The Tragic Flaw: Is It a Tragic Error?

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  • The Tragic Flaw: Is It a Tragic Error?Author(s): Isabel HydeSource: The Modern Language Review, Vol. 58, No. 3 (Jul., 1963), pp. 321-325Published by: Modern Humanities Research AssociationStable URL: .Accessed: 28/06/2014 17:32

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    Aristotle, as writer of the Poetics, has had many a lusty infant, begot by some other critic, left howling upon his doorstep; and of all these (which include the bastards

    Unity-of-Time and Unity-of-Place) not one is more trouble to those who go to take it up than the foundling 'Tragic Flaw'. Humphrey House, in his lectures,1 delivered in 1952-3, commented upon this tiresome phrase:

    The'phrase 'tragic flaw' should be treated with suspicion. I do not know when it was first used, or by whom. It is not an Aristotelian metaphor at all, and though it might be adopted as an accepted technical translation of 'hamartia' in the strict and properly limited sense, the fact is that it has not been so adopted, and it is far more commonly used for a characteristic moral failing in an otherwise predominantly good man. Thus, it may be said by some writers to be the 'tragic flaw' of Oedipus that he was hasty in temper; of Samson that he was sensually uxorious; of Macbeth that he was ambitious; of Othello that he was proud and jealous-and so on.... but these things do not constitute the 'hamartiai' of those characters in Aristotle's sense.

    House goes on to urge that 'all serious modern Aristotelian scholarship agrees... that "hamartia" means an error which is derived from ignorance of some material fact or circumstance', and he refers to Bywater and Rostagni in support of his view. But although 'all serious modern scholarship' may have agreed on this point in 1952-3, in 1960 the good news has not yet reached the recesses of the land and many young students of literature are still apparently instructed in the theory of the

    'tragic flaw'; a theory which appears at first sight to be a most convenient device for analysing tragedy but which leads the unfortunate user of it into a quicksand of absurdities in which he rapidly sinks, dragging the tragedies down with him.2

    What then are the history and pedigree and the crimes committed in the name of this phrase? It is, as Humphrey House wrote, difficult to assign to any single progenitor. But it is most frequently found in company with references to the Aristotelian 'hamartia' and seems to have arisen as a misreading of this theory. In his edition of Aristotle on the Art of Poetry (Oxford, 1909), Ingram Bywater refers to such a misreading, though without using the term 'tragic flaw':

    aa1 ciuape'av nvad:al6 d !aaapriav teyaA7r)v? daprna in the Aristotelian sense of the term is a mistake or error of judgement (error in Lat.), and the deed done in consequence of it is an a'daprprtia (erratum). In the Ethics an addpraprla is said to originate not in vice or depravity but in ignorance of some material fact or circumstance.... This ignorance, we are told in another passage, takes the deed out of the class of voluntary acts, and enables one to forgive or even pity the doer.... In thus making the tragic story turn on an

    1 Aristotle's Poetics, ed. Colin Hardie (London, 1956), p. 94. 2 If it is argued that in any case Aristotle's findings have no bearing on, and ought not to be

    applied to, post-classical tragedy one can only disagree. It is true that Romeo and Juliet, The Duchess of Malfi and Ghosts, for example, do not fit the Aristotelian pattern of the most funda- mentally tragic drama; but Aristotle also recognized other forms of tragedy and was familiar with them in the works of Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles himself. His pattern play, Oedipus Tyrannus, and the tragic principles which he deduces from it provide not dogma but a fruitful approach to the study of the most fully tragic but diverse dramas such as Hamlet, Macbeth, Faustus, Rosmersholm, and The Master Builder, and even to tragic novels such as The Mayor of Casterbridge. And the theory of 'hamartia' or the 'tragic error', rightly interpreted, is so obviously fundamental that it is essential to evict the feeble but persistent usurper, 'the tragic flaw'.


    MLR vi

    21 M L.R. LVIII

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  • 322 The Tragic Flaw: is it a Tragic Error?

