Tragic hero

A tragic hero is a protagonist who is otherwise perfect except for a tragic flaw, also known as fatal flaw, that eventually leads to his demise. The concept of the tragic hero was created in ancient Greek tragedy and defined by Aristotle. In fact, an Aristotelian tragic hero must have four characteristics: goodness, superiority (in terms of politics, reputation, or perceived wisdom, etc.), a tragic flaw, and a realization of both his flaw and his inevitable demise. Usually, the realization of fatal flaw results in catharsis or epiphany.


Classical tragic hero

The works of Antigone and Oedipus Rex are examples of the flaw of hubris, or pride. Many plays have followed Aristotle's idea of the tragic hero, but William Shakespeare was considered the playwright who helped extend the idea of the tragic hero beyond a flaw of making an error in judgment (as in Oedipus trying to escape his fate only to fulfill it) to the internal conflict of moral argument.

While Shakespeare's King Lear and Brutus (of Julius Caesar) are heroes who can be easily applied with the Aristotlean definition, his Hamlet and Macbeth are the two prime tragic heroes where Aristotle's meaning ends and Shakespeare's begins. Hamlet's fatal flaw, as seen by Aristotle, would be his failure to act immediately to kill Claudius. Unlike Oedipus, however, Hamlet is well aware of his fatal flaw from the outset. He constantly questions himself on why he continues to delay the fulfillment of his duty. In doing so, his continuous awareness and doubt (e.g. using the play-within-the-play to make sure the Ghost was telling the truth) incapacitates him from acting.

Hamlet finally acts to kill Claudius only after realizing that he is poisoned. But by procrastinating, everyone whom he ridicules and targets also dies along the way, such as Laertes, Gertrude, Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern.

Macbeth, however, presents a problem; whereas in Hamlet, we are made to feel some degree of empathy or sorrow for the hero because of the loss of his father and his mother's marriage to his uncle, Macbeth as the hero arouses little pity or feeling. His tragic flaw is that of being power-hungry, conniving, and utterly amoral when the opportunity suits him (note how in Act III, Scene I the third murderer is not present at Macbeth's briefing and yet in Act III, Scene III he is more informed than the other two murderers on what they are about to do). Macbeth does not possess two of the qualifying factors for a "traditional" tragic hero. He lacks goodness; he is also not superior, having been referred to by other thanes as a tyrant and an incompetent ruler during his kingship.

The modern tragic hero

In the Modernist era, a new kind of tragic hero was synthesized as a reaction to the English Renaissance, The Age of Enlightenment, and Romanticism. The idea was that the hero, rather than falling calamitously from a high position, is actually a person less worthy of consideration. Not only that, the protagonist may not even have the needed catharsis to bring the story to a close. He may die without an epiphany of his destiny, or suffer without the ability to change events that are happening to him. The story may end without closure. This new tragic hero of Modernism is the anti-hero.

Two of many examples of the anti-hero in modern literature are Willy Loman from Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller and The Great Gatsby in the work of the same name by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome is another example of the tragic anti-hero. Ethan, the protagonist, was married to Zeena, but fell in love with Mattie, Zeena's sister, when she came over to live with them. As a character, Zeena was sickly and unbendingly cruel. Her coldness to Ethan drove him to Mattie. The love between Mattie and Ethan was great, but they were unable to act on their feeling. The setting in which Ethan and Mattie were trapped, symbolized by the raging winter blizzard that denied both entrance and exit, drove both of them to try to commit suicide by hitting an elm tree skiing down. A true but cathartic tragedy would have been for both of them to die, but as a story of the anti-hero, they continue to live. Ethan has a limp, and Mattie was paralyzed from neck down. Zeena somehow recovered enough from her disease to take care of them. The reversal is ironic because the role is reversed: Ethan used to take care of Zeena but would rather avoid her. Zeena is now taking care of both Ethan and Mattie, and revels in being the caretaker. Ethan and Mattie continue to be trapped, if not by the winter storm, then by their own physical conditions and their repeated reminder of their mistakes.

Competing concepts of the tragic hero

A tragic hero was considered to need a catharsis, or a moment of emotional purgation, but it comes at a time when it is too late to change the course of events already in motion. Each new era of literature brings new definitions of what a hero must be in a tragedy. Aristotle's definition remains the yardstick against which all other forms of heroes are measured.

Some other common traits characteristic of a tragic hero:

  • He must suffer
  • He must be doomed from the start
  • He must be fundamentally noble in nature
  • His story should arouse fear and pity
  • Though doomed, he must have free choice to some degree.

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