The “tragic flaw” in Shakespeare

Among the bits and pieces of information WordPress supplies me with regarding this blog are the various items people have searched on to get here. And almost every day, people have found this blog by searching on such items as “What was Othello’s fatal flaw?” or “What was Hamlet’s fatal flaw?”  and the like.

I am not sure why it is anyone should imagine that the key to understanding a tragic drama is to identify some “fatal flaw” on the part of the protagonist: the story of someone coming to grief on account of a moral shortcoming is more the provenance of Aesop, I’d have thought, than that of Aeschylus. Are students being encouraged in their literature classes to think of tragic drama in this manner, I wonder? Are they being set assignments to identify various fatal flaws? Well, if they are, they need look no further. Here, completely free of charge, I have put together a ready reckoner that will identify the fatal flaws of each and every tragic protagonist in Shakespeare.

First, let’s get the easy ones out of the way:

Hamlet: indecisiveness

As we all know, the poor lad couldn’t make up his mind. Take him to a pub and ask him if he wants a beer or a whisky, and he’d be all over the place.

Othello: jealousy

That’s easy enough. Lear, though, I had to think about a bit, and in the end came up with this:

King Lear: self-delusion

Macbeth, however, is much easier:

Macbeth: ambition

[Update: in my first version of this post, I had unaccountably missed out Lady Macbeth, who is also a great tragic character. However, her tragic flaw is the same as that of her husband’s, so the initial omission is easily remedied.]

Let’s move on to some of the others. Julius Caesar is an awkward one, for here we have not one, but four protagonists. But they are classified quite easily:

Julius Caesar: megalomania
Brutus: faulty reasoning
Cassius: envy
Mark Antony: not applicable (he doesn’t die at the end, and hence is not tragic)

And as for that oddball Timon of Athens, that’s a fairly easy one also:

Timon: spendthrift

Now the two late tragedies, Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus. Coriolanus is simple enough:

Coriolanus: pride

Antony and Cleopatra, however, are a bit more difficult. But they’re indubitably tragic, and so must have tragic flaws of some kind:

Antony: a bit of a pisshead
Cleopatra: a bit of a slapper

There are a couple of early tragic plays in the canon, Titus Andronicus and Romeo and Juliet. We needn’t bother much about Titus, since no-one really takes the play very seriously anyway. But, if you insist:

Titus Andronicus: obduracy

And Romeo and Juliet seem to me to share the same tragic flaw:

Romeo and Juliet: fancied the wrong person

Although Richard II and Richard III are both classed as History plays, many consider them to be tragic dramas also. So, for the sake of completeness:

Richard II: self-regarding
Richard III: right evil bastard

I think that covers the lot now. With this handy guide, no student looking to complete their essay assignment on the tragic flaws in Shakespeare should have any problem at all.

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21 responses to this post.

  1. Dear Himadri,

    I must try to stop laughing – at your witty references to Shakespeare tragedies, unfortunately I have made a few comments like that – including calling Richard the Third a “nasty bastard”.
    For King Lear – I believe I accused him of Tunnel Vision – and found plenty of justification for it.

    I was at College in 2008 prior to going to University a couple of years in an effort to repair a delayed and damaged education – due to a step-father who declared “You are not Going” and in 1952 – we obeyed our parents during the Fifties.

    Your witty and humorous article I want to show to an ex-Tutor – she would adore it

    In fact – I would like to share with you and exercise we did in College (Ellesmere Port 2008)

    We girls (needless to say I was the oldest student) were asked to read for Lady Macbeth and to really enter into the character, but to use our own words not the Bard’s at all – my task was to interview a reporter or two from
    The Dunsinane Gazette – concerning the death of one Banquo, my interrogator asked me a question

    “My lady – do you think it was fair of Lord Macbeth to break his oath to King Duncan”
    I am only little and was for the purpose of the de mo – in a towering Royal Rage

    “Fair gentlewoman – you go too far – you are assuming I follow my husband like one of his hounds – I do not – IF my husband EVER mad a promise, let alone took an oath to King Duncan I was never there and cannot comment”

    I then turned to my Tutor and asked “Madam – dismiss these people and have someone bring me water wherewith to wash my hands”

    The class applauded my adaptation – I was given more hugs that one might shake a stick at, oh right – and an A** for my participation – and a comment from my tutor “Oh well fielded Patti”

    My opinion of Lady Macbeth – that she was not so much a bitch at all – but a sadly devoted and deluded woman – or as my dear late husband said “Daft Mare”

    I do thank you for this article – I must share it with one or two –

    With best regards

    Patricia
    Aka is

    Reply

    • Hello Patricia, thanks for sharing that story with us.

