It was my observation after reading Hamlet, that the play and its main character are not typical examples of tragedy and contain a questionable “tragic flaw” in the tragic hero. I chose this topic because Hamlet is a tragedy, but one that is very different from classical tragedies such as Medea. I also found quite a lot of controversial debate over the play and its leading character.
While reading through my notes, I found that, according to Aristotle, “the tragic hero will most effectively evoke both our pity and terror if he is neither thoroughly good nor evil but a mixture of both; and also that the tragic effect will be stronger if the hero is better than we are in the sense that he is of higher than ordinary moral worth. Such a man is exhibited as suffering a change in fortune from happiness to misery because of a mistaken act, to which he is led by his hamartia (“error of judgment”) or his tragic flaw.
It is important that this be clear, because I plan to demonstrate how Shakespeare makes Hamlet an atypical tragedy to begin with, and how controversial an issue Hamlet’s tragic flaw is. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is an atypical play to begin with, because the play’s format doesn’t conform to traditional Aristotelian concepts of the 3 unities. Shakespeare does not conform to unity of time, place, or action. Hamlet contains a “play within a play,” sub-plots, and its action is not set in one day, but several. According to Aristotle, the play should be one day long.
There are also a number of comedic moments. Humor, as Aristotle would have it, would reduce the impact of tragedy. Unlike Medea and Oedipus, which contain virtually no humor whatsoever, the play Hamlet has several comedic moments. The last difference I could find is the stature of the character. In the older plays such as Oedipus, the heroes are primarily kings. Hamlet on the other hand is a prince; his stature is starting out smaller than normal. While reading Hamlet, I came to the conclusion that even though this is a tragedy, the hero’s supposed flaw is not like those in classical tragedies.
To the best of my knowledge, the flaw that I could pick out that best fit Hamlet was sloth . . . as well as the critics themselves. Was this accurate? I think not, and here is why. Hamlet is not a lazy person to begin with. He has no inborn flaw in his character. Morris Weitz concludes that “Before his father’s death, Hamlet was athletic, joyful, fearless, idealistic, open, adoring of his parents, and in love with Ophelia, and that some of the traits remain throughout the play” (229).
Nowhere does he mention slovenliness or sloth. I say that the reasons Hamlet delays are all sensible and normal and don’t reflect a tragic flaw on his part. I feel that it is his situation, the fact that he doesn’t want to kill another human, and the knowledge of a Hell that his father is in that deters him from immediate action. Weitz concludes, “Hamlet delays because he is melancholy” (229). Again, this would indicate the sudden situation he finds himself in, and the depression he feels at missing his father.