Is Hamlet's distress understandable? Why does he fail to act until too late? Is his inaction due to a tragic flaw?
Until relatively recently, critics tended to assume that the causes of tragic misfortune resided in some moral defect of the protagonist. Aristotle’s term hamartia (derived from “fault,” “failure,” guilt” but literally meaning to “miss the mark”) was often translated as “tragic flaw,” leading critics to seek the chink in the hero’s armour (such as pride or ambition) which leads to his or her downfall. Although the precise meaning of hamartia remains a matter of debate, the notion of the hero’s tragic flaw has inspired a rich tradition of criticism and remains a useful starting point for thinking about character. Some of the most important interpretations of Hamlet's tragic flaw are:
Goethe: Hamlet is not tough enough. He lacks mettle:
… it is clear to me what Shakespeare has set out to portray: a heavy deed placed on a soul which is not adequate to cope with it. And it is in this sense that I find the whole play constructed. An oak tree planted in a precious pot which should only have held delicate flowers. The roots spread out, the vessel is shattered. A fine, pure, noble and highly moral person, but devoid of that emotional strength that characterizes a hero, goes to pieces beneath a burden that it can neither support nor cast off. Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship (1796), trans. Eric Blackall, book 4, 145-6. http://books.google.ch/books?id=R6twf14J_igC&pg=PA146&lpg=PA146&dq=#v=onepage&q&f=false
Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Hamlet's delay, and ultimately his downfall, is caused by too much thinking: his thoughts, and the images of his fancy, are far more vivid than his actual perceptions. … The effect of this overbalance of the imaginative power is beautifully illustrated in the everlasting broodings and superfluous activities of Hamlet's mind, which, unseated from its healthy relation, is constantly occupied with the world within, and...
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