    (a{apTia Aristotle is probably thinking more immediately of the Oedipus Tyrannus (comp. 14, 1453b 29). It is strange that the daapTla or ajiaplna jyeyaArl of which Aristotle is speaking, should have been taken by Tumlirz (l.c. p. 25) and others to mean not an error of judgement, but some ethical fault or infirmity of character, like those indicated in 15, 1454b 12. The Sophoclean Oedipus is a man of hasty temper (comp. O.T. 807), but his ajLapita was not in that, but in the 'great mistake' he made, when he became unwittingly the slayer of his own father (p. 215).

    But we shall find the 'tragic flaw' theory and translation being defended if we enter another camp, with the followers of an equally eminent classical scholar, S. H. Butcher. Butcher's translation of the Poetics appeared in 1894 and has been re- edited and reissued several times since then. If we consult a readily available re- issue of the 1911 reprint of the 1907 fourth edition,1 we find Butcher's view clearly expressed: Distinct from this, but still limited in its reference to a single act, is the moral djIaprla proper, a fault or error where the act is conscious and intentional, but not deliberate. Such are acts committed in anger or passion.

    Lastly the word may denote a defect of character, distinct on the one hand from an isolated error or fault, and, on the other, from the vice which has its seat in a depraved will. This use, though rarer, is still Aristotelian. Under this head would be included any human frailty or moral weakness, a flaw of character that is not tainted by a vicious purpose.2

    Though Butcher himself is aware of a textual difficulty, as he remarks in a footnote 'It must be owned, however, that jLEya)v7 is not a natural adjective to apply to a mental quality or a flaw in conduct.'

    It seems likely that Butcher's translation and commentary fostered the 'tragic flaw' theory but it was also propagated, perhaps unwittingly, by A. C. Bradley, in his Shakespearean Tragedy (1904), a work which has more sound sense in it than the careless misapplications of Bradleyean precepts would lead one to believe. Bradley himself does not, so far as I am aware, use the phrase 'tragic flaw' but he certainly implies it in such passages as these:

    ... the comparatively innocent hero still shows some marked imperfection or defect, irresolution, precipitancy, pride, credulousness, excessive simplicity, excessive suscepti- bility to sexual emotion and the like (pp. 35-6). ... his tragic trait, which is also his greatness, is fatal to him (p. 21). .. one sidedness.. .the fundamental tragic trait (p. 20). ...fatal imperfection or error... (p. 22). .. his weakness or defect is so intertwined with everything that is admirable in him... (p. 29).

    These lines laid down by Butcher and Bradley appear to have been adopted unquestioningly by other writers whom the young student is likely to consult, so that, as we may see from the following quotations, the heresy of the 'tragic flaw' as the motivation of all and every tragedy is still potent even today :3

    ...daap-ia (hamartia) is the tragic flaw of Aristotle's theory (H. D. F. Kitto, Greek Tragedy (1939), p. viii).

    1 Aristotle's Theory of Poetry and Fine Art with a Critical Text of The Poetics, by S. H. Butcher, with a Prefatory Essay by John Gassner (New York and London, 1951).

    2 Op. cit. pp. 318-19, and note 3. 3 In spite of the vast body of dramatic criticism, particularly of Shakespeare, which has turned away from the study of character and nearly disembodied the dramatis personae alto- gether, presenting them as symbols or principles of disorder.

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  • ISABEL HYDE 323 Is it an Aristotelian tragedy of character; and if so, what is the &aapTla, the 'tragic flaw' in Antigone? Or is the central figure not Antigone but Creon? (H. D. F. Kitto, Form and Meaning in Drama (1956), p. 138.)

    The Flaw. Aristotle has eliminated the non-tragic cases: it remains to consider what he means by error or frailty.

    Macneile Dixon is typically frank: 'Whether it means a moral or intellectual error, of the heart or head, no one has yet discovered....'

    As a short answer I suggest that it may be in different tragedies, either; or both com- bined. Consider first some of the explanations....

    (d) A defect of character proper; the joint in the harness, the vulnerable spot in the body; the flaw which is not in itself vicious, and which will only become vulnerable and destructive through the 'unfortunate' setting of the tragedy (T. R. Henn, The Harvest of Tragedy (1956), pp. 24-5).

