The Tragic Flaw of Hamlet

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Archetypes are characters, situations, and symbols that can transcend different cultures. Undoubtedly, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, one of the most influential works written by William Shakespeare”, is a classic dramatic story filled with deceit, trickery, self-doubt, revenge, and death” (J., Clayton.)

In this piece, Shakespeare masterfully employs Jung’s archetypes to give personality traits to his characters, such as the hero and the outcast for Prince Hamlet, the villain and the ambitious for Claudius, and the battle between good and evil for Hamlet’s struggle to avenge his father’s death.

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The Tragic hero and the Outcast in Hamlet is usually a protagonist who has many noble personality traits and major tragic flaws. In the story, Hamlet the King persuades Hamlet the Prince to avenge his death by revealing that the king was, in fact, murdered by his brother, Claudius. Hamlet then vows to kill the King. In fact, he exclaims, “O, from this time forth,/ My thoughts be bloody, or nothing worth” (IV, iv, 68-69). Hamlet’s loyalty to his father makes him a noble character.

Furthermore, he wittily feigns madness in order to obtain the truth about his father’s death and not reveal his ultimate goal. “I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw” (II, ii, 402). In other words, he consciously knows that he is mad or acting mad. His tragic flaw, or his greatest gift, is his ability to masterfully employ language to his advantage (George Detmold). Nonetheless, no matter what Hamlet does, he is never at ease unless he kills the king, who is forced to drink the “poisoned wine” and is slashed with the “envenomed foil,” both of which are intended for Hamlet.

In the end, even though he is slowly dying, he finally “sinks into the oblivion which he has courted so long, and which now comes to him honorably and gives him rest.” (George Detmold). After accomplishing the task, Hamlet can finally rest peacefully. An outcast is usually someone who is banished from his or her community. Hamlet is constantly stricken with grief as if the whole world were turned against him. His father dies mysteriously, and his mother unhesitantly marries his uncle, who seizes the throne from Hamlet. In fact, the grief is too great he can’t bear it himself but exclaims, “To be, or not to be, that is the question” (III, I, 64). In other words, he wants to die free from the task given to him and the struggles of the world. Hamlet is tempted to commit suicide; however, he is afraid of what awaits him in the afterlife. While faking being insane, Hamlet shuns everyone away – such as Ophelia- in order to fool them. He conceals a great secret that he cannot confide in anyone (J., Clayton).

Hamlet is somewhat sexist, especially to Ophelia. He scorns Ophelia, “God hath given you one face, and you/ make yourselves another” (III, i,155-156). Hamlet accuses her of being double-faced, claiming she has nothing but beauty. Furthermore, he shows her to a nunnery because “wise men” (III, i, 149-151) will know she will cheat on them. Due to his inappropriate behavior and unstable mentality, King Claudius wants “The present death of Hamlet. Do it England” (IV, iii, 74-75). Ever since the murder of King Hamlet, Prince Hamlet dislikes the world and intentionally shuns his loved ones away. Since he does not fit in with the royal family, he is then sent to England for execution. That is, he is banished from his community. The Tragic Hero and the Outcast in Hercules. Likewise, Hercules is both the tragic hero and the outcast. Even though the two stories are different, the ideas behind the tragic hero and the emotions they evoke remain the same. Like Hamlet, Hercules is destined to be a hero, but with a tragic flaw, his inability to control his emotions. They are easily evoked and apt to get out of hand.

He, like Hamlet, makes himself an outcast when he abandons the Argo, all of his comrade, and the Quest of the Golden Fleece due to his despair at losing “Hylas, his young armor-bearer” (Hercules). His feeling for others, like Hamlet’s feeling and loyalty to his father, is “oddly endearing,” but they can cause immense danger to him, singling him out from all others. After unintentionally killing his wife and children, he exclaims, “What can I do but die? Live? A branded man, for all to say, ‘Look. There is he who killed his wife and sons’! Everywhere my jailers, the sharp scorpions of the tongue!” Both Hamlet and Hercules have suicidal thoughts after the death of their loved ones. Like Hamlet, Hercules is assigned to accomplish all the impossible labors for his sin. However, Hercules is never “tranquil and at ease,” even after his sins are forgiven. The horror still haunts him every day. Both Hercules and Hamlet need rest from all the struggles of the world. When he knows he can die peacefully, he gladly cries out, “This is rest. This is the end” (Hercules). Archetypes transcend literature; that is, no matter how different the story may be, the role of the tragic hero and the outcast will always remain the same.

