning -- this thread is on the character Hamlet's 
"tragic flaw" if indeed the character has one or the character is 
capable of having one. I expect that contributors to this thread will 
stick to the subject and not use the thread as an opportunity to 
interject into the discussion personal (I might add, "idiosyncratic") 
theories about the play. Future submissions that are not related to the 
topic of the thread will be ignored.

Hardy M. Cook
Editor

[2]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Martin Mueller <
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Date:       Wednesday, 22 Jul 2009 14:01:54 -0500
Subject: 20.0389 What is Hamlet's flaw?
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0389 What is Hamlet's flaw?

Concerning Hamlet's 'tragic flaw', there is fairly persuasive evidence 
that Shakespeare had a very specific 'theory' of tragedy that grows out 
of the 'theory' of comedy and applies to Julius Caesar and Hamlet, but 
not necessarily to other tragedies. The title of the 'Comedy of Errors' 
is best understood as a play on ideas about comedy found in the school 
texts of the time. A comedy unfolds as a sequence of errors or things 
that go wrong until the happy end. To write a comedy is to  pack as many 
errors into two hours as you can. To analyze it is to trace those 
errors. In Lambinus' edition of Plautus the 'errors' or plot turns are 
duly marked.

Fast forward to Julius Caesar and Shakespeare' reading of Plutarch's 
Life of Brutus. The conspiracy goes wrong because on (at least) three 
occasions, Brutus makes the wrong decision. Cassius opposes him, but 
Brutus overrules him. These errors are noted in the marginal glosses of 
North's translation, which Shakespeare read often, to judge from the 
traces it left in several of his plays. Shakespeare makes explicit what 
is implicit in Plutarch's narrative. Brutus imagines himself to be the 
Superego of the Roman Republic and believes in the power of that status 
somewhat in the same way that Richard II believes in the divine right of 
kings. Cassius is always right, and Brutus is always wrong, but Brutus' 
'auctoritas' prevails, with disastrous consequences.

Brutus' errors are clearly characteristic. They are the kinds of 
decisions this kind of man is apt to make. To the extent that Brutus' 
errors are rooted in a disposition, it is not inappropriate to speak of 
a 'tragic flaw'. That is not a concept Shakespeare uses, but it works here.

It also works in Hamlet. It is a commonplace that Hamlet is a kind of 
Brutus, and Shakespeare gets some metatheatrical mileage out of the fact 
that Hamlet/Brutus kills Polonius/Caesar. But at the heart of the plot 
are two 'errors': Hamlet is wrong when he passes up the opportunity to 
kill Claudius (thinking too much), and he is wrong when he assumes that 
the man behind the arras is Claudius and kills Polonius (thinking not 
enough).

Julius Caesar and Hamlet are thus in a quite specific sense "Tragedies 
of Error." Messala's line "O hateful error, melancholy's child" works 
quite well for both plays. Shakespeare's other tragedies are not 
tragedies of error in that quite specific sense of plays that are rooted 
in a 'theory' or perhaps better a 'methodology' of drama that is rooted 
in the theory and practice of comedy. Of course, every tragedy is a 
tragedy of error in some way, but that is a different  story.

[3]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Scott Shepherd <
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Date:       Wednesday, 22 Jul 2009 15:17:27 -0400
Subject: 20.0389 What is Hamlet's flaw?
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0389 What is Hamlet's flaw?

The search for a character flaw in Hamlet is not all Aristotle's  fault. 
The obsessive topic of all the soliloquies after the first one is 
essentially "what is wrong with me?", and further temptation is offered 
by the "vicious mole of nature" speech, which reads like a rough 
paraphrase (with scandal substituted for downfall) of the "tragic flaw" 
idea. Olivier seized upon that passage and placed it at the front of his 
film in grand titles and portentous voice-over, as if it were the moral 
of the story.

