Published on May 4th, 2013 | by Thompson0
Tragic Errors of Hamlet
James Joyce’s Ulysses describes mistakes as “portals to discovery,” but very few of us, especially Americans, would describe mistakes in this way. Americans avoid error like the plague, and that again may be due to the commodification of our society. Alina Tugend’s Better By Mistake explains how this shared vision of error develops. “Our response to errors grows out of deeply embedded cultural beliefs and values – beliefs and values we’re not even consciously aware of” (189). In America, every mistake costs money, and the privatization and corporatization of everything makes us all competitors rather than teammates. So instead of embracing our mistakes and learning from them, it is in the interest of our pocketbooks to fear error and avoid it. This fear makes us complacent, and worse yet, predictable.
Hamlet would certainly not abide complacency or predictability, but he did in fact share this fear, which is why modern critics have described him as indecisive. Kathryn Schulz addresses this in Being Wrong. “[I]n the eighteenth century, the writer James Boswell remarked on ‘that irresolution which forms so marked a part of [Hamlet’s] character,’ and the description stuck. Over the next hundred years, and with help from additional commentary by the likes of Goethe and Coleridge, the Hamlet we know today was born: a man so paralyzed by indecision that he is unable to take action” (170). Schulz believes handcuffing Hamlet with this characteristic of indecisiveness is a result of his political stature, and I agree. Indecisiveness is not a characteristic we expect or accept of our leaders, and being a prince, Hamlet is expected to be swift in his revenge, like Harry Truman or George W. Bush. Instead he is more like Mitt Romney – a flip flopper. Schulz compares him to John Kerry, but I think Romney is a better and more memorable comparison. Romney supported a universal healthcare system in his home state of Massachusetts, but changed his mind when running for President because he didn’t want to alienate his base. It was a fear of appearing incorrect in the minds of his constituents that changed his mind, and a fear of losing that moved him more right.
Hamlet is “paralyzed” by the same fear, and he should be. Any one of us would have a problem murdering someone, let alone someone a ghost told us to kill. After a bit of research and number crunching, I found that less than .005% of the United States population was incarcerated for murder in 2008. That tells me a miniscule part of the world population even considers murder, let alone murder via specter messenger.
Hamlet may be indecisive, but given his situation, that’s a good thing to be. His character becomes unrealistic if he kills his uncle in the first act. Schulz writes “his doubt is commensurate with the genuine uncertainty of his situation, and with the magnitude and gravity of the action he is contemplating” (172). Unlike his mother, Hamlet is not impulsive, and in addressing his mother’s actions to run into a quick marriage, he makes his disgust with her apparent.
“Sense sure you have,
Else could you not have motion. But sure that sense
Is apoplexed, for madness would not err,
Nor sense to ecstasy was ne’er so thralled,
But it reserved some quantity of choice
To serve in such a difference. What devil was ’t
That thus hath cozened you at hoodman-blind?
Eyes without feeling, feeling without sight,
Ears without hands or eyes, smelling sans all,
Or but a sickly part of one true sense
Could not so mope. O shame, where is thy blush?
If thou canst mutine in a matron’s bones,
To flaming youth let virtue be as wax
And melt in her own fire. Proclaim no shame
When the compulsive ardor gives the charge,
Since frost itself as actively doth burn,
And reason panders will” (Hamlet, III-4, 2463-2480).
Strong words for the woman who gave birth to him, but you must admit he has a point. My mother did something similar to this after divorcing my father (not in weeks but months), but I didn’t have the heart to tell her how it made me feel, and luckily she realized her error before I ever told her (her husband ended up being bipolar and didn’t tell her). Hamlet says it better than I ever could anyways. What’s the point of a son utilizing reason if his mother refuses to do so and gives into desire? She’s not setting a good example, yet Hamlet still resists impulsive action. He is still afraid.
Tugend writes “the fear of making mistakes is a cudgel that hangs over so many of us, preventing us from not only taking risks in our personal and professional lives, but even more important, really accepting – not just giving lip service to – the truth that we all are human and imperfect” (5). Accepting this truth isn’t easy because many of us strive for perfection. I’m doing it right now in writing this paper. I wouldn’t take the time to write it knowing it would end up trash, or worse yet, kindling. “[W]e all tend to be on a continuum of perfectionism,” but it’s when we abandon this idea of perfection that we actually begin learning (31). There’s nothing wrong with pursuing perfection. We just have to realize perfection is unknowable and, therefore, unreachable. And if we can do that, embracing our mistakes as learning experiences is easy. Had Gertrude realized her error in marrying Claudius she may have learned a valuable lesson and saved her son’s life. Instead, she dies, as does Hamlet, who was only trying to make people realize the folly of their ways while trying to avoid his own.
We err in order to succeed. I understand that may sound a bit cryptic given errors are generally referred to as failures, but those failures allow us to succeed at life. Hamlet succeeded at life. He may die tragically, but at least he dies tragically. He lived a life in the red, with the pedal to the metal, and there’s nothing tragic about being damned interesting for the entirety of your life and dying young. The tragedy would be for you to be boring until the day you die and immediately forgotten. The tragedy is to pass through life as scenery. This is why it’s important to err: If we don’t embrace our failures, it’s harder to learn from them in order to succeed, and then when we finally do succeed, we can’t fully enjoy our success. Hamlet’s fatal flaw is not indecisiveness. It’s fear – fear of being mistaken.