Hamartia or Tragic Flaw in Poetics

Also Read

      The complex plot has two ingredients which are inherent in it - Peripety and Anagnorisis. Closely connected to these two aspects of the plot is an aspect of Character-hamartia. Aristotle simply says in this connection:

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 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 a man like ourselves.

      Thus it is that the most suitable character for tragedy is an intermediate sort of person, who is not pre-eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by any vice or depravity, but by some error of judgment. We know that the ideal tragic hero is not perfect. He is capable of an error of judgment which is not At the same time, it is necessary to note that Aristotle does not equate moral imperfection with hamartia' or the error of judgment. There has, however, been a tendency on the part of various critics to read more into the term 'hamartia' than was meant by Aristotle.

Hamartia and The Tragic Flaw

      While Aristotle stipulates that the tragic character should be an intermediate person, and thus implies that he has his share of moral and intellectual imperfections, he nowhere says that hamartia is a moral failing. Indeed, he seems to insist on the contrary that the misfortune is not brought about by 'depravity or 'vice-both indubitably' moral' failings. The hero may indeed have certain drawbacks, but it is equally true that the misfortune arises from an error of judgment and not from these moral failings. Hamartia, as Humphry House points out, is not a moral state, but a specific error which a man makes or commits. The translation of the term hamartia into tragic flaw is not by itself wrong. But it usage has tended to include the sense of a characteristics moral failing in an otherwise predominantly good man. Thus critics interpret the tragic flaw' in Oedipus as pride and hasty temper; in Macbeth, the flaw is vaulting? ambition; in Othello, jealousy, and so on. These are character traits, but there is nothing to justify their being accepted as the 'hamartia' in each case.

      The term hamartia', then, should not be confused with moral failing. In its correct sense, it is an error of judgment, rather than some ethical fault or infirmity of character; an error which is derived from "ignorance of, some material fact or circumstance." The Oedipus of Sophocles' play is man of hasty temper, but his misfortune did not really come out of that. The mainspring of the action that brings about the disaster lay in the great mistake he made, when he became unwittingly the slayer of the father.

      The hamartia of Oedipus involves his ignorance of his true parentage. His strength and weakness of character, namely his courage and hasty temper respectively, then cause him to act in a particular way, but the mainspring of the tragedy lies in his acting in blindness to his own harm. His aim in setting in motion a train of action, is a good one. His aim is to discover the polluted person because of whom Thebes was suffering the agony of plague. But he is ignorant that he has killed his own father; and the discovery of his true identity produces a result other than that he expected. We see how closely 'hamartia' is related to the two aspects of plot, Peripety and Discovery. Hamartia is the cause of the misfortune; Peripety is the reversal of situation; and Discovery is the realization of the truth.

      The word used by Aristotle implies "a mistake", and the persistent Lempts to make 'hamartia' much more definitely a moral weakness, is not correct, Perhaps, behind this tendency of equating 'hamartia' with moral failing lies the craving for 'poetic justice'. Aristotle's ideal form of tragedy is one in which the destruction of the hero or heroine is caused by some false step taken in blindness.

Hamartia as Seen in Various Plays

      The false step may be either a crime like Clytemnestra's a mere miscalculation like Dejanira's, Oedipus' error has already been mentioned. Even Shakespearean tragedies lend themselves more to the interpretation of hamartia' as error, than as 'tragic flaw in the sense of being a moral failing. It has too often been the custom to ascribe the tragic action of Macbeth to the 'moral flaw' of ambition in the hero. True, the moral failing is part of the tragedy-in Shakespeare, character is too well developed to. preclude moral overtones. But the 'mainspring' of the tragedy can be traced to the error of judgment, arising indeed from the personality and moral caliber of the character. If Oedipus' false step is made in innocent ignorance, Macbeth's is made in culpable ignorance. It will be noted that hamartia' as error fits in with more tragedies than does hamartia' as moral failing. Of course, in Shakespearean tragedy there is much more involved than simply 'hamartia'. (Hamartia works in close coordination with other forces, the weak and strong points of character, and the particular set of circumstances, and the intermingling of character and fate).

      In modern tragedy such as those of Ibsen, 'hamartia' becomes an intellectual mistake. In the world of Ibsen, the root of evil is the failure to think out situations fundamentally-"the weakness of relying on formulae, however noble, that brings to the precipice Brand and Mrs. Alving, Nora and Rosmer and the Dead who awake too late."

