What are the similarities and differences in the ways William Shakespeare and Robert Browning present their characters with hamartia in Shakespeare's Othello and both of Browning's poems...

What are the similarities and differences in the ways William Shakespeare and Robert Browning present their characters with hamartia in Shakespeare's Othello and both of Browning's poems "Porphyria's Lover" and "My Last Duchess"?

I also want to add a discussion of the issue: To what extent does this give the text a sense of catharsis at the end? But I am struggling to recognize the catharsis inOthello, "My Last Duchess" and "Porphyria's Lover."

Expert Answers
andrewnightingale eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The term hamartia, derived from the Greek hamarteinen, which generally means "to commit an error" or "miss the mark," has various other interpretations. The term was first used by Aristotle in dramatic literature. In this regard, then, it could be a reference to a flaw in a protagonist's character, either because of a natural disposition, a sin committed by the character, his or her ignorance or naivety, or a misunderstanding by him or her.

This results is the protagonist committing a grievous error, which may lead to his or her downfall. As such, the character becomes self-destructive, and, in a greater dramatic sense, also destroys others in the process. The hero becomes an anti-hero or villain, as it were.

In Shakespeare's play Othello, the protagonist does not have one flaw only - he possesses may weaknesses which, all combined, result in his journey into emotional instability, madness and eventual destruction.

Othello, who is a much admired Venetian general, firstly suffers from insecurity; he is insecure about being an outsider in Venice. Secondly, he is concerned about the age-difference between himself and Desdemona. Thirdly, he has doubts about his beautiful young wife's loyalty to him (why has she chosen him above much younger and obviously more suitable suitors?). Her father has also warned him that she betrayed her parent and might do the same to her love.

All these factors make Othello an easy target for the Machiavellian Iago's manipulations. Othello has complete trust in his ensign, so much so that Iago uses Othello's insecurities to turn him into a monster who is overcome by fits and uncharacteristic outbursts - a jealous fiend who mistrusts and publicly abuses his wife, verbally and physically. Othello loses all reason and is eventually manipulated by Iago into believing that Desdemona is having an affair with his lieutenant, Cassio. Othello, in a final act of madness, then plots with Iago the murders of both Cassio and Desdemona. When he has finally smothered Desdemona and discovers the real truth, Othello in redemptive guilt commits suicide.

In his two poems, "My Last Duchess" and "Porphyria's Lover," the poet introduces us to two characters who share similar weaknesses. In the first poem, we are introduced to the narcissistic and obviously insecure Duke of Ferrara who functions as the speaker. Through this dramatic monologue, we are informed by the Duke about his "last" Duchess, who, in his view, did not show him enough respect and did not honor his "nine-hundred-years-old name." Instead, she shared her affection and joy with all. The Duke obviously found this extremely disturbing and, overwhelmed by jealousy and resentment,

"I gave commands

Then all smiles stopped together"

It is clear that the Duke had the Duchess killed. In his talk, we become aware that he is in the process of arranging another marriage. He leaves us with the chilling suggestion that his next bride needs to be tamed or she will probably face the same fate. 

The monologue in "Porphyria's Lover" provides the same horrifying background. The speaker informs us about his illegitimate relationship with a married woman high above his rank. The speaker is a somber and sullen character, obviously not much impressed with his lover's carefree and breezy personality. When she arrives, she immediately indulges in various activities and only when she is done does she seek his attention. He obviously resents this and decides to kill her by choking her to death with her own hair.

The depth of his madness does not end there for after strangling her he props up her head and spends the rest of the night sitting with her corpse, commenting that:

"And God has not said a word!"

as if he seeks redemption for his terrible deed!  

Catharsis refers to the effect that the tragic events described in the above genres has on the audience. In all three, the sense that is arrived at is one of pity. The audience could also experience outrage at the evil that is so blatantly and wrongly committed against innocent victims, but overall, the sense is that of sadness for not only the victims, but for the perpetrators as well, since they were overwhelmed by their unfathomable and senseless insecurities.   

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In his discussion of tragedy in Poetics, Aristotle insists that, although not perfect, the tragic hero is good; therefore, his fall results not from his personality, but from his actions. Hamartia is "an act of injustice" that the hero commits either from ignorance or from a conviction that a greater good will be better served by this action. This error on the part of the protagonist then results in a series of actions that culminate in a reversal from their good fortune to bad.