[4]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Mari Bonomi <
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Date:       Wednesday, 22 Jul 2009 20:54:16 -0400
Subject: 20.0389 What is Hamlet's flaw?
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0389 What is Hamlet's flaw?

While the discussion of what, if any, "Tragic Flaw" can be attributed to 
Hamlet is fascinating, I must take issue with several comments about 
other plays/characters lacking tragic flaws.

In Antigone, the protagonist with the "error or frailty" is Creon, who 
essentially conflates the state and himself in what he thinks is action 
for the betterment of the state, but which becomes an ego issue (in 
contemporary terms) when he takes as personal affronts disagreements 
with his rulings. And it is Creon who suffers the piteous losses: son, 
wife, state.

In Romeo and Juliet, Romeo has a very definite character "flaw" which 
leads to his downfall: his impetuousness. Because Shakespeare's 
characters are so much more "human" than those of the ancient Greek 
dramas, this flaw is one characteristic of many adolescents. The irony 
in R&J is that the flaw actually crosses the age boundaries: almost 
every significant character in the play is equally guilty of impetuous, 
rash action.

I think there may well be a "Shakespearean" definition of "tragic hero" 
-- one that so far as we know Shakespeare never articulated, but one 
that we probably can put into words and apply pretty well across the Folio.

I'd actually be interested in reading what our listmembers would craft 
as "Shakespeare's definition of tragic hero." I know that we won't be 
the first to do so (having read Bradley among others oh so many years 
ago) but I think we bring such a wide array of experiences with 
Shakespeare in reading and performance to this table that it would not 
necessarily be a footless enterprise, should Hardy permit it.

Mari Bonomi

[5]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Steve Roth <
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Date:       Wednesday, 22 Jul 2009 18:10:36 -0700
Subject: 20.0389 What is Hamlet's flaw?
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0389 What is Hamlet's flaw?

Richard Reagan:

It is indeed foolish to insist on a tragic flaw in Hamlet. Aristotle did 
not write the bible for tragedy. Indeed, the conventional idea of a 
tragic flaw does not adequately explain even Antigone in her play, not 
to mention Romeo or Juliet.

Thank you Richard Reagan (and also Jim Carroll). The widespread 
fetishization of these rather shallow (narrow?) Aristotelian critical 
constructs has astounded (and bored) me for decades.

[6]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       David Basch <
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Date:       Thursday, 23 Jul 2009 10:45:32 -0400
Subject: 20.0389 What is Hamlet's flaw?
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0389 What is Hamlet's flaw?

It is evident that Shakespeare was well versed on Aristotle's Poetics 
and used its insights to create his own version of tragedy, which he 
does in HAMLET. So, in the manner that Jim Carroll discusses, what do we 
find as the tragedy in Hamlet? From what I can discern, his is the 
tragedy of a morally good and admirable man -- he is also a prince, 
better than we are whose human flaws bring him down. What are these flaws?

While Hamlet is morally good and admirable, he overshoots these marks by 
being over righteous and overly wise, which, as the Bible's Ecclesiastes 
tells us, is a recipe for self destruction. This self-destruction Hamlet 
brings upon himself though in other respects he has all the aces going 
for him. He causes his own reversals of fortune that in the play create 
its acmes of dramatic action.

We see Hamlet's over righteousness in his expectations of others, that 
they behave at the height of virtue and honor, no allowances for frailty 
allowed. His mother failed in those tests and Hamlet thinks that Ophelia 
failed too. In Ophelia's case, Hamlet is all wet since what could this 
young suppressed girl do with all those around her hemming her in? She 
had to cooperate with her father, finding herself torn between duty to 
him and to her love for Hamlet, which Hamlet had already rejected. Only 
a person wrapped up in his ideals of extreme, high virtue could fail to 
be sensitive to her plight.

