What is Hamartia? Definition and Literary Example

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     Tragedy is primarily concerned with a fall that leads to suffering and destruction on the part of the tragic hero. In chapter 13 of The Poetics Aristotle points out that the meaning of Hamartia is an error of judgment, a kind of 'fatal flaw' which shapes the tragic destiny of the tragic heroes. The source of the word Hamartia always explains the tragic injustice on the part of the tragic Hero which ultimately leads to his downfall.

The classic Hamartia instance is where a hero wishes to acquire a kind but while executing, he yield an error, and conclude exactly with the opposite catastrophic results. Reversal of fortune is what we can termed to such kind of downward movement of a heroic character.

      The term ‘hamartia’ derives from the Greek hamartánein, which means “to miss the mark” or “to err”. It is most often associated with Greek tragedy. Hamartia as it pertains to dramatic literature was first used by Aristotle in his Poetics. In tragedy, hamartia is commonly understood to refer to the protagonist’s error or flaw that leads to a chain of plot actions culminating in a reversal from their good fortune to bad. In Dante’s words, hamartia is a “movement of spirit” within the protagonist to commit actions which drive the plot towards its tragic end, inspiring in the audience a build of pity and fear that leads to a purgation of those emotions, or Catharsis. Hamartia has nothing to do with such ideas as fault, vice, guilt, moral deficiency, or the likes. Hamartia is a morally neutral non-normative term. It exhibits the idea of reaching one destination rather than the intended one; to make a mistake, not in the sense of a moral failure, but in the nonjudgmental sense of taking one thing for another, taking something for its opposite. Here the tragic protagonists reach to the end of life and hope, due to their ignorance about the real situation they face and act in. They lack the proper piece of information about the challenges they undertake. In such conditions, they act intentionally or by force of situation and finally end in failure rather than success.

      Aristotle argues that hamartia is a powerful device to have a story beginning with a rich and powerful hero, neither exceptionally virtuous nor villainous, who then falls into misfortune by a mistake or error. Discussion among scholars centers mainly on the degree, to which hamartia is defined as a tragic flaw or tragic error. That their work promotes moral behavior in the audience is one of the most notable features of tragic characters. The play is a tragic story about a royal family. The main characters’ vices, rage, lust and envy lead them to their tragic downfall. The sufferer must be the agent of his own suffering by no conscious moral failing on his part in order to create a tragic irony. The term refers to an action that is carried out in good moral faith by the protagonist, but as he has been deprived of key pieces of information, the action brings disastrous results. Hamartia is an intellectual error rather than a moral failing.

      Thus, hamartia is an error or miscalculation, but the error may arise from any of the three ways: it may arise from “ignorance of some fact or circumstance”, or secondly, it may arise from hasty or careless view of the special case, or thirdly, it may be an error voluntary, but not deliberate, as acts committed in anger. Else and Martian Ostwald interpret hamartia and say that the hero has a tendency to err by lack of knowledge and he may commit a series of errors. This tendency to err characterizes the hero from the beginning and at the crisis of the play it is complemented by the recognition scene, which is a sudden change “from ignorance to knowledge”. In fact, hamartia is a word with various shades of meaning and has been interpreted by different critics. Still, all serious modern Aristotelian scholarship agreed that hamartia is not moral imperfection. It is an error of judgment, whether arising from ignorance of some material circumstance or from rashness of temper or from some passion. It may even be a character, for the hero may have a tendency to commit errors of judgment and may commit series of errors. This last conclusion is borne out by the play Oedipus Tyrannus to which Aristotle refers to time and again and which may be taken to be his ideal. In this play, hero’s life is a chain of errors, the most fatal of all being his marriage with his mother. If King Oedipus is Aristotle’s ideal hero, we can say with Butcher that “His conception of hamartia includes all the three meanings mentioned above, which in English cannot be covered by a single term.”

