What makes characters tragic?

Imagine, in the final chapter of a novel, the protagonist taking a walk in the park on a windy day; and that the wind very suddenly becomes a violent storm; and that the protagonist, before she can head home, is killed by a tree falling upon her. I think we can agree that this would be a deeply unsatisfactory ending, and few would describe it as “tragic”. But why? People in real life have indeed been killed by trees falling on them is high winds, and when it happens, it is most certainly tragic. However, we reply, the rules that govern art are not quite the rules that govern real life; and in art, one simply can’t kill off a protagonist by dropping a tree on her head.

Of course, the idea of “rules governing art” is problematic, to say the least. Who formulated these rules? we may well ask. And why should we be expected to conform to them? The answers to these questions seem to me to be, respectively, “No-one”, and “You needn’t”. The idea of prescriptive rules in art is nonsense: what we sometimes think of as “rules” are really no more than observations on what tends to work, and what doesn’t. So if there exists a “rule” that a narrative should not be resolved by some arbitrary event unconnected with the protagonist’s character or actions, then that is not because some pedantic busybody has made it up; rather, it is because we observe that arbitrary endings tend to leave the reader unsatisfied. We may allow chance to play its part in narrative, but when it plays a decisive part, then, irrespective of how true-to-life it may be, the narrative seems unresolved and incomplete.

This consideration, together with a misreading of the concept of “hamartia” in Aristotle’s Poetics, has led to the much cited principle of the “tragic flaw” – the idea that tragic protagonists must have some shortcoming in their character, and that, because of this shortcoming, they come to a sticky end. This has always seemed to me disastrously reductive: far from helping us understand profound and difficult works, it diminishes their richness and complexity to a mere barren formula. So Hamlet is indecisive, Othello jealous, Macbeth ambitious, and so on; and once the boxes are all routinely ticked, the plays can be marked as “solved” and folded away, like completed crossword puzzles. But I remain unconvinced that this takes us any closer to understanding the work. Even if the idea of the tragic flaw were but a “tool”, I cannot see what aspect of our understanding this this tool has helped enhance.

Of course I agree that Hamlet, Othello et al all play their part in their own tragedies: were that not so, their stories would be of no more than that of the tree falling on the head. But to obtain even a basic understanding of these complex characters, we must delve deeper, far deeper, than merely sticking simple labels on them. And what labels we observe others sticking on them, we must question. For instance, is Hamlet really indecisive? He is certainly not indecisive when he plunges his sword through the arras and kills Polonius; neither is he indecisive when he jumps onto the pirates’ ship; or when he confronts Laertes at Ophelia’s funeral. Yes, he is indeed unable to act in carrying out his father’s commandment, but to ascribe this merely to “indecision” seems to me not merely an over-simplification, but worse, a distortion.

Nor can Hamlet’s “flaw” be described, as it sometimes is, as that of “thinking too much”. Hamlet himself, admittedly, speaks of “thinking too precisely on the event”, but should we see this as a flaw? Since when has depth of thought been a flaw? Would Hamlet have been free of his tragic flaw had he thought too little? Or maybe he should have thought just enough – neither too much, nor too little? Maybe his tragic flaw lies in his not finding that precise level beyond which intellectual activity becomes tragic?

This sort of thing quickly becomes a bit silly, and does not, I think, lead to any greater understanding of the work. And worse, in presenting works of moral complexity and of psychological depth as essentially moral fables, it distorts. For in seeing tragedy as essentially a consequence of shortcomings in the protagonist’s character, there seems to me to be an implication that were it not for those shortcomings, were it but possible for the protagonist to be at some ideal level free of flaws, then there need have been no tragedy at all. And this strikes me as deeply wrong-headed.

Let us stick with Hamlet. Let us imagine a Hamlet free from the supposed flaws of indecision, or of “thinking too much”. This Hamlet wastes no time mobilising his forces, killing Claudius, and establishing himself as king. But would such a Hamlet be free of flaws? Such a Hamlet would, after all, fail to think about, and, indeed, be insensitive to, the various complex moral issues in which he is enmeshed. And in killing the man his mother loves, he must either be insensitive to the distress he causes his mother, or he must bear the guilt for it. For, as the Greek tragedians knew too well, even a killing that is committed in the name of justice carries with it an intolerable burden of guilt.

In short, whatever sort of person Hamlet is, whatever he does, his fate is tragic. This is because the world itself is tragic, and we cannot escape it. We must beware of reducing works of complexity to a “message”, but if the great masterpieces of tragic literature were to have a lesson at all, it is not that we may avoid tragedy to the extent that we are successful in minimising the effects of our flaws, but rather that whatever we do, however we act, the tragic world, the essence of which we have witnessed on stage, is our world also.

