Archive for April 22nd, 2013

The “tragic flaw” in Shakespeare

Among the bits and pieces of information WordPress supplies me with regarding this blog are the various items people have searched on to get here. And almost every day, people have found this blog by searching on such items as “What was Othello’s fatal flaw?” or “What was Hamlet’s fatal flaw?”  and the like.

I am not sure why it is anyone should imagine that the key to understanding a tragic drama is to identify some “fatal flaw” on the part of the protagonist: the story of someone coming to grief on account of a moral shortcoming is more the provenance of Aesop, I’d have thought, than that of Aeschylus. Are students being encouraged in their literature classes to think of tragic drama in this manner, I wonder? Are they being set assignments to identify various fatal flaws? Well, if they are, they need look no further. Here, completely free of charge, I have put together a ready reckoner that will identify the fatal flaws of each and every tragic protagonist in Shakespeare.

First, let’s get the easy ones out of the way:

Hamlet: indecisiveness

As we all know, the poor lad couldn’t make up his mind. Take him to a pub and ask him if he wants a beer or a whisky, and he’d be all over the place.

Othello: jealousy

That’s easy enough. Lear, though, I had to think about a bit, and in the end came up with this:

King Lear: self-delusion

Macbeth, however, is much easier:

Macbeth: ambition

[Update: in my first version of this post, I had unaccountably missed out Lady Macbeth, who is also a great tragic character. However, her tragic flaw is the same as that of her husband’s, so the initial omission is easily remedied.]

Let’s move on to some of the others. Julius Caesar is an awkward one, for here we have not one, but four protagonists. But they are classified quite easily:

Julius Caesar: megalomania
Brutus: faulty reasoning
Cassius: envy
Mark Antony: not applicable (he doesn’t die at the end, and hence is not tragic)

And as for that oddball Timon of Athens, that’s a fairly easy one also:

Timon: spendthrift

Now the two late tragedies, Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus. Coriolanus is simple enough:

Coriolanus: pride

Antony and Cleopatra, however, are a bit more difficult. But they’re indubitably tragic, and so must have tragic flaws of some kind:

Antony: a bit of a pisshead
Cleopatra: a bit of a slapper

There are a couple of early tragic plays in the canon, Titus Andronicus and Romeo and Juliet. We needn’t bother much about Titus, since no-one really takes the play very seriously anyway. But, if you insist:

Titus Andronicus: obduracy

And Romeo and Juliet seem to me to share the same tragic flaw:

Romeo and Juliet: fancied the wrong person

Although Richard II and Richard III are both classed as History plays, many consider them to be tragic dramas also. So, for the sake of completeness:

Richard II: self-regarding
Richard III: right evil bastard

I think that covers the lot now. With this handy guide, no student looking to complete their essay assignment on the tragic flaws in Shakespeare should have any problem at all.