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Home :: Archive :: 1994 :: December ::
Re: Tragic Flaw II (Long)
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 5, No. 1029. Thursday, 29 December 1994.
 
From:           Thomas Clayton <
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Date:           Tuesday, 27 Dec 94 21:10:29 CST
Subject:        "Tragic Flaw"
 
Zap this if you are not interested in some detailed attention to the "tragic
flaw" issue. I do not present myself as an author-ity on the subject, but it is
an important and difficult one, and I make here some comments and suggestions
that I hope some readers will find useful. Many, perhaps all, will find this
turgidly written and deadly dull as well as egregiously incomplete, but the
limitations of space, time, and authorship prevent its being otherwise. And I
apologize for all the many kinds of limitation, including the crude expedients
used for italics, boldface, and the like, and for normalizing, with caps, cross
references within definitions (some books use caps, some *, etc.), and for any
inconsistencies that may result in the use thereof (and I _usually_ observe
differences between American and British practice, etc., ZZzzzz).
 
There is a voluminous literature on the _hamartia_ of Aristotle's _Poetics_, of
which "tragic flaw" is apparently a relatively recent rendering, as Bernice
Kliman's quotation of _OED2_'s earliest citation (by Lane Cooper) suggests. In
centering the ultimate cause of a tragic outcome on a defect of character,
"tragic flaw" seems to me a slightly Byronic, post- Romantic rendering, which
implies psychological determinism in one perspective and "fate" in another. It
may incorporate a valuable insight and characteristic, but it is not more
Aristotelian (or perhaps less) than the notorious Three Unities, of which only
one is strictly Aristotelian, the unity of action.
 
Looking up "tragic flaw" (by itself or s.v. "tragedy") in dictionaries of
literary terms is enlightening on the progress of a term of doubtful if not
dubious origin to a position of authority and, sometimes, considerable
originality and imaginative elaboration. For example, (1) "*tragic flaw* (see
HARMARTIC [sic]) the character defect (excessive jealousy, pride, etc.) or the
strength which becomes a weakness that leads a once noble figure to
destruction" (Jack Myers and Michael Simms, _The Longman Dictionary of Poetic
Terms_, 1989). There is of course no entry for the splendid "Harmartic," but
"Hamartia" is "(Greek for 'sin, fault') in Greek TRAGEDY, the character flaw,
error of poor judgment, or human weakness that shows up in the action of a
PROTAGONIST who is, therefore, doomed by fate. Ambition, impulsiveness,
fecklessness, ignorance, jealousy, and greed are
examples of such weakness."
 
Another example (2): "Traditionally that defect in a tragic hero or heroine
which leads to their downfall. To all intents and purposes a synonym for the
Greek _hamartia_ (_q.v._)" (J. A. Cuddon, _A Dictionary of Literary Terms and
Literary Theory_, 3rd ed., 1991). The author throws in a stock misreading of
_Hamlet_ for good measure: "The _locus classicus_ is _Hamlet_, I, iv, 23- 36
[In the Oxford _Hamlet_s, found among Additional Passages (collected) and
Appendix A (individual)]. See also HUBRIS; TRAGEDY."
 
A third example (3) from another Longman book (first published by Smurfit
Books, Dublin), less tendentious and more ranging and informative, within an
entry on "TRAGEDY": "The sequence of actions (they must be significant ones, of
the kind men are constitutionally liable to perform, thus expressive of human
nature) accompanying the passage of the hero from good to bad fortune is
generally seen as the product of some initial and fundamental 'error' (flaw,
false step, miscalculation, defect of character, misjudgment) on his part. The
'error' in question does not necessarily involve a _moral_ failing," etc.
(Patrick Murray, _Literary Criticism: A Glossary of Major Terms_, 1978).
 
A fourth (4): "the defect of character that brings about the protagonist's
downfall in a TRAGEDY: Othello's jealousy is a famous example. The idea of the
tragic flaw involves a narrowing and personalizing of the broader Greek concept
of _HAMARTIA_ ('error' or 'failure'). _See also_ HUBRIS." Under "_hamartia_,"
the author gives "the Greek word for error or failure, used by Aristotle in the
_Poetics_ (4th century BC) to designate the false step that leads the
PROTAGONIST in a TRAGEDY to his or her downfall. The term has often been
translated as 'tragic flaw', but this misleadingly confines the cause of the
reversal of fortunes to some personal defect of character, whereas Aristotle's
emphasis was rather upon the protagonist's _action_, which could be brought
about by misjudgement, ignorance, or some other cause. _See also_ HUBRIS,
PERIPETEIA)."  Under "hubris" he adds a mis- leading synonym in "The
protagonist's _transgression_ or HAMARTIA leads eventually to his or her
downfall, which may be understood as divine retribution or NEMESIS" (my
emphasis; Chris Baldick, _The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms_,
1990, for the most part one of the better of such dictionaries).
 