    The fate of even St Joan... is very different from that of Hedda Gabler or Rebecca. The reason why Rosmersholm is a tragedy and St Joan is not has to do with the necessity of the tragic flaw (Anthony Hartley, 'The Month', Twentieth Century, no. 996 (February 1960), p. 170).

    It is noticeable that, in all these passages, T. R. Henn alone indicates that the 'tragic flaw' is a difficult and complex concept.

    Classical scholars are still arguing among themselves as to the interpretation to be placed upon Aristotle's a'tap-ca and in view of the state of the text it seems un- likely that any ultimate and definitive pronouncement can be made. Whether or not Aristotle propounded even in a limited sense a theory of the 'tragic flaw' as a 'mainspring' of tragedy is, however, a matter about which we may have opinions, ranging ourselves with Bywater and Humphrey House or with Butcher and Kitto according to our preference for one or another interpretation of the text. But the student and devotee of the art of tragedy, in the study and in the theatre, may benefit from a warning: if the so-called doctrine of the 'tragic flaw', in any but the most limited sense, is made to serve as the mainspring of tragedy it leads to a narrowing of scope and significance which is stultifying and crippling. On the other hand, if it is given a very wide significance, it ceases to have any meaning at all.

    Let us then consider these facts in relation to specific tragedies, ancient and modern, bearing in mind the fact that though Aristotle's doctrine of adapi-a was never intended by him to be applied blindly to all tragedies he does say 'The theoretically best tragedy, then, has a plot of this description, that is a plot with a single issue in which the change in the hero's fortunes is from happiness to misery, not through any depravity but because of' some great error on his part'. We should notice too that Aristotle distinguishes 'four distinct species of Tragedy' in accord- ance with the constituents of the plot. He was also conversant with 'a tragic situa- tion that arouses the human feeling in one, like the clever villain (e.g. Sisyphus) deceived, or the brave wrong-doer worsted'.l But his conception of the perfect tragedy inevitably requires the element of aJdap-ra and if this term is translated as 'error' we can trace it in the most fully tragic plays of various periods.

    To begin with Aristotle's pattern play, the Oedipus Tyrannus, it is evident that the 'hamartia' of Oedipus is, as Bywater had indicated, an 'error' which consisted of Oedipus' ignorance of his true parentage. His strength and weakness of character, namely his courage and intelligence and his hastiness, then cause him to act in a

    Bywater, op. cit. pp. 50, 51, 64, 65.


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  • 324 The Tragic Flaw: is it a Tragic Error?

    particular, and fatal, way but it is the acting in blindness to his own harm1 which is the mainspring of the tragedy, providing the particular tragic irony which is associated with Sophocles' tragic vision.

    Similarly in Hamlet, King Lear, Dr Faustus and Macbeth, to take a range of plays in which the tragic heroes can, if we wish, be graded in degrees of culpability, the 'mainspring' of the tragedy is not a 'tragic flaw' (thinking too much, vanity, intellectual arrogance, ambition) but, again, an 'error' of judgement, arising indeed from the personality and moral calibre of the tragic hero but not based upon any- thing so limited as a tragic 'flaw', an almost imperceptible if far reaching imperfec- tion. To say, as young students do annually, that Hamlet's 'tragic flaw' was indeci- sion, or 'thinking too much', is ridiculous and leaves out of account his many swift, and indeed often brutal, actions. Moreover it implies that had he killed Claudius without more ado tragedy would have been avoided, a dangerous and unproven statement.

    Instead of searching for 'tragic flaws' in both the heroes of tragedies and the supporting characters (Hamlet and Ophelia, Creon and Antigone, Othello and Desdemona for instance) it is far more fruitful to translate 'hamartia' as 'error' and interpret it as the precipitating action, or erroneous step, taken in ignorance (inno- cent ignorance as with Oedipus or wilful and culpable ignorance as with Macbeth) which leads eventually to the tragic catastrophe. This is the mainspring of all and every tragedy in which there is a tragic hero and it is a concept which can be applied to the most and the least Aristotelian of plays, to Oedipus Tyrannus, to Macbeth or to Rosmersholm. Moreover, unlike the doctrine of the 'tragic flaw', it opens...


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