Teaching Students About Hamartia

In Greek literature, tragedy is central to the storyline. One entity that is essential to the tragic plot is the concept of hamartia, commonly known as a tragic flaw. Understanding this concept is crucial for students who seek to study the classics like Oedipus Rex and Antigone. In this article, we’ll explore what hamartia means, how it was developed and used in literature, and why it’s essential to study.

The Definition of Hamartia

Hamartia comes from the Greek word hamartanein, which means “to miss the mark” or “to err.” In ancient Greece, hamartia referred to actions that went against the state, usually resulting in conflict or punishment. However, over time, it evolved in literature to become a tragic flaw. This tragic flaw is a fatal defect within a character that leads to their downfall.

The Development and Use of Hamartia in Literature

Hamartia has been used extensively in literature, but its finest example can be found in the works of Greek tragedies. Ancient Greek playwrights, including Sophocles, Aristotle, Euripides, Aeschylus, and many others, frequently used this device. It was used to shape the narrative of the play, move the plot, and add a layer of depth to the characters.

The concept of hamartia was introduced into literature by Aristotle in his Poetics, where he outlined the elements of a good tragedy. According to Aristotle, the protagonist of a tragedy must have a tragic flaw, which leads to their downfall. Aristotle believed that a tragic flaw could be either a character’s personality trait or a mistake they make as a result of their character.

Common Tragic Flaws

There are many examples of tragic flaws, and some of the common ones include pride, ambition, jealousy, anger, and fear. These flaws are usually at the root of the character’s problem. For example, in Oedipus Rex, Oedipus’s tragic flaw is his pride; he believes that he is invincible and can avoid the prophecy of killing his father and marrying his mother. This flaw is what ultimately leads to his downfall.

The Importance of Teaching Hamartia

Teaching hamartia to students is crucial, especially for those who want to study classic literature. It enables them to understand the storylines of plays and books that feature the tragic plot. By studying hamartia, students develop critical thinking and analytical skills. They learn how to identify character flaws, understand their motivations, and why they choose a path that leads to their downfall. Through this study process, students also develop empathy, which is essential in understanding the struggles of different characters.


In conclusion, the importance of teaching hamartia to students cannot be overstated. Understanding this concept provides a deeper understanding of classic literature and tragic plotlines like that in Oedipus Rex and Antigone. It enables students to develop analytical skills and critical thinking. Ultimately, understanding hamartia presents an opportunity for students to explore the human condition and their motivations, providing a richer understanding of our shared human experience.

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