Hamartia: Modified to Suit Various Tragedies

      Critics have interpreted hamartia in such a way as to suit different tragedies. Macneile Dixon has posed the problem of whether 'hamartia' means a moral or intellectual error, of the heart or, head." But there is really no doubt that in the strictly Aristotelian sense, the conception of hamartia' is devoid of moral consideration. It is an error which arises from the hero's unawareness or ignorance of some material fact or circumstance.

      Perhaps, because this seems a rather limited mainspring for tragic action, and because this concept of hamartia' does not take into account the ethical fault, that 'taint of nature', which lies at the root of so many modern tragedies, attempts have been made to reconcile the positions. Hamartia' has been made to mean a 'defect of character' and 'an error of judgment. In Butcher's opinion, hamartia' would mean any human frailty or moral weakness. Even Oedipus' action of slaying his father is morally culpable. Butcher feels that it is very difficult to draw a distinction between a moral and intellectual error - "moral error easily shades off into a mere defect of judgment." Gilbert Murray contends that there is a secondary meaning for hamartia', which is an error of moral judgment. All this, frankly speaking, is reading more into the word than what was meant by Aristotle. It is interpreting him in the light of later experience.

      True, as literature develops, concepts are modified; indeed, they have to be modified. The concept of hamartia is no exception. The different demands of societies in different ages have modified the very concept of tragedy. T.R. Henn's observations on the concept of hamartia' have to be taken in the light of the larger experience available today in the practice of tragedy as a dramatic art.

      According to Henn, the error may be either moral or intellectual, in different tragedies, or both combined. He explains his idea elaborately. Firstly, if applied, to a single act, it denotes an error due to inadequate knowledge of particular circumstances. These circumstances are, strictly, such as might have been known. This kind of error introduces an element of guilt; as for example, when a military commander chooses to disregard the intelligence available to him.

      If one applies it to unavoidable ignorance or 'misfortune', the error is blind and raises the secondary question: how far is the individual to be held responsible for his ignorance. A consideration of the ignorance of Othello suggests that we are driven back from this point into psychological assessment of character, race and environment; and thence the problems which involve psychology and criminology.

      Yet another aspect involves the fault or error where the act is conscious and intellectual but not deliberate. This invokes at once the moral questions.

      Another explanation of the term involves a defect of character proper - the joint in the harness, the vulnerable spot in the body; the flaw which is not in itself vicious, and which will only become vulnerable and destructive through the unfortunate setting of the tragedy. The manner is not simplified for the modern reader by the absence in Greek thought of anything approaching the Christian doctrine of intention, though a clear-cut distinction does exist between Culpable and innocent ignorance. But the fact was part of the pattern of things, of the inevitable structure of events. The doer must suffer. The dramatic importance of the 'error' is not based on any conception of life's justice. The law of the Universe are those of cause and effect, not of right and wrong.


      For a correct understanding of Aristotle's doctrine, certain facts have to be remembered. Aristotle's theorizing was of a retrospective! kind. He based his opinions (and these are never too rigid), on the Greek drama with which he was familiar. He is, furthermore, dealing with what he considers the ideal form of tragedy, and not with the only form of tragedy. It is also to be remembered that his tragic theory has a unity, so that the clue to the tragic plot is also the clue to the tragic hero. His ideal tragedy is the Tragedy of Error; and it, therefore, follows that the hamartia' stands for an error of judgment, and the tragic hero for one whose suffering are due to a false step blindly taken. If one reads more into the term 'hamartia' than this, one is modifying Aristotle's concept. Modifications are not in themselves bad, but they would have to be accepted as such: it would be wrong to say that Aristotle's concept included these modifications.

University Questions

"There remain, then, an intermediate kind of character, a man not pre-eminently virtuous and, just, whose misfortune, however, is brought upon him not by vice or depravity, but by some error of judgment." Discuss.
A moral error easily shades off into a mere defect of judgment." Is this true of the concept of 'hamartia' as propounded in Poetics?
Write a short note on Hamartia, or Tragic flaw
What is Aristotle's concept of the ideal Tragic hero? Introduction: The tragic hero is "intermediate sort of person"

Previous Post Next Post

Search Your Questions