Mark Twain once emphasized that “there is a great deal of human nature in people.” True enough, it is the nature of humans to sometimes commit mistakes. To be human means to be limited, lacking in knowledge and be naturally imperfect. In tragedies, epics or any kind of stories, heroes are not infallible to their own human errors. Like the title characters in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the Babylonian epic Gilgamesh, the heroes transform into protagonists “with a tragic flaw, also known as fatal flaw, which eventually leads to his own downfall. This concept of the “tragic hero” had its roots since the ancient Greek tragedy, as defined by Aristotle (Wikipedia — the Free Encyclopedia, 20 June 2006).
For instance, in Hamlet, being the Prince of Denmark, the play tackled how Hamlet’s hubris led to his own downfall. He goes through many troubles and problems throughout, especially when he discovers that his father was murdered by his uncle. Often, Hamlet thinks too much and is not quick to make a decision. Although as wise person who studied at the University of Wittenburg before the play begins, he undermined his own intelligence by being cynical. As Shakespeare’s play progresses, we realize that Hamlet is often difficult to tell if he is truly crazy or if he is just pretending to fulfill revenge for his father’s murder.
On the other side, Gilgamesh was the king of Uruk and had probably attained that position because of his extraordinary energy, courage, and power. He had been the perfect hero, but the question of whether he is able to be a successful king is revealed. At the start of the story, we find Gilgamesh ruling over his people. Because of his extraordinary energy, his rule becomes oppressive and he stands in isolation from other human beings. His subjects cry out to the gods for relief from his rule:
He has no equal when his weapons are brandished,
his companions are kept on their feet by his contests.
The young men of Uruk he harries without warrant,
Gilgamesh lets no son go free to his father.
By day and by night his tyranny grows harsher,
Gilgamesh, [the guide of the teeming people]!
It is he who is shepherd of Uruk-the-Sheepfold,
[but Gilgamesh] lets no [daughter go free to her] mother.
[The women voiced] their [troubles to the goddesses],
[they brought their] complaints before [them] (I, 65-74).
In the above passage, we could draw out that Gilgamesh is unable to rule successfully because of the very energy that made him a successful hero. His heroism defined his being “human” and perhaps even allowed him to assume the role of king. Later, his heroic ideals consumed him and have now become his very own faults.
Common to the theme of both stories are the character’s hubris that is the cause of their fallibility. The Encyclopaedia Britannica (2006) pointed out that hubris could often be related to classical Greek ethical and religious thought. This signifies the “overweening presumption suggesting impious disregard of the limits governing human action in an orderly universe. It is the sin to which the great and gifted are most susceptible, and in Greek tragedy it is usually the hero’s tragic flaw. In most other Greek tragedies the hero’s hubris is more subtle, and sometimes he appears wholly blameless.” To simplify, hubris denotes the overweening pride which results in the misfortune of the protagonist of a tragedy. It is the particular form of hamartia, or tragic flaw, which could result from excessive pride, ambition, and overconfidence.
Perhaps, hubris could be connected to the sin of pride. We could think that it is just only one aspect of this compensation of hamartia, however as pride is natural to human personality rather than growing upon it, hubris is not only a source of insolence, of failure in making the right decisions. Hubris could also be a challenge to the gods, but a peculiarly inviting target for the thunderbolt or the ‘little pin’ of human injustice or malice. The commonest form of hubris is not just the boast or the challenge that cannot be made good, it could also be the vanity that demands praise because it is self-distrustful and the very extravagance of language by the protagonist.
The way Hamlet handled the events in Shakespeare’s play tackles the concept of hubris as he is caught by the conflict between his duty to his father and his duties to the monarchy and society. Due to his turbulent emotions, which result from his indecision on how to respond to his father’s murder, he thrived in isolation from society:
I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past…
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmixed with baser matter. (I.5, 99-104)
Fact is that he displayed his overweening arrogance in his thirst for reshaping of vengeful behavior into the expression of hostile suspicions and witty verbal attacks that are reinforced strongly because they punish his foes and avoid more aversively bitter thoughts about his dreadful situation. Since he is making his foes suffer, an act of blood revenge can seem less urgent except when he stops to reflect. He can think and speak hatefully, but the role in which he does this is not one that leads to plotting and acting revenge.
In the end of Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet’s responsibility as a son is to avenge his father’s death. This mission made him think that he would gain the empathy of society if the murderer were proven guilty. With this belief, Hamlet’s tragic flaw consumed him by not listening to other character’s advice and being too arrogant because of his desire for revenge. In fact, Hamlet’s duty as a citizen and being a Prince is to protect the King and to ensure stability in the monarchy. In order for Hamlet to revenge his father, he would have to kill the King, which creates a conflict between his two primary duties.
In Gilgamesh, the narrative opens with a description of Gilgamesh’s failure as a king. As Gilgamesh himself acknowledge that he is an extraordinary being, one greater than his fellows, Gilgamesh withdraws from his people and from his role as ruler and now loses himself again in mock-heroics against monsters and in his new and exclusive friendship with the former harlot, Enkidu. But with Enkidu’s death, he realized that he could only do so much and human connection also fails. Gilgamesh now goes in search of Utnapishtim, thinking that Utnapishtim is an extraordinary being from whom he could obtain immortality. The resolution of the conflict between the virtues of individualistic heroism, public responsibility and leadership will come when Gilgamesh recognizes that he must give up the illusion of living on an extraordinary concept of himself, learn to value normality. By assuming the role of a normal person, he could be an effective ruler. This is achieved upon Gilgamesh’s recognition that Utnapishtim is no more than a normal man, who received immortality not because of h is heroic acts, but because he was obedient to the command of his god.
In conclusion, whether we like it or not, flawed human beings have no particular escape from our inherent fallibility, though we can somewhat reduce its impact. Like what the Gilgamesh and Hamlet have been guilty of hubris because of their emotions, they realized their own errors and appear to be repenting in the end after their downfall. In real life, any man who denies himself the ability to fail – denies himself the benefits of failure, such as learning where one’s own limits lie and what strategies tend to fail. Thus, in tragedies like those mentioned above, the human flaws are the key to the tragic events that occurred and readers could entirely commiserate with the tragic heroes’ faults.
George, Andrew. The Epic of Gilgamesh: A New Translation (New York, 1999).
Hubris. 2006. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 23 June 2006 <http://www.search.eb.com/eb/article-9041378>.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing Ed. Edgar V. Roberts and Henry E. Jacobs. (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1995): 1129-1230.
Tragic Hero. Wikipedia – The Free Encyclopedia. Online. 23 June 2006 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tragic_hero.