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Hamlet's Fatal Flaw Is His Role Model

Updated on August 25, 2012

It's widely agreed that Shakespeare's Hamlet character has a "fatal flaw." This is a concept that goes back at least as far as Ancient Greek storytelling (they called it hamartia.) A fatal flaw is a character defect, a tendency toward sin or error, that causes a hero's story to become tragic. Shakespeare followed much of the Greek tradition in his storytelling, and there are other reasons too to assume that Hamlet had a fatal flaw: his story does end in spectacular tragedy, and there's a bit of foreshadowing near the beginning where Hamlet discusses the concept:

So, oft it chances in particular men,
That for some vicious mole of nature in them,
As, in their birth--wherein they are not guilty,
Since nature cannot choose his origin--
By the o'ergrowth of some complexion,
Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason,
Or by some habit that too much o'er-leavens
The form of plausive manners, that these men,
Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect,
Being nature's livery, or fortune's star,--
Their virtues else--be they as pure as grace,
As infinite as man may undergo--
Shall in the general censure take corruption
From that particular fault: the dram of eale
Doth all the noble substance of a doubt
To his own scandal.

Everyone disagrees, however, on what Hamlet's fatal flaw is. In my opinion, we can identify it by taking the word "fatal" seriously. What actually causes Hamlet to die?

At the end of the play, Laertes and Claudius invite Hamlet to a friendly fencing match. This is highly suspicious. Hamlet and Laertes have recently come to blows, and Hamlet knows that Laertes must blame him for the deaths of his father and sister. Hamlet also knows for certain that Claudius is plotting to kill him. The invitation practically screams "TRAP!" Horatio tells him not to go, but Hamlet shrugs off his concerns. Hamlet, in the end, believes that Laertes will forgive him for killing his father, and is willing to accept the consequences if he is wrong. So he goes, and Laertes kills him.

Why does Hamlet have this attitude about Laertes's hatred? Tracing backwards, we can look at the last thing he said to Laertes, and it was something very strange indeed:

Hear you, sir;
What is the reason that you use me thus?
I loved you ever: but it is no matter;
Let Hercules himself do what he may,
The cat will mew and dog will have his day.

This speech is fatalist. Hamlet is saying that there is nothing he can do; things will work out the same no matter what. This is definitely the kind of attitude that gets you killed! So is Hamlet's fatal flaw simply fatalism? That would be neat, but it doesn't quite make sense. Hamlet's not at all fatalistic for most of the play. His fatal flaw is whatever caused him to become fatalistic.

In our search for a hamartia, this short speech holds another important clue. Hamlet compares himself to Hercules, an actual Ancient Greek mythic hero with a fatal flaw. The one thing that mars his bravery and superhuman strength is that, on occasion, he impulsively kills people. They left that out of the Disney version, since to a modern audience that makes him not so much a hero as a serial killer.

Hercules's career started when he killed his music teacher out of frustration, and continued on through many more, each of which required some kind of penance--a labor or humiliation required to purge the sin. This murderous tendency is sometimes attributed to his anger, sometimes to his not knowing his own strength, and sometimes to the goddess Hera cursing him with temporary madness.

Over the course of the play, Hamlet becomes more and more like this brutal character. At first, he's the polar opposite. First Act Hamlet is sullen, thoughtful, and extremely hesitant to do anyone any harm. He just wants to go back to school (a place Hercules hated). And indeed, look at how Hamlet talks about his uncle Claudius in Act 1:

My father's brother, but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules

Hamlet's father does seem to have been pretty Herculean--his greatest accomplishment was killing the king of Norway in single combat, and even as a ghost he wears full battle armor. Claudius is different--he'd rather scheme and maneuver, send diplomats to Norway, even lie and sneak around, than have to fight. And as Hamlet seems to unconsciously acknowledge with this line, he takes after his hated uncle more than his beloved father!

As his various soliloquies make clear, Hamlet thinks of himself as weak and unworthy, and he sees his intellectual nature as part of the problem. So he decides to remake himself in the image of Hercules. By the end of Act III, he's impulsively killed an old man. Then he arranges the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hamlet's school friend Horatio is horrified:

Why, what a king is this!

Indeed, Hamlet is not acting like a proper king, and he never will be crowned. Hercules never became a king either; his scheming relative Eurystheus became king in his place. Hamlet reacts defensively to Horatio, saying that of course he must kill everyone in the evil conspiracy. His language calls back to his earlier speech about fatal flaws:

and is't not to be damn'd,
To let this canker of our nature come
In further evil?

Hamlet has finished externalizing his own self-hatred. He no longer sees flaws in himself, but instead sees other people as embodiments of those flaws. He sees the world now in a one-dimensional way, with brutal strength and Good in one direction, and intelligence and Evil in the other. This way of looking at things makes him feel better about himself, but it leads to disaster for everyone.

Hamlet, dressed as Hercules, accosts Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
Hamlet, dressed as Hercules, accosts Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

I'm not the first to notice Hamlet's fascination with Hercules. In the Royal Shakespeare Company's excellent 2008 staging of Hamlet, which you can watch legally for free, Hamlet wears a shirt with stenciled-on muscles for much of the play. Google shows a lot of people talking about the significance of Hamlet's "two references" to Hercules. But they seem to miss the way the references trace Hamlet's personal evolution, and moreover they miss a third reference! In Act 3, there's a conversation that's usually cut from performances of the play because people see it as just a series of in-jokes about the theater community. It's more than that, though. It includes a riff about how people are, more and more, settling their differences through violence instead of art. Poets and actors are literally, it's said, punching each other's brains out. And who's there to clean up the fallen brains?

HAMLET: Do the boys carry it away?

ROSENCRANTZ: Ay, that they do, my lord; Hercules and his load too.

Again we see the noble, refined, intelligent things in life: theater, poetry, actual brains, being contrasted with Hercules and violence.

Hamlet's fatal flaw, then, is that he sees Hamlet and his father as people to try to be like in a time of crisis. If Hercules had had a guileful hero like Ulysses, or Shakespeare's comic protagonists, the story would have ended with a wedding rather than a bloodbath.


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