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Hamartia: Definition & Examples

Updated on November 15, 2016
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Muhammad Rafiq is a freelance writer, blogger, and translator with a Master's Degree in English literature from the University of Malakand.

Hamartia: Definition & Examples
Hamartia: Definition & Examples

Definition of Hamartia

Hamartia is a Greek word for “sin” or “error”, which derives from the verb hamatanein, meaning “to err” or “to miss the mark”. In literature, it means “error in judgement”. When a protagonist fails to understand the situation thoroughly and makes a fatal mistake, then such a mistake is called hamartia. It is also called a Tragic Flaw. It was Aristotle who used the word hamartia in his Poetics to refer to a tragic hero’s error in judgement, which brings about his downfall. On account of this flaw in the character of the hero, he faces his ultimate death.

Examples of Hamartia

There are many examples of hamartia in English literature, some of which are discussed below:

Hamrtia in Hamlet

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the protagonist, Hamlet, falls from his high position and faces his death due to his procrastinating nature. He finds many opportunities to kill his uncle, Claudius, but he couldn’t succeed in his motives due to his procrastinating nature. Every time, he delays his actions. Once, he finds an opportunity to kill Claudius, while he is praying, yet he postpones his plan on the plea that he doesn’t want to kill him while he is praying. He wants to kill him, when he is in a state of committing a sin. Thus, it is a flaw in his character that results in his death.

Hamartia in Dr. Faustus

In Christopher Marlow’s play, The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Dr. Faustus, Dr. Faustus’ extreme desire for knowledge is his tragic flaw, which brings about his fall. He is so possessed with the desire for knowledge that he sells his soul to the devil, Lucifer, who in turn grants him ultimate powers, but for a limited time. When the contract comes is about to expire, Dr. Faustus realizes his mistake and repents over what he has done, but it’s too late. The devil comes to him and takes his soul to hell. Thus, it is his ambitious nature that causes his fall.

Hamartia in Macbeth

In Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth, we see that the tragic flaw that brings about the fall of Macbeth is his excessive ambition to become the king of Scotland. After having heard the words of the witches, a desire for the throne stirs up in his heart. To achieve his goal of becoming the king, he not only kills Duncan but innocent people as well. Though, he becomes a king, yet he loses his life at the hands of McDuff.

Hamartia in Oedipus Rex

In Oedipus Rex, the tragic flaw in the character of Oedipus is hubris or excessive pride, which brings about his downfall. He is so proud of himself that he forces the seer to let him know about the truth of the murderer of Laius and says he is ready to accept the truth if it frees the kingdom from the plague. When he finds the truth that he has killed his father and married his mother, he blinds himself with the brooches of his wife, Jocasta. Thus, it is his excessive pride that causes his downfall.

© 2015 Muhammad Rafiq

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