Definition of Tragic Flaw
Tragic flaw is a literary device that represents a flaw or deficiency in character that results in the downfall of the hero in a tragic literary work. A tragic flaw is the principal defect in character or judgment that leads to the downfall of the tragic hero. Such a defect can be in the form of bias, limitation, or imperfection possessed by a character that affects their actions, motives, or abilities in a hindering or ruinous way. Tragic flaws allow writers to create characters that are complex and fully human, in addition to providing the reader with a deeper understanding of the impact of these defects.
In Greek tragedy, the literary device of tragic flaw is essential to the action of the work, its fatal disclosure, and destructive outcome. One of the most common tragic flaws exhibited by protagonists in Greek tragedies is Hubris, referring to a hero’s excessive pride or self-confidence. For example, in Oedipus the King by Sophocles, Oedipus demonstrates his hubris by ignoring several well-intentioned warnings by Tiresias, Creon, Jocasta, and the Herdsman in his effort to discover who murdered King Laius.
I thought it wrong, my children, to hear the truth from others, messengers. Here I am myself—you all know me, the world knows my fame: I am Oedipus.
The excessive self-confidence and pride displayed by Oedipus in terms of his assertions that he is correct and the “messengers” are wrong, leads him to the truth that he has unknowingly killed his father and ultimately married his mother. As a result of the tragic flaw of Hubris, this tragic hero is brought to ruin and exile.
Classical Greek Interpretation of Tragic Flaw
The term tragic flaw is what Aristotle would have referred to as Hamartia in his work Poetics. Hamartia is derived from the Greek word meaning to err or to miss the mark. However, a tragic flaw is not as simple as a character that makes a mistake. Instead, this literary device refers to a tragic hero’s inherent defect or shortcoming. In tragic Greek drama, a tragic hero is created as a superior character that is initially favored by fortune. It is the tragic flaw of this hero that leads to actions that result in a downfall or reversal of fortune.
There is discrepancy as to whether the Classical Greek interpretation of tragic flaw encompasses errors of judgment, inherent defects in the protagonist, wrongdoings, or errors as a result of ignorance. Ultimately, a tragic flaw is a personality defect that leads to actions considered unworthy of a hero, which brings about their destruction in some way. As the Greek dramatists portray tragic flaw, tragic heroes inflict their own fates upon themselves. In other words, a character’s fate is intertwined with inherent aspects of who they are and these personal characteristics determine the character’s destiny.
Common Examples of Tragic Flaws
Many characters exhibit tragic flaws in both Greek and modern tragedies, including Hubris. Here are some common examples of other tragic flaws that a heroic character may possess, leading to their undoing:
- lack of judgment
- misplaced trust
- misplaced loyalty
- extreme curiosity
- defiance of gods, science, or nature
Modern Interpretation of Tragic Flaw
As a literary device, the modern interpretation of tragic flaw can be traced back to the tragedies of William Shakespeare. Shakespeare did incorporate many of the elements of Hamartia as interpreted by the Greeks. However, in many of Shakespeare’s plays, the tragic hero is not established as a being superior to all others and favored by fortune. Instead, Shakespeare’s tragic heroes are more relatable to an audience in terms of their power and abilities. This is significant in the audience’s understanding of more complex and humanized protagonists, which in turn leads to a greater understanding of the portrayal of tragic flaws.
This interpretation of tragic flaw as it is applied to more “everyday” characters has continued throughout literary movements into current literature. As a result, writers are able to showcase protagonists that are fully formed, and not all good or all bad, which enhances the reader’s relationship with the character and the literary work itself.
