The term Hamartia originates from the Greek verb hamartanein, meaning ‘to miss the mark’ or ‘to err” (Merriam-Webster). Ancient Philosopher Aristotle, introduced this term to describe the flaw of judgment which ultimately leads to the protagonist’s downfall. Hamartia is used to discuss unaccountable misfortunes of characters before toppling by their own imperfections. In Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Shakespeare’s Othello, the concept of hamartia is evident within the two protagonists; Willy Loman and Othello. Willy becomes a slave to the American Dream, which ultimately pushed him to his downfall. Othello, a Moorish Prince and general of the Venetian army, is tricked into believing his wife is having an affair which drives him mad and leads to his downfall. These two characters share several similarities and differences in many aspects through the hamartia of pride. Throughout the two plays, the impact of illusion, poor judgement, and isolation, are used to depict each character’s hubris.
In Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman is the tragic protagonist which is evident in the last part of the play, requiem. He is the father of Biff and Harold, and husband to Linda. Through constant flashbacks it is learned that he was once the proudest of his two sons. Throughout the play it is clear that Willy devoted all his efforts in his eldest son Biff. Continuously Willy tells Biff that he will be successful merrily on the fact that he is very handsome. At one point Willy says,
“…Bernard can get the best marks in school, y’understand, but when he gets out in the business world, y’understand, you are going to be five times ahead of him. That’s why I thank Almighty God you’re both built like Adonises. Because the man who makes an appearance in the business world… You take me, for instance. I never have to wait in line to see a buyer. ‘Willy Loman is here! That’s all they have to know and I go right through” (Miller 21).
Bernard, Biff’s friend and neighbor, has just warned that Biff is in danger of flunking math. Willy’s oration shows how dependent he is on the self-deception of his son for his own self-esteem. He has tricked himself into believing that the appearance of Biff is more important than him doing well in school, and that he himself, is well liked, and successful. With that being said, Willy’s pride deceives him as he is not often aware of what is occurring around him; for example, the difficulties of living and working in that time period. Willy’s deterioration is witnessed through his compliance of learning that Biff has performed the act of theft, “ Sure, he’s gotta practice with a regulation ball, doesn’t he? [To Biff] Coach’ll probably congratulate you on your initiative…”(18). Once again, Willy promotes being well-liked as the pinnacle when he suggests that Biff can get away with anything he is popular. Ironically, Willy does not realize that Biff’s aptness to steal blocks his path to success. With that being said, it is Willy’s pride that causes him to have a false sense of reality, which evidently hides him from the truth.
In the same way, Othello’s pride often provided him a false sense of reality. Having been deceived by his main man Iago, he comes to believe that his wife Desdemona is cheating on him. Othello, filled with too much pride can not admit that he feels betrayed by learning such of Desdemona. Indeed, the predominant impression created by Shakespeare is the terrible destructiveness of jealousy. Evidently, it is easy to realize the relationship between jealousy and a lack of trust. The jealousy Othello feels in regards to Desdemona cheating on him, begins to affect him as his true fear and pride unveil. It is clear that Othello’s jealousy originated from the start of the play. Brabantio, Desdemona’s father accuses Othello of ‘enchanted her [Desdemona]…with foul charms…with drugs or minerals’ (Boyce 65). Shakespeare demonstrates how powerless one person can become when a series of distorted thoughts is allowed to infect the mind. Clearly there is a weakness in Othello, which Shakespeare contends. Suddenly it became easier for Iago, to undermine and take advantage of Othello through manipulation. Iago claims, ‘Men should be what they seem; / Or those that be not, would they might seem none!’ (Act 3, Scene 3). Here, Iago warns Othello that certain men are not who they appear to be. Having heard this, Othello believes Iago speaks of Michael Cassio, in which Iago explains, “If I can fasten but one cup upon him, with that which he hath drunk tonight already, he’ll be as full of quarrel and offense, as my young mistress’ dog. Now my sick fool Roderigo (Act 2, Scene 3). Iago thinks of a twisted plan to ruin Othello. In order be successful, he must first destroy the image of Othello’s most honest mentor Cassio. Iago plans to get Cassio drunk, and make him fight Rodrigo. Iago, as cunning as he is, knows that Desdemona will intervene and defend Cassio; which would only make Othello more jealous and fearful. Othello however, refuses to learn the truth and allows himself to fall victim to Iago’s manipulation, and to use Desdemona’s defending of Cassio as proof that she is cheating on him. Similarly, both Willy and Othello allow their pride to get ahead of them, and begin to create a false sense of reality as a result of their proud nature.