Hamlet gets the better of Claudius by the latter's reaction to the play 
in which Claudius publicly revealed his guilt. Hamlet could have 
executed Claudius acting as the chief royal minister of justice for the 
state of Denmark. However, finding Claudius at prayer, Hamlet thinks 
that killing him under such a circumstance of penitence would be a 
virtual ticket for sinner Claudius to go to heaven, an advent not 
allowed to Hamlet's father who was killed in the midst of his unrepented 
sins. This is a fatal aspiration for perfect justice, a colossal mistake 
made by the over righteous Hamlet since it enables Claudius to live to 
turn the tables on Hamlet and kill him.

As we see in the play, Hamlet, being so wise and deep, is forever 
philosophisizing. He sees how Providence enabled him to avert Claudius's 
plot to have him sent to be killed in England and to be returned via 
marauding pirates to Denmark. Reading signs in events, Hamlet concludes 
that we are in God's hands and that His will will be done -- an attitude 
that leads to Hamlet's letting down his guard and falling into 
Claudius's trap, which he did not expect would be coming his way in the 
way it did.

In other words, Hamlet was too wise for his own good, thinking he could 
ride with the path that a just Providence would set for him. After all, 
didn't Providence deliver him from Claudius's plot, with heaven even 
seeing to it that he, Hamlet, had the royal stamp with him on the trip 
and could write in the secretary hand style to rewrite Claudius's death 
sentence?  Things fit neatly together for him and, he thought, this was 
not accident but God's intercession, a God that gives a name to each and 
every star Who would deliver from evil such a righteous man as Hamlet 
thinks himself to be despite some of his imperfections.

But over righteous Hamlet fails to recognize some grievous faults in 
himself, one of which is his self justification in over reaching in 
sending his old friends to their death in England. After all, they did 
not know that Claudius intended to kill Hamlet. They were merely serving 
their king, albeit sycophantically doing so as Hamlet observed, but 
which debasement, considered closely, hardly merits death sentences.

At the very end of the play, when everything backfires and he is dying, 
Hamlet sees things differently. He wants Horatio to tell the world the 
story of his good points and his own flaws, a lesson to those who would 
err like himself. This is a lesson to be delivered by the very character 
in the play that is free of such faults.

Horatio, along with Hamlet, saw Claudius's guilt and went along with 
seeing Claudius punished, an act which Hamlet botches in his penchant 
for perfect punishment. Later on, although Horatio does not dwell on the 
point, it seems evident that he senses Hamlet's over reaction in sending 
his friends to their death. This, often overlooked by audiences, was 
hardly a nice thing to do and something that an all powerful Divinity 
would weigh and bring into judgment. Horatio is also sensitive to 
reality and, not over involved in convoluted readings of God's ways, 
tries to warn Hamlet about Claudius's plot in the dueling contest with 
Laertes ("You will lose that wager my lord.") Horatio is the man that 
can tell Hamlet's story with a balanced understanding of its moral aspects.

The suspense in the final scene is dramatically effective every time. 
With all the investment audiences have in admiring Hamlet's character, 
there is somehow the hope that he will win out. The intricate unfolding 
of events is a marvelous action spectacle that a drama should have. Its 
intricate detail makes it effective even when seen many times.

After all that unfolds, we are left with the awesome realization that, 
despite all his brilliance and personal merit, Hamlet failed to reap his 
throne. He and all those evil ones that tried to set a trap for him are 
caught in it, like fish in a net.

But, then, the play is so complex and intriguing in so many ways that, 
like life, it is difficult see in clear relief what the essentials of 
the play are, particularly when we that see the play are, ourselves, 
subject to our own preoccupations and myopia. Therefore, not every 
reader will see the tragedy of this play in the way I have outlined it. 
As we find, some focus on the issues of revenge and the Divine 
displeasure it could bring. But  I think it is the factor of over 
righteousness that is the key here.

Over righteousness is a killing imperfection, as is being too clever 
about things to see what isn't even there to see. These are 
imperfections that can ruin individual lives and kingdoms and those that 
exhibit such flaws are hardly aware of them in themselves despite their 
far reaching consequences.

