The term, ‘tragic hero’ is closely associated with the literary genre known as tragedy. A tragedy is a dramatic representation of a story in which the ending is somehow catastrophic and shocking. The central character of a tragedy suffers for something for which he is partially or fully responsible. This central character on whose decisions the wheels of tragedy keep moving is the tragic hero.
Definition of a tragic hero
To define any literary term it’s a good idea to look at the original source(s). Who can be more authentic in this case than the legendary Greek philosopher Aristotle? In his Poetics (4th century BC), he provided a detailed description of the essential characteristics of both a tragedy and a tragic hero:
Aristotle & the tragic hero
According to Aristotle, a tragedy is “the imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself,” composed in the poetic language and the mode of dramatic rather than narrative presentation. It must involve “incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish the catharsis of such emotions.”
In ancient Greece, there were a lot of conventions to follow, be it in society or the realm of arts. Each artist had to follow a set of rules to achieve their desired effect on the audience. A writer could only write about what was in his heart if it was able to be structured by a specific set of guidelines. He had to edit, delete or rewrite, no matter whatever it took to be recognized as a prominent figure of arts. That’s why scholars like Aristotle were there to assist them.
Aristotle devised a set of rules to help his fellow dramatists write about tragic heroes:
1. Ability to evoke pity and fear
A tragic hero should be able to incite the sensation of pity and fear in the audience. There should be a good side inside him like everybody has. For this goodness, the audience will pity when tragic blows start to torture him like hell. On the flip side, audiences will be fearful when they see that a good, genuine person, belonging to a high station of the society, can fall from their social height.
2. A mixture of good and bad
A tragic hero is not thoroughly good nor he is thoroughly bad. In other words, he is neither a saint nor a lifelong sinner. He has some virtuous qualities and some bad too. Such a composition makes the audience say, “He is just like us!” When the catastrophe occurs they say, “Oh! What a poor fellow is he!” and add, “isn’t it too much? God, are you really there?” (Tears rolling down their cheeks).
3. Be better than we are
A tragic hero is better than ourselves. Why is this? When a tragic character is better than a normal person, it is natural to be more concerned about the character’s downfall. His pain reaches the soul of a spectator and drives the emotional fluids to his or her conscience. The after-effect in this scenario sustains for a longer time.
How Renaissance writers evolved the tragic hero
In Aristotle’s time, some external agency like supernatural forces or heavenly bodies decided what happened to the tragic hero. His tragic downfall was dependent on some things over which he had no control. When the ideas of the Renaissance started to take hold in Europe in the 14th century, old views started to crumble from inside. Man became the center of the universe, and these external forces shaping our tragic heroes seemed inappropriate.
Dramatists like William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, and Thomas Kyd in England felt the old philosopher’s wool was of no use for them. They needed something new, something more to justify the Renaissance-spirit. Instead of looking outside, they started to look inside the hearts of their tragic heroes. The heart, or the mind, is the master of all the actions happening outside a character. With this major shift of thinking, tragedies of the Shakespearean era started to take on new colors.
Shakespearean tragedy differs significantly from the Aristotelian method. Shakespeare took what he thought the best from Aristotle and left the remnants. The “three unities” would not suit his purpose. It was like the external agents in classical tragedies that appeared from nowhere and remolded the future of a tragic hero. Shakespeare got rid of these unnecessary rules and started to write a different kind of tragedy. It was “amoral” in essence and ingenious in structure. As such, tragic Shakespeare moments can be found sprinkled across many of his plays.
A Shakespearean tragic hero
Shakespearean tragic heroes possessed many distinct qualities that were not present before in other tragic works. Sometimes, the tragic hero appeared to be a voice protesting against social inequalities, and at certain times he seemed to be trapped in the unseen alleys of his conscience. Thus, it is safe to say that inciting pity and fear amongst the audience was the sole purpose of Shakespearean tragedies. There is much more than that
A Shakespearean tragic hero depicts the following characteristics, above and beyond the Aristotelean tragic hero:
Look inside thy heart
A tragic hero in a Shakespearean tragedy is a victim of the happenings inside his heart. There is nothing outside of it. The external agents sometimes play a role in heightening the dramatic effect, but the future depends on the working of the hero’s mind.