It is very clear that Willy Loman was suffering the harsh realities of living in the post-World War II era. He was living a lie, his once prized son Biff, is now his biggest disappointment, and he is unemployed. Ben, Willy’s older brother was a successful businessman. Although Ben has recently died, Willy sees Ben as a symbol of success that he so desperately desires for himself and his sons. Once again Willy’s pride interferes with his potential success. On numerous occasions, Ben offers Willy to do some jobs for him in Alaska but he declines. Ultimately, Willy feels lost, but brags to that his boys can succeed solely on the basis of their good looks and charm. Ben’s words, “The jungle is dark, but full of diamonds” (107), turns Willy’s suicide into a moral struggle. Willy’s no observance to recognize the love proposed to him by his family is pivotal to the climax of the play. Despite his failure, Willy makes an extreme sacrifice in his attempt to leave an inheritance that will allow Biff to fulfill the American Dream. At one point Charley, Willy’s neighbor says,
CHARLEY: You want a job?
WILLY: I got a job, I told you that. [After a slight pause] What the hell are you offering me a job for?
CHARLEY: Don’t get insulted.
WILLY: Don’t insult me (75).
Willy’s pride reflects his growing blindness to reality. At the end of the conversation, Willy says, ‘After all the highways, and the trains, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive.'(76). Numerous factors attribute to Willy’s feelings that he is worth more dead than alive. Consequently, Willy attempts to commit suicide on several occasions. At first, he does this by inhaling gas through a rubber tube. This is ironic because gas is used to provide an essential element of comfort as he struggles to provide his family (Rosselli 2). Willy is metaphorically and literally being killed by gas. Conclusively, Willy is successful in his last attempt at suicide. He truly believes he is worth more to his family dead than alive. Throughout this play, Miller uses Willy’s failed goal of reaching the American Dream to show the effects of Willy trying to decipher reality from fiction, and the toll on it has on his family, and his fragile emotional state.
Similarly, Othello and Willy share the same fate. Both protagonists turn to suicide as a result of their choices and actions. Othello, only after he murders Desdemona, realizes that Iago has successfully manipulated him. It was only when Emila lashes out at Desdemona does Othello realize the terrible act he has just committed. Emilia says,
“My husband say that she was false!…If he say so, may his pernicious soul Rot half a grain a day! He lies to th’ heart. She was too fond of her most filthy bargain…O thou dull Moor! That handkerchief thou speak’st of I found by fortune and did give my husband. For often, with a solemn earnestness— More than indeed belonged to such a trifle—He begged of me to steal it!” (Act 5 Scene 2).
Ultimately Othello’s lack of sense does not let him see the truth. On the flip side, he does come to understand and accept that he has been manipulated by Iago. With that being said Othello can not bear to live with himself after murdering the love of his life in cold blood. Fundamentally, Othello’s suicide is a means of him punishing himself for his unwarranted actions. Through his final act, Othello realizes that by murdering Desdemona without coming to truly understand what was going on, he was no longer noble but instead egotistical.
Many things can cause one to choose to isolate themselves, such as: confusion, fear, and anger. These things carry a pain which cannot be communicated with others and must be handled in solitude. However, isolation also weakens one’s defense. In the bible, it states, “Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not broken easily” (Ecclesiastes 4: 12). In regards to the play, this passage speaks that it would have been better for Othello and Willy to surround themselves with those who love them instead of isolating themselves. According to scholar Spencer, he states “It is often said that people who isolate themselves are often filled with pride. They believe that by standing alone they appear to be strong” (Spencer 323). With evidence from both plays, it is evident that a person who is isolated is easier to defeat than someone who stands with others.
