Hamartia & Ideal Tragic Hero in Poetics

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Introduction: Idealised Imitation of Objects in Tragedy

      Poetry is a form of imitation. The objects of poetic imitation may be either better than real life, worse than real life, or the same as they are in actual life. Aristotle thus distinguishes between comedy and tragedy, for tragedy involves the imitation of men better than they are in actual life. Hence tragedy presents a character in an idealized form. The tragic poet represents life as it might be, not as it necessarily is. The characters are better than we are. It is, however, important to understand that the idealization does not mean that the characters are good in a strictly moral sense. It merely means that the characters live a more complete and intense life than the real men and women dare to in the real world. This is what makes the characters in a tragedy awesome', as they are on a higher plane than ordinary men and women. Aristotle in his Poetics puts forward a number of characteristics for the ideal tragic hero, which, however, have proved to be quite controversial. Different critics have interpreted them differently.

The Main Features of the Tragic Character

      In chapter 15, Aristotle speaks of dramatic characters and the four points to aim at in the treatment of these characters. The four points are (i) that the characters should be good; (ii) that they should be appropriate; (ii) that they should be close to reality or true to life; (iv). that they should be consistent.

      (1) Goodness. The first characteristic demanded by Aristotle has struck many critics as somewhat strange and extraordinary. But it is essential to Aristotle's theory because it is the very foundation for the basic sympathy in the reader or audience, without which tragic emotions cannot be evoked, or the tragic pleasure conveyed. A character is assumed 'good' if his words and actions reveal a good purpose behind them. This is irrespective of the class to which he belongs. Aristotle held women to be inferior (and classified them with slaves), but even women, if introduced in tragedy, should be shown to have some good in them. Aristotle based his statements on an assumption that his spectators have a 'normally balanced moral attitude', as Humphry House says. As such, they cannot be sympathetic towards one who is depraved or odious. Sympathy is necessary as it is the very basis of the whole tragic pleasure. The bad man does to arouse pity in us if he falls from happiness to misery.

      Entirely wicked persons have no place in tragedy, according to Aristotle. But we must remember that, by implication, we can see that Aristotle allows the bad' or wicked man in a tragedy if he is indispensable to the plot. He says that he would not allow for depravity of character" when it is not necessary and no use is made of it. Thus Aristotle realizes that "bad' characters may be necessary in some tragedies. But this badness may occur only in so far as the main action requires it. And the action of the play as a whole should be a 'good' one; in other words, it should portray efforts to bring about a 'good' result. The characters initiating the main action are, therefore, good. Yet, bad characters may occur in the process of realizing this action. It is thus that a wicked character like a logo is not necessarily ruled out in the context of the Aristotelian concept.

      Aristotle's dictum of 'goodness' in the tragic character has given rise to a great deal of controversy and contradictory interpretations. To Corneille, the French playwright and critic, the term 'good' meant magnificent. Dacier and Metastasio interpreted 'good' to mean 'well-marked'. Telford considers the term to signify, 'dramatically effective. F.L Lucas is of the firm opinion that the term implies being fine' or 'noble: "The real point is, however, that Aristotle is clearly insisting that the dramatic personae of tragedy shall be as fine a character as the plot permits."

      However, what Humphry House says in this context is clear and the most acceptable of the interpretations. He points out that the term 'good' and 'goodness' in Greek meant something different from what it has come to mean in terms of Christian ethics. The insistence on goodness is not colored with direct didacticism.

      It does not have significant 'moralistic' implications, for in the Greek sense of the term, it means the "habitual possession of one or more of the separate virtues, such as courage, temperance, liberality, magnificence, gentleness, truthfulness, friendliness, and even witness." Thus the moralistic interpretation of "goodness" implying the effort to do one's duty, should not be read into what Aristotle says. Aristotle's good man is good in so far as he desires specific, positive good ends, and works towards attaining those ends, Aristotle's use of the term good' implies something necessarily different from what we mean by it today. If we remember that the "pagan idea of virtue..... (Demands) strength and intensity of character rather than purity of soul, Aristotle's words are not without force. Greek ethics had a larger element of aesthetics," says F. L. Lucas. The characters need not be virtuous in the Christian sense of the term. Indeed this would lead to the play being rather undramatic as humility and modesty and meekness are perhaps the most undramatic human qualities. By implication, what is required is a sense of 'grandeur.

