Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 5, No. 1022. Thursday, 22 December 1994.
Date: Wednesday, 21 Dec 1994 10:47:04 -0800
Subject: Victorian critics and "tragic flaw" in Shakespeare
My question concerns Victorian commentators and Shakespeare's tragedies and the
notion of "tragic flaw." How has the Victorian idea of "tragic flaw" affected
our understanding of Shakespeare's tragedies? Is "tragic flaw" a Victorian
idea? I am looking for some directon for further research.
While reading "Oedipus Rex: A Collection of Critical Essays" I found the
following statement by E. R. Dodds: "From the thirteenth chapter of the
'Poetics' we learn that the best sort of tragic hero is a man highly esteemed
and prosperous who falls into misfortune because of some serious (Greek word,
phrase): examples, Oedipus and Thyestes. In Aristotle's view, then, Oedipus'
misfortune was directly occasioned by some serious (Greek word, phrase); and
since Aristotle was known to be infallible, Victorian critics proceeded at once
to look for this (Greek word, phrase). And so, it appears, do the majority of
present-day undergraduates" (18).
In the same essay, but later, Dodds writes, "The theory that the tragic hero
must have a grave moral flaw, and its mistaken ascription to Aristotle, has had
a long and disasterous history. It was gratifying to Victorian critics, since
it appeared to fit certain plays of Shakespeare" (20).
Some of my collegues (high school level) who teach Shakespearean tragedies
emphasize in their lessons the tragic flaw in an important character. For
example, they say Hamlet's flaw was indecision. They say he should have killed
Claudius sooner. I argue the tragedies are more biblical than Aristotlean, and
they should read Erasmus and "The Handbook of the Militant Christian."
So, what am I looking for? Who in the Victorian period developed the notion of
a "tragic flaw"? What are some primary and secondary sources I might read? Or
can you point me in some direction where I might dig up the information?