Hamartia (Ancient Greek: ἁμαρτία) is a word most famously used in Poetics, where it is usually translated as a mistake or error in judgment. In modern discussions of tragedy, hamartia has often been described as a hero's "tragic flaw." The word hamartia is rooted in the notion of missing the mark (hamartanein) and covers a broad spectrum that includes ignorant, mistaken, or accidental wrongdoing, as well as deliberate iniquity, error, or sin.
This form of drawing emotion from the audience is a staple of the Greek tragedies. In Greek tragedy, stories that contain a character with a hamartia often follow a similar blueprint. The hamartia, as stated, is seen as an error in judgment or unwitting mistake is applied to the actions of the hero. For example, the hero might attempt to achieve a certain objective X; by making an error in judgment, however, the hero instead achieves the opposite of X, with disastrous consequences.
However, hamartia cannot be sharply defined or have an exact meaning assigned to it. Consequently, a number of alternate interpretations have been associated with it, such as in the New Testament where hamartia is the Greek word translated "sin". Bible translators may reach this conclusion, according to T. C. W. Stinton, because another common interpretation of hamartia can be seen as a “moral deficit” or a “moral error” (Stinton 221). R. D. Dawe disagrees with Stinton’s view when he points out in some cases hamartia can even mean to not sin (Dawe 91). It can be seen in this opposing context if the main character does not carry out an action because it is a sin. This failure to act, in turn, must lead to a poor change in fortune for the main character in order for it to truly be a hamartia.
History of hamartia in Aristotelian interpretation
Aristotle uses the term hamartia in his book Poetics, and through the years the word has been interpreted differently. Many modern scholars have argued that the meaning of the word that was traditionally given in interpreting Aristotle’s book is not really the correct meaning, and that there is another meaning of the word. In the article “Tragic Error in the Poetics of Aristotle,” the scholar J.M. Bremer first explained the general argument of the poetics and, in particular, the immediate context of the term. He then traces the semasiological history of the hamart-group of the words from Homer (who also tried to determine the meaning behind the word) and Aristotle, concluding that of the three possible meanings of hamartia (missing, error, offense), the Stagirite uses the second in our passage of Poetics. It is, then a “tragic error", i.e., a wrong action committed in ignorance of its nature, effect, etc., which is the starting point of a causally connected train of events ending in disaster. Today the word and its meaning is still up in the air; even so the word is still being used in discussion of many plays today, such as Hamlet and Oedipus Rex.
Major examples of hamartia in literature
Hamartia was often described as a tragic flaw, especially in discussing Greek tragedy. Isabel Hyde discusses the type of hamartia Aristotle meant to define in the Modern Language Review, “Thus it may be said by some writers to be the ‘tragic flaw’ of Oedipus that he was hasty in temper; of Samson that he was sensually uxorious; of Macbeth that he was excessively ambitious; of Othello that he was proud and jealous - and so on… but these things do not constitute the ‘hamartia of those characters in Aristotle’s sense” (Hyde 321). This explains that Aristotle did not describe hamartia as an error of character, but as a moral mistake or ignorant error. Even J. L. Moles comments on the idea that hamartia is considered an error and states, “the modern view (at least until recently) that it means ‘error’, ‘mistake of fact’, that is, an act done in ignorance of some salient circumstances” (Moles 49).
Hyde goes on to question the meaning of true hamartia and discovers that it is in fact error in the article, “The Tragic Flaw: Is It a Tragic Error?” She claims that the true hamartia that occurs in Oedipus is considered “his ignorance of his true parentage” that led him to become “unwittingly the slayer of his own father” (Hyde 322). This example can be applied when reading literature in regards to the true definition of hamartia and helps place the character’s actions into the categories of character flaws and simple mistakes all humans commit. Within Oedipus, it is apparent that these errors are the result of hamartia caused by the gods and these tragic actions occur because tragedy has been willed upon the characters. R. D. Dawe brings this use of hamartia in literature to the forefront in the article “Some Reflections on Ate and Hamartia” found in Harvard Studies of Classical Philology. For instance, “this hamartia is in reality as predestined as the incest and parricide and belongs to the category of the ‘forced error’… from the artistic point of view it provides the satisfactory illusion of a voluntary choice” (Dawe 118-119). This forced error is caused by the gods and the hamartia the characters engage in has been predestined since their birth. (In relation to Ate and Hamartia relationship, see also Golden's article)
Another example of hamartia in Greek tragedy is Antigone. Although she has been presented with the decree from her Uncle not to bury her brother and her obsession with her dead family ties initially gets her in trouble, the true hamartia or “error” in this tragedy rests on Creon. It occurs when he orders his men to properly bury Polynices before releasing Antigone which can be identified as the mistake or error that led to her death. Creon’s own ignorance causes the hamartia that results in Antigone’s death and Dawe agrees here, “Creon believed himself to be acting rightly in the interests of the city. Antigone, Haemon, Tiresias, the chorus and Creon himself (post eventum) recognize that he is in fact mistaken” (Dawe 113). Many characters have flaws that influence their decisions to act in a certain way yet they make mistakes, only to realize them later. True Aristotelian hamartia arises when mistakes or errors cause the plot or direction of action to change in a tragic way as described in the tragedies of Antigone and Oedipus.
