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In this lesson you will review the concept of a literary tragedy. Then you will learn the difference between external and internal conflict. Finally, you will see how hamartia affects a tragedy and examine some examples.

Literary Tragedies

Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Hamlet: all extremely well-known tragedies.

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If you have read each one, you can imagine why they are labeled as tragedies. In each, the ending is far from happy. In fact, each of the title characters in that list dies in the end. But is that what makes them classified as tragedies? Does a tragedy have to end in death? Not necessarily.

In fact, the true definition of a literary tragedy is a story containing a courageous protagonist fighting against powerful forces (internal or external) who retains his good character against dangerous odds. It is, in fact, this conflict that draws the reader into the story. It is what makes that tale stand the test of time and become a piece of distinguished literature.

The Tragic Flaw

For literary tragedies, it is that conflict that drives the story. If the conflict is outside the protagonist, then it is an external conflict. In that case, the tragedy focuses on the protagonist battling that external force, be it another character, war, acts of God, etc. However, many times, especially in the classics, the conflict is much more psychological and is what is called an internal conflict. Internal conflicts come from within the character himself.In literary tragedies, the protagonist must be very courageous and noble. So, how then would a character so inherently good have an internal conflict? Aristotle, who originally analyzed the classic Greek dramas, came to this conclusion: the protagonist must have some sort of ‘error or frailty’ which brings about his/her own adversity.

This frailty is called hamartia or internal tragic flaw. It is this flaw which leads the character to struggle. Harmatia, however, is only one type of internal conflict. Some characters have serious internal conflicts, but they do not lead to their own downfall.

It is only considered hamartia if that flaw leads to the character’s destruction.

Examples and Effects of Hamartia

Hamartia is extremely important to many classic tragedies. For example, look at Shakespeare’s Othello. Othello was a powerful leader who deeply loved his faithful wife. He was tricked into believing his wife had cheated on him. His suspicion then overpowered him and he murdered his wife in a jealous rage, never even giving her a chance to defend herself. When he discovers he was deceived, he remains a noble character.

He realized everything was his own fault and punished himself by committing suicide. Now imagine the same story, but remove Othello’s jealousy. He is unconcerned about a supposed affair and would certainly not murder his wife over it. Is there even a story anymore? Not a good one. In this case, Othello’s hamartia, or internal tragic flaw, is his extreme jealousy. It is this jealousy that enables him to be tricked and allows him to create his own destruction.

Shakespeare is full of great examples of hamartia. Another is Hamlet. In the play, Hamlet learns that his uncle murdered his father, married his mother and took over the throne. However, Hamlet’s hamartia is cowardice and passivity. He learns the truth, but instead of confronting his uncle, he decides to pretend to be turning mad and puts on a fake play to make his uncle feel guilty.

Not exactly the best solution to his problem. This cowardice leads him to his own death, not to mention the death of almost every other major character in the play.Perhaps the best example of hamartia occurs in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. In this Greek drama, Oedipus unknowingly kills his own father and marries his mother. Years later, he realizes what he has done and gouges out his own eyes in grief. What made him kill his own father in the first place? His tragic flaw – his pride.

On a random road, on a random day, Oedipus met a stranger in the street who offended him in some small manner. In response, Oedipus killed him. That stranger was in fact his father, whom he hadn’t seen since he was left for dead as a baby. Oedipus murdered this stranger to keep intact his extreme pride. His hamartia is his own downfall.Do not think hamartia only exists in the classic tragedies. The concept of hamartia is readily seen in many modern tragic stories, as well.

For example, in the Divergence trilogy, the main character Tris insists on self-sacrifice for the greater good. This eventually leads her to turn herself into the enemy, and, in the final novel, to sacrifice her own life to prevent an attack on those she cares about. Also, The Hunger Games could hardly have been so popular a series without Katniss’ protectiveness (specifically of the weak). It is this protectiveness that leads her to volunteer for the games in her sister’s place, which sets in motion the entire series. In fact, hamartia can be a wide range of character traits, including envy, selfishness, selflessness, lust, greed, and cruelty.Hamartia exists in characters for several purposes. If the protagonist was noble, always doing the right thing and never making mistakes, not many would be able to relate to that character.

Real people have flaws, and it is important to be able to connect to fictional characters through those flaws. Other purposes for hamartia can include arousing pity or fear in readers, or to represent a moral lesson. Overall, hamartia serves a very important purpose in tragic literature.

Lesson Summary

Literary tragedies center on strong protagonists who battle with various conflicts. Some of these conflicts come from external sources, while others originate within the protagonist himself.

When this internal conflict leads to that character’s tragic downfall, it is called hamartia, or internal tragic flaw. This flaw is what brings on the protagonist’s misfortune.

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