What Does Hamartia Mean
Hamartia refers to a flaw or error in the protagonist that leads to a chain of events that culminates in the downfall of the protagonist. The term hamartia is derived from Greek and literally means to err or to miss the mark. The term Hamartia as it pertains to literature was first used by Aristotle in his Poetics. He states that creating a wealthy and powerful hero with a blend of bad and good qualities who falls into misfortune by Hamartia is a powerful plot device.
For example, imagine a person who attempts to achieve a superior position. But he ends up in an even inferior position because of his attempt. Hamartia in a character can be anything from ignorance or fate to excessive anger or arrogance. Errors in judgment, ambition, jealousy, ignorance, fate, miserliness, indecisiveness are some common examples of hamartia found in literature. It is important to note that the hamartia of a character may, at first, seem like the best quality or characteristic of that person. The readers, as well as the characters, may not realize this quality is destructive until the end of the story.
Examples of Hamartia in Literature
The tragic heroes created by Shakespeare can be taken as perfect examples of hamartia.
Macbeth’s blind ambition that leads to his downfall, Othello’s jealousy which prompts him to kill Desdemona, and Hamlet’s indecisiveness and desire to avoid evil can be pointed out as examples of hamartia.
“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…
– Hamlet, Shakespeare
In Romeo and Juliet, it is not actually an error in the protagonist, but the fate that acts against Romeo and Juliet. Therefore, an act of fate can be considered as the hamartia in this play.
“From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.”
In Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, it his James’ miserliness that causes him to hire an incompetent doctor to treat his wife, Mary. This results in Mary’s addiction to morphine which ultimately leads to the downfall of the whole family.
In Sophocles’ famous Greek tragedy Oedipus, the protagonist’s downfall his brought about his own ignorance and hubris (excessive pride and arrogance that functions as a fatal flaw in a character) which makes him defy the prophecy of Gods. But at the end, it is his attempt to defy the prophecy that ironically fulfills the prophesy.
Lost in the night, endless night that nursed you!
You can’t hurt me or anyone else who sees the light—
you can never touch me.
TIRESIAS: True, it it not your fate
to fall at my hands. Apollo is quite enough,
and he will take some pains to work this out.
OEDIPUS: Creon! Is this conspiracy his or yours?
TIRESIAS: Creon is not your downfall, no, you are your own.