      This may sound strange, but I do find Lady Macbeth an oddly sympathetic character. In some ways, I feel more sorry for her than I do for anyone else in Shakespeare’s plays. She is certainly not a “bitch”, as you say. She is actually an intelligent and sensitive woman – a person who could not commit the murder of Duncan herself (and for the most sentimental of reasons), a person who has to call on evil spirits to possess her because she does not have the nerve otherwise to go through with her plan. What she does – urging her husband to commit the murder – is certainly grotesquely evil, but afterwards, as a consequence, she collapses utterly – morally, mentally, spiritually, even physically. She does not need anyone to punish her: she punishes herself. She is in Hell even before she dies. Whatever evil she has committed, God knows she pays for it. By the sleepwalking scene, I find myself thinking: “What has she done to her soul?” Only Shakespeare could have depicted a character such as this. To summarise it all as someone whose “tragic flaw” was ambition, and who came to a sticky end because of it, seems to me to be simplifying to a point where simplification becomes a misrepresentation.

      Cheers, Himadri

      Reply

  2. Very good analysis. (Some of those in comedies have fatal flaws also.) I think Romeo and Julius fatal flaw, which they shared, was youth.

    There are those who think Hamlet was indecisive but I had a professor who pointed out that if Hamlet got right at it and killed Claudius in the first act, there would not have been any play.

    Reply

    • Juliet, not Julius.

      Reply

    • Not only would there not have been any play, but the character of Hamlet – which is at teh centre of the drama – would have been entirely different! Hamlet is, in outline, a revenge tragedy, but Shakespeare overlays the bare bones of the revenge tragedy with so many complex issues that the question of “Will he avenge or won’t he?” soon becomes, I think, the least of our concerns.

      I do feel that seeing Shakespearean tragedy in terms of a single identifiable character flaw in the protagonist (or a small set of character flaws) that leads to a catastrophe is to oversimplify. Those are the terms of a morality story, or an Aesopian fable; but we do, need, I think, to lookdeeper when it comes to Shakespearean tragedy.

      Cheers for now, Himadri

      Reply

    • Posted by Chand Rizvi on October 25, 2015 at 9:46 am

      I think the tragic flaw of juliet was “Impulsiveness”.

      Reply

      • Hello Chand,
        I suppose you could say Juliet was impulsive (as was Romeo), but had she not been impulsive, she wouldn’t have married the man whom she loved; and, most likely, she would have allowed herself to be married off to a man she didn’t love. She would certainly have been deeply unhappy, and that would have been tragic too. In which case, it would have been her lack of impulsiveness that would have been identified as her tragic flaw.
        It seems to me that identifying a weakness, or a perceived weakness, in the character as a “tragic flaw” is not merely an inadequate way of looking at a tragic work, but also a misleading way, as it presents as essentially simple something that is actually rather complex.
        All the best, Himadri

  3. It all comes, as perhaps you already know, from a mistranslation of the single word “hamartia” in Aristotle’s Poetics, as the Wikipedia page on the subject explains:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamartia

    Amazing to think how much time in people’s lives has been wasted by this error; but then again, taking some random arbitrary slant towards a text is how all literary criticism works.

    Richard II seems fair enough. Henry IV even keeps banging on about it in Henry IV P1, since he’s so obsessed with not making the same mistake himself, which he doesn’t, though perhaps his mistake is to go too far the other way.