King Claudius as Villain

The villain is usually an antagonist whose “goal is usually to destroy the hero or to gain power” (Martin.). In the story, King Claudius murders his own brother in order to gain both the throne and his wife. Later in the story, he confesses, “My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen./ May one be pardoned and retain the offense?” (III, iii, 59-60). In addition, Claudius is willing to betray anyone in order to retain his possessions. He even goes further as to attempt to murder Hamlet in order to prevent everyone from knowing the truth. When he realizes that Hamlet, in fact, knows the truth about the murder, he devices plans to kill Hamlet indirectly. For example, he first sends him to England for a secret execution which fails. Then, he reveals to Laertes that Hamlet is involved in the death of Polonius, which caused Laertes to challenge Hamlet to a duel. It is a trap where Laertes uses an envenomed sword to dual against Hamlet. Even if Hamlet wins, he would have to drink the poisoned wine made by King Claudius. Before Laertes dies, he discloses, “It is here, Hamlet… thou art slain/… Never to rise again. Thy mother’s poisoned/ I can do no more. The King, the King’s to blame” (V, ii, 344-351).

Here, King Claudius is more concerned with keeping his power than destroying Hamlet. Hamlet just happens to be one of his obstacles to absolute power. Queen Hera as Villain Likewise, Hera is also a villain. Even though she is more concerned with killing Hercules, the idea of the villain remains the same. Since Hercules is the result of Zeus’s secret affair, Hera “was furiously jealous and she determined to kill Hercules” (Hercules), just as King Claudius wants to kill Hamlet to keep the secret about the death of the king. Knowing that Hercules could only be overcome by a “supernatural force,” Hera uses her power against him to kill him. Comparably, King Claudius unsuccessfully tries to kill him multiple times, including with the poisoned wine. The only difference is that Hera is a supernatural deity, whereas King Claudius is just an ordinary human being. In both stories, both Hera and King Claudius want to inhibit the main protagonists, Hercules and Hamlet, respectively from advancing.

The Battle between Good and Evil

In Hamlet and Hercules, interestingly, the battle between good and evil is a recurring theme in a lot of literature around the world. In Hamlet, Hamlet is the hero, and Claudius is the villain. Their intent to kill each other represents the fight between good and evil. In the end, one can say it’s a tragic flaw in Hamlet’s essay that neither good nor evil wins because they both die. However, after knowing the truth about Hamlet, Fortinbras proclaims, “Bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage,/ For he was likely, had he been put on,/ To have proved most royal;…/ Go bid the soldiers shoot” (V, ii, 442-444; 449). He realizes if Hamlet had been given a chance, he could have been the most honorable king. In a sense, Hamlet, who represents good, wins because he dies an honorable death. Likewise, in the battle between Hercules (good) and Hera (evil), Hercules wins because he, too, dies an honorable death. He later reconciles with Hera and marries her daughter Hebe in the afterlife. In other words, he has won the battle.

Throughout many cultures around the world, the good, for the most part, win the battle. Clearly, these archetypes existed long before Shakespeare’s time. Hamlet is meaningful for everyone to understand because it is the perfect representation of basic literary archetypes. These archetypes not only transcend through time from as long as ancient Greece to now but also transcend cultures as they appear in both Western and Eastern literature. Archetypes can be a very powerful tool as it helps bridge the writer to his audience.

Frequently Asked Questions
What makes Hamlet a tragic play?

Hamlet qualifies as a tragic play because it is replete with poignant and passionate scenes that culminate in the characters’ downfall. The play portrays betrayal, retaliation, and emotional anguish that lead to the characters making ill-advised choices that ultimately ruin their lives.

What tragic flaw does Hamlet suffer from in the play?

Hamlet’s proclivity for indecision and difficulty in decision-making causes him to procrastinate, leading to delays in taking action or sometimes, no action at all. This characteristic flaw subjects him to considerable inner turmoil and emotional distress.

How is the idea of the tragic flaw a problematic one in Hamlet?

The notion of the tragic flaw presents a challenge in Hamlet since it can be open to various explanations. For instance, Hamlet’s lack of promptness and decisive action may be construed as a flaw. Conversely, Hamlet’s excessive emotionalism and lack of thorough consideration could also be viewed as a flaw. Either interpretation carries some issues since it suggests that Hamlet lacks the qualities of a competent leader.

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The Tragic Flaw of Hamlet. (2021, Mar 25). Retrieved from