Timothy J. Reiss's materialist-historicist discussion of "Tragedy" in the _New
Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics_ (1993: 1296-1302, "tragic flaw"
1299a) is worth consult- ing among other abbreviated treatments, as are a
number of books cited and not cited in his bibliography, which is curiously
selective and seriously incomplete even for its own scope. For example, no
notice is taken of Richard Janko's important translation of _"Poetics I with
the "Tractatus Coislinianus," a Hypothetical Reconstruction of "Poetics II [on
Comedy], and the Fragments of the "On Poets"_ and extensive notes (1987:
"_hamartema, hamartia_ error," 209); or of D. W. Lucas's standard edition of
the Greek text of _Aristotle's "Poetics": Introduction, Commentary and
Appendixes_ (Oxford, 1968; corr. rpt., 1978), in which Appendix IV (299-307)
gives a valuable discussion of "_Hamartia_," "not frailty as opposed to
badness, but error as opposed to evil intent" (302), etc. "Error _or_ frailty"
(emphasis mine) is the double-barreled egalitarian phrase for _hamartia_ of S.
H. Butcher's long and widely circulated translation, which is still in
(inexpensive) print as a Hill and Wang Dramabook (or successor); the fuller
version, with Greek text and translation on facing pages, is _Aristotle's
Theory of Poetry and Fine Art with a Critical Text and Translation of "The
Poetics"_, 4th ed. (1907), reprinted by Dover in 1951, and possibly still in
print. The omissions in the _New Princeton Encyclopedia_ may not have been
deliberate but they are congruent with the author's view that--because "part of
the difficulty with all this has been subsequent critics' inability to agree on
the meaning of even these fundamental terms" (e.g., _katharsis_. _mimesis_,
_hamartia_)--"to understand tragedy, therefore, we might cease looking first at
Aristotle's terms and begin instead with the historical contexts of the works
in question" (1299a).
 
Bill Godshalk has written recently here that _hamartia_, "as Naomi Liebler has
already pointed out, means missing the mark"-- "esp. of spear thrown" as is
added under _hamartanein_, the verb, in the standard _Greek-English Lexicon_ of
Liddell and Scott along with much other valuable material on this and related
words sharing the same root. For example, "_hamartema_ failure, fault, . . .
midway between _adikema_ and _atuxema_" (Aristotle's _Nichomachean Ethics_
cited); "sinful action" (no citation for Aristotle); and "_hamartia_ a failure,
fault, . . . error _of judgement_ [Thucydides], . . . guilt, sin" (with both
Plato and Aristotle's _N. Ethics_ cited), through which kind of definition
_hamartia_ presumably came to be linked with _hubris_ by some critics (into
_hubris_ I am not going here!). In L&S, _adikema_ is "_intentional wrong_,
opp[osed to] _hamartema_ and _atuxema_"]; and _atuxema_ is "_misfortune,
miscarriage, . . . fault of ignorance, mistake_," the primary point being the
con- trast between the mindful and deliberate, and the unaware and inadvertent
(with obvious legal parallels). Impulsive acts with-- accordingly
unforeseeable--convulsive consequences are common in tragedies, like Lear's
banishing Cordelia and Kent, and dividing up the kingdom(s).
 
In the (much criticized) _NSOED_ (1993), "tragic flaw = hamartia" (s.v.
"tragic"). The entry for "hamartia" is "_n._ L18 [i.e., late eighteenth
century]. <Gk = fault, failure, guilt.> The fault or error leading to the
destruction of the tragic hero or heroine of a play, novel, etc.," not a bad
consensus defini- tion in few words, which may paraphrase Butcher's
translation, whose "frailty," however, is broader than "fault."
 
