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This article is about classical Greek term. For medical term, see Hamartia (medical term).
Aristotle poetics
6 Parts of Aristotle's Greek Tragedy
Aristotle's Tragic Plot Structure

The term hamartia derives from the Greek ἁμαρτία, from ἁμαρτάνειν hamartánein, which means “to miss the mark” or “to err”.[1][2] It is most often associated with Greek tragedy, although it is also used in Christian theology.[3] Hamartia as it pertains to dramatic literature was first used by Aristotle in his Poetics. In tragedy, hamartia is the protagonist’s error or flaw that leads to a chain of plot actions culminating in a reversal from his/her good fortune to bad. What qualifies as the error or flaw can include an error resulting from ignorance, an error of judgement, a flaw in character, or sin. The spectrum of meanings has invited debate among critics and scholars, and different interpretations among dramatists.

Hamartia in Aristotle’s Poetics[edit]

Hamartia is first described in the subject of literary criticism by Aristotle in his Poetics. The source of hamartia is at the juncture between Character and the character's actions or behaviors as outlined by Aristotle.

"Character in a play is that which reveals the moral purpose of the agents, i.e. the sort of thing they seek or avoid."[4]

In his introduction to the S. H. Butcher translation of ″Poetics″, Francis Fergusson describes hamartia as the inner quality that initiates, in Dante's words, 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.[5][6]

In Greek Tragedy, for a story to be ″of adequate magnitude″ it involves characters of high rank, prestige, or good fortune. If the protagonist is too worthy of esteem, or too wicked, his/her change of fortune will not evoke the ideal proportion of pity and fear necessary for catharsis. Here Aristotle describes hamartia as the quality of a tragic hero that generates that optimal balance.

"...the character between these two extremes - that of a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty." [7]

Hamartia in Christian theology[edit]

Hamartia is also used in Christian Theology. The literal Greek meaning "to miss the mark" is applied as a Fall from the Godly, or sin.[8] In his writings, Paul the Apostle describes three usages for the term ″hamartia″. The term is employed in one sense to mean acts of sin themselves. It is also used in reference to man's sinful condition, or original sin. The third application concerns the weakness of the flesh, and the free will to either resist or commit sinful acts.[9]

Tragic flaw, tragic error, and divine intervention[edit]

Scholars continue to debate nuances of the definition of hamartia. The discourse centers mainly on the degree to which hamartia is defined as a tragic flaw or tragic error.

Argument for flaw[edit]

Neoclassicists favored adopting hamartia as flaw. Tenets of French Neoclassicism centered on use of form to achieve verisimilitude so a play may "please and instruct" as per Ars Poetica (Horace).[10] In the late 17th century, English historiographer, critic, and translator Thomas Rymer introduced the term poetic justice. Poetic, or poetical, justice describes the obligation of the dramatic poet, along with philosophers and priests, to see that their work promotes moral behavior.[11] 18th century French dramatic style honored that obligation with the use of hamartia as a vice to be punished while virtue was rewarded.[12][13] Phèdre is an example of French Neoclassical use of hamartia as a means of punishing vice.[14][15]Jean Racine says in his Preface to Phèdre, as translated by R.C. Knight:

″The failings of love are treated as real failings. The passions are offered to view only to show all the ravage they create. And vice is everywhere painted in such hues, that its hideous face may be recognized and loathed.″ [16]

In his interpretation, André Dacier of the Académie française, supports the French Neoclassicist goal to create a dramatic form which achieves an optimal mix of moral instruction with the pleasure derived from watching a play. In addition to commonly acknowledged components of verisimilitude (narrative) such as plausibility, decorum, appropriate behavior, and unity of time, place, and action, Dacier offers that tragic error can stem from ″a divine or supernatural order″.[17][18] Dacier's concept can be seen in Racine's adaptation of Euripides' Hippolytus. (Racine changes the focus of the story from the character Hippolytus to Phaedra.).[19] The overwhelming passion that precipitates Phaedra's demise is a partly a result of divine punishment. Racine uses overwhelming passion as the quality leading to the downfall of the tragic heroes in several of his plays.

Argument for error[edit]

In her 1963 Modern Language Review article, The Tragic Flaw: Is it a Tragic Error?, Isabel Hyde traces the twentieth century history of hamartia as tragic flaw, which she argues is an incorrect interpretation. Ms. Hyde draws upon the language in Butcher's interpretation of Poetics regarding hamartia as both error and ″defect in character.″ Hyde points out a footnote in which Butcher qualifies his second definition by saying it is not a ″natural″ expression to describe a flaw in behavior.[20] Hyde calls upon another description from A.C. Bradley's Shakespearean Tragedy of 1904 which she contends is misleading:

"...the comparatively innocent hero still shows some marked imperfection or defect, irresolution, precipitancy, pride, credulousness, excessive simplicity, excessive susceptibility to sexual emotion and the like...his weakness or defect is so intertwined with everything that is admirable in him..." [21]

Hyde goes on to elucidate interpretive pitfalls of treating hamartia as tragic flaw by tracing the tragic flaw argument through several examples from well-known tragedies including Hamlet and Oedipus the King. Hyde observes that students often cite ″thinking too much″ as Hamlet's tragic flaw upon which his demise in the story depends. That citation does not, however, offer explanation for the moments when Hamlet does act impulsively and violently. It also embarks down a trail of logic that suggests he ought to have murdered Claudius right away to avoid tragedy, which Hyde asserts is problematic. In Oedipus the King, she observes that regard of Oedipus' hasty behavior at the crossroads, or his trust in his intellect as the qualities upon which the change of fortune relies, is incomplete. Instead, to regard his ignorance of the true identity of his parents as the keystone to his downfall takes into account all of his decisions that lead to the tragic end. Rather than a flaw in character, error, in Oedipus' case based upon lack of information, is the more complete interpretation.

