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Home :: Archive :: 1995 :: January ::
Re: Hamartia -- Tragic Flaw
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 6, No. 012. Wednesday, 11 January, 1995.
 
(1)     From:   Robert Miola <
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        Date:   Friday, 06 Jan 1995 15:26:44 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 6.0010  Re: Tragic Flaw
 
(2)     From:   Michael Hancher <
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        Date:   Friday, 6 Jan 95 15:58:46 CST
        Subj:   Tragic Flaw
 
 
(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Robert Miola <
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Date:           Friday, 06 Jan 1995 15:26:44 -0500 (EST)
Subject: 6.0010  Re: Tragic Flaw
Comment:        Re: SHK 6.0010  Re: Tragic Flaw
 
Thanks to Clayton and Gourlay and others for the discussion of hamartia, which
clearly does not equate to the "tragic flaw" of so many mistranslations. Some
other related points and queries:
 
1) Aristotle does talk of eironeia elsewhere (NE 1127B), where self-deprecation
   is the deficiency opposed to alazoneia, the excess.
2) Isn't it a bit harsh to say that Butcher, Kitto, Frye, and Sewell wrote
   nonsense about Greek tragedy?
3) On hubris: See Demosthenes, Against Meidias 21.180 where it seems to mean
   treating free men like slaves; and his Against Konon 54.7ff., where the
   term applies to the arrogance of one who, not content with merely beating
   his enemy, crowed like a triumphant cock over him.  Ref. The World of
   Athens, 114-6.
4) Yes there are lots of Greek words for fate, necessity and the like; but
   the presence of individual gods, ex- or implicit (Apollo in OT, Aphrodite
   in Hippolytus) changes the dynamics so profoundly as to render comparisons
   with later works, like Romeo and Juliet, hard to sustain. Or do I need to
   hear more arguments and rethink the matter?
 
Bob Miola
 
(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Michael Hancher <
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Date:           Friday, 6 Jan 95 15:58:46 CST
Subject:        Tragic Flaw
 
Lane Cooper may have been (as the new _OED_ suggests) the first critic to use
the _term_ "tragic flaw," but the _concept_ was an old one, as his casual use
of the term indicates.  In _Aristotle on the Art of Poetry: An Amplified
Version with Supplementary Illustrations for Students of English_ (Boston:
Ginn, 1913), Cooper translates the _hamartia_ passage in _Poetics_ 13 as
follows:
 
          There remains . . . the case of the man intermediate
          between these extremes: a man not superlatively good
          and just, nor yet one whose misfortune comes about
          through vice and depravity; but a man who is brought
          low through some error of judgment or
          shortcoming . . . .  (40)
 
The term "tragic flaw" appears not in the translation but in Cooper's
commentary, as an offhand synonym for the terms he used to translate
_hamartia_:
 
               For many, the tragic flaw of the hero, described
          as an 'error of judgment', or a 'shortcoming', needs
          immediate illustration.  The single Greek word,
          _hamartia_, lays the emphasis upon the want of insight
          within the man, but is elastic enough to mean also the
          outward fault resulting from it. . . .  (40-41)
 
Cooper goes on to identify
 
          the specific flaws of various heroes, for example: 'the
          wrath of Achilles' in the _Iliad;_ the overweening
          curiosity and presumption of Odysseus in the encounter
          with the Cyclops; 'Man's first disobedience' in
          _Paradise Lost;_ the jealousy of Othello; the ambition
          of Macbeth; the rashness of Lear.  (41)
 
A precedent for Cooper's use of the term "tragic flaw" was the collocating of
the phrases "great flaw of character" and "the tragic hero" by Joel Elias
Spingarn, a compatriot of Cooper's, in _A History of Literary Criticism in the
Renaissance_ (New York: Columbia UP, 1899), 82 (at first paraphrasing
Aristotle):
 
           . . . the misfortune which falls upon him <i.e., "the
          ideal hero"> is the result of some great flaw of
          character or fatal error of conduct. <Note 2: "_Poet._
          xiii, 2, 3.">
               This conception of the tragic hero was the subject
          of considerable discussion in the Renaissance . . . .
 
Though the term "tragic flaw" arrives relatively late, the concept is very old.
 According to J. M. Bremer's excellent monograph _Hamartia: Tragic Error in the
"Poetics" of Aristotle and in Greek Tragedy_ (Amsterdam: Hakkert, 1969), 67-68,
Lorenzo Valla's translation of the _Poetics_ (1498) rendered the _hamartia_
phrase as "per flagitium et scelus"--that is, "through crime and wickedness."
As Bremer remarks, "this rings a bell which will sound for a very long time
indeed."  Bremer goes on to trace the consolidation of the moralistic
interpretation of _hamartia_ in seventeenth-century theatrical practice and
criticism in France and England.  He finds some subtlety in Dryden's formula,
"allays of frailty" (85), but apparently prefers the less moralistic (if less
graceful) account of Samuel Butler:
 
          For none but such for Tragedy are fitted,
          that have been ruined only to be pittied;
          and only those held proper to deter
          wh'have had th'ill luck against their wills to err.(85)
 
Butler's account--ill luck, erring against one's will--is indeed close to
Bremer's own:
 
           . . . it is justified to define _hamartia_ in
          _Poetics_ 1453 a 10/15 as _'tragic error'_, i.e. a
          wrong action <note omitted> committed in ignorance of
          its nature, effect etc., which is the starting point of
          a causally connected train of events ending in
          disaster.  _Hamartia_ is not _'tragic flaw'_, i.e. a
          moral weakness, a defect of character which enlarges
          itself in its successive stages till it issues in
          crime; nor is _hamartia_ equivalent to _'tragic
          guilt'_, i.e. the state brought about by sinning, an
          inner attitude which stems from the wicked action, and
          a kind of burden from which one is relieved only by
          adequate punishment.  (63)
 
_Pace_ Cooper, the "tragic error" reading of _hamartia_ better fits _Oedipus_
or _Lear_ (if not _Macbeth_ or _Othello_) than does the more popular "tragic
flaw" reading, which Bremer persuasively rejects.  The popularity of the latter
has a lot to do with the history of Christian moralism--and with the moralism
of Plato, which Aristotle tried to repress in _Poetics_ 13, awkwardly, and with
incomplete success.
 
Michael Hancher
Professor of English
University of Minnesota
 

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