Heroes and Their Hamartia

Hamlet by William Shakespeare is a classic example of a literary tragedy. There are multiple tragic heroes, whose consequences of their actions contribute to a series of catastrophic events. Arthur Miller, in his essay “Tragedy in the Common Man”, states that only those who accept their fate without a fight are flawless and that most of us are in this category. Conversely, Aristotle believed “the hero often has many positive qualities, but also possesses a tragic flaw. ” Aristotle’s definition of a tragic hero is more applicable to Hamlet as depicted in the main supporting characters of the play.

Ophelia, Gertrude, Laertes and Claudius are all tragic heroes who did not accept their fate, who interfered with their destiny, and whose hamartia ultimately led to their demise. Ophelia’s tragic flaw was that she relied greatly on those she loved for her emotional stability. Ophelia looked up to, and counted on, her father Polonius, her brother Laertes and Hamlet to love and protect her. Ophelia begins to crack when she feels she is losing Hamlet to insanity. “O what a noble mind is here o’erthrown! /… /h’observed of all observers, quite, quite, down! And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,/… /Blasted with ecstasy. O woe is me,/ T’have seen what I have seen, see what I see! (III. i. 150-160) This quote by Ophelia expresses her feelings of being distraught with Hamlet’s mental state. Ophelia’s mental instability worsens when Hamlet kills her father, Polonius. “O heavens! is’t possible, a young maid’s wits/Should be as mortal as on old man’s life? ”(IV. v. 135-136) Ophelia’s reliance on Hamlet and Polonius, who have now deserted her, causes her to take her own life, making her a tragic hero.

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According to Miller tragedy exists in the fear of being displaced. Ophelia’s loss of the two most important men in her life causes her to feel displaced, heightens her emotional instability and makes Ophelia feel that life is not worth living without them. Ophelia does not accept her fate; to be without those she loves and move forward in life and interferes with this destiny by taking her own life. Gertrude’s tragic flaw was that she needed to be needed. This flaw caused Gertrude to marry Claudius quickly after the death of her husband, without thinking of the consequences.

This is what Hamlet means when he says “Frailty, thy name is woman” (I. ii,146) Gertrude’s need to be needed is also shown because she cannot resist Claudius’s desire of her sexually. This is supported when the Ghost states “Ay, the incestuous, the adulterate beast,/With witchcraft of his wit, with treacherous gifts-/O wicked wit and gifts, that have the power/So to seduce! -Won to his shameful lust…” (I. iv. 42-45) Instead of Gertrude accepting her fate to be alone as a widow, she is faced with an anagnorisis by recognizing the truth about Claudius, although too late.

This is directly contrary to Miller’s idea that a flawless man accepts their fate. Gertrude’s demise was a direct result of her interference with her destiny, poor judgement, her overwhelming need to be needed and blindness to who Claudius really was. Laertes’s tragic flaw was his weakness and inability to think for himself. This weakness caused Laertes to be manipulated by Claudius to seek retribution for his father’s death, through revenge on Hamlet. “If it be so, Laertes-/As how should it be so? How otherwise? -/Will you be ruled by me? ”(iv. vii. 8-60) Laertes journey to seek revenge on Hamlet also caused him to act impulsively. During the duel, had Laertes stopped to think that he had manufactured the poison Hamlet’s sword was dipped in, he would have realized that being stabbed with this sword would result in his demise. “I am justly killed with mine own treachery,” (V, ii, 321). Miller states that “Only the passive, only those who accept their lot without active retaliation, are “flawless” (Miller, 1) Laertes seeking retribution on Hamlet was an active act of revenge and not passive, proving that he was flawed according to Miller.

It was Laertes weakness and impulsiveness that proved to be the tragic flaws which contributed to his demise in the end. Claudius is the most prominent character in the play “Hamlet” next to Hamlet himself and considers Hamlet to be his nemesis. Claudius suffers from a number of tragic flaws, the greatest being guilt and greed. Claudius is wracked with guilt and remorse over the murder of his brother “A brother’s murder, he says, is the oldest sin and hath the primal eldest curse upon’t” (III. iii. 37). Claudius’s guilt and fear of Hamlet’s reaction ndirectly causes the death of Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Polonius by engaging them to spy on Hamlet to see how much he knows. Although the guilt Claudius feels is overwhelming it is Claudius’s greed which causes him to plan to murder Hamlet so that Hamlet cannot take away what he has acquired; the crown and Gertrude. “That cannot be, since I am still possessed/Of those effects for which I did the murder:/My crown, mine own ambition, and my Queen. ” (III. iii. 54-56) Claudius was unable to accept his destiny to be “just the brother of the King” and his active participation in altering that destiny contributed to his death.

It is Claudius tragic flaw of guilt which is indirectly responsible for three deaths and his flaw of greed that is directly responsible for his own demise. Tragic heroes are not just found in nobility, but are found in the common man and woman. Ophelia’s reliance on others for her emotional stability, Gertrude’s need to be needed, Laertes weakness and impulsiveness and Claudius’s guilt and greed were tragic flaws found in these common people. Each in their own way these flaws caused them to take action which interfered with their fate and destiny, and ultimately led to their deaths.

Miller believes that the common man is as likely to be a subject of tragedy as nobility is “I believe that the common man is as apt a subject for tragedy in its highest sense as kings were” (Miller, 1). Aristotle’s definition of tragic hero “the hero possesses tragic flaws” and Miller’s belief that “those who accept their fate are flawless” (Miller, 1) both apply to “Hamlet”. None of the tragic heroes accepted their fate and therefore they are not considered flawless. As Aristotle notes they all possessed tragic flaws which ultimately led to their demise and ended in the final catastrophe.

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