    Reply

    • I think we touched on this matter in the comments section here. In all the translations I have looked at of Aristotle’s “Poetics”, the translator has been at some pains to emphasise that “hamartia” does not mean a fatal flaw, or a tragic flaw. My version is translated by Kenneth Mcleish, and he glosses:

      Harmatia is the failing in understanding or moral character which leads someone to a disastrous choice of action: a choice which arouses our pity because it is both catastrophic and made deliberately but not out of wickedness, and arouses our terror because we identify both with the innocence and the helplessness of the person who makes the choice.

      Walter Kaufmann, in his book “Tragedy and Philosophy”, surveys how other commentators have interpreted “hamartia”:

      Grube renders [harmatia] as “flaw”, and adds a footnote explaining that “a moral or intelectual weakness is meant”… Else has “mistake”, and argues at length that an error about the identity of a close relative is meant – in other words, the confusion that precedes recognition. Cedric Whitman … argues that “There can be no real doubt that Aristotle meant by harmatia a moral fault or failing of some kind”. … Butcher … examined the passages in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics where harmatia is mentioned and came to the conclusion that, “as applied to a single act, it denotes an error due to inadequate knowledge of particular circumstances,” especially but not necessarily “such as might be known”. But the term is also “more laxly applied to an error due to unavoidable ignorance”. Thirdly, it may designate an act that is “conscious and intentional, but not deliberate”; for example, one “committed in anger or passion”. But “in our passage there is much to be said in favour of the last sense”, in which harmatia denotes, fourthly, “a defect of character, distinct on the one hand from an isolated error or fault, and, on the other, from the vice which has its seat in a depraved will. This use, though rarer, is still Aristotelian”.

      What I find interesting is how this idea of the “tragic flaw” – mistranslation or not – has taken wing, as it were. And this does seem to me to lead to over-simplified and formulaic readings. But I’ll leave that for a later post.

      Cheers, Himadri

      Reply

      • I think one of the problems that seems to come out of Aristotle and Airstotelean reasoning is that too often we feel that the result of the reasoning tends to subsume the process of reasoning. That’s a little too abstract; so let me offer an example. If we say that 2+2=4 represents (as I think we would all agree) one of the most fundamental processes of reasoning, most of us would recognize that what makes this fundamental is the additive process that allows us to join two or more discreet elements. The person who says that the reveleation of 2+2=4 is simply the sum of the two, the 4, and not the additive process by which it was achieved would likely be greeted by us with a bit of wonder and, perhaps, even chagrin.

        And yet all too often Aristotle himself seems to fall into this mode, to overemphasize the product of the reasoning as if that product were an end in itself, even when it is not clear that such a product is in any other wanted or needed. I know there is a danger in stating that too strongly as Aristotle really is most interesting to us because, unlike Plato, he really does value the pragmatic nature of the thought process, its engagement with the world and the things of the world. But I often like to remind myself that he was writing textbooks, and when he nods he gives us a prescient whiff of the many great pontificators who have followed in his footsteps and who, particularly in the late medieval, made his name a byword for academic dogma.

        If harmartia is of value, surely it is in the act of finding, not in the parading of what was found, that we really discover the heart of tragedy.

  4. Posted by Vic on April 22, 2013 at 9:54 pm

    Fatal flaw, rather than tragic flaw, has long been an element of literary criticism – certainly was when I was at university 30 years ago, and presented as one of the tenets of literature. The heroes of the best literature are considered more dynamic, more human and more dramatically interesting if they have a ‘fatal flaw’. It allows for change in the character – it’s not just a tragic device, leading to downfall, but can also lead to redemption – such flaws can be transformative in a good way, and the ‘fatal’ aspect can be averted, hence they are not ‘tragic’ as such. Sometimes they are a flaw that the character constantly struggles with, and the pathos of a work might come from that. Shakespeare’s characters generally do have them! And they are considered by critics to be part of what makes his plays so profound on the level of understanding of the human condition. But Lizzie Bennet and Mr Darcy have fatal flaws too, as does Jimmy Stewart’s character in It’s a Wonderful Life and Captain Mainwaring – they are all at the mercy of this until they learn how to deal with it – usually they are not aware of it at the start of the novel or play, but it is the flaw that enables either the development of their characters or their contribution to the tensions and dramatic content of a work.

