A NOTE ON THE TRAGIC FLAW AND CAUSATION IN SHAKESPEAREAN TRAGEDY
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<ul><li><p>A NOTE ON THE TRAGIC FLAW AND CAUSATION IN SHAKESPEAREAN TRAGEDYAuthor(s): G. E. HauptSource: Interpretations, Vol. 5, No. 1 (1973), pp. 20-32Published by: Scriptorium PressStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/23239812 .Accessed: 12/06/2014 13:27</p><p>Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at .http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp</p><p> .JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range ofcontent in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact email@example.com.</p><p> .</p><p>Scriptorium Press is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Interpretations.</p><p>http://www.jstor.org </p><p>This content downloaded from 22.214.171.124 on Thu, 12 Jun 2014 13:27:49 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p>http://www.jstor.org/action/showPublisher?publisherCode=scriptoriumhttp://www.jstor.org/stable/23239812?origin=JSTOR-pdfhttp://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsphttp://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp</p></li><li><p>A NOTE ON THE TRAGIC FLAW AND CAUSATION IN SHAKESPEAREAN TRAGEDY </p><p>Every teacher of literature knows that the concepts of literary criticism can be a curse as well as a joy. On the one hand critical </p><p>concepts can encourage readers to apprehend and be articulate about </p><p>aspects of literature that they might not otherwise notice, but on the </p><p>other hand critical concepts may come between a reader and a work of </p><p>literature and distort apprehension. It is no surprise that in his short list </p><p>of the chief difficulties of criticism I. A. Richards included "general critical preconceptions."! i submit that the commonly used notion of </p><p>the tragic flaw (or Greek hamartia) is just such a general critical precon </p><p>ception: it, in my own teaching experience at least, produces critical </p><p>blindness more often than critical light. The irony of what I encounter </p><p>in teaching is that students invoke the authority of Aristotle's Poetics </p><p>for a reading of all tragedy as exhibiting the tragic flaw, when they do </p><p>not have the foggiest idea of what Aristotle really meant by the tragic flaw and never seriously consider the very real possibility that both </p><p>Aristotelian and non-Aristotelian notions of the tragic flawdespite the </p><p>aura of authority the term hasmay distort many, if not most, trage dies. Many students seem committed to the notion that every tragic hero must have something wrong with him, a flaw, because some old </p><p>Greek, Mr. Aristotle, said so and so has everybody else for centuries. I </p><p>hope in this brief note to clarify some of the problems concerning the </p><p>meaning and application of the concept. Even though I cannot achieve </p><p>certainty as to what precisely the term means and precisely how it </p><p>should be used in its Aristotelian sense, I think that I can achieve a </p><p>considerable degree of certainty as to what it does not mean and how it </p><p>should not be used. </p><p>Now, what Aristotle almost certainly did not mean by the tragic flaw is precisely that notion of the tragic flaw 1 encounter most fre </p><p>quently among my students. A composite account by a composite stu </p><p>dent runs as follows: The tragic flaw is something very bad in a tragic hero which causes a tragedy and makes the hero deserve what happens to him, even though the hero may have many desirable traits in addi </p><p>tion to his flaw.2 This may be called the sin-punishment concept of the </p><p>flaw (I shall hereafter refer to the tragic flaw as hamartia), and every translation of the Poetics I have looked at and every modern com </p><p>mentator I have read suggests that it is quite un-Aristotelian. A glance at the following translation of the relevant passage from the Poetics </p><p>prepared by Ingram Bywater for the authoritative Oxford edition of </p><p>Aristotle immediately shows how inadequate my composite student's </p><p>notion is: </p><p>20 </p><p>This content downloaded from 126.96.36.199 on Thu, 12 Jun 2014 13:27:49 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p>http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp</p></li><li><p>It follows, therefore, that there are three forms of Plot to </p><p>be avoided. (1) A good man must not be seen passing from </p><p>happiness to misery, or (2) a bad man from misery to </p><p>happiness. The first situation is not fear-inspiring or </p><p>piteous, but simply odious to us. The second is the most </p><p>untragic that can be; it has no one of the requisites of </p><p>Tragedy; it does not appeal either to the human feeling in </p><p>us, or to our pity, or to our fears. Nor, on the other hand, </p><p>should (3) an extremely bad man be seen falling from </p><p>happiness into misery. Such a story may arouse the human </p><p>feeling in us, but it will not move us to either pity or fear; </p><p>pity is occasioned by undeserved misfortune, and fear by that of one like ourselves; so that there will be nothing either piteous or fear-inspiring in the situation. There re </p><p>mains, then, the intermediate kind of personage, a man not </p><p>preeminently virtuous and just, whose misfortune, however, </p><p>is