"Creon is not your downfall, no, you are your own."  -- Tiresias, Oedipus Rex

Tragedy, Fate And Hamartia:

One major element of tragic fate is hamartia. One major element of hamartia is often hubris.


The most common definition of tragic hamartia is "tragic flaw", but we need to be careful with this term and understand what the Greeks meant by "flaw" and how it relates to a broadly defined sense of "fate":  Through hamartia, the tragic hero visits his own fate upon him or herself.  In this way, "fate" is transformed from some metaphysical concept -- "the will of the gods," "the divine order of the cosmos" etc. -- to one in which we see our fates as tied to inherent elements of our selves, of our psyches, our own personal characteristics, that ordain our destinies.

To put it in a simplistic way, hamartia means "no matter where you go, there you are";  you cannot escape your own personality; there are elements of our selves from which we simply cannot escape, and, for the Greeks, these elements are "inherited" and will sometimes determine the course of our lives.

This suggests we might see hamartia as "layered", like an onion:  on the surface, fate seems beyond one's control and "the will of the gods", but dig deeper and we find we will our own fates through our own personalities and character traits, but dig deeper still and we find our character traits were in turn formed largely by luck or inherited via the choices others made:  you did not choose your parents; you did not choose your DNA; you did not choose what continent you were born on or in what century you found yourself....  You did not choose your skin color or how others perceive that color;  you did not choose to be born, say, to a parent who would be killed in war or to be born to one who inherited tens of millions of dollars and sent you to the best private schools....  In short, fate determines your character, and your character then determines your fate.

Consider how much of your own life was determined by:

i) Genetics and Personality:  Most obviously your gender was determined by your genetics, not some choice you made, and the fact of you genetics will have a profound influence on how your life unfolds and what kinds of choices are available to you. Increasingly psychologists believe that deep elements of our characters/personalities are coded in our DNA, including things such as intelligence, disposition, alcoholism, diabetes, cancer….

ii) Cultural Context: Did you choose, before you were born, to be born in the USA in the 20th century?  Did Clytemnestra choose to be born in Mycenaean Greece?  Of course not, so how we are treated (based on our gender, or race, or body size) is determined by culture, not choice. A child born in Saudi Arabia is highly unlikely to be raised a Christian, and a child born in Alabama is highly unlikely to be raised a Muslim.  A white man born in the USA 18 years ago faces an entirely different set of contexts from a black woman born in the USA the same year, not to mention 50 years ago.  So our genetics combines with cultural influence to make us who we are.

iii) Choices:  who your father and mother chose to marry, or who your grandparents chose to marry, what church they chose to attend, where they chose to live, whether or not your ancestors chose to immigrate to America…which side of 110th street (were you born super rich or super poor?) or Central Park (middle class or super rich) you were born in, whether you were born North or South of the Mexico-United States border….

iv) Behavioral Conditioning: Of course whatever elements are not coded into your DNA must be given to you by your experiences, the way you were raised and what you observed in your parents.  As they say, you will marry your parents; you will raise your children the way you were raised; your reactions to stressful situations were taught you by observing your parents etc....

Finally, we're interested in the "interactive effect" or how all of these factors shape the others. The classic example, sports and the relative age effect.


Oedipus has long offered the classic example of hamartia.  At first glance the story seems to argue that we are all bound to an inescapable fate, a destiny beyond our control, and that it is folly to try to escape it, but a deeper reading reveals that it is the very same elements of Oedipus' personality that have made him a hero to the people of Thebes that will ultimately lead to his downfall; in other words, he has led himself to his own undoing.

Consider Romeo and Juliet as "star-cross'd lovers" ultimately undone by their own hamartia; although they are somewhat "doomed" by the bigoted Veronese social order, ultimately their own, impatient adolescent passions rush them toward death.

If Romeo And Juliet were a medieval Christian play, or if it took place in Hebrew scriptures, we'd probably interpret their hamartia as "sin"; they have not honored the will of their parents and they have violated their communities' morals, so clearly they've been punished by God.  But Shakespeare's Renaissance view of tragedy is principally Greek, not Judeo-Christian, and we are left seeing their destructive passions, their youthful, idealistic, impatient love, as tragically beautiful.  It is a painful beauty, but it is beauty none-the-less.

And this is how we should approach Oedipus;  fate, the will of the gods is a metaphor for the workings of both those social and natural forces beyond our personal control and the inescapable elements of our own psyches -- our own selves that both make us heroic and tragic, and thus make us beautiful.

...and "flawed" or, most telling, in Oedipus' and Romeo and Juliet's cases, doomed by ignorance, knowledge and experience.


Hamartia And Hubris

At this point you've probably guessed the close link between hamartia and hubris, for what makes us great often leads to our own downfall when it is excessive.  Youthful passion is a good thing, until it's excessive, and then it can destroy Romeo and Juliet.  So too Oedipus' intelligence and obsession with justice and finding the truth -- these are good qualities and they make him a good king, but too much of a good thing is going to lead to some mighty bad stuff.

Tragic Irony

Tragedy is inherently ironic, in the literal term, which is to say that involve an order, a logic, but it is an inverted logic: the events unfold in the *opposite* manner than intended or expected. Tragedy is always ironic because, if you think about it, hubris is itself inherently ironic: our strengths may cause our downfall; our greatest strengths can be our greatest weaknesses.

In tragedy the characters' hamartia often drives them to make ironic choices: contradicting the very values that have driven them in the first place:  Oedipus swears he'll punish the offender, when it is of course himself;  Romeo and Juliette chase eternal love, which causes their early deaths;  Hamlet and Clytemnestra must commit murder to avenge murder, becoming the very thing they loathe; characters committed to truth wind up being forced to lie; those committed to their families wind up destroying them; people rush headlong into death in their quest for safety....

Our brains are wired for logic and seeing and remembering patterns is of great evolutionary value – we remember that when the sun goes down “over there” it will rise again after night on the opposite side of our periphery;  we note that spring follows winter and summer spring and we must plant seeds in early spring if we want to harvest food in the summer or fall etc.

But life seems to unfold at times with an illogical logic: an ironic, inverted logic, wherein the opposite of what we expected and plans happens, often with the most ironically tragic outcome (witness Oedipus).

Thus there is a disjoint between our logical minds and this illogical existence. 

Paripeteia: The Ironic Reversal

Tragic irony is also expressed in the nature of the hero's fall, as well, and how his fate is ironically reversed. Often, the hero discovers he is exactly the opposite of what he has tried so hard to be, or moral choices (or conflict between competing moral values or impulses) have led him toward immoral behavior; note how these relate to hubris: how our downfall is related to an excess of a quality that is normally beneficial.

Alex and Eric

Tragedy and Celebrity Hubris

Remember that these plays are likely, loosely based around actual, historical figures, so in many ways they are an artistic representation of reality.  In our culture these same "tragedies" play out nearly identically in the media's treatment of, say, Whitney Houston, Amy Winehouse, Heath Ledger, Kurt Cobain, Marilyn Monroe etc etc.

Fate As Metaphor

Death: It's worth remembering that the word "fatal", meaning "deadly" is rooted in the word "fate".  Life is fatal: it ends in death, inevitably. There is no escaping this fact. Thus, each and every life carries a tragic fate: we all fall from a great height, despite all of our greatest efforts.

Gilgamesh wrestles with this: he must make his peace with mortality.  Achilles wrestles with it...we will all wrestle with it. Adam and Eve's ejection is fated and tragic: it seems bound to happen given human nature, and to be human they cannot eat of the Tree Of Life and thus become immortal.