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What is Hamartia?

By Licia Morrow
Updated May 23, 2024
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Hamartia, from the Greek for “error,” is a mistake in judgment committed by a tragic hero. While the character’s intentions and personal flaws play a central role in this process, this word specifically refers to the character’s erroneous action. This error may be the result of a lack of knowledge or moral flaw, and it generally brings about the sorrow, downfall, or death of the hero. The results are usually the direct opposite of the character’s expectations.

Hamlet, for example, suffers from the tragic flaw of indecision. He hesitates to kill his cruel and villainous uncle, which leads to the ultimate tragedy of the play. By struggling with an inherent moral flaw, Hamlet brings about his own destruction. His hesitation, therefore, is the action to which the term hamartia is applied.

In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Victor suffers from the inherent moral flaw of hubris, or overweaning pride, presumption, or arrogance. Due to this tragic flaw, he strives to be a great scientist, creates a monster, and brings about his own downfall.

The term “tragic flaw” is often considered to be synonymous with this term, but the error of hamartia does not necessarily need to be the result of an inherent flaw in the character. Instead, it can result from ignorance or accident and, in some cases, it can be the result of good intentions or bravery that result in disastrous consequences. So, while such a mistake may indeed result from a character’s tragic flaw, the two terms are not strictly equivalent.

For example, in Oedipus the King by Sophocles, Oedipus inadvertently kills his own father. On the road to Thebes, the two men engage in an argument about the right of way, and because he does not realize that Laius is his father, Oedipus kills him. This example results from the ignorance of the character.

Aristotle claimed that the hamartia must bring about the reversal of fortune for the tragic hero, and that this hero must be neither completely good nor completely bad so that the audience can identify with the character’s plight. Therefore, the audience members experience a feeling of pity for the character, as well as a sense of fear that the same downfall might afflict them someday.

In most ancient tragedies, this error causes the protagonist, or main character, to break a divine or moral law, which leads to disastrous consequences. Despite the horrible events befalling the tragic hero, tragedies celebrate the human spirit, in the confrontation of difficult situations and the accountability of a character for his or her own actions.

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Discussion Comments

By anon313318 — On Jan 11, 2013

Hamartia isn't used for stories meant to inspire what people should do. Rather, it is the opposite: hamartia is a tool used to admonish the audience to maintain their morals and not fall into temptation. In cases of ignorance, it is rather depressing.

Shakespeare has written about it comedy, histories, and even in his tragedies. Take the first scene of Romeo and Juliet, for example. A Comedy of Errors ends happily.

In Braveheart, the hamartia of Braveheart was his desire for independence, liberty, justice, etc. As in, it wasn't really hamartia. His death is associated with sacrificial characters such as Jesus, Neo Anderson, etc. to represent salvation. Also, it was based on real events.

In the misery of tragedy and sacrifice, there is an aesthetic sentiment of sorrow which connects us all as human beings. Wwhen I finish a book or leave the movie theater where the main character died, I tend to feel that the events were much more significant. Life is significant, and these stories allow us to realize this more fully than others.

After all, you don't really know what you have until you lose it.

By heath925 — On Feb 10, 2011

It seems that there is hamartia in a lot of Shakespearean works. In fact, I can't think of anything he wrote that actually had a happy ending.

Shakespeare must have been a fan of this technique.

By claire24 — On Feb 09, 2011

To be honest, I don't really like watching movies, or reading stories, where there is hamartia. I like happy endings, and I think that stories in which the hero meets a tragic death are utterly depressing.

I don't mind if the hero has flaws, and makes mistakes. I would just rather that he or she works it all out in the end. I realize this is not true to life and that everything doesn't always have a happy ending. However, for entertainment purposes I would rather not witness hamartia.

I know that the Greek tragedy, with its accompanying hamartia, was a common production in ancient times. I just don't understand the appeal. Maybe the purpose was just to teach lessons to the people viewing them.

By rosoph — On Feb 08, 2011

I'm trying to pick out the hamartia in the movie, "Braveheart." It's definitely a story where the hero dies tragically, but when I try to pick out the moment that leads to his eventual demise, the scene that comes to me is actually before he becomes a hero at all, so I'm not sure if it counts.

In my opinion, the hero's demise leads to him showing slight public preference to the woman he is secretly married to. It's this very small, slight action, that his enemies see, which lead to an attack on the woman, and eventually to her death at the hands of the enemy.

This event is what spurs on the hero, to actually take the actions he does that make him a hero, and lead to his tragic death. If he had never shown, even slightly, his feelings for the woman until it was safe to do so, they both may have lived long, peaceful lives together.

I think the hamartia, or tragic flaw, is his inability to stay away from his wife, when it was unsafe to be near her -- what do you all think?

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