brought upon him not by vice and depravity but by some </p><p>[hamartia]. . ., of the number of those in the enjoyment of </p><p>great reputation and prosperity; e.g. Oedipus, Thyestes, and </p><p>the men of note of similar families. The perfect Plot, </p><p>accordingly, must have a single, and not (as some tell us) a </p><p>double issue; the change in the hero's fortunes must be not </p><p>from misery to happiness, but on the contrary from </p><p>happiness to misery; and the cause of it must lie not in any </p><p>depravity, but in some [hamartia].. .on his part; the man </p><p>himself being either such as we have described, or better, not worse, than that.3 </p><p>In a sense Aristotle is trying to sit on a fence: he wants a tragic hero </p><p>who is neither very bad nor very good. Hamartia comes in to provide the fence to sit. on so that Aristotle can satisfy his concept of the </p><p>emotional effect of a tragic plot, his moral sense, and his feeling that </p><p>there must be necessity in tragic causation. For Aristotle a tragedy must </p><p>provoke the emotions of pity and fear, but a completely good man who </p><p>meets disaster is odious rather than pitiful or fear-provoking. Such a </p><p>disaster is too offensive to our moral sense of justice, it is implied. </p><p>However, the tragic hero must not meet with a disaster which he de </p><p>serves (there is no hint of "poetic justice" in Aristotle), for then there would be no pity. Thus the wicked man is ruled out as a tragic hero, </p><p>and we are left with the basically good man who has a hamartia which </p><p>provokes the undeserved misfortune, thus avoiding a gross violation of </p><p>our sense of justice, evoking pity and fear, and satisfying the require </p><p>ment of necessity. The Aristotelian universe is an ordered one, and </p><p>tragedy for him operates by cause and effect: the tragic hero does and </p><p>21 </p><p>This content downloaded from 188.8.131.52 on Thu, 12 Jun 2014 13:27:49 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p>http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp</p></li><li><p>is something which brings about his tragedy. Obviously, the composite view of my composite student is wrong in suggesting that hamartia is </p><p>something very bad and that the tragic hero in any sense deserves what </p><p>happens to him. To cite John Jones, "Nearly all professional Aristotelians have felt obliged. . .to exclude any strong implication of </p><p>moral fault or shortcoming."4 The composite student's view basically belongs to nineteenth-cen </p><p>tury Aristotelian scholarship, not to that (with a few exceptions) of the </p><p>twentieth century. It is possible that such a view arose because hamartia </p><p>in the Greek New Testament does mean "sin,"5 because of nineteenth </p><p>century hankerings after some form of poetic justice, and also because </p><p>of an attempt to square Aristotle with Shakespeare. The latter, as I shall </p><p>attempt to demonstrate later, is an irony of history in that the sin </p><p>punishment concept of hamartia (which has a right to be judged on its </p><p>own merits irrespective of its faithfulness to Aristotle) doesn't work </p><p>any better with Shakespeare than concepts closer to Aristotle. In any </p><p>event, the only thing Aristotelian about the composite student's view of </p><p>hamartia is that there is a necessary causal connection between what </p><p>the tragic hero is and what happens to him. And this, of course, is a </p><p>valuable insight into most tragedies. </p><p>Having disposed of what the late C.S. Lewis might have called the </p><p>"danger sense" of hamartia, that sense of the word we so often irre </p><p>sponsibly attribute to Aristotle, we may turn to three senses which the </p><p>majority of responsible modern students of Aristotle have attributed to </p><p>the word. I shall attempt to cite only the most recent studies. </p><p>1. Mistake or miscalculation. Among recent commentators, this </p><p>interpretation and translation is perhaps best represented by Gerald F. </p><p>Else, in his monumental Aristotle's Poetics: The Argument, and, with </p><p>qualifications, by O.B. Hardison, Jr., in Aristotle's Poetics: A Transla </p><p>tion and Commentary for Students of Literature.6 For Hardison, </p><p>hamartia is basically a failure of knowledge, a mistake, a miscalculation, </p><p>a missing of the mark (the latter being the literal or root sense of </p><p>hamartia). Thus hamartia is quite remote from any implication of </p><p>serious moral fault in his view.7 Hardison, however, cautiously and </p><p>silently avoids two criticisms that have been brought against the inter </p><p>pretation and translation of hamartia as a mistake or miscalculation (in </p><p>my opinion quite justifiably): 1) that it separates hamartia from the character or personality of the tragic hero and makes it something </p><p>external, even accidental, and 2) that it deprives hamartia of any ad </p><p>verse moral connotation.