In tragedy it is the tragic hero’s tragic flaw that causes their downfall. Aristotle referred to this tragic flaw as hamartia. What this flaw is does vary according to the text. For Othello the flaw is his jealousy, or perhaps his poor judgement. In Lear it is his pride that leads to his downfall.
An example of a tragic flaw is extreme pride, referred to by Aristotle as hubris. It is this excessive pride which means the characters are unable to see themselves or their situation in a clear and realistic way. The characters within tragedies are often from high positions within society so this hubris can be because of their role such as Lear within King Lear although in the modern tragedy Death of a Salesman Willy, as his name suggests, is a low man but his failure to accept his own failings due to pride is what causes his downfall.
Folly or foolishness is often an element that leads to a character’s downfall. The idea that tragedies are about characters from high positions means that this foolishness is not a behaviour one would expect. In King Lear Lear’s decision to divide the kingdom to whoever love him most is certainly an example of folly and this has dramatic consequences. Interesting Shakespeare uses the fool to speak the words of wisdom raising issues about who is a fool and who is the wise one.
It is the blindness of characters within the tragedies that often contribute to their downfall. Characters fail to see who they should trust, who the villain is and even what their own flaws are. This is most evident in King Lear when Gloucester fails to see that he has placed his trust in the wrong son. He is then physically blinded as if to reflect his failure to see well. However, this physical blindness enables him to see clearer and he recognises his failings.
- What is hamartia?
- How was pride referred to by Aristotle?