Definition of Hamartia

Hamartia is a literary device that reflects a character’s tragic or fatal flaw, or mistake in judgment, that ultimately leads to their downfall. This term originated with Aristotle as a means of describing an error or frailty that brings about misfortune for a tragic hero. Hamartia, as a concept, is closely related to and interchangeable with the term tragic flaw, as they both lead to the downfall of a protagonist in a tragedy. However, hamartia can also be interpreted as a mistake based on outside circumstances rather than a character’s personal frailty.

For example, in Oedipus The King by Sophocles, Oedipus is considered a classic tragic hero and his hamartia is complex. Most people agree that Oedipus displays the tragic flaw of hubris, and that his stubborn, impulsive, and arrogant nature cause him to make wrong decisions that lead to his downfall. However, it is also a lack of knowledge and information about his identity and that of other characters that leads Oedipus to his tragic fate. Therefore, the outside circumstances that cause errors in judgment have as much to do with Oedipus’s tragedy as any flaw in his character.

Common Examples of Hamartia as Character Traits

As a literary device, hamartia does not reflect a character’s general weakness. Instead, hamartia is a specific character trait, flaw, or vice that results in a literary character’s serious misfortune or fall. Here are some traits that are common examples of hamartia:

  • pride or over-confidence
  • aggressive ambition
  • blinding passion
  • arrogance
  • vanity
  • rebellion
  • jealousy
  • greed
  • anger
  • hypocrisy
  • spitefulness
  • selfishness
  • dishonesty
  • possessiveness
  • lustful feelings
  • stubbornness
  • vengefulness

Examples of Hamartia in Shakespearean Tragic Heroes

Nearly all of William Shakespeare’s tragedies feature a character with hamartia. The tragic hero in Shakespearean tragedy is brought to ruin or even death by a tragic flaw. Here are some examples of tragic heroes in Shakespeare’s works and their corresponding hamartia:

  • Hamlet–fear of direct confrontation
  • Macbeth–violent ambition
  • Romeo and Juliet–impatience, adolescent passion
  • Othello–extreme jealousy
  • King Lear–stubborn pride, anger
  • Julius Caesar–excessive pride, quest for power
  • Brutus–blind idealism, poor judgment
  • Coriolanus–egocentric, inability to connect with others
  • Cressida–unfaithfulness
  • Timon–inability to recognize true natures of his friends

Famous Examples of Hamartia in Popular Culture

Many of the most interesting fictional characters in popular culture possess or are victims of hamartia. This allows the audience to witness the flaw or error in judgment that brings about tragedy for these protagonists. Hamartia also allows characters in popular culture to be fully developed, with complexities and intricacies that humanize them so that the audience can identify with and appreciate their struggles.

Here are some famous examples of hamartia in popular culture:

  • Walter White (Breaking Bad)–beloved teacher and family man who loses everything due to his drive for power
  • Don Draper (Mad Men)–successful businessman who loses everything due to his infidelities and secrecy
  • Daenerys Targaryen (Game of Thrones)–liberator of people who loses her life due to obsessive power and violent ambition
  • Tony Soprano (The Sopranos)–business and family man who cannot escape the mob life due to his hypocrisy and violent tendencies
  • Jackie Peyton (Nurse Jackie)–caring emergency room nurse brought down due to drug addiction

Difference Between Hamartia as a Character Flaw or Error in Judgment

Hamartia, as a literary device, can be interpreted in two ways. It can be an internal weakness or trait in a character such as greed, passion, hubris, etc. However, it can also refer to a mistake made by a character that is based not in a personal failure but on circumstances outside the protagonist’s personality and control.

Aristotle first used the term hamartia in his work Poetics as a means of describing the catalyst that results in a central character’s reversal of fortune. Hamartia is derived from the word hamartanein which takes place when an archer misses a target. Therefore, hamartia can be interpreted as a character’s error or mistake in achieving their goal which brings about their downfall.

However, this error often originates from a personal or tragic flaw within the character, allowing them to determine crucial judgments that result in mistaken actions and lead to eventual downfall. Therefore, hamartia is best understood to be a protagonist’s error and/or flaw that leads to actions in the story that result in a reversal from happiness or success to ruin or disaster. The flaw may be an internal character trait that is tragic and leads to wrongdoing. The error may be one of misjudgment or ignorance in terms of information or other story elements. Ultimately, both internal and external forces can lead to a tragic character’s downfall, and it is often the complex blend of these forces that make up hamartia.