Common Examples of Shakespearean Characters with Tragic Flaws
Many of Shakespeare’s most well-known characters reflect tragic flaws that bring about their reversal of fortune, ruin, or even death. Here are some common examples of Shakespearean characters with tragic flaws:
Common Examples of Series Characters with Tragic Flaws
Many current series are centered around a “modern” tragic hero with tragic flaws. This appeals widely to audiences who enjoy the complicated situations in which these characters find themselves and their dramatic decisions that are often motivated by a flaw or defect in their character. Here are some common examples of series characters with tragic flaws:
- Tony Soprano (“The Sopranos”)
- Anne Montgomery (“What/If”)
- Don Draper (“Mad Men”)
- Walter White (“Breaking Bad”)
- Beth Harmon (“The Queen’s Gambit”)
- Marty Byrde (“Ozark”)
- Wanda Maximoff (“WandaVision”)
- Jimmy McNulty (“The Wire”)
- Jonathan Fraser (“The Undoing”)
- Claire Underwood (“House of Cards”)
Examples of Tragic Flaw in Literature
Through the use of tragic flaw as a literary device, writers are able to create memorable characters and narratives for their readers. The presence of a tragic flaw in a hero’s character allows them to be relatable and fully realized. In turn, this can create connections to characters and empathy for them on behalf of readers.
Here are some examples of tragic flaw in characters of well-known works of literature:
Example 1: Macbeth (William Shakespeare)
I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent, but only vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself and falls on th’ other.
“Macbeth” is one of Shakespeare’s most famous tragic plays. The title character, Macbeth, is a tragic hero and clearly demonstrates a tragic flaw which is ambition. What makes Macbeth’s character complex and intricate for the audience/reader is that, at the start of the play, he does not appear to be motivated by or prepossessed with ambition. In fact, this passage illustrates Macbeth’s lack of motivation with “no spur to prick the sides of my intent,” and indicates that the only factor driving his thinking and behavior at this point is ambition.
Therefore, initially, Macbeth reveals to the audience/reader that he understands how ambition can result in hasty decisions and mistakes. Though Macbeth succumbs to his tragic flaw, his character is more fully developed by the fact that Shakespeare reveals that Macbeth possesses a level of insight early in the narrative regarding ambition that could have preempted his violent actions and consequential ruin.
Example 2: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (Washington Irving)
He could not help, too, rolling his large eyes round him as he ate, and chuckling with the possibility that he might one day be lord of all this scene of almost unimaginable luxury and splendor. Then, he thought, how soon he’d turn his back upon the old school-house; snap his fingers in the face of Hans Van Ripper, and every other stingy patron, and kick any itinerant pedagogue out of doors that should dare to call him comrade!
Irving’s “legend” is a well-known American story about a superstitious schoolmaster named Ichabod Crane who decides to pursue the daughter of a wealthy farmer in the town where he has relocated. Ichabod is not the only suitor interested in Katrina Van Tassel, and he becomes a rival of Brom Bones. However, Ichabod is a tragic hero due to his fixation with superstition and the greedy idea that his marriage to Katrina will allow him to inherit her father’s great wealth. Ichabod’s proposal to Katrina fails at a harvest party, and, on his way back to his quarters, Ichabod’s superstition and imagination are preoccupied with the ghostly legends Brom has told at the party. This results in Ichabod’s sighting of the infamous “headless horseman,” after which Ichabod disappears and is not heard from again.
Most readers focus on Ichabod’s superstitious nature as the primary flaw that results in the character’s undoing. However, Ichabod’s greed is perhaps his primary and most fatal tragic flaw. This defect in Ichabod’s character is what sets in motion his actions of pursuing Katrina, simply because of her father’s wealth, and incurring the anger of Brom Bones who then undermines Ichabod with pranks and stories that prey on his superstition. Had Ichabod’s character been flawed by superstition alone, his outcome may have been different. Instead, Ichabod is motivated by his greed which results in his tragic downfall.
Example 3: Frankenstein (Mary Shelley)
Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be his world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.
In her well-known novel, Mary Shelley presents the story of Victor Frankenstein, a gifted scientist, who decides to create a “perfect” being and give it life. When Frankenstein realizes that his creation is not the perfect specimen he imagined and intended but is instead a hideous creature, Frankenstein rejects his creation and forces it into human exile. The “Monster” then exacts revenge and ultimately destroys his creator’s life.
In this passage, the Monster describes its perception of Frankenstein’s tragic flaw, which is hubris in the form of ambition and desire for knowledge and scientific power over nature. The Monster is correct in pointing out this defect in Frankenstein’s character. However, Frankenstein suffers from an even greater tragic flaw, which is lack of responsibility and empathy for what he has created. Had Frankenstein any empathy for the Monster or shown any responsibility for its care, his fate may not have been so tragic and violent.