"Hamartia may betoken an error of discernment due to ignorance, to the lack of an essential piece of information. Finally, hamartia may be viewed simply as an act which, for whatever reason, ends in failure rather than success."

In Shakespeare's Othello, the protagonist Othello commits an "error of discernment," passing over Iago, his ensign, to promote his corporal, Cassio to lieutenant. This decision is not meant to be unjust; Othello feels that "the great arithmetician" (1.1), as Iago terms him, is a skilled professional who would better replace him were he to be killed, for Cassio is diplomatic and knows the limitations of war. Neverthess, Othello's failure to discern the true nature of Iago begins with the ensign's envy as he feels with his battle experience that he is more deserving of the promotion than is Cassio. This arousal of Iago's resentment and envy as a result of Othello's misjudgment of his personal traits leads to the tragic results of the play that begin in Act III as Iago plants the seeds of doubt in Othello while deceiving him to believe that Iago loves Othello and is concerned about Cassio--"Cassio's my worthy friend--" (3.3.223). After he leaves, the deceived Othello observes, "This fellow's of exceeding honesty" (3.3.259). This false belief in Iago leads Othello to suspect Desmonda because of Iago's innuendos. Consequently, in this distorted state of mind, he kills his wife in a jealous rage.

In "Porphyria's Love" the speaker of the dramatic monologue commits his "act of injustice" when he kills his lover, who before this visit has chosen when she would come to him. But, when she arrives at the time of the monologue and finally settles near him, the speaker kills her, believing that he can preserve her love in this way. In his insanity and disassociation from himself, the speaker interprets the look on his dead lover's face as meaning that she has finally given herself wholly to him:

That moment she was mine, mine, fair,
       Perfectly pure and good: I found
A thing to do, and all her hair
       In one long yellow string I wound
       Three times her little throat around,
And strangled her. 
In another dramatic monologue, "My Last Duchess," the Duke of Ferrara is in the process of negotiating for a new wife, so he displays for the agent for this engagement the portrait of his last duchess as an example of the quality of woman he expects to have. However, he reveals his hamartia in the middle of this monologue when he describes, 
Sir, 'twas not
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot 
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek. (13-15)
The breathlessness of the Duke's speech indicates his perception is not realistic and is instead grounded on his distorted assumptions and retributive jealousy, much like the actions of the lover in Browning's other poem.
In all three works, the characters guilty of hamartia commit irrational acts because of their jealousy and delusions. Othello's jealousy is fueled by the insinuations and innuendos of the treacherous Iago; on the other hand, it is the distorted perceptions of the two speakers of Browning's monologues that determine their jealous acts of irrationality.
Tamara K. H. eNotes educator| Certified Educator

We can easily see a lot of similarities and differences between Desdemona in Shakespeare's Othello and the two female characters, Porphyria and the duchess, in both of Robert Browning's scandalous poems "Porphyria's Lover" and "My Last Duchess," especially with respect to either their behavior or rumored behavior and their fates. More specifically, we can easily see that all three characters display hamartia, which was defined by Aristotle in his Poetics as a tragic character flaw that leads to the characters' downfalls (Literary Devices: Definition and Examples of Literary Terms, "Hamartia"). Let's look at Desdemona and Porphyria as examples.

In "Porphyria," it is very evident that the character Porphyria is a very flirtatious woman, even a woman of very loose morals. Browning describes her as having walked through the rain on a stormy night to visit her lover in a cottage in the country. More importantly, it seems he is merely her lover, not her husband, because she already has some sort of social commitment that she is too prideful and vain to break, as we see in the following lines:

...--she/ Too weak, for all her heart's endeavour,
To set its struggling passion free
From pride, and vainer ties dissever,
And give herself to me for ever.