The overall pattern I see emerging from events in the play is that of a 
world in which there is a manifest rough justice. There is truly "a 
divinity that shapes our ends, rough hewn though it may be." Its 
operation is not immediate in punishing crimes and its effects are not 
altogether neat or clear cut. It operates with a time lag and with 
surprise. As we see, the race is not always to the swift since chance 
and time happen to contradict what would otherwise seem sure things. 
Bystander Fortinbras, a man of unproven mettle (as the brass, not gold, 
in his name suggests), walks in and reaps what others more brilliant 
have schemed and labored for with frantic and mighty efforts, all in vain.

David Basch

[7]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Richard Regan <
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Date:       Thursday, 23 Jul 2009 11:08:42 -0400
Subject: 20.0389 What is Hamlet's flaw?
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0389 What is Hamlet's flaw?

There is no evidence that Shakespeare know Aristotle's Poetics:

http://www.jsu.edu/depart/english/gates/shtragcv.htm

http://extra.shu.ac.uk/emls/si-01/si-01hagen.html

Richard Regan
Fairfield University

[8]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       John Drakakis <
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Date:       Thursday, 23 Jul 2009 18:05:05 +0100
Subject: 20.0389 What is Hamlet's flaw?
Comment:    RE: SHK 20.0389 What is Hamlet's flaw?

I think that David Bishop's account is a fascinating one, but I wonder 
if throwing 'Christianity' into the mix at the beginning clarifies or 
obscures the nature of the conflict. As I read the play it is clearly 
opposed to 'revenge' and to that extent it is Christian; for example, 
Laertes may be the kind of revenger that Hamlet might think that the 
Ghost exhorts him to be, but if he were to behave in the way that 
Laertes does at 4.5. then he would certainly be a 'scourge' to Denmark, 
but could never fulfill the role of 'minister' that the Ghost also gives 
him. The issue seems to me be more to do with 'revenge' versus 
'justice'. We should, perhaps, bear in mind that the figure of the king 
is still the source of 'law' - even though the extent to which the 
monarch was subject to the Law had been debated since the reign of Mary 
Tudor (see John Ponet's 'A Treatise on Power') and continued to be 
debated right up to the execution of Charles 1.

Hamlet's problem is that Claudius, though a criminal, has hidden his 
crime. For Hamlet to execute him summarily would not only produce the 
shortest Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy on record (I wish, I hear you say!) 
but it would also, as David Bishop quite rightly points out, look like 
regicide. Hamlet tries desperately either to catch Claudius in the act 
(the death of Polonius is a consequence of this: it is an 'accident' but 
it gives Polonius his comeuppance) or to have him incriminated publicly 
- which is what happens at the end. I think that Bishop is right to note 
too that in the shipboard exchange of letters Hamlet acts as his 
surrogate father in that he has a royal seal that he substitutes for 
Claudius's counterfeit seal. This represents the beginning of a shift of 
control from Claudius to Hamlet, and it is Gertrude who is the 
interesting index of this shift (she has been gravitating towards Hamlet 
since the second Closet scene, and she will gravitate further to deadly 
effect, that casts her death as an 'accident' engineered by the 
Providence that Hamlet finally identifies in 5.1. Once Claudius's guilt 
is publicly revealed in 5.2 then Hamlet can exact a summary justice, 
since he is 'technically' king at this point and hence the repository of 
Law. It is also worth bearing in mind that Hamlet's position at the end 
is the reverse of his position at 1.2. At the end of 5.2. he is the 
'centre' of the Court and it is Claudius who is the marginal figure. 
Presence (to use a Derridean term) is asserted at the end of the play, 
but not before Claudius's poison has managed to take hold of the tragic 
hero as well as put paid to the villain. At this point Hamlet is the 
'pharmakon': he embodies both the cure for Denmark AND the poison. It is 
for this reason that he seems to me to be the 'tragic' figure'.

Cheers,
John Drakakis

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