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Aristotle's Tragic Hero and Its Relevance to Modern and Greek Tragedies

Updated on June 7, 2020

Introduction to Aristotle's Tragic Hero

This article aims to critically discuss the concept of the tragic hero by Aristotle and its relevance to both Greek and Modern tragedies. According to Aristotle, a tragedy in its purest form is the imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a particular magnitude written in a grand language. He further says a tragedy aims to bring forth catharsis of the audience and to stir in them the feelings of pity and fear. Aristotle has said less about the characteristics of a tragic hero as compared to elements of a tragic play as he affirms that the events of a tragic play are beyond the tragic hero's control. However, in his book "Poetics", he has cataloged specific characteristics that must be present in a hero if he is to qualify as a "Tragic Hero." Aristotle maintains that a tragic hero must be a man who is exceptionally famous, influential, successful and virtuous but not particularly good, who possess a tragic flaw or "Hamartia" that causes his downfall, this tragic flaw can be an error in judgment or hubris and must evoke emotions of pity and fear in the spectators.


Source

A man doesn't become a hero until he can see the root of his own downfall

— Aristotle

Aristotle's Tragic Hero and Greek Tragedies

Tragedy has always been a distinguished genre in the drama around the globe. Aristotle's concept of the tragic hero to this date is the most profound concept put forth by any dramatist. Many of Aristotle’s elements of a tragic hero are of great importance in understanding the Greek tragic hero. As stated earlier, Aristotle believes that a tragic hero meets his end due to his "Hamartia" which is the hero’s tragic flaw or judgment in error. The drama Oedipus Rex is a pure Aristotelian tragedy, and Oedipus is a tragic hero in a true sense. In Oedipus Rex, the tragic fall of King Oedipus, if analyzed deeply, was brought about by him killing an innocent man out of ignorance who turned out to be his father but another aspect about his fall that can be considered is the role of fate, Oedipus struggles to fight his own destiny which leads him closer to his unfortunate fall, fate was beyond the control of King Oedipus hence it was not a tragic flaw of his character, for instance, consider the example of Heracles, an Athenian tragedy by Euripides, in this Heracles goes insane and kills his wife and children, he is punished not because of something he did but because Hera, queen of gods, chastised him for being an illegitimate son of Zeus, and a mortal woman, which again was not Heracles own fault but was beyond his control, whereas Aristotle says a tragic hero must possess a fatal flaw or commit an error in judgment, now according to this definition Heracles does not qualify to be a tragic hero. Many modern-day critics criticized Aristotle on this view as in many Greek tragedies the downfall of the tragic hero is beyond his control and is not his own fault. De Quincy says commenting on Greek tragic hero that “Man acting as the puppet of fate cannot display what we call character, as the main element of a tragic hero is his will, which is thwarted in the Greek tragedies” As stated earlier, in many of the Greek tragedies the element of destiny or fate is in foreplay which brings about the ruin of the protagonist but Aristotle did not include the element of fate being solely responsible in bringing about the ruin of the tragic hero in his definition. Many modern critics of Aristotle’s theory of tragic hero believe and contend that "Hamartia" is instead a tragic error in the action rather than a moral imperfection or an error in the character of a tragic hero. Confronting this shortcoming of Aristotle’s concept of a tragic hero, Butcher says that "Hamartia" is not always the characteristic of the character of the tragic hero but is a characteristic of the plot and can be defined as a tragic error.

Aristotle has given a very balanced definition of a tragic hero, according to him a tragic hero must not be entirely virtuous as fall of a morally upright person into misery will not elicit pity and fear from the spectators as it would be unjustified and wrong and neither should he be entirely evil as fall of an evil person into misery will not evoke pity because the audience will feel the downfall is well deserved, so the hero must be a good person who due to error in judgment or mistake falls into misery. Many plays deviate from Aristotle's concept of tragedy, or it can be said that Aristotle fails to rightly define tragedy, consider the example of Macbeth by Shakespeare, who due to his lust and greed for power kills many people and meets his tragic end, as Macbeth and his wife slaughter innocent people due to their desire for power they lose their virtue and become entirely evil therefore their misery at the end of the play does not evoke pity from the spectators but some elements like Macbeth being noble, successful and good make him an Aristotelian tragic hero. Although the question remains, is Macbeth, according to Aristotle's concept, a tragic hero or not? if yes then how and if not then in what category Macbeth falls, this kind of deviation attracts criticism on the idea of the tragic hero by Aristotle.