Whether perfect happiness would be procured by perfect goodness … this world will never afford an opportunity of deciding. But this, at least, may be maintained, that we do not always find visible happiness in proportion to visible virtue. All natural and almost all political evils, are incident alike to the bad and good: they are confounded in the misery of a famine, and not much distinguished in the fury of a faction; they sink together in a tempest, and are driven together from their country by invaders. All that virtue can afford is quietness of conscience, a steady prospect of a happier state; this may enable us to endure calamity with patience; but remember that patience must suppose pain.

– from “Rasselas” by Samuel Johnson, Chapter 27


There is one undisputed masterpiece of tragic drama in which the concept of a “tragic flaw” breaks down completely, and this is the very work that Aristotle focussed on in his Poetics: King Oedipus by Sophocles. In Aristotle’s formulation, Oedipus’ “hamartia” was killing his father, and marrying his mother: these aren’t “tragic flaws” because he did all this unknowingly, but it is, nonetheless, “hamartia” in the sense that Aristotle had intended it – i.e. it is an “error”. However, commentators have frequently tried to interpret Oedipus’ tragic fate in terms of some character flaw of his, and, in the process, have tied themselves in all sorts of absurd knots.

We are sometimes told, for instance, that Oedipus’ tragic flaw is that he is arrogant and hot-tempered. Indeed he is: Sophocles was too fine a dramatist to present us with major characters who are morally perfect. But neither his arrogance nor his hot temper is the cause of his downfall.

Or we are sometimes told that his downfall came about because he was too inquisitive – because he continued searching for the truth even when told to stop. But is searching for the truth not a noble activity? And, as king responsible for his subjects, is he not duty-bound to search for the truth that, according to Apollo’s oracle, will free his people from the plague that is devastating them?

I suppose when all else fails, we could see it as a grave moral warning not to kill our fathers and then marry our mothers! Absurd as it may seem, some have seen the play in such terms also.

But once we move away from the “tragic flaw” theory of tragedy, we may, I think, approach a better understanding of this elusive and difficult play. For if Oedipus’ fate is not a consequence of any conscious action of his, we are seeing on stage a vision of humans but as playthings of the gods. Sophocles depicts , in effect, the tree falling on the protagonist’s head, deemed to do so by gods who, but for the oracular edicts from Delphi, remain absent and silent. That Sophocles could create from this drama that grips as no other, drama that thousands of years later is regarded as the very epitome of tragic action, is a testament to his genius, and a reminder that the literature at this level is not subject to any of our “rules”.

9 responses to this post.

  1. Thank you for your commentary. I agree with you about Hamlet, who is much more interesting than a man who could not make up his mind.

    Regarding Oedipus, his situation is one that has been interpreted as resulting from a desire to marry his mother and kill his father (Freud?), but it was quite the other way. Oedipus was on the road where he met and killed his father because he was fleeing the prophecy that he would do exactly these things. He could not have known the man he killed was his father since he, Oedipus, was adopted as an infant. Why adopted? Because his parents were trying the defeat the same prophecy.

    The play is not about flaws, but Fate. Fate is the working out of things, and this working out is based on the nature of events and people. In The Iliad, Achilles is doomed because he is a hero, not in spite of being a hero. His nature is to fight and also at times — as when he sulks in his tent — to be too proud to fight. The gods discuss the matter and point out that not even Zeus can change Fate. Zeus cannot change Fate because Fate requires that what will happen must happen. Justice has nothing to do with it, and neither do personal flaws. All men can do is respond to Fate, nobly or not.


    • Hello Nancy,

      I agree with you entirely that Sophocles’ play is about Fate. Nothing is Oedipus’ character leads to his downfall: it is purely the workings of Fate, which appears so malicious that even the acts of Oedipus intended to avoid his prophesied fate but serve to lead him there. This is why attempts to identify Oedipus’ “tragic flaw” are so misconceived.

      Of course, Oedipus did not desire his mother knowing that she was his mother. I sometimes think Oedipus may be the only male character in literature not to have an Oedipus Complex! 🙂


  2. Let us consider what Aristotle has to say of the matter in his marvellously instructive work, The Poetics.

    [Greek] tragedy he defines as “a representation of an action that is serious, complete and of some magnitude; in language that is pleasurably embellished, the different forms of embellishment occurring in separate parts; presented in the form of an action, not narration; by means of pity and fear bringing about the catharsis of such emotions.”