The complexity of the subconscious mind is another aspect that Shakespeare tried to show with his tragic heroes. The essence of morality lies in our conscience. What shapes morality? Society. Who makes a society? We, the human beings. If the conscience of a tragic hero lies, with a lone heart he bears the consequences. But, who told the lie? It’s a question for the audience to answer. (Our comments section is waiting for your suggestions with an open heart!)
In Greek tragedies, external agents executed the decision-making process. The tragic hero was there to suffer what he is destined to. In Shakespeare, a tragic hero makes his own decisions. The choices he makes decides his future. Perhaps the ultimate expression of the thought process in this decision-making process is Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be‘ soliloquy.
Both good and bad
A tragic hero does not follow the “golden mean” throughout his career. Shakespeare plays with his characters at extremes. If they are mighty, they are close to God. If they are bad, Satan is not far away. He wanted to guide society to follow the middling path. When the Renaissance diminished all limits for man, there was a threat to basic peace and stability in the social order. That’s why it was a duty of writers like Shakespeare to instruct men not to override the limits.
Infographic: 5 features of a Shakespearean tragic hero
Shakespearean tragic hero examples
Macbeth by William Shakespeare is a tragedy of moral downfall. The title character, Macbeth, is a victim of his aggressive desires. Somewhere deep inside his mind, there is an urge for social mobility. He wants to step up the ladder of power. But the action which he opts to do marks Macbeth’s tragic flaw. It is not correct to say that the decision to kill Duncan to capture his throne is Macbeth’s fatal flaw. Fatalism does not play any role here. “Fatal flaw” most accurately applies to the Greek tragedies. In Shakespeare, it’s a far cry.
Hamlet by Shakespeare is a revenge tragedy. In this play, Hamlet is torn between right and wrong. He has to choose a course of action that will console his soul. To be a passive sufferer or active in hungry bloodshed, he has to take one of them. The tragic flaw comes when he resists his moral temptation and plunges into the bloody pool. Whatever Hamlet’s tragic flaw is, it lies in his sensuous heart.
Othello is a psychologically probing play. The internal world of the titular character Othello is complex enough to say he is right or wrong. In the worldly sphere, he might be successful, but in his inner world, he is a slave of his basic desires. Shakespeare tried to show a complex system in which the mind is the most powerful organ of all. In the play, when Othello succumbs to his basic animalistic urge to kill his wife, Desdemona, from that time his internal world started to crumble. It marks Othello’s tragic flaw.
King Lear by William Shakespeare is another important tragedy in which the old King Lear is a victim of his own daughter’s mischief. In this play, Shakespeare welcomes more domestic air, unlike his other tragedies. King Lear is a tragic hero, whose inability to read reality marks his tragic downfall. In his tender old age, what he needs is familial love. It talks about the relationship between a father and his daughters, where the father suffers for his basic need for being loved. So, King Lear’s tragic flaw appears in the play when he fails to judge the difference between the good and the bad, appearance, and reality.
Frequently asked questions about tragic heroes
What makes a tragic hero a tragic hero?
The central character of a tragedy commits an error in his course of actions and it marks his tragic downfall. From this point in the play, he starts to suffer and mostly dies of the consequences engendered from his actions. That’s why the character on whom the dramatic story of a tragedy revolves is called a Tragic Hero. He is heroic, but his actions end in something tragic.
What is a tragic hero?
A tragic hero is the protagonist of a tragedy. Like Macbeth, Othello, King Lear, and Hamlet, in Shakespeare’s tragedies with the same names. A tragedy is based on the titular character’s actions and the plot revolves around his life. He is like a mirror held up to society.
What are the 4 characteristics of a tragic hero?
The 4 characteristics of a tragic hero in Shakespearean tragedies are:
- Hailing from the upper strata of the society
- Has both good and bad qualities
- Chained by the internal workings of his mind
- Suffers for the consequences he is fully or partially responsible for
Is Romeo a tragic hero?
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare is a tragic romance. In this play, the death of both the titular characters tragically marks the destiny of the play. The love of Romeo and Juliet suffers for something over which they have no control.