Is Oedipus' 'hamartia' hubris, or is it something else?


Oedipus Rex

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robertwilliam's profile pic

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People will tell you incessantly that 'hamartia' (an Ancient Greek word) should best be translated as 'tragic flaw'. This, in turn, has given rise to a complete misreading of Aristotle's Poetics, one of the most important works of literary criticism ever, which has a very famous section on tragedy, using Sophocles' 'Oedipus Rex' (the play in which the Oedipus story - though Sophocles didn't invent it - seems to first appear).

This theory goes as follows: tragedy is about a man in good fortune who comes crashing down to bad fortune (and often death) because of a tragic flaw in his personality.

This theory is nonsense. 'Hamartia' translates as mistake if read correctly in the Ancient Greek, and it makes far more sense to be read as such.

What brings about Oedipus' eventual downfall? It's because he killed a man, not known to him as his father, at a crossroads. And he did it at a point when, in fact, he thought he had escaped his parents - and was fleeing away from Corinth (what he thought was his birthplace) towards Thebes (his real birthplace). He thought he was safe.

What 'personality flaw' caused him to do this? What 'fatal tragic flaw' brought about his tragedy? Well, exactly. Short-temperedness? That's about as near as I can get, and it's not quite the same as 'pride' (the usual 'flaw' cited). And it's not very moving: a man whose temper brought him crashing down.

It makes far more sense to say that Oedipus is a man who made a mistake. One day, at a crossroads, because he thought he was safe from the curse that he would kill his father and marry his mother, he made a mistake, over-reacted to a passing aggressive traveller and killed him. And that mistake, though it's not until the very end of hte play that he realises, tracks him through his life until, finally, it destroys  - and ultimately blinds - him.

Hope it helps!

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