From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Hamartia (Ancient Greek is a word most famously used in Aristotle's Poetics, where it is usually translated as a mistake or error in judgment. In Greek, the word hamartia is rooted in the notion of missing the mark (hamartanein) and covers a broad spectrum that includes accident and mistake.
Major Examples of Hamartia in Literature
Hamartia is often referred to as tragic flaw and has many examples throughout literature, especially in Greek tragedy. Isabel Hyde discusses the type of hamartia Aristotle meant to define in the Modern Language Review, “Thus it may be said by some writers to be the ‘tragic flaw’ of Oedipus that he was hasty in temper; of Samson that he was sensually uxorious; of Macbeth that he was ambitious; of Othello that he was proud and jealous-and so on… but these things do not constitute the ‘hamartia of those characters in Aristotle’s sense” (Hyde 321). This explains that Aristotle did not describe hamartia as an error of character, but as a moral mistake or ignorant error. Even J.L. Moles comments on the idea that hamartia is considered an error and states, “the modern view (at least until recently) that it means ‘error’, ‘mistake of fact’, that is, an act done in ignorance of some salient circumstances” (Moles 49).
Hyde goes on to question the meaning of true hamartia and discovers that it is in fact error in the article, “The Tragic Flaw: Is It a Tragic Error?” She claims that the true hamartia that occurs in Oedipus is considered “his ignorance of his true parentage” that led him to become “unwittingly the slayer of his own father” (Hyde 322). This example can be applied when reading literature in regards to the true definition of hamartia and helps place the character’s actions into the categories of character flaws and simple mistakes all humans commit. Within Oedipus, it is apparent that these errors are the result of hamartia caused by the gods and these tragic actions occur because tragedy has been willed upon the characters. R.D. Dawe brings this use of hamartia in literature to the forefront in the article “Some Reflections on Ate and Hamartia” found in Harvard’s Studies of Classical Philology. For instance, “this hamartia is in reality as predestined as the incest and parricide and belongs to the category of the ‘forced error’… from the artistic point of view it provides the satisfactory illusion of a voluntary choice” (Dawe 118-119). This forced error is caused by the gods and the hamartia the characters engage in has been predestined since their birth. (In relation to Ate and Hamartia relationship, see also Golden's article)
Another example of true hamartia in Greek tragedy is Antigone. Although she has been presented with the decree from her Uncle not to bury her brother and her obsession with her dead family ties initially gets her in trouble, the true hamartia or “error” in this tragedy rests on Creon. It occurs when he orders his men to properly bury Polynices before releasing Antigone which can be identified as the mistake or error that led to her death. Creon’s own ignorance causes the hamartia that results in Antigone’s death and Dawe agrees here, “Creon believed himself to be acting rightly in the interests of the city. Antigone, Haemon, Tiresias, the chorus and Creon himself (post eventum) recognize that he is in fact mistaken” (Dawe 113). Many characters have flaws that influence their decisions to act in a certain way yet they make mistakes, only to realize them later. True Aristotelian hamartia arises when mistakes or errors cause the plot or direction of action to change in a tragic way as described in the tragedies of Antigone and Oedipus.