Aristotle's Tragic Hero and Modern Tragedies

Arthur Miller is one of the most prominent playwrights of the 20th century, he has commented on Aristotle's concept of a tragic hero and has redefined tragic hero with certain amendments in Aristotle's theory, he has also written many Modern tragedy dramas, and most prominent among his works is the tragedy drama "A view from the bridge". Arthur Miller brought back the drama of social questions in the theater. Miller in one of his essays “Tragedy, and the Common Man" explains in detail the integral characteristics of a tragic hero in a drama which differs from the concept of tragic hero presented by Aristotle, for instance, Miller confronts one of the most crucial element of Aristotle's tragic hero: high social standing or nobility. Miller believes that a common man is as suitable a subject for tragedy as kings are. He further states that as the majority of the people are essentially common so they will not understand or relate to tragedies if they are only about nobleman. Miller and Aristotle also have distinct views on the concept of the tragic flaw of the character, unlike many modern critics (as discussed above) he believes that tragic flaw is the component of a hero's character rather than an error in action. Miller emphasizes that both common and noblemen can have a tragic flaw, he says that a tragic flaw is a character's innate unwillingness to remain docile in the face of a challenge and he carries out actions knowingly, whereas according to Aristotle tragic flaw is an error, weakness or mistake committed out of ignorance. Although the definition of tragic flaw differs but the end result is the same that is the downfall of the hero. Another point of similarity of the modern drama to the concept of the tragic hero by Aristotle is that the tragic hero is neither utterly virtuous nor wholly evil, he is in between, and his downfall evokes pity and fear among the audience. In the tragic play "A view from the bridge," the tragic hero Eddie moves towards his downfall due to his lust and overprotectiveness for Catherine which causes his family and friends to turn against him. His feelings and his inability to remain passive brings about his fall. The significant difference between Miller's tragic hero and Aristotle's tragic hero is that Eddie is a common man and not a king or nobleman. However, there is a point of similarity between Eddie and Aristotle's tragic hero, Eddie is not a king but he holds power over other characters, he is the head of the family and earns money. This reflects that Miller's tragic hero is not a new invention but is an extension or modification of Aristotle's tragic hero. The concept of a tragic hero is still viable not only in plays but in media too consider the example of a 2013 movie The Wolf of Wall Street, in this movie the tragic hero Jordan Belfort goes from being a typical stockbroker to one of the richest men on wall street, but later he starts wasting his money and beating his wife, he becomes more greedy which eventually leads to him losing everything, Jordan fits the profile of a tragic hero effectively. Aristotle's tragic hero with specific modification is being employed even in the 21st century.


Conclusion

To conclude this article it can be said, Aristotle's concept of the tragic hero has survived the test of time, to this date his features of a tragic hero can be seen in modern tragic heroes with slight modification. Aristotle's definition of a tragic hero still continues to guide and mold Tragedies Although there are some tragic heroes like Eddie, Macbeth, and Heracles who deviate from certain aspects of Aristotle's tragic hero they still share many elements with Aristotle's ideal tragic hero.

References

Butcher. (1902). The Poetics of Aristotle with Critical Notes and Translation . London: Macmilian and CO. Limited .

Cudjoe, R. V. (2011). The Fall of the Tragic Hero: A Critique of the “Hubristic Principle”. ResearchGate Pulication , 1-29.

Miller, A. (1965). Tragedy and the Common Man. In R. W. Corrigon, Tragedy:Vision and form (pp. 148-151). New York: Chandler Publising Company.

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