[LMB] TSK - Echoes

John Lennard john.c.lennard at gmail.com
Mon Jul 22 12:29:49 BST 2019

John:  NB 2: I teach the Tragedy Paper in the Cambridge English Tripos, &
> so am sensitised to qq. of evil and tragedy. Because of the idiotic
> mistranslation (in the later C19) of the Aristotelian "hamartia" as
> 'tragic flaw', when the root verb, "hamartano", means 'to miss the
> mark, as in archery', many educated in the C20 want to understand
> tragedy as proceeding wholly from individual failing = personal evil ;
> but neither the Greeks nor Shakespeare would agree. Nor Lois, sez I.

Joel: Hrm, hoom.  In my high-school English lit, we were taught that tragedy
(in the classical sense) was a result of a protagonist's tragic
flaw... but that said flaw might not be evil, as such.  A moment of
giving in to cowardice, of making a poor choice sometimes based on good
motives, could do it.  A remarkably good man, near the very end of the
Babylon 5 story, yielding to temptation just for a moment, immediately
regretting it and going back to try to fix things, too late; then
spending the rest of his life repenting his failure and trying to make
up for it... the act was arguably evil but his personality anything but.

John: Fair enough, and that sounds like pretty decent teaching, but 'tragic
flaw' remains a horrible mistranslation of 'hamartia', and because it was
widely propagated in the early C20 it had a very unfortunate effect on
criticism. Other terms from Aristotle were similarly subject to unhelpful
slippage in translation -- the Greek word hubris, frex, is not just
overweening pride but striking a blow at the gods -- and collectively tend
to produce readings of tragedy insisting on the protagonist's

For the Greeks, though, consider Oidipous (Latin version, Oedipus). His
parents were told not to have a child by a god, but did, then panicked and
had the baby exposed on a mountain ; where (they missing their mark) he was
rescued and raised in ignorance of his identity. Roll on a fatal clash with
a travelling stranger, and defeating the Sphinx, meaning necessary marriage
to a widowed queen. Little does he know ...

To a Greek it is Laius and Jocasta who exhibit hamartia, as much as
Oidipous ; a better translation might be error through ignorance. And
Oidipous was marked by his parents' divine disobedience from the moment of
his conception ; what blame can he bear? Or his unfortunate children ...
which is another aspect, because the *daimon* of the House of Laius,
enveloping all members, was a fascination to the Attic tragedians, as was
the *daimon* of the House of Atreus, ditto : and if the family is, roughly
speaking, cursed, or fated, what blame can attach to any individual member?

Compare this to the critical mindset that wants to find a singular flaw or
moment of blame, as if everything was hunky-dory with Macbeth until those
weird sisters gave him an itch for a throne, or with Lear until he went in
for retirement and let furor rule. The balance of relations between agency
and patience, culpability and victimhood, fate and choice, divine and
mortal &c. are considerably shifted.

John Lennard, MA DPhil. (Oxon.), MA (WU)

Associate Member & Director of Studies in English, Hughes Hall, Cambridge
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