      (ii) Appropriateness. The next essential as far as character is concerned is that of "appropriateness", This term has also been interpreted variously. Once a set of critics take it to mean true to type. Yet this does not mean the Aristotle meant characters to be mere types and not individuals. What he meant is that the characters should be true to their particular age, profession, class, sex, or status. But they are individuals at the same time, for they are 'men in action' as represented in tragedy.

      The actions of people of the same type can, and do differ: in this lies their individuality. The choice made by them in the crucial situation indicates their particular individuality. Aristotle, with his insistence that practice is the source of character, would have maintained that one who has been brought up in slavery would not suddenly develop nobility and heroism. He would, through the constant habit of doing the acts of a slave, become slave-like. A woman, similarly must be shown as 'womanly' and not manly. Each character should be given a character appropriate to his 'status' or situation. Within each status, there remains the greatest freedom for individuality in characterization. In spite of restrictions and limitations, the individual may rise above the tendency to run true to type. This involves dramatic treatment too.

      Another aspect of appropriateness has been pointed out by critics. Aristotle has not made it clear as to what exactly the character is to be appropriate. It has been remarked that Aristotle could have also meant that the character should be appropriate to the historical or traditional portrait of him. For instance, Ulysses must be characterized as he has been historically presented. Any character taken from myth or traditional story must be true to what he has been presented as in that myth or story Apparently, if Aristotle meant this, he had the practice of the Greek dramatists in mind who took their characters from traditional Sources like myth and history. It is thus that Clytemnestra cannot be represented as gentle, or Ulysses as foolish.

      (iii) Likeness. The third essential is that of likeness. Aristotle gives no example to illustrate his meaning in this context. Thus it is slightly difficult to assess what exactly he means by the term. If one interprets the term as likeness to the original' in the sense of how the painter is true to the original, it would mean being true to the personage in history or legend. This would curtail the freedom of the creative artist. It would be more acceptable to interpret the term as true to life - that the character must be true to life. The likeness to life as we know of it is necessary, for it is only then that we can identify ourselves with the characters. If we do not see the character as we see ourselves, the tragic emotions of pity and fear become irrelevant. We see that this likeness to life precludes the characters from being either too good or utterly depraved. The tragic character has thus to be a normal person, or "of an intermediate sort". Only then will he be convincing.

      One might argue here that Aristotle is contradicting himself, for he also says that tragedy represents characters better than our selves. But this is not necessarily a contradiction. The action of tragedy, we have been told, is a complete whole, has a coherent, well-knit, patterned unity and thus, has a more clearly defined end than a piece of real life or a slice of history. To fit such an action, character must also be modified from the commonplace norm of real life. So, the character is at one, true to life and different from reality as well. It is the balance on one hand between our desire for reality and life like imitation' and on the other our desire for something better than that found in real life.

      (iv) Consistency. The fourth essential with regard to character is that it must be consistent. This is a valid point which cannot be disputed. The character must be seen as a whole, and consistent to what he is presented as from beginning to end. There is to be uniformity in behavior unless there is a proper motivation for any deviation. Any development in character has to take place according to intelligible principles, i.e., logically. There has to be probability or necessity in the character's actions and words, Aristotle allows for waywardness by saying that if the character is to be shown as being an inconsistent one, he should be consistently inconsistent. The Character, in other words, should act and seem to think in a manner which we can logically expect from that particular individual. This is similar to Aristotle's contention of the plot being a causally related whole. The character's actions and words should be appropriate to What he is represented to be, as well as to the situation in which he is placed.


      The passage in the Poetics which deals with the Ideal Tragic Hero or Hamartia has attracted a great deal of critical attention. Aristotle says "It follows plainly, in the first place that the change of fortune presented must not be the spectacle of a virtuous man brought from prosperity to adversity; for it moves the audience to neither fear nor pity it simply shocks us. Nor, again, that of a bad man passing from adversity to prosperity, for nothing can be more alien to the spirit of tragedy. Nor, again should the downfall of an utter villain be exhibited. A plot of this kind would, doubtless, satisfy the moral sense, but it would inspire neither pity nor fear; for pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune of man like ourselves."

