To say that Aristotle’s Poetics were influential in the genre of dramatic tragedy would be an understatement. As an account and definition of tragedy it could be described as quintessential. The notion of hamartia is useful in explaining the motivations and fates of many a tragic hero. It does not, however, always prove helpful. On the contrary it can sometimes present a problem when the tragic flaw is barely visible or unascertainable. It is necessary to remember that there have been other definitions of tragedy and that since Aristotle’s time it has evolved, spread well beyond the boundaries of Greece and spawned sub-genres.
Shakespeare introduces us to a problematic tragic hero in Hamlet who, it almost seems, escapes Aristotle’s reach with his complexity of character. The hubris encountered in Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex, however, adheres very well to the notion of tragic flaw. When studying the origins of dramatic tragedy, Aristotle’s ideas always prove helpful. The word tragedy barely had a definition before he came along. Dramatic tragedy originated in Greece, somehow out of ritual sacrifices in honour of Dionysus. Its vague nature was possibly what prompted Aristotle to set about defining it.
He wrote his account based on his knowledge of Greek tragedies such as those by Aeschylus and Euripides. This fact immediately requires pause for thought. The majority of tragic drama was written after Aristotle and therefore there are many concepts associated with the genre with which we are familiar that he would not have been. Aristotle’s ideas could be seen as the birth of the definition of dramatic tragedy. It has had an evolution of sorts, which has lasted centuries, and may we never reach a complete, undisputed clarity of meaning.
Despite the fact that tragedy has significantly changed over the years – by Shakespeare’s time we no longer have unity of place, time or plot – the notion of tragic flaw and error remains helpful in giving us a reason for the demise of the tragic hero but only when the flaw is clear and visible. There is always a recognisable tragic error but the tragic flaw is often far from being clear-cut. Hamlet’s tragic error, for example, could have been the killing of Polonius. He then goes on to ruthlessly order the execution of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; it seems that evil has begotten more evil.
However, he can only bring himself to destroy an invisible foe: Polonius is stabbed behind the arras and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are travelling to England. What is Hamlet’s tragic flaw? He is certainly familiar with hamartia as a concept (I. iv. 23-36): Hamlet: So oft in chances in particular men That – for some vicious mole of nature in them, As in their birth wherein they are not guilty… … these men… Shall in general censure take corruption From that particular fault. Could irresoluteness be considered the mole of nature in Hamlet? Like Antony in Antony and Cleopatra his behaviour is, under the circumstances, very natural.
How do we learn from it then? There is an absence of a shortcoming that is “universal in a lesser form” (Cuddon, p. 928) for the audience to consider. Aristotle has with plays like Hamlet, created a critical preoccupation with the identification of tragic flaw. It is questionable as to whether this proves helpful in studying Hamlet. Arguably, Shakespeare wished the emphasis to be placed on his good qualities. The reverse would be true of Lear, for example, who is far closer to an adherent of Aristotle. Hamlet is brought down by his goodness, not his badness.