Definition of Hamartia
Aristotle used the word in his “Poetics” where it is taken as a mistake or error in judgment. The term envelops wrongdoings which may be accidental or deliberate. One of the classic examples of hamartia is where a hero wants to achieve something but, while doing so, he commits an intentional or accidental error and he ends up achieving exactly the opposite with disastrous results. Such a downfall is often marked by a reversal of fortune.
Hamartia and Hubris
A typical example of hamartia in tragedies is “hubris” which is excessive pride and ego in a hero’s character which ultimately brings his tragic downfall in a tragedy. In Greek tragedies, the “hubristic” actions of a hero, in a powerful position, causes his shame and humiliation.
Examples of Hamartia in Literature
“Oedipus” in a famous Greek Tragedy is a perfect example of hamartia i.e. his downfall is cause by unintentional wrongdoings. His “hubris” makes him try to defy the prophecy of gods but he ends up doing what he feared the most.
“The Oracle of Delphi” told him that he would kill his father and marry his mother. To avoid this, he leaves “Corinth” and headed towards “Thebes”. On his way, he killed an old man in a feud and later married the queen of “Thebes” as he was made king of the city after he saved the city from a deadly “Sphinx”. He committed all these sins in complete ignorance but he deserved punishment because of his attempting to rebel against his fate. His reversal of fortune is caused by his actions, which are in a sense blasphemous.
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 3 Scene 1 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 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.
Among the 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 devils takes his soul away to Hell and he is suffers eternal damnation because of his over-ambition.
“Victor” in Mary Shelley’s novel “Frankenstein” is another character whose down fall 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.
Function of Hamartia
Hamartia imparts the sense of pity and fear in the audience of 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 the same fate may befall them if they indulge in similar kinds of action.
Therefore, hamartia may be employed for a moral purpose to encourage people to improve their characters by removing the flaws that can cause a tragedy in their lives.