      The tragic irony lies in the fact that hero may err mistakenly without any evil intention, yet he is doomed no less than immoral who sins consciously. He has hamartia and as a result his very virtues hurry him to his ruin. According to Butcher, “Othello in the modern drama, Oedipus in the ancient, are the two most conspicuous examples of ruin wrought by character, noble indeed, but not without defects, acting in the dark and, as it seemed, for the best.” Much confusion exists over this crucial term. Critics of previous centuries once understood hamartia to mean that the hero must have a “tragic flaw”, a moral weakness in character which inevitably leads to disaster. This interpretation comes from a long tradition of dramatic criticism which seeks to place blame for disaster on someone or something: “Bad things don’t just happen to good people, so it must be some one’s fault.” This was the “comforting” response Jobe’s friends in the Old Testament story gave him to explain his suffering: “God is punishing you for your wrongdoing.” For centuries tragedies were held up as moral illustrations of the consequences of sin.

      Given the nature of most tragedies, however, we should not define hamartia as tragic flaw. While the concept of a moral character flaw may apply to certain tragic figures, it seems inappropriate for many others. In Sophocles’ Antigone, Antigone’s tragic flaw is her excessive loyalty or stubbornness and her error is that she defies Creon to bury her brother, as a consequence of which she faces execution. On the other hand, Creon’s flaw is his obstinacy and so he does not listen to the advice or follow the laws of gods. As a result, he loses his son and wife and becomes a ‘living corpse’. There is a definite causal connection between Creon’s prides which precipitate his destruction, but can Antigone’s desire to see her brother decently buried be called a flaw in her character which leads to her death? Her stubborn insistence on following a moral law higher than that of the state is the very quality for which we admire her.

      Most of Aristotle’s examples show that he thought of hamartia primarily as a failure to recognize someone, often a blood relative. In his commentary, Gerald Else sees a close connection between the concepts of hamartia, recognition, and catharsis. For Aristotle, the most tragic situation possible was the unwitting murder of one family member by another. Mistaken identity allows Oedipus to kill his father Laius on the road to Thebes and subsequently to marry Jocasta, his mother; only later does he recognize his tragic error. However, because he commits the crime in ignorance and pays for it with remorse, self-mutilation, and exile, the plot reaches resolution or catharsis, and we pity him as a victim of ironic fate instead of accusing him of blood guilt.

      While Aristotle’s concept of tragic error fits in the model example of Oedipus quite well, there are several tragedies in which the protagonists suffer due to circumstances totally beyond their control. In the Oresteia trilogy, Orestes must avenge his father’s death by killing his mother. Aeschylus does not present Orestes as a man whose nature destines him to commit matricide, but as an unfortunate, innocent son thrown into a terrible dilemma not of his making. In The Trojan Women by Euripides, the title characters are helpless victims of the conquering Greeks. Ironically, Helen, the only one who deserves blame for the war, escapes punishment by seducing her former husband Menelaus. Heracles, in Euripides’ version of the story, goes insane and slaughters his wife and children, not for anything he has done but because Hera, queen of the gods, wishes to punish him for being the illegitimate son of Zeus and a mortal woman. Hamartia plays no part in these tragedies.

      Hamlet’s tragic flaw in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet determines his tragic downfall. Hamlet’s hamartia is his indecisiveness. He cannot make up his mind about the dilemmas he confronts. He reveals his state of mind in the following lines from Act III, Scene I of the play:

“To be, or not to be - that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep...”

      He wants to kill his father’s murderer Claudius, but has ruined his life by delaying acting as he looks for proof to justify his action. In the process he spoils his relation with his mother and sends Ophelia into such a state of depression that she commits suicide. This indecision got almost everyone killed at the end of the play. He killed Claudius by assuming fake madness because of his indecisiveness in action so that he will not be asked for any justification.

      Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar desires to restore the Republic (flaw) and he murders Julius Caesar (error), and lastly he himself commits suicide (result). Macbeth’s excessive ambition (flaw) compelled him to murder King Duncan (error), as result of which he is dishonored and ends up in death.

      Among the other hamartia examples in literature, one of the best, can be found in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. The tragic flaw of Faustus was his ambitious nature. Despite being a respected scholar, he sold his soul to Lucifer by signing a contract with his blood for achieving ultimate power and limitless pleasure in this world. He learns the art of black magic and defies Christianity. We see a tragic conflict where Faustus thinks about repenting but it is all too late. Finally, the devil takes his soul away to Hell and he suffers eternal damnation because of his over ambition.

