Hamartia, in literature, refers to the tragic flaw in the character of the protagonist which ultimately leads to his downfall. In most cases, the hero defies a moral law which results in a series of events and unfavorable circumstances leading to his destruction. The result is that the audience instantly feels pity for the main character and is also gripped with fear as he is able to identify with the human nature of the error committed by the tragic hero.
The term hamartia has its origin in Ancient Greek developed by Aristotle in ‘Poetics’.
It is a kind of tragic error or a wrong action carried out in ignorance of the results it would produce and leading ultimately to a disaster of sorts. In a simple sense, hamartia can be termed as a character’s flaw that leads to his tragic downfall. The term hamartia has its origin in hamartanein which refers to missing the mark, and includes other interpretations such as, wrongdoing, error, mistake, accident or sin. Typically, hamartia in the Bible denotes “sin”, or “moral error”.
In Greek tragedy, the hamartia can be described as a mistake in judgment defined by the actions of the protagonist. The hero may be aiming at certain results, but by his erroneous judgment, he achieves quite the opposite often leading to devastating consequences. Most of the characters with hamartia in Greek tragedies suffer in a similar manner. According to Aristotle hamartia is not an inherent trait in the character of the tragic hero. Instead it is a kind of human weakness which invokes pity in the audience. The audience fears the outcome as it is beyond the control of the mortal being.
Hamartia, known as the tragic flaw, has many examples in Greek tragedy. The characters’ moral error leads them to take certain actions which they realize later have been erroneous. A classic case of Aristotelian hamartia occurs in the tragedies of Oedipus and Antigone when the moral flaws cause a tragic turn in the events of the plot. An example of Oedipus’s hamartia is when he holds Teiresias responsible for plotting the murder of Laius. Antigone insists on burying her brother defying Creon’s law forbidding anyone from doing the same. Antigone’s pride makes her value the eternal law and she buries Polyneices which sets the tragic action of the play.
Hamartia is used often in Shakespearean tragedy. The tragic flaw or hamartia of Othello was his pride and jealousy. In King Lear, Lear was too naïve and blind which leads to his downfall. Macbeth’s over ambitious nature becomes his hamartia while Hamlet’s hamartia is his indecision. His hesitation to kill his cruel uncle paves the way for the tragic events of the play and ultimately leads to his own downfall.
In Frankenstein, authored by Mary Shelley, Victor’s moral flaw was his overbearing nature, pride and arrogance. In a bid to become a great scientist, he succeeds in creating a monster and brings about disastrous results for himself.