It's justifiable we can translate "vainer ties dissever" as referring to some sort of social tie; she is possibly even already married. Yet, she's too prideful and full of vanity to leave her husband since doing so would cause a scandal and possibly even cost her her wealthy social status. Hence, she torments him by remaining his lover despite the fact that she can never fully devote herself to him. We can especially see how tormented he feels by her partial availability to him in the fact that he refuses to speak when she enters the room. Due to his feelings of torment, he strangles her because she cannot be fully his, and it is only in death that she can be fully his. Hence, it is her flirtatiousness and willingness to be unfaithful that cause his torment and lead to her demise, showing us that these are her hamartias.

Similarly, in Shakespeare's Othello, the tragic title character Othello strangles his wife Desdemona; however, the reasons are slightly different. In contrast to Porphyria, Desdemona is fully Othello's as his wife. However, he is conned into believing she is unfaithful. Desdemona certainly has a generous and caring nature, which can easily be misconstrued as being flirtatious when seen in the wrong light. Hence, while being flirtatious and unfaithful were Porphyrias hamartias, Desdemona's hamartia is being generous and caring, at least in the eyes of her husband. For example, when Othello dismisses Cassio for drunken behavior incited by Iago and Roderigo, Desdemona offers to help Cassio by pleading his case before Othello. Iago, of course, uses this encounter to convince Othello she is unfaithful, resulting in Othello strangling her, just like Porphyria's lover strangles Porphyria. However, unlike Porphyria, it is the generosity and kindness Desdemona shows Cassio that incite Othello's jealousy, so we can say it is her generous and caring nature that is her hamartia.

durbanville eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Hamartia in literature was first introduced by Aristotle in his Poetics, and comes from the Greek tragedy. The main character is revealed to have a flaw so debilitating that it reverses apparent good fortune and, due to the extent of the hamartia, the character is unable to recover from the unfortunate series of events or circumstances which then drive the plot forward. There is no turning back.    

In Shakespeare's Othello, the audience learns very quickly that Iago, as he says himself in Act I, scene i, line 66, is "not what I am." He intends to take advantage of Othello to serve his own ends. Othello is a valiant soldier and much in demand for his services; the Duke is anxious to speak to him about his next appointment. However, Othello is stopped by Brabantio, despite his knowledge of Othello's good standing, who demands that Othello tell him where Desdemona is because he has heard that Othello has "enchanted her" (I.ii.63). Othello's honesty is apparent as he admits that he has married Desdemona but he is prepared to stake his life that it is with her full consent. The audience then recognizes Othello's honesty which will ultimately turn into misplaced trust from which his jealousy will develop. His misfortune is basically sealed when he shows poor judgment and assigns Desdemona to "honest" Iago's care and his luck turns; from respected soldier with a beautiful wife, he becomes a man dependent on Iago for his future. This is hamartia in action - Othello, truly honest, has failed to recognize Iago's scheming and has made an error of judgment by laying himself bare to the manipulating Iago. Othello will become a calculated killer.

In "My Last Duchess" by Robert Browning, the Duke is choosing a new wife. At first, it may seem that he is praising his late wife, "a wonder," (whereas in reality he is praising his own forethought in commissioning a famous painter) and he is anxious to discuss her even though he is about to finalize the terms of his next marriage. The reader soon learns that his motives are more sinister than first believed. The reality of the painting and his first wife's "glance" signify that he is a controlling, over-confident man, hypocritical and judgmental. The beginning of the poem therefore serves as a warning that the Duke is a man who will not be ignored or questioned and one who is full of his own importance. "Will't please you sit and look at her[?]" is an indication of his flaw as he will not have it any other way. For him, the question is rhetorical. He is in command and he gets to choose not only the actions of others but, ultimately, the future of his poor first wife. The hamartia is apparent from the first line.

In "Porphyria's Lover," also by Robert Browning, the storm is eerily personified in his description of it as "sullen." The storm has a negative effect on the speaker and he appears somewhat obsessive. Porphyria calms him as she "glided in" but it is as if he is having perhaps an out-of-body experience, talking of himself in the third person when he says "no voice replied." The reader is unnerved by his calm exterior when he is clearly disturbed using strong words such as  "tore...vex...spite...worst" but conflicted. His words show his temperament, exposing his flaw as he needs to possess Porphyria.   He will not be satisfied until she gives herself to him completely. His lack of reason will change a potentially idyllic setting into a murder scene.

thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The key issue in improving your results by adding discussion of catharsis to the question has to do with developing a more precise understanding of catharsis. The origin of the use of the term in literary criticism is the definition of tragedy in Aristotle's Poetics,

Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude ... through pity and fear effecting the proper catharsis of such emotions.