"Tragedy" (not to mention "Comedy") is a problem that will neither go away nor
be definitively "solved," probably, in part because of the root problems of
designation/definition and comprehension/objects-included; that is, the
shifting definitions of the term, the particular works classified as
"tragedies," and of course the consequent shifting relations _between_
definitions and works. Most of the complications and ambiguities of individual
terms are due to the root problems, and the whole issue is inescapably
circular: we cannot recognize a tragedy without knowing what "(a) tragedy" is,
and we cannot define "tragedy" without reference to tragedies. Which is where
Aristotle came in, after the classification had already been accomplished by
history, religion, politics, and conventional practice. The _Poetics_ is his
attempt to give a philosophical and in effect also psychological explanation of
the tragedies he knew in terms of the relation between their form and effects,
a valiant and on the whole pretty modest attempt that does not purport to be
definitive but is much richer and more suggestive than is allowed by the
restrictive and in effect pejorative terms often used to categorize (or put in
its place, as though in order to dismiss) the _Poetics_, notably "formalist"
and "generic," both of which it is, inevitably, and more; and it sometimes
seems more pertinent to Shakespeare's tragedies than to the surviving Greek
tragedies, oddly enough. Still more dismissive is the partly ad- hominem claim
for which there is said to be "evidence that" Aristotle "distorted his account
of tragedy's history for political and ideological ends ([J. H. F.] Jones
[1962])" (Reiss 1297a).
 
Much of this philosophical apparatus is sheer if not mere encumbrance when
dramatic and literary critics settle down to discuss particular plays and
playwrights like Shakespeare, before which settling-down some may enquire
whether there is such a thing as "Shakespearean tragedy" (but what is
"tragedy," and who was Shakespeare?), a question that can hardly be answered
without reference to the plays concerned. Bradley's _Shakespearean Tragedy_
generalizes about the Substance and Construction of Shakespearean tragedy but
analyses individual tragedies; and in _Shakespeare's Tragedies_ Kenneth Muir
asserts--as I recall-- _something_ like "there is no such thing as
Shakespearean _tragedy_, there are only tragedies," with which I for one tend
to agree.
 
Given such (apparent) differences of perspective, there is good reason to see
why Adrian Poole, in _Tragedy: Shakespeare and the Greek Example_ (1987),
writes of his juxtaposition of partiular tragedies by Shakespeare with
particular Greek tragedies that "these peremptory alliances are not intended to
press home likenesses between Shakespeare and the Greeks; indeed the argument
of this book is more jealous of preserving the differences between particular
tragedies than it is zealous to wed them to an institution called Tragedy. . .
. The aim is rather to rub up, as it were, some topics and issues that rightly
recur in all general discussions of tragedy" ( vii).
 
But those who do want to generalize about tragedy could do so with reference to
the philosopher D. D. Raphael, who in my view is among persons who have written
both thoughtfully and provoca- tively on tragedy, and also on Shakespeare's
tragedies (_The Paradox of Tragedy_, 1960); and who asserts that
 
      Tragedy always presents a conflict . . . between inevitable
      power, what we may call necessity, and the reaction to
      necessity of self-conscious effort. Tragic conflict differs
      from the conflicts presented by other forms of drama in
      that the victory always goes to necessity. The hero is
      crushed.
           I have spoken of necessity, not fate [25]. . . . The
      tragic hero, even though he be a villain like Macbeth,
      attracts our admiration because of some _grandeur d'ame_
      [greatness of spirit], a greatness in his effort to resist,
      and our pity for his defeat. Although he must be crushed in
      his conflict, since his adversary is necessity, yet he does
      not yield the victory on all counts: _Capta ferum victorem
      cepit_ [The conquered has conquered the savage victor.
      Horace _Epistles_ 2.1.156]. His _grandeur d'ame_ is sublime
      and wins our admiration. Herein lies the satisfaction, the
      elevation, produced by Tragedy. . . . (26)
           Sympathy with the tragic hero causes us to appreciate
      his sublimity more warmly than that of the power which con-
      fronts him. Our pleasure arises from the feeling that one
      like us reaches the greater height. (36)
 
It is usually the case, anyhow, that much useful discussion of whether and how
_King Lear (or _Romeo and Juliet_) is tragic will center more on the action and
characters of the play, and on the apparently entailed effects, than on the
nature of the tragic as such; that can hardly be ignored altogether, but it is
redundant to canvass it in detail in connection with every discussion of every
work. It is likewise unprofitable to canvass ideological issues in detail _as
such_ in every case, unless they are the primary issue, in which case,
obviously, they must and _will_ be primary; and where they are not, better
not--depending upon one's ideological premises. In such connections, it is
helpful to bear in mind something Graham Hough wrote in his chapter (23) on The
Nature of Critical Argument in a still useful book unfortunately out of print,
_An Essay on Criticism_ (1966):
 
        It should now be possible to say something about the
        nature of literary discussion. Obviously it is multi-
        farious. The discussion of literary questions employs
        arguments and evidence of many different kinds, and much
        of the confusion in criticism is caused by failure to
        recognize this. Too many critical arguments take a form
        in which A says a certain object is blue and B says no,
        it is not blue, it is anthropomorphic. Naturally no very
        profitable conclusion is reached. (163)
 
It follows that, if some critics insist that nothing but the bluism of a work
is worth discussing, critics otherwise persuaded will seek for greener pastures
or, if there are none, abandon the field. Stranger things have happened.
 
