Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes

Tragic Flaw

"hubris," or "pride goes before a fall"
(though hubris or hamartia may mean other
forms of excess besides pride)

Tragedy depicts morality, ethics, justice, and responsibility in non-reductive and non-escapist ways, showing consequences of actions or decisions on oneself and others both immediately and across societies, families, and generations.

In representing such actions and consequences, mimesis typically represents human characters—for Aristotle's Poetics (6e), character is the second most important element of tragedy after the plot.

As a result, ethical or moral analysis of tragedy often focuses on characters and whether they are innocent or blameworthy. Such judgements in Tragedy may raise questions of a "tragic flaw" in leading characters.

Identifying such tragic flaws satisfies a common human impulse to isolate or localize blame to the faults of individuals instead of larger social systems or institutions like the family, criminal justice, economic opportunity, education, fate, environment, divine will, etc. (Tragedy tends to distribute blame or responsibility within but also beyond the individual.)

The scholarly origin of Tragic-Flaw discussions is Aristotle's Poetics 13b: "Nor, again, should the downfall of the utter villain be exhibited.  A plot of this kind would, doubtless, satisfy the moral sense, but it would inspire neither pity nor fear; for pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a man like ourselves.  Such an event, therefore, will be neither pitiful nor terrible.  There remains, then, the character between these two extremes—that of a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty [Gk hamartia meaning "error" or "missing the mark"; i.e. the "tragic flaw"].  . . . "

Thus the tragic flaw indicates something wrong but not necessarily evil or villainous. Instead of evil, the term suggests an error or mistake made by someone who, like all human beings, is neither perfectly good nor bad. (This "mixed characterization" contrasts with the good-evil oppositions in romance.)

Another way to regard the tragic hero is as a person who tries to do the right thing but, because of individual limits, becomes stuck in a way of thinking that prevents him or her from seeing or accepting a larger truth.

Besides hamartia (meaning "error" or "missing the mark"), another Greek word often associated with the tragic flaw is hubris, meaning vanity, pride, overconfidence, or over-reaching, as in Macbeth's seizure of the throne or King Lear's expectations of privilege after abdicating.

Reasons why teaching Tragedy through the tragic flaw is popular:

The tragic flaw may provide a simple and righteous answer to a complex and challenging problem. If the tragic narrative rises from a flaw or conflict in a character, the audience may be able to objectify or isolate blame in that character, satisfying our simplest moral sense (i.e., to blame someone else and dis-identify with them as bad while we remain good). However, blaming someone else without sympathy or identification limits catharsis, the feeling of pity and fear that is the main purpose of tragedy. (Aristotle, Poetics 6a, 9d, 11b, 13a, 14a, b)

The tragic flaw is "testable," making it attractive to the ascendant business-model of education, in which all achievement must be quantifiable for computers and education is for training workers rather than citizens with critical-thinking ability.

("Testable" means the material provides a simple, identifiable right-or-wrong answer that can be tested through multiple-choice examination that can be scored by computers, in contrast to the extended critical thinking taught by Literature and which students supposedly need to adapt to a world where yesterday's answers don't work for tomorrow.)

Possible or past examples of the Tragic Flaw

In Agamemnon, when the title character walks on the purple tapestry to re-enter the Palace of Atreus, he indulges in hubris or excessive pride. (Recall that Agamemnon was reluctant thus to celebrate his victory, but Clytaemnestra talked him into doing so; therefore distribution of blame.)

Another possible tragic-flaw episode in Agamemnon would be his sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia. His choice can be rationalized for reasons of state, but in carrying out the sacrifice he acts unfeelingly and treats Iphigenia as though she's an animal for sacrifice.

In Oedipus the King, Oedipus as the vanquisher of the sphinx (or "riddler") is a problem-solver or question-answerer, but his cleverness at solving problems constantly returns him to his curse, and he repeatedly suspects others like Creon and Tiresias of conspiring against him.

That is, he's so good at seeing and solving problems that he sees problems where they don't even exist. Another instance of this is when as a young man he hears the curse against him and runs away from his father who is not his real father, and thus encounters his real father and kills him.

Oedipus exemplifies the tragic flaw when his strength—solving riddles, problems, or crimes—ends up convicting himself for his own crimes.

In Antigone, Creon (Oedipus's brother-in-law) is so desperate to be right and re-assert control over Thebes that he does wrong, loses control, and hurts his own family. Creon's tragic flaw may be interpreted through gender analysis of patriarchy, as Creon's anxiety over maintaining control over a submissive state parallels his concern for masculine-patriarchal identity asserting control over submissive women.

If the character of Antigone is the tragic hero of the play, her tragic flaw may be her boldness (cf. hubris), her tendency to villainize others,  or her prioritization of the family without considering the concerns of the state. Also the character of Antigone may threaten to repeat her father's crime of incest: in lines 90-91, she may love her brother too much. Antigone's resemblance to her father is observed by the chorus at line 534.

In Bacchae, Pentheus over-reacts to Dionysus, but positively he may be trying to assert his control as new king of Thebes. In reference to Pentheus, Tiresias says, "Our life is brief—that's why / the man who chases greatness / fails to grasp what's near at hand" (ll. 498-500). Also, like Oedipus, Pentheus projects his flaw on others: after disrespecting Cadmus and Tiresias, Pentheus quickly assumes that Dionysus "is insulting Thebes and me" (l. 628).     

Potentially reductive outcomes of tragic-flaw analysis

Most people want simple, direct answers to questions about morality—"Just say no" or "Go for it"— but critical thinking, intellectual productivity, and progress can be stopped or frustrated by simple, final answers. Part of tragedy's greatness is its resistance to simple answers about good and bad. Instead it distributes blame and recognizes that all people operate together within imperfect limits.

Sometimes a tragic flaw is identifiable—as with Creon's rigidity in Antigone—but sometimes less so, as with Hamlet.

Sometimes a tragic flaw is so obvious and simple as not to reward discussion, as with Pentheus in Bacchae, who disrespects women, old men, and the gods.

How may studying the tragic flaw be intellectually productive instead of reductive?

The irony of Oedipus's example exemplifies the tragic nature of human existence. Our greatest talent or strength may also become a problem we create for ourselves and others.

Nearly everyone thinks they're good, even when they do wrong. Nearly everyone thinks their enemies are bad, even when those enemies might be doing good from their own perspective. We usually fail not by being evil but by not understanding how to do right.

The potential downside to such complex thinking about morality, Nietzche writes in The Birth of Tragedy, is that "Understanding kills action," and "action depends on a veil of illusion": "True understanding, insight into the terrible truth, outweighs every motive for action. (chapter 7) 

Put another way, comprehending the complexity of morality can paralyze the thinker into inaction. Inaction may be preferable to error, but there's no story without action.