In his 1978 Classical World (journal) article Hamartia, Ate, and Oedipus, Leon Golden compares scholarship that examines where to place hamartia's definition along a spectrum connecting the moral, flaw, and the intellectual, error. His goal is to revisit the role, if any, Ate, or divine intervention, plays in hamartia. The Butcher translation of ″Poetics″ references hamartia as both a ″single great error″, and ″a single great defect in character″, prompting critics to raise arguments. Mid-twentieth century scholar Phillip W. Harsh sees hamartia as tragic flaw, observing that Oedipus assumes some moral ownership of his demise when he reacts excessively with rage and murder to the encounter at the crossroads.[22] Van Braam, on the other hand, notes of Oedipus' hamartia, ″no specific sin attaching to him as an individual, but the universally human one of blindly following the light of one's own intellect.″[23] He adds that a defining feature of tragedy is that 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. O. Hey's observations fall into this camp as well. He notes that 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.[24] J.M. Bremer then conducted a thorough study of hamartia in Greek thought, focusing on its usage in Aristotle and Homer. His findings lead him, like Hyde, to cite hamartia as an intellectual error rather than a moral failing.[25]

Divine intervention[edit]

J.M. Bremer and Dawe both conclude that the will of the gods may factor into Aristotelian hamartia. Golden disagrees.[26] Bremer observes that the Messenger in Oedipus Rex says, ″He was raging - one of the dark powers pointing the way, ...someone, something leading him on - he hurled at the twin doors and bending the bolts back out of their sockets, crashed through the chamber,″.[27] Bremer cites Sophocles' mention of Oedipus being possessed by ″dark powers″ as evidence of guidance from either divine or daemonic force. Dawe's argument centers around tragic dramatists' four areas from which a protagonist's demise can originate. The first is fate, the second is wrath of an angry god, the third comes from a human enemy, and the last is the protagonist's frailty or error. Dawe contends that the tragic dénouement can be the result of a divine plan as long as plot action begets plot action in accordance with Aristotle. Golden cites Van Braam's notion of Oedipus committing a tragic error by trusting his own intellect in spite of Tiresias' warning as the argument for human error over divine manipulation. Golden concludes that hamartia principally refers to a matter of intellect, although it may include elements of morality. What his study asserts is separate from hamartia, in a view that conflicts with Dawe's and Bremer's, is the concept of divine retribution.[28]

Examples of hamartia in literature[edit]

Play Author Character Flaw Error Tragic Result Misc.
Antigone[29] Sophocles Antigone excessive loyalty defies Creon to bury her brother her execution
Doctor Faustus[30] Christopher Marlowe Doctor Faustus hubris makes a deal with the devil eternity in hell
Iliad[31] Homer Achilles rage defies Agamemnon dishonor and death of comrades
Hamlet[32] William Shakespeare Hamlet indecisiveness; desire to avoid evil delays justice many deaths and madness
Long Day's Journey Into Night[33] Eugene O'Neill James Tyrone fiscal stinginess hires incompetent doctor Mary's addiction to morphine
Macbeth[34] William Shakespeare Macbeth excessive ambition murders King Duncan dishonor and death
Oedipus the King[35] Sophocles Oedipus hubris pursues his father's murderer parricide, incest, blindness, dishonor mistake made in ignorance of essential information
Phèdre[36] Jean Racine Phèdre passionate love reveals secret to nurse dishonor and suicides divine intervention