      We see that Aristotle has no place in tragedy for two types of characters the perfectly virtuous and the thoroughly depraved or bad. Thus the tragic character is one who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice and depravity, but by some error or frailty. He must also be one who is highly renowned and prosperous.

The Perfectly Good: Not Fit for a Tragic Hero

      Aristotle's concept of the effect of tragedy is that it arouses pity and fear in the spectator. But a perfectly good man, if he suffers the fall from prosperity to misery, will not arouse pity or fear; he would simply shock the spectator's sense of justice. The shock arises from the fact that a completely virtuous man is suffering; the suffering is wholly undeserved. It is an irrational suffering.

      The concept of the tragic hero not being perfect is related to the insistence on goodness in character. For, a perfect person would be one who had his desires under control, and whose intellect is able to form the right calculations and the right practical inferences, so that he would formulate to himself ends more immediately within his power. Right action would become more and more spontaneous and immediate, and the sphere of deliberation more and more limited. And ultimately the scope for the dramatic display of action would not exist. A blameless, virtuous character cannot be dramatically effective. Furthermore, we cannot identify ourselves with such a saintly character. It is true that in recent times Shaw and Eliot have made successful dramas with saints as their tragic heroes. But then Aristotle was speaking about the drama he knew, i.e., the Greek drama. And generally speaking, saints have been excluded from the sphere of drama Yet Antigone in Greek drama itself was quite blameless. She had to choose and chose as well as possible in the circumstances; she sacrificed the lower duty to the higher.

      One might say that blameless goodness is not the proper stuff for drama. Perfect goodness is apt to be immobile' and uncombative, it tends to bring action to a standstill. Yet it would not be completely right to say that the spectacle of a perfect man suffering shocks rather than arouses pity. Desdemona, Cordelia, and Antigone surely arouse pity. It would not be correct to say that terror, here, outweighs pity. The sense of outraged justice is there but it does not exclude pity.

The Thoroughly Depraved Character: Not Suited for Tragedy

      Another type of character excluded by Aristotle from the sphere of tragedy is that of the utter villain. The completely bad man falling from prosperity to adversity, says Aristotle, would merely satisfy our sense of justice. There would be no pity or fear. The suffering is deserved, and we cannot feel pity for the one who suffers Furthermore, the sense of identification is absent, just as it is in the case of the perfectly good man.

      Nor can we tolerate the idea of bad man rising from adversity to prosperity. This would be entirely alien to tragedy, says Aristotle. This is quite acceptable. It would indeed offend our sense of justice. Even the aesthetic effect would be one tinged with disquiet.

      However, the exclusion of the villain from the sphere of tragedy is somewhat debatable. In this Aristotle seems to show a limited vision. True, crime as crime has no place in dramatic art. But presented in another light it becomes valid in drama. Macbeth outrages hospitality as well as loyalty by killing his guest and king, Duncan, under his own roof. Webster's Vittoria is a white devil'. But these people arouse pity. Vittoria standing undaunted before her enemies; Lady Macbeth, alone, and broken by her sorrow and guilt; Macbeth courageously drawing his sword in the face of certain defeat at Dunsidane, all of them arouse pity though they are such villains'. Pity, as Lucas remarks, is not so narrow. It needs, however, the genius of Shakespeare to evolve tragic villains of this type. Only he could perhaps create a Macbeth, or a Richard III. There is something grand about these villains. It is wickedness on a grand level; the wickedness is intellectual and resolute, and it raises the criminal above the commonplace and gives to him a sort of dignity.

      There is something terrible in the spectacle of a willpower Working out its evil course, dominating its surroundings. The fall and breakdown of such a power evoke a certain tragic feeling in us, or a tragic sympathy. It is not the pity one feels for the unmerited sufferer. But is a sense of loss and regret over the waste or misuse of such splendid gifts. "Provided a person has some redeeming quality-courage, intellect, beauty, wit, passionate devotion, provided they show some sort of magnificence - then it is astonishing how much their fellow men can sometimes forgive them." One might, perhaps, offer a defense of Aristotle, here too. After all, he says that a completely depraved person is not fit to be a tragic hero. Macbeth, one could argue, is not completely depraved, for he shows inordinate' courage.