Examples of Hamartia in Literature

Hamartia is an important literary device, dating back to Aristotle and Greek tragedy. With hamartia, protagonists become complex characters that possess flaws and frailties, make mistakes, and are influenced by outside circumstances. Though these characters experience a reversal of fortune due to their hamartia, it also allows the reader a chance to reflect, understand, and possibly learn from their plight.

Here are some examples of hamartia in literary works:

Example 1: Don Quixote (Miguel de Cervantes)

‘But to my mind’, said Sancho, ‘the knights who did all that were pushed into it and had their reasons for their antics and their penances, but what reason have you got for going mad?’
‘That is the whole point’, replied Don Quixote, ‘and therein lies the beauty of my enterprise. A Knight Errant going mad for a good reason – there is neither pleasure nor merit in that. The thing is to become insane without a cause and have my lady think: If I do all this when dry, what would I not do when wet?”

The title character of Cervantes’s novel is a classic example of a protagonist that is undone by his hamartia. Don Quixote is fixated on an ideal fantasy without any respect for logic, practicality, or reality. This is illustrated by his response to his companion Sancho Panza, who continually attempts to bring Don Quixote to the realization that things are not as he chooses to see them. Don Quixote’s fixation with the ideals of Knights Errant, chivalric romance, good and evil, cause him to willingly deny truth and reality which results in his misfortune, spiritual ruin, and death.

Interestingly, it is not errors in judgment or outside circumstances that are reflected in Don Quixote’s hamartia. Instead, his tragic outcome is a result of his deliberate choices and internal character flaws. However, rather than Don Quixote becoming a character that is poorly developed or fleshed out due to his hamartia only reflecting tragic flaws, the complexity of his character is enhanced due to these frailties. The traits Don Quixote attempts to possess in terms of bravery and chivalry, ironically, are the weaknesses that cause his demise.

Example 2: A Rose for Emily (William Faulkner)

The day after his death all the ladies prepared to call at the house and offer
condolence and aid, as is our custom. Miss Emily met them at the door, dressed as
usual and with no trace of grief on her face. She told them that her father was not
dead. She did that for three days, with the ministers calling on her, and the doctors,
trying to persuade her to let them dispose of the body. Just as they were about to
resort to law and force, she broke down, and they buried her father quickly.

In Faulkner’s short story, the title character Emily Grierson displays hamartia in her unwillingness to accept any sort of internal or external change. For example, in this passage, Emily demonstrates this flaw with her refusal to accept the loss and death of her father. Emily’s stubbornness, rigidity, and refusal to accept any changes taking place all contribute to her downfall, as her reputation, relationships, and environment deteriorate.

However, Emily’s hamartia is not based exclusively in frailties within her character. Emily is also a victim of tragic circumstances in that she is trapped by the legacy of her father and traditions of the Old South. This results in misunderstandings between herself and her community that lead to isolation, mistrust, and ill will. Therefore, Emily’s downfall is not simply due to a tragic flaw of stubbornness, but also to tragic circumstances that leave her behind as a personified monument of a bygone mindset and era.

Example 3: The Glass Menagerie (Tennessee Williams)

All of my gentlemen callers were sons of planters and so of course I assumed that I would be married to one and raise my family on a large piece of land with plenty of servants. But man proposes—and woman accepts the proposal! To vary that old, old saying a bit-I married no planter! I married a man who worked for the telephone company!

In this play by Tennessee Williams, Amanda’s character suffers a tragic reversal of fortune due to her hamartia. Amanda becomes a single mother to two young adults when her husband abandons her. She simultaneously traps them in delusions of her past while projecting her own desires onto their futures. Amanda’s tragic flaw appears to be her self-centeredness as a mother. However, her hamartia becomes more clear and complex than simple selfishness as her character develops.

In fact, Amanda’s frailties are the result of her fearfulness on the part of her children’s adult futures. Amanda fears that her son Tom will abandon the family, as his father has, and that her daughter will end up lonely and alone, just as Amanda has. Amanda’s hamartia becomes a tragic self-fulfilling prophecy as she alienates both her children and sets them on the very paths she fears they will take. Therefore, Amanda’s children also suffer tragedy and misfortune due to her character’s hamartia.