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Hamartia". Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 28 September 2014.
  2. ^ Hamartia: (Ancient Greek: ἁμαρτία) Error of Judgement or Tragic Flaw. ″Hamartia″. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 28 September 2014.
  3. ^ Cooper, Eugene J. ″Sarx and Sin in Pauline Theology″ Laval théologique et philosophique. 29.3 (1973) 243–255. Web. Érudit. 1 Nov 2014.
  4. ^ Aristotle. "Poetics". Trans. Ingram Bywater. The Project Gutenberg EBook. Oxford: Clarendon P, 2 May 2009. Web. 26 Oct. 2014.
  5. ^ Fergusson 8
  6. ^ The Internet Classics Archive by Daniel C. Stevenson, Web Atomics. Web. 11 Dec. 2014. http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/poetics.html
  7. ^ Aristotle. "Poetics". Trans. Ingram Bywater. The Project Gutenberg EBook. Oxford: Clarendon P, 2 May 2009. Web. 26 Oct. 2014.
  8. ^ Cooper, Eugene ″Sarx and Sin in Pauline Theology″ Laval théologique et philosophique. 29.3 (1973) 243-255. Web. Érudit. 1 Nov 2014.
  9. ^ Cooper, Eugene ″Sarx and Sin in Pauline Theology″ Laval théologique et philosophique. 29.3 (1973) 243-255. Web. Érudit. 1 Nov 2014.
  10. ^ Ars poetica. (2014). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/36225/Ars-poetica
  11. ^ Burnley Jones and Nicol, 125
  12. ^ Burnley Jones and Nicol,12,125
  13. ^ Thomas Rymer. (2014). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/514581/Thomas-Rymer
  14. ^ Worthen, B. The Wadsworth Anthology of Drama 5th ed. 444-463. Boston: Thomspon Wadsworth. 2007. Print.
  15. ^ Racine, Jean. Phédre, Harvard Classics, Vol. 26, Part 3. Web. 11 Dec. 2014. http://www.bartleby.com/26/3/
  16. ^ Worthen,446
  17. ^ "verisimilitude". Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 13 Dec. 2014 <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/626103/verisimilitude>.
  18. ^ Thora Burnley Jones and Bernard de Bear Nicol ″Neo-Classical Dramatic Criticism 1560-1770.″ 90. London: Cambridge UP, 1976. Print
  19. ^ Euripedes. Hippolytus, Harvard Classics, 8.7. Web. 8 Dec. 2014. http://www.bartleby.com/8/7/
  20. ^ Butcher, Samuel H., Aristotle’s Theory of Poetry and Fine Art, New York 41911
  21. ^ Bradley, A. C. 1851-1935. Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures On Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth. London: Macmillan and co., limited, 1904. Web, 13 Dec. 2014. http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uva.x000240890;view=1up;seq=1
  22. ^ Golden, Leon. ″Hamartia, Ate, and Oedipus″. The Classical World, 72.1 (Sep., 1978), 3-12. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP. Web. 7 Dec. 2014. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4348969
  23. ^ P. van Braam, ″Aristotle's Use of Ἁμαρτία″ The Classical Quarterly, 6.4 (Oct., 1912), 266-272. London: Cambridge UP. Web. 7 Dec. 2014. http://www.jstor.org/stable/635946
  24. ^ Hey, O. ″ἁμαρτία Zur Bedeutungsgeschichte des Wortes″ Philologus 83 1-15, (1928). Web. 7 Dec. 2014.
  25. ^ Bremer, J.M. "Hamartia." Tragic Error in the Poetics of Aristotle and in Greek Tragedy. Amsterdam, Adolf M. Hakkert, 1969.
  26. ^ Golden, 6
  27. ^ Worthen, 85
  28. ^ Golden, 10
  29. ^ Sophocles. ″Antigone″ The Internet Classics Archive by Daniel C. Stevenson, Web Atomics. Web. 13 Dec. 2014. http://classics.mit.edu/Sophocles/antigone.html
  30. ^ Worthen 255
  31. ^ Homer. ″Iliad,″ Project Gutenberg, 2006, EBook. Web 13 Dec. 2014. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/6130/6130-pdf.pdf
  32. ^ Worthen 282
  33. ^ O'Neill, Eugene. ″Long Day's Journey Into Night,″ New Haven: Yale UP. 2002. Web 13 Dec. 2014. http://yalepress.yale.edu/yupbooks/excerpts/oneill_journey.pdf
  34. ^ Shakespeare. ″Macbeth.″ The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Boston: MIT online database. Web. 13 Dec. 2014. http://shakespeare.mit.edu/macbeth/full.html
  35. ^ Worthen 69
  36. ^ Racine, Jean. ″Phédre,″ Harvard Classics, Vol. 26, Part 3. Web. 11 Dec. 2014. http://www.bartleby.com/26/3/


  • Bremer, J.M. "Hamartia." Tragic Error in the Poetics of Aristotle and in Greek Tragedy. Amsterdam, Adolf M. Hakkert, 1969.
  • Dawe, R D. "Some Reflections on Ate and Hamartia." Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 72 (1968): 89-123. JSTOR. St. Louis University Library, St. Louis. 29 Apr. 2008.
  • Hyde, Isabel. "The Tragic Flaw: is It a Tragic Error?" The Modern Language Review 58.3 (1963): 321-325. JSTOR. St. Louis University Library, St. Louis. 29 Apr. 2008.
  • Moles, J L. "Aristotle and Dido's 'Hamartia'" Greece & Rome, Second Series 31.1 (1984): 48-54. JSTOR. St. Louis University Library, St. Louis. 29 Apr. 2008.
  • Stinton, T. C. W. "Hamartia in Aristotle and Greek Tragedy" The Classical Quarterly, New Series, Vol. 25, No. 2 (Dec., 1975): 221 - 254. JSTOR. St. Louis University, St. Louis. 29 Apr. 2008.
  • Golden, Leon, "Hamartia, Ate, and Oedipus", Classical World, Vol. 72, No. 1 (Sep., 1978), pp. 3–12.
  • Hugh Lloyd-Jones, The Justice of Zeus, University of California Press, 1971, p. 212.