It’s a Tragedy

Titus Andronicus is a play of revenge.  It’s a horror show.

But it is also Shakespeare’s first tragedy, a play in which–according to our old friend Aristotle–our tragic hero is subjected to a reversal of fortune (almost always from good to bad).  This reversal is supposed to create fear and pity in the audience, finally resulting in a catharsis, a release of emotions, an emotional cleansing.

According to Aristotle, the reversal of fortune is caused by the central character’s hamartia.  Many have incorrectly translated this as “tragic flaw” as if it was some kind of character flaw or personality defect that causes the downfall.  But, technically, this is incorrect.  Hamartia is an “error in judgment.”  It comes from hamartanein, which was the situation of an archer missing his target; so, really, it’s more like the character is trying to achieve his goal, but a mistake carries his downfall.

Aristotle also posits that the tragic hero should achieve some kind of anagnorisis, or recognition or revelation about his situation and his position in the world/universe (or sometime just between himself and his antagonist).

Before we look at Titus, let’s see how Shakespeare creates other tragic heroes:


  • reversal of fortune: from courageous general to weak, controlled, jealous man
  • hamartia: believing what Iago tells him
  • anagnorisis: realizes Iago was behind all of this, realizes his own place in the non-Moorish world


  • reversal of fortune: from king to a nomad, a shell of a man he was before
  • hamartia: banishes his daughter, Cordelia
  • anagnorisis: realizes his daughter’s true worth (and those of his other two daughters as well)


  • reversal of fortune: from soldier to king (remember we said that the reversal is “almost always” from good to bad… here’s the cliched exception that proves the rule)
  • hamartia: kills the king
  • anagnorisis: realizes that no good fortune can last (my take is that almost welcomes the end when it comes)

Hamlet (and this one is the tough one)

  • reversal of fortune: from ordinary prince to … does Hamlet have a reversal of fortune? (other than live to dead?) … can’t wait to revisit this in May of 2011
  • hamartia: hmmmmm, listening to the ghost?  deciding to avenge his father’s murder?  does he make a mistake in judgment?
  • anagnorisis: many point to the “There’s a divinity that shapes our end” speech as this kind of realization… but again, we’ll need to wait a year and three-quarters to discuss further

As for Titus, we won’t have to wait so long… Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at our Roman General…

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