The Plays of Shakespeare: A Thematic Guide

By Victor L. Cahn | Go to book overview

The Tragic Flaw

In his Poetics, the Greek philosopher Aristotle used the term hamartia to explain that feature of the tragic hero which leads to his or her downfall. We have come to define the word as “tragic flaw,” and we use it to mean a fatal weakness or error in judgment that propels a character to a tragic end. As an example, we might point to Euripides’ The Bacchae and the unwillingness of King Pentheus to recognize the power of the god Dionysus. Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, too, suffer from such flaws, as Hamlet explains:


…that these men,

Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect,

Being nature’s livery, or fortune’s star,

His virtues else, be they as pure as grace,

As infinite as man may undergo,

Shall in the general censure take corruption

From that particular fault…

(I, iv, 30–36)

Shakespeare, however, develops this concept with an intriguing twist. Virtually all figures at the center of Shakespeare’s tragic plays are called upon to resolve an extraordinary crisis. The exquisite dilemma of these characters is that their qualities of greatness, the ones that make them worthy of the positions they hold, also militate against the successful resolution of these crises. In other words, the strengths that raise the characters to the noblest heights become the points of vulnerability that lower them to the most profound depths.

This claim requires support, but even at first glance it should make sense. The essence of drama is the clash between an intriguing personality and a tantalizing situation that allows that personality to grapple with itself. In all of Shakespeare’s plays, but particularly in the tragedies,

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