    Tragic flaw has rather different connotations, for me at least.

    Reply

    • Hello Vic,

      All human characters, I agree, are flawed in some way or other. Comic as well as tragic, as you say: Captain Mainwaring, Malvoloio, Mr Darcy, even George Bailey (from It’s a Wonderful Life) are all flawed people. However, this concept does seem to me to lead very often to an over-simplified view of tragedy – especially Shakespearean tragedy. To label Hamlet as “indecisive” or Othello as “jealous” doe snot bring us closer to an adequate understanding of the play: quite the opposite, I’d argue, as to simply anything so complex by something so formulaic is misleading. Of course, to understand these works, we need to understand the characters of Hamlet and of Othello -and also of the other characters in the play, and the interactions between them, and how they develop through these interactions, etc. To stick a single label on the tragic protagonist is not, I think, very helpful.

      I am fascinated by the distinction you draw in this instance between the “tragic” and the “fatal”. I am not sure what the distinction is you have in mind.

      Anyway, as I said elsewhere in this thread, i do intend to put up a post within the next week or two that is somewhat less flippant and – I trust – better thought out than the one above.

      Cheers for now,
      Himadri

      Reply

  5. I was going to write about hamartia, but then I noticed that someone had beaten me to it.

    What’s interesting though is the very different conceptions of tragedy employed by the Greeks and the Elizabethans (Shakespeare, in particular). You’re right when you say that tragic flaws are more in the domain of Aesop than Aeschylus – as I understand it, the Greeks saw tragedy as precisely that: how a morally perfect individual, taking all the morally perfect actions, could nonetheless land up in a position where he does something that compromises him severely. Thus, the fate of Oedipus; thus, Orestes’ “crime” of matricide; the “tragedy” of these characters lies precisely in their powerlessness – there is, literally *nothing* that they could have done which would change the way things came to pass.

    Shakespeare’s tragic heroes are very different, of course, because the tragedies are fueled by character flaws. Now, I’ve heard arguments about how the Enlightenment view of tragedy differed from the Greek in this respect – Enlightenment philosophers refused to accept the fact that a morally perfect individual could suffer such a fate where he ends up doing something that blemishes him for life. So, if an individual ended up being morally compromised, it was because of a flaw with *him* – the idea that fate could put you in a position where you could do the only thing possible and that it would still be the morally wrong thing was a concept fundamentally alien to the Enlightenment (you can link it up with their primacy of the individual, the soul etc.).

    Of course, the only problem is that Shakespeare lived a century or so before the Enlightenment. But it’s still something worth thinking about. 🙂

    Reply

    • Hello Gautam, I am not entirely sure that I agree with your analysis. For instance, you say:

      … the Greeks saw tragedy as precisely that: how a morally perfect individual, taking all the morally perfect actions, could nonetheless land up in a position where he does something that compromises him severely.

      But Greek tragedy is full of protagonists who are far from morally perfect. Medea, for instance, murders her own children. Hecuba commits the most horrendous atrocity in the play that bears her name.

      I also think it far too simplistic and formulaic to see Shakespeare’s tragedies as “fueled by character flaws”. But I don’t really want to press this point now, as I hope within the next few weeks to write a post on this matter that is somewhat less flippant than the one above. And we could discuss the matter more fully then.

      Cheers for now,
      Himadri

      Reply

  6. I thought Macbeth’s tragic flaw was marraige; and Lady Macbeth, whom incidentally, you sexist pig you, you have overlooked entirely, had her own tragic flaw, namely “my knuckleheaded twit of a husband.” Not the bard’s actual language mind you, but it could almost pass for iambic pentameter in a pinch, There you go.

    Reply

  7. Posted by Brian Joseph on April 24, 2013 at 10:46 am

    Ver funny post. Your labels for Antony and Cleopatra are classic.

    People have always had a tendency to oversimplify and I believe that your observations are a symptom of this.

    Search terms that lead people to ones blog can be a fascinating and amusing.

    Reply

  8. Posted by isabelle on June 3, 2015 at 5:11 am

    Antony- a bit of a pisshead, well that was helpful

    Reply

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