    Of course, a lot of this is just defining theatre and the specific peculiarities of Greek tragedy (hence later he sees “song” as a crucial component of tragedy). But the “fear and pity” part I’m inclined, after thinking about it idly this morning, to go along with: tragic characters are marked by the human suffering they experience, for which we the audience feel pity (as often do the characters around them). – This also ties in why we’re inclined to go along with plays like Philoctetes and Oedipus at Colonus being tragedies at all, when they eschew many of the traditional elements (no one even dies in Philoctetes, and it has a happy ending). The catharsis is interesting too: often, it is the audience’s, but in some plays – again, Philoctetes, Oedipus at Colonus, The Oresteia, some of Shakespeare’s problem plays, this catharsis starts creeping into the action as well.

    The tree falling and killing someone, I guess Aristotle would think wasn’t part of a unified whole, in which everything is integrated. I.e. he’d just think it was bad, inept art.

    On the tragic flaw, take say Richard II. His tragic flaw is that he listens to his idle, fun-loving courtiers and steals noble John of Gaunt’s money etc. etc. – anyway, he’s a bad king and for that we justly condemn him, and are glad when he is overthrown. As Aristotle says, if a man gets his just deserts, we’re hardly inclined to feel it’s tragic. What we do find tragic in the play – where the play really takes off – is the suffering that Richard II subsequently undergoes, now he has lost his throne – the suffering of the deposed king, whose situation (in one of the classic six types of tragedy) has been so ignominiously reversed.


    • None of which, of course, is great for a sixth-form student who has to write a paper on Romeo and Juliet – and his teacher suggests to him that the key to tragedy is really an understanding and sensibility for human experience which in all probability he hasn’t yet sufficiently developed.


    • In case it wasn’t clear from my post, my argument was against misreading of Artistotle’s precepts rather than against the precepts themselves.

      The tree falling on the protagonist, most i think would agree, is inept, and for the very reason you give: it is not integrated. However, Oedipus does seem to me to represent a problem here. Not that i don’t think it isn’t a supreme masterpiece: quite clearly it is. But I can’t quite figure out how Sophocles does it: for Oedipus’ fate is not integrated with his character. Whatever he is as a person bears no relation to the fate he suffers. That is indeed the very point of the action. The fate that crushes him is, in effect, the tree falling on his head. This is not in itself dramatic material, and yet Sophocles weaves out of it the most tense and compelling drama in existence. It is a miracle.

      As you say, Greek tragedies often don’t have tragic endings. The Oresteia actually ends in a procession of triumph.But the overwhelming emotions of tragedy do need to be, as Aristotle says, “fear” and “pity”. The cathartic element, I admit, I am not too sure about: I think I need to read the Poetics again to understand better what precisely Aristotle meant by this term.


  3. Posted by Brian Joseph on May 5, 2013 at 2:33 pm

    Absolutely agreed that looking for the tragic flaw in a character is a way oversimplified way of looking at most of these works.

    On the other hand appreciation of art is difficult. Personally I find that the more that I read and learn the more I discover new levels of insight. Perhaps we can view the “simplistic” approach as an early step towards understanding. Of course, If one stops and does not move beyond these superficial points then they are obviously not going far enough. However, as Obooki points out above, perhaps a young student is not yet capable of going further yet. As time goes by and the student lives and learns, hopefully larger vistas will open up.


  4. Hello Brian, I must confess I am undecided on this. I do take your point that a simplified view may be a stage to a more deeper and more nuanced view, but looking around the net, I see all too often works of stature viewed as if it were but a middlebrow bestseller, and simplified views of it seem to prevent the awareness that there is more to it than this. On the matter of the “tragic flaw” approach to tragedy, I think I’d contend that this approach does ore than merely simplify – it distorts.

    Niels Bohr famously said about quantum mechanics “If you think you understand it, you don’t”. In other words, whatever your level of understanding, there’s more to it than that. I think something similar may be said about Shakespeare, and it would do no harm pointing out to young students that any understanding of Shakespeare, no matter at what level, is but provisional until the next time you think about it again!


  5. I see Hamlet as flipping between indecision and recklessness: he either thinks too much or not enough. I am always puzzled that folks overlook the recklessness. (Not you of course!) Fortinbras is Hamlet’s contrast, deliberate and calculating and resolute and waiting patiently for the right moment.


    • Hello Peter, Hamlet at one point berates Rosencrantz and Guidenstern for thinking they could “pluck out the heart of [his] mystery”. And yet, so many think the mystery to be plucked out is simple and straightforward. In reducing works of such immense complexity to simple formulae (which is what I am objecting to in this post), far from being a staging post on the path to understanding, seems to me to take one further from any real comprehension.

      Cheers, Himadri


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