It is his vision of the world that is flawed, his aristocratic idealism. Shakespeare, in Hamlet, shows he has sympathy for this vision. It is flawed but, like the tragic hero, that doesn’t mean it was without its worth. Tragic flaw and tragic error are central to the process of self-definition that often takes place in dramatic tragedy. We usually see the protagonist forced to undertake a journey through disaster to reach a status of greater moral completeness. Without the tragic flaw, he would not make the tragic error and the process of catharsis would not be able to take place.
For Hamlet, to commit revenge is an act of self-definition. He does not know what he will become. Claudius as a Machiavel is governed by his own desire but that in itself is unstable. “Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be. ” (Ophelia. IV. v. 43-44). Tragedy, using the tragic error as its agent, shows its characters what they would not have otherwise seen. This is ironic and particularly poignant in the cases of such characters as Oedipus and Gloucester in Lear. Their actual sight has deceived them and their flaw is purged when they are deprived of it.
Oedipus fits Aristotle’s description of a tragic hero better than Hamlet or any of Shakespeare’s characters for obvious reasons – and this is where the notion of hamartia becomes most useful: it specific to the writings of Sophocles and his contemporaries. It is useful to think of Oedipus in Aristotle’s terms; he is both flawed and careless despite possessing many fine qualities. The audience can share the anagnorisis experienced by Oedipus and his mistakes and hubristic character traits are clearly visible: Oedipus: I have not though it fit to rely on my messengers,
But am here to learn for myself – I, Oedipus, Whose name is known afar. Throughout the play, Oedipus makes excessive use of the word ‘I’ and shows a lack of patience with those who deserve more respect: Theiresias for example. He should not have killed a stranger after receiving such a prophecy from the Oracle – this also demonstrates his characteristic recklessness – and he should not have married somebody old enough to be his mother. However, the preordained quality of Oedipus’s life calls in to question the relevance of the tragic flaw.
His fate was prophesied before his birth, therefore, how could his life have ended up otherwise? There is no point in asking the question ‘what if Oedipus had acted differently? ‘ because he could not have acted in any other way. His judgement, like his miserable end, is preordained. The wretched existence of Oedipus emphasises the hopelessness of the tragic hero. We have to come to terms with the fact that they are doomed from the beginning and they are doomed because they are flawed. Tragedy, as Aristotle put it, is a representation of a serious act.
The notion of flaw helps us to understand that it is a representation. Tragic heroes from birth, “wherein they are not guilty”, until they die or suffer a fall, which is inevitable, exist purely in a demonstrative capacity. They symbolise their flaws rather than live as we do. This is why tragedy happens to somebody of great importance, they are detached from our reality. Although Aristotle’s definitions have had the greatest influence on tragic drama and most tragic plays abide by most of his rules, it is important to remember that there were other accounts.
It would be foolish for us to leave a definition such as this to one man, although this is largely what happened in the beginning and Aristotle’s words were self-fulfilling prophesies on account of his influence. For example, Diomedes remarks that “tragedy is a narrative about the fortunes of a heroic or semi-divine character” (4th c. AD). Philip Sydney says that it stirs “the affects of admiration and commiseration, teacheth the uncertainty of this world, and upon how weak foundations gilden roofs are builded” (Cuddon, p. 927).
As Aristotle’s notions refer specifically to the earliest form of tragic drama, it is more difficult to apply them to the type of tragic play that developed during the middle ages and on into the renaissance. Although Oresteia by Aeschylus is largely considered to be the earliest example of revenge tragedy, it came long before the traditions of the genre had been established. The revenge tragedy very much reflected pre-Renaissance society. Considering the threat of revenge was a means of keeping social balance and did not then involve the moral complications encountered in Hamlet, the focus does not fall so heavily on the tragic flaw.
Revenge belonged to the church and to the monarchy. It was both sacred and foul – a proposed method of killing Brachiano in The White Devil was to poison his prayer book. Even Hamlet gives us a taste – though Shakespeare’s judgement on it is unequivocal – of the energies and pleasure of blasphemy (IV. vii. 123-126): Claudius: … What would you undertake To show yourself in deed your father’s son More than in words? Laertes: To cut his throat i’th’church! Laertes’s passion here almost seems to validate the foulness of his intentions.
By way of contrast, Hamlet is famously unable to kill Claudius while he is praying. Possibly, Aristotle’s ideas need to be discarded when looking at some aspects of revenge tragedy as they are all about righting the wrongs of others. In Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy for example, Hieronomo is avenging his murdered son. The death of his son did not come about as a result of any of his shortcomings though he is certainly not flawless. Hamlet’s passion is evoked when he finds out his father was murdered by his hated uncle who has married his mother scarcely more than a month afterwards.
In contrast, Lear’s decision to ban Cordelia was unquestionably foolish and led to his downfall. Oedipus has committed his tragic errors before the action of Oedipus Rex begins. Revenge tragedy, in its increasing decadence, focused on the theatricality of tragic drama and epitomises the transgressive nature of bourgeois theatre. The tragic hero was often a villain devoid of any redeeming qualities and the act of revenge was glorified; the very antithesis of Hamlet’s revenge. There is no tragic endeavour and in these plays tragic drama somewhat loses its moral centre. Where is Aristotle now?
His notion is of little help when studying characters such as Flamineo or Vittoria in The White Devil. Webster communicates a peculiar and original sense of tragedy. He presents us with connoisseurs of the aesthetics of revenge killing. “‘Twas quaintly done” (II. ii. 37. ), says Brachiano of Camillo’s murder. He has really savoured the show. Witty murders are presented as a kind of art form and this shelters the characters from morality. The play degrades murder and refines it into a question of taste. It is almost as if the audience is implicated by Webster’s style.
With the ambivalence he has created between style and morality, we are taking away a very different message from this play and we learn a different aspect of human nature. Tragedy, it seems, acquired multiple purposes subsequent to Aristotle’s day despite his emphasis on unity. The spring is wound up tight. It will uncoil of itself. That is what is so convenient in tragedy. The least little turn of the wrist will do the job. Anything will set it going. (Anouihl, p. 34) It is the notion of tragic flaw or tragic error that makes tragedy convenient. Maybe it is better not to ask why Hamlet had to suffer but to analyse how he suffered.
Oedipus was in a way ‘set up’ by the gods to perform his tragic error and demonstrate for the audience. Aristotle’s concepts are helpful in unmasking tragedy and understanding its nature as far as we can. From studying Aristotle’s observations on tragedy and looking at tragic drama as a whole, it is also possible to see how much it has grown as a genre and as a category. Though there will always be vestiges of what Aristotle described in dramatic tragedy, his rules have been bent and manipulated throughout the centuries as the world has changed and playwrights have redesigned the art form.
Despite this fact, critics will always use Aristotle’s notion of tragic error or tragic flaw as a starting point when attempting to understand a piece of tragic drama because it provides them with the questions they need to ask in order to identify its purpose.
Works Cited Anouihl, Jean. Antigone. Trans. L. Galantiere. 1944. Cuddon, J. A. The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory: Fourth Edition. Rev. C. E. Preston. London: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1998.