a note on the tragic flaw and causation in shakespearean tragedy


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  • 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

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    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

    concepts can encourage readers to apprehend and be articulate about

    aspects of literature that they might not otherwise notice, but on the

    other hand critical concepts may come between a reader and a work of

    literature and distort apprehension. It is no surprise that in his short list

    of the chief difficulties of criticism I. A. Richards included "general critical preconceptions."! i submit that the commonly used notion of

    the tragic flaw (or Greek hamartia) is just such a general critical precon

    ception: it, in my own teaching experience at least, produces critical

    blindness more often than critical light. The irony of what I encounter

    in teaching is that students invoke the authority of Aristotle's Poetics

    for a reading of all tragedy as exhibiting the tragic flaw, when they do

    not have the foggiest idea of what Aristotle really meant by the tragic flaw and never seriously consider the very real possibility that both

    Aristotelian and non-Aristotelian notions of the tragic flawdespite the

    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

    Greek, Mr. Aristotle, said so and so has everybody else for centuries. I

    hope in this brief note to clarify some of the problems concerning the

    meaning and application of the concept. Even though I cannot achieve

    certainty as to what precisely the term means and precisely how it

    should be used in its Aristotelian sense, I think that I can achieve a

    considerable degree of certainty as to what it does not mean and how it

    should not be used.

    Now, what Aristotle almost certainly did not mean by the tragic flaw is precisely that notion of the tragic flaw 1 encounter most fre

    quently among my students. A composite account by a composite stu

    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

    tion to his flaw.2 This may be called the sin-punishment concept of the

    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

    mentator I have read suggests that it is quite un-Aristotelian. A glance at the following translation of the relevant passage from the Poetics

    prepared by Ingram Bywater for the authoritative Oxford edition of

    Aristotle immediately shows how inadequate my composite student's

    notion is:


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  • It follows, therefore, that there are three forms of Plot to

    be avoided. (1) A good man must not be seen passing from

    happiness to misery, or (2) a bad man from misery to

    happiness. The first situation is not fear-inspiring or

    piteous, but simply odious to us. The second is the most

    untragic that can be; it has no one of the requisites of

    Tragedy; it does not appeal either to the human feeling in

    us, or to our pity, or to our fears. Nor, on the other hand,

    should (3) an extremely bad man be seen falling from

    happiness into misery. Such a story may arouse the human

    feeling in us, but it will not move us to either pity or fear;

    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

    mains, then, the intermediate kind of personage, a man not

    preeminently virtuous and just, whose misfortune, however,

    is brought upon him not by vice and depravity but by some

    [hamartia]. . ., of the number of those in the enjoyment of

    great reputation and prosperity; e.g. Oedipus, Thyestes, and

    the men of note of similar families. The perfect Plot,

    accordingly, must have a single, and not (as some tell us) a

    double issue; the change in the hero's fortunes must be not

    from misery to happiness, but on the contrary from

    happiness to misery; and the cause of it must lie not in any

    depravity, but in some [hamartia].. .on his part; the man

    himself being either such as we have described, or better, not worse, than that.3

    In a sense Aristotle is trying to sit on a fence: he wants a tragic hero

    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

    emotional effect of a tragic plot, his moral sense, and his feeling that

    there must be necessity in tragic causation. For Aristotle a tragedy must

    provoke the emotions of pity and fear, but a completely good man who

    meets disaster is odious rather than pitiful or fear-provoking. Such a

    disaster is too offensive to our moral sense of justice, it is implied.

    However, the tragic hero must not meet with a disaster which he de

    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,

    and we are left with the basically good man who has a hamartia which

    provokes the undeserved misfortune, thus avoiding a gross violation of

    our sense of justice, evoking pity and fear, and satisfying the require

    ment of necessity. The Aristotelian universe is an ordered one, and

    tragedy for him operates by cause and effect: the tragic hero does and


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  • is something which brings about his tragedy. Obviously, the composite view of my composite student is wrong in suggesting that hamartia is

    something very bad and that the tragic hero in any sense deserves what

    happens to him. To cite John Jones, "Nearly all professional Aristotelians have felt obliged. . .to exclude any strong implication of

    moral fault or shortcoming."4 The composite student's view basically belongs to nineteenth-cen

    tury Aristotelian scholarship, not to that (with a few exceptions) of the

    twentieth century. It is possible that such a view arose because hamartia

    in the Greek New Testament does mean "sin,"5 because of nineteenth

    century hankerings after some form of poetic justice, and also because

    of an attempt to square Aristotle with Shakespeare. The latter, as I shall

    attempt to demonstrate later, is an irony of history in that the sin

    punishment concept of hamartia (which has a right to be judged on its

    own merits irrespective of its faithfulness to Aristotle) doesn't work

    any better with Shakespeare than concepts closer to Aristotle. In any

    event, the only thing Aristotelian about the composite student's view of

    hamartia is that there is a necessary causal connection between what

    the tragic hero is and what happens to him. And this, of course, is a

    valuable insight into most tragedies.

    Having disposed of what the late C.S. Lewis might have called the

    "danger sense" of hamartia, that sense of the word we so often irre

    sponsibly attribute to Aristotle, we may turn to three senses which the

    majority of responsible modern students of Aristotle have attributed to

    the word. I shall attempt to cite only the most recent studies.

    1. Mistake or miscalculation. Among recent commentators, this

    interpretation and translation is perhaps best represented by Gerald F.

    Else, in his monumental Aristotle's Poetics: The Argument, and, with

    qualifications, by O.B. Hardison, Jr., in Aristotle's Poetics: A Transla

    tion and Commentary for Students of Literature.6 For Hardison,

    hamartia is basically a failure of knowledge, a mistake, a miscalculation,

    a missing of the mark (the latter being the literal or root sense of

    hamartia). Thus hamartia is q


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