The Fatal Flaws of Shakespeare’s Most Famous Tragic Characters

The bard himself: William Shakespeare.
The bard himself: William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare is considered to be the ultimate playwright. His works have transcended time and place, being staged and performed on a daily basis across the world some 400 years after his death. Many of his classic works are required reading for high school English language curriculums. In total, Shakespeare wrote 37 plays, and in writing these plays he added 1,700 words to the English language. it's no wonder he's so famous and still studied to this day! Of Shakespeare’s 37 plays, ten are considered tragedies as defined as: plays dealing with tragic events and having an unhappy ending, especially one concerning the downfall of the main character.

In each of his tragedies, Shakespeare has his main character suffer some flaw in their core character. He gives each tragic hero a 'fatal flaw' that ultimately results in their death. Shakespeare built each one of his tragic protagonists with a defect in their personality, a normal human emotion or characteristic taken to its extreme, that directly leads to their downfall. Each tragic character has their own fatal flaw, and each fatal flaw shines a light on some of the darker characteristics of humanity. Below are some of the fatal flaws of Shakespeare’s most famous tragic heroes.

A rose by any other name...Romeo woes Juliet during the famous balcony scene.
A rose by any other name...Romeo woes Juliet during the famous balcony scene.

1. Romeo

Romeo and Juliet is easily Shakespeare's most well known play, and Romeo is probably Shakespeare’s most famous protagonist. Romeo falls deeply and madly in love the first time he lays eyes on Juliet, the daughter of his father’s sworn enemy, and Romeo is famous for his headstrong, love-at-first-sight relationship with Juliet. In fact, Romeo is often looked upon as the ultimate romantic: willing to put aside the feud between his and Juliet’s family in the name of true love. But most people often overlook the tragic consequences of his actions: both he and Juliet end the play dead by their own hands.

Romeo’s fatal flaw is his impulsiveness. At the start of “Romeo and Juliet,” Romeo is in love with another woman, Rosaline. In his mind, he and Rosaline are destined for each other and in “true love.” But it takes only one night at the Capulet’s ball for Romeo to forget all about Rosaline and fall in love with Juliet. After only one night together, Romeo impulsively marries Juliet, thereby setting a dire chain of event in motion. Shortly later in the wedding, he impulsively slays Juliet’s brother Tybalt in a fit of anger, leading to his banishment from Verona.

Juliet hatches a scheme to be reunited with her love by faking her own death. Unfortunately, Rome's final act of impulsivity is to rush to Juliet’s tomb before receiving the letter imforming him that her death was faked. If he had thought his actions through further, he would not thought his true love dead. By rushing headlong into every action without any thought of the consequences, Romeo seals his and Juliet’s fate.

Alas poor Yorick...even at the end of the play, Hamlet cannot commit to a course of action.
Alas poor Yorick...even at the end of the play, Hamlet cannot commit to a course of action.

2. Hamlet

While Romeo lives at one end of the spectrum, rushing into decisions too quickly, Hamel lives at the other: his fatal flaw is his indecisiveness and inability to commit to a course of action. While Romeo never stops to think of the consequences of his actions, Hamlet broods over them too long. While it is certain without a doubt that his uncle Claudius murdered his father, it takes a startling visit from his father’s ghost to even begin making Hamlet consider that his father was killed by fold play. Additionally, Hamlet’s lack of commitment can also be seen in his relationship with Ophelia, whom Shakespeare implies Hamlet has “tumbled” with no intention of then wedding her.

Even after his ghostly visit at the start of the play, Hamlet still isn’t convinced of Claudius’ guilt. He stages a false play at the castle, a play containing the very murderous actions he suspects his uncle of taking, to try to discern further his uncle’s guilt. By the time he decides to act against Claudius, it’s already too late: Claudius has hatched his own scheme to poison Hamlet. And while Hamlet does ultimately get his revenge against his uncle, his procrastination leads to not only his own death but the death of his mother and Ophelia along the way as well.

MacBeth and his wife, Lady MacBeth
MacBeth and his wife, Lady MacBeth | Source

3. MacBeth

Unlike Romeo’s impulsiveness or Hamlet’s indecisiveness, Macbeth’s fatal flaw is a much baser human emotion: ambition. From the start of the play, we see that MacBeth desires more than his current station. While serving as the king's general, MacBeth encounters three witches who foretell of his destined greatness. So strong is his desire to be king that he takes the ambiguous prophecy of the witches to mean that he is destined to be king, not one day, but right now. Once he assumes the kingship is his destiny, he is willing to do anything to achieve this goal and any cost, including murdering the king he serves.

His very ambition, and the murderous way that he earned the kingship, immediately lead to his crippling paranoia. He assumes all those around him suffer from the same ambition he himself feels. He constantly sees knives around every corner and mistrust in the eyes of all those around him. This paranoia leads to him isolating himself by killing his greatest ally, Banquo. At the witches behest, he then seeks out to kill MacDuff, his greatest rival. The irony of his actions is that by killing MacDuff's family, he ultimately draws the attention and anger of MacDuff, the only man that, according to the witches , can kill him. All MacBeth’s actions as king are driven by his ambition, and these decisions culminate in his death.

What's your fatal flaw?

  • Impulsiveness
  • Indecisiveness
  • Ambitiousness
See results without voting

Each of Shakespeare’s tragic characters has their own “fatal flaw.” But, like with the examples above, each flaw is just a normal human trait taken to its extreme. Through his tragedies, Shakespeare sought to shine a light on the human condition and show how every day emotions and personality traits could, when taken to the extreme, lead to our own downfall. The good news is, if we keep all things, including our impulsiveness, indecisiveness, and ambition, to a minimum, we'll be just fine!


Ally Lewis profile image

Ally Lewis 2 years ago from Pittsburgh, PA

I like the way you compare the heroes and how, even though their conclusions were similar, their flaws and lives necessarily weren't. You're really insightful into Shakespearean character development! I studied Shakespeare (at this point, who hasn't?) and I have to say, I actually love his stuff. Romeo and Juliet is still one of my favorite reads. Thanks for the interesting article!

PhillipJ profile image

PhillipJ 2 years ago Author

You're welcome! I grew up watches his plays with my parents and have loved his works pretty much all my life.

Anate profile image

Anate 2 years ago

Very good article on theses characters. I especially like the part on Romeo because I have always that he is one of the most misunderstood characters in Shakespeare as I have often seen both him and Juliet held up as some sort of romantic ideal, which I do not think was what Shakespeare intended.

PhillipJ profile image

PhillipJ 2 years ago Author

I know right! It drives me crazy how idealized their relationship has become when in reality it was meant as a warning against the impulsiveness of young love.

Anate profile image

Anate 2 years ago

Yeah, I never understood why committing suicide was romantic.

sallyrose333 profile image

sallyrose333 2 years ago from Fort Worth, Texas

This was really interesting. It always irked me that Romeo and Juliet has been idealized as the best romantic love out there. I'm glad that Romeo was included in this lists of fatal flaws. I liked the comparison of Romeo's and Hamlet's fatal flaws and how they were the opposites of each other.

DanaDoes profile image

DanaDoes 6 months ago from Port Alfred, Eastern Cape, South Africa

Really enjoyed reading this. I have always loved studying Shakespeare due to the main theme of his writings showing human nature and its flaws. I really liked how you developed each of the three cases showing this characteristic while showing how different their lives were. Great Hub and well written, thanks for that.

SaadAli356 7 weeks ago

Thanks guys it has helped me a lot, hopefully I will get a good grade at school, fingers crosssed

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