The Tragic Hero: An Intermediate Sort of Person

      The person who stands between complete villainy and complete goodness, according to Aristotle, is the ideal tragic hero. He is a man like a ourselves, yet has a moral elevation. He is a more intense person; his feelings are deeper; he has heightened powers of intellect and will. But he is essentially human, so that it is easy for us to identify ourselves with him and sympathize with him. Thus the tragic hero "must be an intermediate sort of person, a man not pre-eminently virtuous and just, whose misfortune, however, is brought on him not be vice or depravity but by some error of judgment, or Hamartia."

Hamartia: Not A Moral Falling but an Error of Judgement

      Hamartia has been interpreted various. It has come to be rather loosely interpreted as 'tragic flaw' by Bradley. This interpretation has stuck and has tended to confuse the true meaning of the term. Hamartia is not a moral failing, as the term. tragic flaw implies. Aristotle makes it clear that Hamartia is some error of judgment that the fall of the hero comes about not because of some depravity, but from some error on his part. Critics like Butcher, Bywater, Rostangi and Lucas agree that Hamartia is not a moral drawback. It may be connected with moral drawback but it is not itself a moral imperfection.

Hamartia can Arise in Three Ways

      The Hamartia is an error or miscalculation. It may arise in three ways. Firstly, it may be derived from an ignorance of some material fact or circumstance. Secondly, the error of judgment may arise from a hasty or careless view of a given situation. The case is illustrated by Othello. In this case, the error was avoidable but the hero does not avoid it. Thirdly, the error may be voluntary, though not deliberate. This happens in an act of anger or passion. Lear commits such an error when he banishes Cordelia.

      In the case of Oedipus, all three errors are included. The defect of Oedipus lies in his proud self-assertion. But the ruin brought upon him is through the force of circumstance. The Hamartia in his case includes a defect of character, a passionate act, and ignorance. The tragic irony lies in the fact that the hero commits this error in blindness and in innocence, without any evil intention. But the result is disastrous. This is closely connected with Peripitea, or the production of a result opposed to the one intended. Then comes the discovery of truth. In this connection Butcher remarks: "Othello in the modern drama, Oedipus in the ancient, are the two most conspicuous examples of ruin wrought by characters, noble indeed, but not without defects, acting in the dark and, as it seemed, for the best."

The Eminence of the Tragic Hero: Not Relevant in the Modern Context

      Greek drama had for its heroes men of eminence and nobility. They held a position of exaltation in society. When such a man falls from greatness to misery, a nation as a whole is affected. The fall seems all the more striking because of the hero's eminence. The concept was acceptable and relevant in a situation in which prominent men of the nobility were held to be representatives of the society. The concept is, however, outdated today.

      Modern tragedy has shown that tragedy is possible in all its effectiveness even when the hero is ordinary and commonplace. Rank and nobility of birth are now irrelevant. But the man who is the tragic hero should, nevertheless be a man of eminence, not of rank and position, as far as quality goes. There has got to be some sort of dignity which makes the fall from prosperity arouse sympathy in the spectator.


      On the whole, we see that Aristotle's concept of the tragic hero or hamartia is not unacceptable. In some ways, he has a limited vision. Tragedy is possible with saints, as Shaw and Eliot have shown. But this is not a generally found fact. That tragedy is also much possible with a villainous hero, has been remarkably shown by the Renaissance dramatists, especially Shakespeare. Further, the tragedy arises from Hamartia. This, too, is proved by many of our best tragedies, for these are indeed what Lucas calls tragedies of error. It is the most effective of tragedies. However, the chief limitation of Aristotle's Concept is that it is based on one section of world drama.


1. What are the four essential of successful characterizations listed by Aristotle? Do you agree with him in this respect?
2. Define and illustrate Aristotle's concept of the ideal tragic hero. How far has modern criticism tended to enlarge or modify it?
3. Write a short note on Hamartia and the tragic hero.
4. Examine critically Aristotle's view of the tragic hero and show to what extent it is relevant to the modern concept of the tragic hero.

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