It continues to be the case in my experience that their social, ethnic, and
vocational backgrounds don't count for much with students who become really
engaged with Shakespeare; they tend to do so on the basis of his/his
characters' expression, their actions, and how these actions "feel" and what
they seem to mean, play by play, poem by poem, and cumulatively--and to some
extent what they amount to all together in terms of their "relevance," their
exterior reference and contemporary relations and origins, and their
significance and testimony as a living "monument" by whomever constructed from
whatever motives. Enthusiasts tend in this way toward the position of Harold
Bloom on Shakespeare in _The Western Canon_ (1994), whether they know it (or
care) or not. About proponents of positions hostile to Shakespeare and to other
artists and their arts, I know what I read and hear, which is plenty, but I
find it impossible to share the attitudes, though sometimes I think I
understand the views and try to entertain them as best I can. For all that, I
am more of an anthropomorphist than a bluist--or is it the other way
round?--but incorrigibly one who remains fascinated, moved esthetically and
otherwise, and continually (re)edified by Shakespeare's and others' works of
literary and dramatic art, and who hopes that at worst they will be long
neglected before they are burnt for heresy. Me, too.
 
_Is_ it all true that Shakespeare "presents characters ranged against obstacles
frequently not simply of their own choosing, but even of their own making:
_Hamlet_ and _Macbeth_ introduce supernatural elements, to be sure, but these
do not gravely effect [sic] the instance of choice"? (Reiss 1301). Where would
the plays or protagonists be without these "elements"? To Hamlet "Denmark's a
prison," but Rosencrantz says that "We think not so"; therefore "to
you"--Rosencrantz, them--, says Hamlet, "'tis none; . . . for there is nothing
either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To" him "it is a prison" (in
Hinman's Folio TLN 1289-97; composite texts, e.g. Riverside, 2.2.243-51), as it
usually is in production and in the reading. "We" can't always be certain what
Rosencrantz (and gentle Guildenstern) _think(s)_, because of their character
and actions in the play (aside from the fact that of course "they" don't
"think," though Shakespeare makes them seem to), but Hamlet's is a mystery of a
somewhat different kind.
 
In her major recent study of Aristotle's _Poetics_ based on many years' study
of Aristotle's works, Elizabeth S. Belfiore's _Tragic Pleasures: Aristotle on
Plot and Emotion_ (1992), the author thinks and says of the Greek term behind
the "tragic flaw" that
 
        A _hamartia_, then, is an action due to ignorance of the
        actual result, and, in some cases, to ignorance of vari-
        ous other kinds as well. Ignorance of the actual result,
        as noted above, is also involved in _peripeteia_.
        _Peripeteia_, however, may be caused by someone else in
        the play, while a _hamartia_ is always an error of the
        person whose change from good to bad fortune is
        represented. A _hamartia_ is an action that is not
        vicious but that results in the agent's "missing the
        mark" (_hamartanein_), and so leads by necessity or
        probability to bad fortune. _Hamartia_ explains why bad
        fortune occurs. It allows us to see bad fortune as a
        necessary part of human nature, and not due to chance or
        to vice. It serves, therefore, as a link in the chain of
        a necessary or probable sequence of events, without
        interfering with the tragic responses of pity and fear.
        (170)
 
The _hamartia_ as tragic error would ordinarily be an error characteristic of
its agent('s peculiar human "frailties," e.g., an extreme degree of "ambition,
the soldier's virtue") and "predictable" in retrospect as both probable and
necessary, given the character and circumstances, supernatural agencies among
them; but neither deliberately "vicious" nor predestined, divinely foreknown,
or otherwise inevitable, however likely--though it could be any one or more of
these and still be tragedy, for beter or for worse. Or maybe not. That is not a
"law" but a speculation, based on some experience but speculation nevertheless.
 
Happy New Year, and cheers,
Tom
 
Tom Clayton
(612) 625-3371 (o), 644-8441 (h)
FAX (612) 624-8228
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