^ Hardison qualifies his view by saying that </p><p>hamartia "is a character trait" and that "in one sense it must be a moral </p><p>flaw," but he obviously leans in the direction of strongly underplaying the concept of the morally flawed character.9 </p><p>A more narrow notion of hamartia as a mistake is that of Gerald </p><p>22 </p><p>This content downloaded from 184.108.40.206 on Thu, 12 Jun 2014 13:27:49 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p>http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp</p></li><li><p>F. Else. In the light of Aristotle's well-recognized subordination of </p><p>hamartia to its role or function in the tragic plot, and in the light of his </p><p>stress on recognition of mistaken identities as a desirable feature of the </p><p>good tragic plot, Else conjectures that "hamartia would denote partic </p><p>ularly a mistake or error or ignorance as to. . .identity."10 In a some </p><p>what more extended but still restricted sense, "hamartia is an ignorance or mistake as to certain details."! 1 Thus he sums up in a way that quite </p><p>sharply excludes the moral element permitted in Hardison's more </p><p>elastic interpretation: </p><p>The correlation of hamartia and recognition as inter </p><p>dependent parts of the best tragic plot explains everything that Aristotle says about both of them. At the same time it </p><p>effectively disposes, ut mihi quidem videtur, of the 'moral </p><p>flaw' interpretation of hamartia.12 </p><p>Insofar as I can judge without knowing Greek, I am inclined to agree with Grube and Whitman that the mistake theory in its extreme form is </p><p>inadequate because it disregards the fact that the context for the dis </p><p>cussion of hamartia in the Poetics is a moral one. I believe that the </p><p>mistake theory in order to survive needs the qualifications introduced </p><p>by Hardison. </p><p>2. Error of judgment. Hardison's qualified version of the mistake </p><p>interpretation actually brings it very much in line with this second view, </p><p>which sees hamartia as representing a failure within the character of the </p><p>hero expressed in the form of a wrong judgment. This interpretation is </p><p>favored by the majority of modern commentators.13 It is, for example, the view of one of the most distinguished Aristotelians of our century, the co-editor of the Oxford Aristotle, W. D. Ross.14 It is the view of </p><p>John Jones in his recent special study of Aristotle and Greek tragedy.15 The difficulty here is that unless this interpretation is qualified it runs </p><p>the risk of depriving the tragic hero of any moral weakness and attribu </p><p>ting to him a purely intellectual weakness. However, as S. H. Butcher </p><p>pointed out a long time ago, in Aristotelian thought intellectual weak </p><p>ness cannot be separated from moral weakness, an argument recently </p><p>appearing in Grube.16 With such an understanding, with such a qualifi </p><p>cation, the translation "error of judgment" would seem to make a wide </p><p>appeal to Aristotelians. </p><p>3. Moral error which is not serious enough to be wickedness or </p><p>sin. This is a view strongly supported in a recent study of Sophocles by Cedric Whitman of Harvard, who leans heavily on an important article </p><p>by P. W. Harsh.17 Whitman rejects both the idea that hamartia is a </p><p>serious moral error and that it is primarily an intellectual error or error </p><p>of judgment. He believes that hamartia alludes to a "minor moral flaw" </p><p>23 </p><p>This content downloaded from 220.127.116.11 on Thu, 12 Jun 2014 13:27:49 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p>http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp</p></li><li><p>and that this is consistent with Aristotle's use of the word elsewhere. In </p><p>agreement with Whitman of Harvard is his colleague from the other </p><p>place, Bernard Knox, formerly of Yale.18 </p><p>In the light of the strong scholarly support which senses 2 and 3 </p><p>have received, I am inclined to think that Grube of Toronto is correct </p><p>in trying to bring them together. I promised no certainty as to what </p><p>hamartia means in this note, but I submit that Grube's summation is </p><p>sensible: </p><p>When commentators wonder whether hamartia means </p><p>either a moral weakness or an error of judgment, they are </p><p>reading into Aristotle a modern dichotomy between brains </p><p>and moral character which would seem unnatural to him. </p><p>The flaw is one of personality, and the human personality includes both moral character and the human mind. In </p><p>other words the flaw or weakness may be one of either </p><p>mind or morals. . . . The whole controversy as to whether </p><p>the hamartia is a moral flaw or an intellectual one is beside </p><p>the point. It can be either, or even both.19 </p><p>Although my exploration of the three senses of hamartia in </p><p>modern Aristotelian scholarship may cause one to be somewhat </p><p>agnostic about knowing with certainty what the term really means, I </p><p>think it is safe to say that the range of meanings attributed to the term </p><p>by responsible Aristotelians is for the most part rather restricted by the </p><p>time they finish making qualifications, in contrast with the range of </p><p>meanings one may encounter among students attempting to interpret Aristotle. </p><p>My purpose here, despite this review of meanings of the term </p><p>hamartia, is not be a Greekless Aristotelian (a contradiction in terms). </p><p>Rather, it has been to clear the air before considering the value of the </p><p>concept of hamartia in interpreting Shakespearean trag...</p></li></ul>
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