The crucial issue to note here is that catharsis is not something that occurs within a literary work. The term is used to describe the psychological reaction of the spectators or readers to the work, or, in other words, the effect the work has on its audience. Thus you can't really find a "catharsis in Othello" but only discuss how watching Othello or reading Browning could lead an audience to experience catharsis.

The term catharsis means "purgation" and is most commonly used in ancient Greek to refer to a medical belief that one could cure diseases by purging the body of poisons by administering drugs known as purgatives, having laxative or emetic effects. Thus a poem or play has the effect of purging us of strong, violent emotions by evoking those emotions in an artificial context, rather in the manner of homeopathic medicine to remove those emotions from our souls.

Thus when we experience vicariously Othello's rage and jealously, those emotions are released, and thus we leave the theater with less held-in internal feelings of rage and jealousy because they have been purged from our souls (or subconscious, in modern terms). In so far as we feel horror at Porphyria's murder and both fear and pity for both the last and future Duchess, we experience similar catharsis.

thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Hamartia, a noun derived from the Greek verb "hamartein" (to stray or err) means an error, but in the specific sense of straying from a path or missing a mark. In the description of tragedy in Aristotle's Poetics, hamartia tends to be an irrevocable mistake from which there is no turning back, such as an improperly arrow loosed from a bow. Each of the characaters errs in some irrevocable way.

Othello actually makes several bad decisions, the first being trusting Iago rather than Desdemona. The only one which is irrevocable is killing Desdemona, for the dead cannot be brought back to life. The protagonists of Browning's two monologues also commit murder, with the lover murdering Porphyria and the Duke appears to have given commands to have the Duchess killed, as far as we can deduce from the lines: "I gave commands;/Then all smiles stopped ..."

Catharsis is somewhat more problematic. Aristotle uses the term in his definition of tragedy as follows:

Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; . . . through pity and fear effecting the proper catharsis of such emotions.

The meaning of the Greek text is syntactically ambiguous, but many scholars think it may be a medical metaphor implying that when we see horrible actions on stage during a tragedy, we experience fear and pity, and that this experience causes us to return to a state of emotional balance by releasing and purging those emotions. Thus the horror we feel at Othello's fate, the lover killing Porphyria, and the Duke's cold-hearted ruthlessness act as a medicine, purging our souls of negative emotions just as emetics might purge our stomachs of poisons.

thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The term "hamartia" derives in modern literary criticism from a passage in Aristotle's Poetics defining the proper type of protagonist for tragedy:

There remains, then, the character between these two extremes- that of a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error [hamartia] or frailty.

Thus the term suggests two things: first that the character has erred or strayed from the path he or she should have taken, and second that the mistake is one that like an arrow missing a target is both unintended to a degree and irrevocable. As Aristotle states earlier in the Poetics, we do not feel fear or pity when observing the fall of an evil person, but rather satisfaction at seeing them get punished for their misdeeds.

In the case of Othello, the main error the protagonist makes at the end of the drama is killing Desdemona.

In Robert Browning's "Porphyria's Lover," the irrevocable error of the lover strangling Porphyria occurs in the middle of the poem. At the end, the lover is just sitting with the corpse. You might be able to argue that concluding God's silence is either evidence of God's approval of his actions or God's nonexistence in the final two lines is a second error of judgment, but that would probably be stretching your point.

In Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess," we could argue that the Duke's second error of judgment is his attempt to procure a replacement for the Duchess in a manner replicating the "collector" attitude he displayed towards his first wife. Without changing his attitude, it is likely that the second marriage will end just as the first did.

sannas | Student

After reading through all of this, i really don't understand it. It seems just to be defining it and repetition. I'm not sure these are good answers!

hashas | Student

Is there not a simple answer in all of this. It is really repetitive. 

lancelot-aguilar | Student

Well, hmartia is his downfal and ...

jackpaddy | Student

I agree with that other guy. This is repeating itself far too many times. I think one answer would be fine on this.

Read the study guide:
My Last Duchess

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question