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While the traditional popular rendering of hamartia as "tragic flaw" (or "fatal flaw") is broadly imprecise and often misleading, it cannot be ruled out that the term as Aristotle understood it could sometimes at least partially connote a failure of morals or character:
Whether Aristotle regards the “flaw” as intellectual or moral has been hotly discussed. It may cover both senses. The hero must not deserve his misfortune, but he must cause it by making a fatal mistake, an error of judgement, which may well involve some imperfection of character but not such as to make us regard him as “morally responsible” for the disasters although they are nevertheless the consequences of the flaw in him, and his wrong decision at a crisis is the inevitable outcome of his character (cf. Aristot. Poet. 6.24.).
Aeschylus' The Persians provides a good example of one's character contributing to his hamartia. Xerxes' error would be his decision to invade Greece, as this invasion ends disastrously for him and Persia. Yet this error is inextricably bound up in Xerxes' chief character flaw: his hubris. A morally tinged understanding of hamartia such as this can and has been applied to the protagonist of virtually every Greek tragedy. For example, Peter Struck comments on Oedipus the King:
The complex nature of Oedipus' "hamartia," is also important. The Greek term "hamartia," typically translated as "tragic flaw," actually is closer in meaning to a "mistake" or an "error," "failing," rather than an innate flaw. In Aristotle's understanding, all tragic heroes have a "hamartia." The character's flaw must result from something that is also a central part of their virtue, which goes somewhat awry, usually due to a lack of knowledge. By defining the notion this way, Aristotle indicates that a truly tragic hero must have a failing that is neither idiosyncratic nor arbitrary, but is somehow more deeply imbedded -- a kind of human failing and human weakness. Oedipus fits this precisely, for his basic flaw is his lack of knowledge about his own identity. Moreover, no amount of foresight or preemptive action could remedy Oedipus' hamartia; unlike other tragic heroes, Oedipus bears no responsibility for his flaw. The audience fears for Oedipus because nothing he does can change the tragedy's outcome.
Thus, while the concept of hamartia as an exclusively moral or personal failing is foreign to Greek tragedy, the connotation is not entirely absent.
Nevertheless, to import the notion of Hamartia as "tragic flaw" into the act of doing literary analysis locks the critic into a kind of endless blame game, an attitude of superiority, and a process of speculation about what the character could or (worse) should have done differently. Tragedy often works precisely because the protagonist in choosing good, chooses something that will lead to unhappiness. This is certainly the case with Oedipus and, arguably, the case with Hamlet.
Concepts from Aristotle's Poetics have been used for centuries to enhance dramatic works. There is, however, no consensus about what constitutes a proper use of hamartia. According to R. D. Dawe, "In particular hamartia appears inaccurate when measured against the events in Oedipus Rex, a play which is clearly in the forefront of Aristotle's mind throughout the Poetics, and which he mentions by name in the present context". (Dawe 90) He continues to say readers have a choice "either hamartia in Aristotle's discussion has a meaning unknown from any of its other very frequent occurrences in Greek Literature (including Aristotle himself) and Aristotle has not seen fit to add a word to of clarification to his casual introduction of this novel concept: or else his words have almost no relevance in Greek as it was actually practiced..." (Dawe 91). Lastly, Dawe points out that Aristotle spends much less time on hamartia than he does peripetia or anagnorisis; thus it's "incorrect to speak of hamartia as a doctrine" (Dawe 90).
J. M. Bremer, who published "Tragic Error in the Poetics of Aristotle and in Greek Tragedy" in the American Journal of Philology, is satisfied with the meaning "error" but thinks its wrong to believe "that there is any notion of fault or moral defect involved in hamartia" (Bremer 711). He suspects "that the meaning of hamartia is one of those problems which become the more insoluble the more fully they are examined" (Bremer 711) and adds that the meaning is very skeptical (Bremer 711). The more research done and the more input added on hamartia, the less a finite definition is found, which is partly why Bremer explains hamartia's problem is "insoluble".
Dawe and Bremer agree on the fact that the definition of hamartia can and does differ from reader to reader, thus adding significance to Dawe's comment of it not being comparable to Aristotle's more definite terms of peripetia and anagnorisis.
- Aristotle, Poetics 1453a10-15
- "ARISTOTLE & THE ELEMENTS OF TRAGEDY: English 250, Ohio University". Retrieved 2013-09-21.
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- hamartia (drama) - Encyclopedia Britannica - Britannica.com
- Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. V.8 1135b12-20.
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- The Resurgence Greek Project[dead link]
- Outline of Aristotle's Theory of Tragedy in the POETICS, The College of New Rochelle, retrieved October 11, 2013
- Outline of Aristotle's Theory of Tragedy in the POETICS, University of Idaho, retrieved October 11, 2013
- Thus n.1 to the www.perseus.tufts.edu English translation of the Poetics.
- R. Caldwell ("The Pattern of Aeschylean Tragedy," TAPA 101 (1970), pp. 77-94) cites with approval the conventional wisdom that the Persians "is the one play in the entire extant literature - not just in Aeschylus - which is genuinely and fully founded upon hubris."
- Struck 2000
- Examples of Hamartia in Literature, retrieved October 11, 2013
- 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.