Tragic Flaw: Literary Definition and Examples

The literary element shared by Hamlet, Oedipus, and Macbeth

An actor onstage performing a scene from Macbeth
Actors perform a scene from Shakespeare's Macbeth. Macbeth is a prime example of a character with a tragic flaw. James D. Morgan / Getty Images

In classical tragedy, a tragic flaw is a personal quality or characteristic that leads the protagonist to make choices that ultimately cause a tragedy. The concept of a tragic flaw dates back to Aristotle's Poetics. In Poetics, Aristotle used the term hamartia to refer to the innate quality that leads a protagonist towards his or her own downfall. The term fatal flaw is sometimes used in place of tragic flaw.

It's important to note that neither tragic flaw nor hamartia necessarily denote a moral failing in the protagonist. Instead, it refers to specific qualities (good or bad) that cause the protagonist to make certain decisions that, in turn, make tragedy inevitable.

Example: Tragic Flaw in Hamlet

Hamlet, the titular protagonist of Shakespeare’s play, is one of the most-taught and clearest instances of a tragic flaw in classical literature. Although a quick reading of the play might suggest that Hamlet's madness – feigned or real – is to blame for his downfall, his true tragic flaw is being overly hesitant. Hamlet’s hesitation to act is what leads to his downfall and to the tragic ending of the play as a whole.

Throughout the play, Hamlet struggles internally with whether or not he should take his revenge and kill Claudius. Some of his concerns are explained clearly, as when he abandons a particular plan because he doesn’t want to kill Claudius while he’s praying and thus ensure that Claudius’s soul would go to heaven. He’s also, justifiably, concerned at first about taking action based on the word of a ghost. But even once he has all his evidence, he still takes the roundabout way. Because Hamlet hesitates, Claudius has time to make plots of his own, and when the two sets of plans collide, tragedy ensues, taking down most of the main cast with it.

This is an instance where the tragic flaw is not inherently a moral failing. Hesitancy can be good in some circumstances; indeed, one can imagine other classical tragedies (Othello, for instance, or Romeo and Juliet) where hesitating would have actually averted the tragedy. However, in Hamlet, hesitancy is wrong for the circumstances and consequently leads to the tragic sequence of events. Therefore, Hamlet's hesitant attitude a clear tragic flaw.

Example: Tragic Flaw in Oedipus the King

The concept of a tragic flaw originated in Greek tragedy. Oedipus, by Sophocles, is a prime example. Early in the play, Oedipus receives a prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother, but, refusing to accept this, he sets off on his own. His prideful refusal is seen as a rejection of the gods’ authority, making pride, or hubris, the root cause of his tragic end.

Oedipus has several opportunities to walk back his actions, but his pride will not let him. Even after he embarks on his quest, he could still have avoided tragedy had he not been so certain that he knew best. Ultimately, his hubris leads him to challenge the gods – a huge mistake in Greek tragedy – and to insist on being given information that he has repeatedly been told he should never know.

Oedipus' pride is so great that he believes he knows better and that he can handle anything, but when he learns the truth of his parentage, he is utterly destroyed. This is an example of a tragic flaw that is also portrayed as an objective moral negative: Oedipus' pride is excessive, which is a failing on its own even without the tragic arc.

Example: Tragic Flaw in Macbeth

In Shakespeare's Macbeth, audiences can see the hamartia or tragic flaw grow over the course of the play. The flaw in question: ambition; or, specifically, unchecked ambition. In the earliest scenes of the play, Macbeth seems loyal enough to his king, but the moment he hears a prophecy that he will become king, his original loyalty goes out the window.

Because his ambition is so intense, Macbeth does not pause to consider the possible implications of the witches’ prophecy. Urged on by his equally ambitious wife, Macbeth comes to believe that his destiny is to become king immediately, and he commits horrible crimes to get there. If he had not been so overly ambitious, he might have either ignored the prophecy or thought of it as a distant future that he could wait for. Because his behavior was determined by his ambition, he started a chain of events that tumbled out of his control.

In Macbeth, the tragic flaw is seen as a moral failing, even by the protagonist himself. Convinced that everyone else is as ambitious as he is, Macbeth becomes paranoid and violent. He can recognize the downsides of ambition in others, but is unable to stop his own downward spiral. If not for his overreaching ambition, he would never have taken the throne, destroying his life and the lives of others.