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Tragic Hero: Definition, Characteristics & Examples

Updated on November 27, 2015
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Muhammad Rafiq is a freelance writer, blogger, and translator with a Master's Degree in English literature from the University of Malakand.

Tragic Hero: Definition & Characteristics
Tragic Hero: Definition & Characteristics | Source

Definition of a Tragic Hero:

A tragic hero is a type of character in a play, who makes an error, while judging the situation, which leads to his downfall. A tragic hero is an important element of a tragedy. He is the one, who suffers due to some flaw in his character or due to his inevitable fate. Whatever may be the case, the hero is the most tragic personality in a tragedy. Usually the hero has to face death in the end.

Characteristics of a Tragic Hero

It was Aristotle who summed up some important characteristics of the tragic hero in his Poetics, while discussing the tragedy. A tragic hero must possess some characteristics, which are discussed here one by one.

Hamartia

The first characteristic that Aristotle discussed in his Poetics is hamartia. Hamartia means error in judgment. It’s also called a tragic flaw. Aristotle means that a tragic hero must fall due to a flaw in his character or an error in judgement. On account of a flaw in the character of a hero, he falls from his high position, which leads him to his imminent death. For example, Hamlet in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, falls from his high position and faces his death due to his procrastinating nature. He finds many opportunities to kill his uncle, Claudius, but he couldn’t succeed in his motives due to his procrastinating nature. Every time, he delays his actions. Once, he finds an opportunity to kill Claudius, while he was praying, yet he postpones his plan on the plea that he doesn’t want to kill him while he is praying. He wants to kill him, when he is in a state of committing a sin. Thus, it is a flaw in his character that results in his death.

Tragic Hero: Definition & Characteristics
Tragic Hero: Definition & Characteristics | Source

Anagnorisis

Another characteristic that a tragic hero must possess is anagnorisis. Anagnorisis is a Greek word which means recognition or discovery. Aristotle used the word anagnorisis to refer to a turning point which enables the tragic hero to discover the truth about the issue. For example, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince Hamlet’s recognition that the real murderer of his father is his uncle, Claudius, is an example of anagnorisis. Similarly, in Charles Dickens’ novel, Great Expectations, Pip’s discovers that his real benefactor is not Miss Havisham but Magwitch. This discovery is an example of anagnorisis.

Peripeteia

Peripeteia is another feature of a tragic hero. It means sudden reversal of fortune or circumstances in the life of a tragic hero. A tragic hero must face Peripeteia during the course of his life. It’s closely related to anagnorisis. For example, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Hamlet’s conditions suddenly change after having come to know about the real murderer of his father. He is so changed that we don’t know as to whether he is mad or impersonates madness. He doesn’t pay heed to his beloved, Ophelia, and always thinks about killing Claudius. That’s what we see in the life of Hamlet.

Hubris or Excessive Pride

Hubris is also an important feature of a tragic hero. Hubris means excessive pride or arrogance that brings about the fall of the tragic hero. For example, in Oedipus Rex, the tragic flaw in the character of Oedipus is hubris or excessive pride, which brings about his downfall. He is so proud of himself that he forces the seer to let him know about the truth of the murderer of Laius and says he is ready to accept the truth if it frees the kingdom from the plague. When he finds the truth that he has killed his father and married his mother, he blinds himself with the brooches of his wife, Jocasta. Thus, it is his excessive pride that causes his downfall.

Empathy

Another feature that Aristotle associates with a tragic hero is empathy or pity and fear. The story of a tragic hero must arouse pity and fear in the readers. There are many tragic heroes in English literature, whose stories evoke feelings of pity and fear in the readers. For example, Hamlet’s conditions at the beginning of the play arouse empathy in the readers when he comes to know that the real murderer of his father is his uncle. It’s a very shocking news for him and the readers are forced to empathize with him. We think for a moment how difficult it would be if one’s uncle murders one’s father and marry his mother. Just think about it!

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Towering Personality

An important feature of tragic hero is that he is a towering personality in his state or locality. He hails from elite stratum of society and holds high position in his state. Tragic heroes are kings, princes or military generals, who are very important for their states. Look at the personality of Hamlet, who is the prince of Denmark. He is an intellectual, highly learned and sociable and possesses philosophic bent of mind. A tragic hero is such an important personality that his death gives rise to turmoil, disturbance and chaos in the country. In Hamlet, when Hamlet takes revenge upon the death of his father, he not only kills his uncle but invites his own death at the hands of Laertes. Due to the death of Hamlet, the army of Fortinbras enters Denmark and gets control of the affairs of Denmark.

Goodness

A tragic hero is an embodiment of goodness and virtue. He must be good and religious minded to such an extent that it may hinder his actions. Hamlet’s character is an excellent example in this regard. He is so good that he avoids committing suicide due to his religious nature. It is an important factor that delays the actions of Hamlet.

A Tragic Hero Must Die

A tragic hero must die at the end of the play. A hero becomes tragic when he sacrifices his life for the sake of greater cause. When he dies, we feel sorry for him. His death is a great loss for the people of his locality. Thus his death creates turmoil and disturbance in the area. For example, when Hamlet dies, the army of Fortinbras enters Denmark and gets control of the affairs of Denmark.

© 2015 Muhammad Rafiq

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