Willy Loman, has essentially gone deaf to society. Even though many tried to help, he shut down their offers, and isolated himself. In Death of a Salesman, Willy has many influences both good and bad that attempt to direct his life; it is his refusal to choose the helpful advice that will ultimately lead to his downfall. Willy’s family’s inability to confront him about his problems poses to be one of the negative influences in his life. Sadly, it is his wife that causes him the most harm. In her futile attempt to care for Willy, she allows him to isolate himself which leads to his ensuing death. The first sign of her laxity is evident in one of Willy’s flashbacks. Willy brags, “I did five hundred gross in Providence and seven hundred gross in Boston”(35). At the same time, Linda begins assessing his commission, and notices that the value declines to “roughly two hundred grosses on the whole trip”(35). Linda identifies the problem but refuses to call him out on it. Similarly, another situation occurs later, when she finds out that Willy is no longer on salary, and borrows money from Charley every week. Again, she does not confront him. By allowing Willy to isolate himself, Linda allows him to sink further into his false reality. Sadly, she makes an even worse mistake that allows for Willy’s suicide. She acknowledges his suicidal tendencies when she tells the boys that she has found the rubber hose in the basement, but still refuses to confront Willy.
In similar fashion, due to his pride, Othello also uses isolation as a coping mechanism to deal with his problem. As mentioned before, Othello is at first isolated from the Venetian society due to his skin color. In the play, isolation appears very obvious on the surface, and less obvious in the deeper reaches that the play contains. Importantly, Hacht emphasizes that, “although Shakespeare consistently challenges stereotypes with his depiction of Othello, he also demonstrates that, in a white society, the Moor’s color isolates him and makes him vulnerable” (Hacht 663) . Othello is set off from his Venetian environment at the beginning by characteristics that have no destructive emotional power. “He is black, he is a stranger, he is ignorant of Venetian customs. Yet he has within him a rich source of pride” (Spencer 321) .The ironic thing about Spencer’s claims is that Othello even though Othello is set at a disadvantage compared to the white Venetian society, he is still filled with pride. At one point Othello notes, . . “Tis yet to know? Which, when I know that boasting is an honour, I shall promulgate? I fetch my life and being From men of royal siege, and my demerits May speak unbonneted to as proud a fortune as this that I have reach’d” (Act 1 , Scene 2). It is evident by his actions that he is set off by his self-controlled grandeur. Isolation in Othello influences the denouement of the tragedy because people of that era tended to believe whatever they are told. Although Desdemona attempts to convince Othello that she is faithful and tries to profess her love for him, he does not care for it due to Iago’s manipulation. She explains to Othello that her sins “are loves” she bears to him (Act 2, Scene 5), but he does not believe her because he has become so isolated from her. However, his separation from her, through his tragic misunderstanding is nevertheless a fundamental element in his emotional destruction, and part of his torture. This isolation is the main cause of Desdemona and Othello’s death as well as the other deaths in Act 5.
Overall, it may be said that throughout Death of a Salesman and Othello, the concept of hamartia as a tragic flaw is evident within the two protagonists; Willy Loman and Othello. Needless to say, both died primarily due to their hamartia and their pride. Willy Loman had built this fake reality in which he began to truly believe he was a successful businessman, where he was living the American dream. Ultimately it is was his pride that led to his demise. Similarly, Othello’s pride led him down the same path as Willy Loman. Fundamentally, his pride which Iago easily manipulated, compelled him to murdering the love of his life, Desdemona. Having learned the truth, he could not bare to live with himself, so he only did what he felt was right; commit suicide. “Society is the realm at which both protagonists, Willy Loman and Othello, try to develop psyche in countering problems the society has made them to internalize” (Slavensky 167). Even though, these two plays were written in two different lifetime, they both utilize Aristotle’s term of Hamartia, as well as pride.