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.