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To What Extent Is Hamlet Responsible For His Own Downfall?

In Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet,’ the eponymous character is the tragic hero, and therefore as this tragic hero in a revenge tragedy must have a tragic flaw. However, within the context of the play, in its events and circumstances, many other external factors play a pivotal role in his downfall. Ultimately though, as this tragic hero, he becomes a man torn between these internal and external forces; however, about his downfall, his flaws in reaction to these external factors become his downfall.

As a play moulded by the revenge tragedy genre, the tragic hero, Hamlet, must have a flaw that proves his downfall. Many have argued that Hamlet was responsible for his own downfall, and his fatal flaw was that he thought too much. Hamlet’s character is that of a conscientious man with a high intellect. Because of this, the nature of his reasoning in a situation he finds himself in as the avenger of his father’s murder, which itself is an external factor, shows how his extensive reasoning becomes his fatal flaw. For example, when discussing his mother’s and Claudius’ relationship and his distaste for it, he explains, ‘ For I must hold my tongue.’

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This phrase suggests possible isolation in his thinking. Due to his over-analysis and the nature of his reasoning, it becomes evident how this overthinking will lead to his downfall in committing the vengeful acts he aims to carry out. Hamlet himself admits the role thinking plays in one’s downfall in his suicidal ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy. He explains that ‘the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought…with this regard their currents turn awry’. This highlights how the simple task of decision-making is burdened with this necessity to think and how this leads to our actions becoming erratic, as Hamlet’s do. Therefore, many cite this internal flaw of overthinking as his downfall and not any external factor.

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However, to analyze his downfall as purely the result of this intrinsic flaw is to overlook the manner of external factors that affect the way he overthinks, so it starts to become evident how his internal flaws interact with these external factors make his downfall. To assert that Hamlet is not at all to blame for his own downfall would be to disregard the characteristics of a revenge tragedy, which dictate that the tragic hero must have a fatal flaw that contributes to their downfall; however, the extent to which Hamlet can be blamed is called into question when assessing the role external forces play. For example, many have called into question the role played by fate instead of the sole role of Hamlet’s flaws.

This argument resonates strongly as Hamlet is put into the events and circumstances by the actions of others, and it seems as though his fate as the tragic hero is sealed before he is even aware of it. For example, the actions of Claudius in murdering Hamlet’s father act as the catalyst and precursor to King Hamlet’s ghost visiting Hamlet to reveal the nature of his death and calling for revenge for his death. Hamlet himself even acknowledges the role that fate and destiny play in the direction of his actions when he explains that ‘there’s a divinity that shapes our end.’ Here Hamlet shows that although he has freedom in his actions as the tragic hero, free will is a pivotal element of a revenge tragedy; there is some divine force such as God guiding the ends of his actions.

A.C Bradley explains this role that fate plays as ‘the powerlessness of man and the omnipotence –perhaps the caprice– of, fortune or fate, which no tale of private life can rival.’Therefore this again emphasizes that although Hamlet’s internal flaws play a role in his downfall, there is an element that he cannot control. This interaction between these two forces proves the source of his downfall. In contrast to this role that external forces play, many persist in arguing that Hamlet is solely to blame for his own downfall and use one of his fatal flaws as the reasoning for this assertion. His tendency to procrastinate and not to show enough masculinity in his actions is, to many, an internal flaw that exacerbates the revenge and ultimately adds to his downfall.

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A hesitating avenger is a fundamental aspect of a revenge tragedy and is thus shown throughout the play in many instances. For example, Hamlet can kill Claudius but resists as he is praying and does not want him to go to heaven. Hamlet reasons that ‘now I might do it a pat. Now he is praying. And now he is a-praying. And now I’ll do it. And so I am revenge’. Although Hamlet here is seemingly showing his moral and religious character, he is, in fact, highlighting his intent to kill Claudius, as he merely wants to make sure he goes to hell and inflict as much pain upon him as possible. By procrastinating here it leads to further bloodsheds, such as the accidental murder of Polonius, which leads to Laertes’ revengeful aims, and in turn, leads to the eventual downfall of Hamlet.

Here it is shown the role that the internal role that Hamlet’s flaws play in downfall, but it is worth noting the relationship this aspect has with the role external factors such as fate plays, so yet again, this combined interaction between internal and external forces is what proves to be the reason for Hamlet’s downfall. Another element explored by those who believe that Hamlet’s internal flaws are not solely to blame for his downfall is the role that chance plays as an external force that adds to the downfall of Hamlet. When identifying events that arise as a result of pure chance, which also leads to Hamlet’s downfall, it becomes inherently clear that this factor plays a role in Hamlet’s downfall as well.

For example, the accidental murder of Polonius in Act 3 Scene 4 is an example of this. Hamlet mutters, ‘Nay, I know what. Is it the king?. Instead of killing Claudius, he, in fact, kills Polonius, which in turn leads to Laertes’s aim to avenge his father’s death, and leads to them conspiring in the fixed fencing match, which is the last stand for Hamlet. Another striking example of this instance of a tragedy of chance is within Act 4, during the voyage to England after Hamlet discovers that he was on his way to be murdered and joins a pirate ship to be shipped back to Denmark to await his fate.

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This example, if any, shows how an external factor led to the downfall of Hamlet, as he came back to develop the plot between himself and Claudius even more, as he could have stayed in England, which would have diffused the situation. This interpretation of Hamlet as a tragedy of chance reiterates the idea that internal flaws and external forces interact with one another. How Hamlet’s flaws react to these forces causes his downfall.

Within ‘Hamlet,’ Shakespeare creates a character who has been torn between his internal flaws and external forces, both of which he has no control over. Because of these two forces, which entwine to add to his downfall, it cannot be concluded that Hamlet was completely to blame for his own downfall. However, his downfall was due to the tragic relationship between these two forces and his inability to deal with the situation in light of these forces, which ultimately culminated in a nobleman being thrown into the depths of revenge which finished with his own death.

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To What Extent Is Hamlet Responsible For His Own Downfall?. (2021, Sep 14). Retrieved August 14, 2022, from