The Role of Hamartia in Oedipus the KingLiterary tragedy has roots that extend two and a half millennia into the past, but throughout this history the genre’s defining characteristics have remained the same. At the very core of tragedy lies an uncertainty over the cause of the tragic predicament. The leading candidate for an explanation of this cause often comes under the name of hamartia, a Greek word that translates into “a defect in character”, “an error” or “a mistake.” However, the most common conception (or misconception) of this notion is that it involves “a moral or intellectual weakness,” a view that often leads scholars to regard hamartia as the answer to questions of tragic flaw. Care must be taken in making this assumption since no element in tragedy bears easy explanation and since the exact nature of hamartia itself is impossible to pinpoint.
In this spirit of uncertainty and as Aristotle’s conception of the “ideal” tragedy, Oedipus the King revolves around just such an elusive “why”. This play, like all tragedies, defies our notions of cause and effect–no single action or fault of the hero could have rightly vaulted him into the intense shame of incest and patricide. In the incessant search for what could have created this downfall, one line of thought gives responsibility for Oedipus’ story to the heavy hand of destiny. If this theory is to be believed, his entire life can be viewed as a confirmation of a prophesized fate, much as a reading of the text is a fulfillment of the story we already know. Whether a prewritten destiny dictated the king’s actions, or whether he earned this destiny with the faulted life foreseen by the gods, an analysis of Oedipus’ behaviors may suggest why he was forced to f…
…sible to call Oedipus’ faults an object of Sophocles’ exploration. Perhaps, too, the great tragedian sought to illustrate the consequence of such behaviors by associating them with a doomed individual. Though it is difficult to imagine Sophocles offering an Aesop-like lesson, the Greek tragedies always served a civic function to the audience that gathered to view them. Thus it may be reasonable to believe that this drama meant to illuminate the faults that could lead to downfall in the ancient world, and even to caution against them. The unpredictable influences destiny and divinity surely played a role in Oedipus’ decline, but just as significant a contribution to the tragic predicament came from his own failings.
Sophocles. “Oedipus the King.” The Bedford Introduction to Literature. 5th ed. Ed. Michael Meyer. Boston. Bedford/St. Martin’s. 1999.