      Victor in Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein is another character whose downfall is caused by a tragic error. His hubris or extreme pride and arrogance decide his fate in the narrative. He strives to become an unparalleled scientist and creates a monster which ultimately becomes the cause of his disaster.

      Hamartia imports the same of pity and fear in the audience or the readers. The audience or the readers identify with the tragic hero as like them, his character is a mixture of good and bad qualities. They feel pity for the reversal of fortune that he undergoes this arouses a feeling of pity in them. Similarly, by witnessing a tragic hero suffer due to his own flaw, the audience or the readers may fear that the same fate may befall them if they indulge in similar kinds of action. Therefore, hamartia may he employed tor a moral purpose to encourage people to improve their characters by removing the flaws that can cause a tragedy in their lives.

Meaning of Hamartia in Literary terms:

      Hamartia is a literary instrument that reflects a disposition of character's trail toward tragic flaw or fatal flaw and error in judgment, that finally leads to diminution of heroism. Aristotle's Poetics coins the term of frailty that fetch the misfortune for a tragic hero. In the notion of dramatic tragedy Hamartia, is closely associated with the exchangeable term 'tragic flaw', as both illustrate the downfall of a protagonist in tragedy.

Hamartia was first coined by Greek dramatist Aristotle:

      The Elizabethans have immensely enriched the Greek tragic form both in their adherence to dramatic form and in the liberties, they have taken from the rigorous discipline of the Greek dramatic art. The Elizabethan tragic protagonist is an Aristotelian hero, usually of a noble birth, blessed with outstanding qualities but suffers from a serious tragic flaw or hamartia in his character that sets the play in motion. The Chorus plays the introductory and summative function as in Greek Drama. Plot is a major element as in a Greek Drama using the devices of Peripeteia and Anagnorisis. The interest of the audience is sustained by the spectacular action and dramatic irony whereby the audience knows the predicament of the protagonist that the latter fails to understand. The plot leads the protagonist to a tragic recognition of his weakness while the audience gains a cathartic experience of the feelings evoked in the course of the play.

In his Poetics Aristotle defines the tragic flaw or Hamartia of a tragic hero:

      There remains, then, the intermediate kind of personage, a man not pre-eminently virtuous and just, whose misfortune, however, is brought upon him not by vice and depravity but by some error of judgment. The perfect plot, accordingly, must have a single, and not a double issue; the change in the hero's fortune must be not from misery to happiness but on the contrary from happiness to misery, and the cause of it must lie not in any depravity, but in some great error on his part.

Aristotle Defines Tragedy as:

      The imitation of action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself, in language with pleasurable accessories, each kind brought in separately in the parts of the work; in a dramatic, not in a narrative form; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions.

      Shakespearean tragedy responds to the definition of an Aristotelian tragedy in more ways than one though there are typically Shakespearean elements. In a Shakespearean tragedy, the accent is on human responsibility rather than on supernatural intervention, chance, fate or any other extra-human factor. The fate, destiny, the "written," too, plays a role but in the ultimate analysis it is the protagonist's own actions that bring about his 'tragic fall'. Tragic flaw that brings about the tragic end to the total human endeavor is his failure to act; or act fast enough; or act as a result of premeditation: and reflection rather than impulsive aggression.

Fall of Protagonist:

      In a tragedy protagonist’s personal error on their personality is called Hamartia, that which lead toward the heroic downward movement to a tragic end. The term envelops deed which is unworthy kind regard of a hero. The classic Hamartia instance is where a hero wishes to acquire a kind but while executing, he yields an error, and concludes exactly with the opposite catastrophic results. Reversal of fortune is what we can termed to such kind of downward movement of a heroic character.

Examples of Hamartia in Tragedy:

     In the history of drama, there are found innumerable instances of tragic heroes having some vital kind of errors or misjudgment committed by the tragic heroes. Sophocles's king of king of Oedipus was impulsive and hasty by nature having a strong ego that, ultimately proved fatal to him. King Lear had misunderstood his youngest daughter which was his Hamartia. Othello has too much belief on the insinuation of Iago which forced him to kill the most chaste Desdemona, which was Othello's Hamartia. Dr. Faustus practiced magic which ultimately dragged his soul to hell. And finally "Macbeth's over-dependence on the prophecies on the witches ultimately proved his vital Hamartia or an error committed on the part of the noble Prince."

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