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The Tragic Flaw and Emotional Intelligence
by Susan Dunn


Few knew human nature as well as Shakespeare, and since he wrote for the mass audience, his work continues to be popular.

Here, from “Hamlet,” is a description of the Aristotelian tragic hero. In classic Greek drama, they were always noblemen — in status and also in character — their virtues “as pure as grace, as infinite as man may undergo,” yet they are marred by “some vicious mole of character in them,” “the stamp of one defect,” which is called “the tragic flaw.”

So oft it chances in particular men,
That for some vicious mole of nature in them,
As, in their birth—wherein they are not guilty,
Since nature cannot choose his origin --
By the o'ergrowth of some complexion,
Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason,
Or by some habit that too much o’er-leavens,
The form of plausive manners, that these men,
Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect,
Being nature’s livery, or fortune star,
Their virtues else—be they as pure as grace,
As infinite as many may undergo--
Shall in the general censure take corruption
From that particular fault.

What is the Tragic Flaw?

It is something about an otherwise brave, honest, or good person that sets into motion a chain of events that brings their downfall — in most plays, death. The tragedy is not that they were undone by external events or other people, but that they do themselves in.


Othello, for instance, is a great war hero who was known for his integrity and honor. His tragic flaw is generally described as his “suspicious nature,” his jealousy regarding his beloved Desdemona which eventually causes him to murder her and then kill himself.

Trust radius and reality-testing are both part of Emotional Intelligence, and Othello is too ruled by his reptilian brain. He is, shall we say, a very poor judge of character — it’s not that he doesn’t trust, it’s that he trusts whom he should not, and does not trust whom he should.

And where romantic love is concerned, he loses the ability to think and to respond, rather than to react. He gets lost in the raw emotion of jealousy. This of course makes for a good fighter, but not a good lover. He is unable to control himself, i.e., his instincts, and ends up killing his beloved because he loves her.


Hamlet’s tragic flaw has long been discussed. Goethe felt it to be an overactive intellect, or his grief over his father’s death paralyzed him, and the flaw was his indecisiveness. But I think it broader than that, because he does take one brash action, and that’s what brings his downfall.

At a broader level, he thinks when he should act, and acts when he should think, neither emotionally intelligent things to do.

If he had killed Claudius when he had the chance, he would’ve gotten away with it. He hesitated and did not kill him because he stopped to think. Claudius was praying, and it was not good enough to kill him, he had to kill him at a time when his soul would not be sent to heaven — or so Hamlet reasoned.

Is this a time to reason?

This is like hiring Ben Stein to be your assassin. At best, he might talk the victim to death …

“Hamlet,” says reviewer Scott Schiefelbein, “has this tendency to overthink [sic] things. And it gets him killed. And drives Ophelia insane. And gets Gertrude killed. And Polonius. And Rosencrantz. And Guildenstern. And Laertes. And Ophelia. If Hamlet could have acted decisively, seven innocent people would survive the play, and one guilty man would go punished.”

However, for an Elizabethan audience — and we must remember this is a play — it is the rash and ill-considered act of killing Polonius that dooms Hamlet to die, because he has committed a sin.

As Shakespeare knew only too well, our primal emotions, if not understood and managed, will wreak havoc in our lives.

Given that these are tragedies, and have their own morality, we find ourselves saying, as we read “King Lear,” “Why didn’t he know?” and “Hamlet,” “What was he thinking?” and “Othello,” “Why couldn’t he stop himself?”

All questions of Emotional Intelligence.

So something deep within us resonates … because they’re human.

“All the world’s a stage,” wrote Shakespeare, and like the audience to a play, we can see quite clearly in others what we cannot always see in our selves. Someone is probably saying about you, right now – “Why doesn’t she know?” Developing your EQ through coaching and study can let you know what the audience knows…

Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is the ability to understand and manage your own emotions and those of others, to respond appropriately to circumstances, to deal successfully with others and with challenges, and to motivate oneself and others.

A recent article in Fortune magazine entitled “Don’t Blow Your New Job” stated that 40% of new management hires fail within 18 months. Low EQ, i.e., failure to build good relationships, was found to be the cause in 82% of the cases.

The evidence is overwhelming: IQ may get you the job, but it’s EQ that lets you keep it and advance.


The Author


Susan Dunn, MA, is the EQ Coach, . Susan provides coaching, Internet courses, and ebooks around emotional intelligence for your personal and professional success. E-mail for free ezine. Become a certified EQ coach. Email for info on this fast, affordable, comprehensive, no-residency program. Training coaches worldwide.

Many more articles in Emotional Intelligence in The CEO Refresher Archives
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Copyright 2004 by Susan Dunn. All rights reserved.

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