Tragic heroes are elements of dramatic pieces of literature which have been around for many centuries. One of the first appearances of the idea was from the Greek philosopher, Aristotle who wrote about several features that defined a tragic hero.
Five of these main traits included:
- A flaw in judgement (hamartia).
- A change in fortune brought about by flaw of judgement (peripeteia).
- The discovery of the reversal that was brought about by flaw in judgement (anagnorisis).
- Excessive pride/inflated ego (hubris).
- The character’s fate is greater than deserved.
Other traits include Aristotle’s ideas that he must not be of noble birth or very out of the ordinary, so that the audience can identify with him/her. They should not be either perfect or evil so that the audience does not think they deserve their fate. He also writes that he or she must be intelligent enough to understand their fortune.
Over time, however, these ideas were tweaked and morphed by various playwrights and authors across history. During the Elizabethan era in particular, playwrights like Francis Beaumont, Thomas Kyd, and William Shakespeare played with Aristotle’s ideas. Shakespeare, arguably the most influential poet/dramatist in the history of English Literature was, in particular one of the influences for the modern ideas of tragic heroes. He wrote a total of ten tragedies among his 37 plays, and these works became some of his most famous works.
In particular, his play ‘The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark’ showed many of Aristotle’s traits: an inflated ego, very intelligent, aware of his fate, who makes rash, impulsive & flawed actions that eventually lead to his tragic demise. However, Shakespeare has also disobeyed some of Aristotle’s ‘laws’ on a rather grand scale: Hamlet is of noble birth (as the Prince of Denmark, he is also surrounded by other royals in his family), therefore around 99% of the audience would not be able to identify with the character. He is also planning the murder of his uncle, not a very normal or relatable activity.
Another of Shakespeare’s even more famous tragedies based on an Italian folk-story, ‘Romeo & Juliet’ includes yet another tragic hero. Romeo, one of the star cross’d, ill-fated lovers is a boy of noble birth with a fickle heart who makes multiple direct references to his fate, “O, I am fortune’s fool!” Along the line of the story, Romeo makes plans and decisions with innocent intents, which all seem to collapse before his eyes in only 5 days. And despite Romeo having the most tragic hero traits, it is in truth all of the characters will mostly innocent intentions who seem to bring about the famous tragic end to the famous story. Friar Lawrence, a man on both sides of the feuding families is simply trying to help the tense situation for the sake of peace is most definitely of the most ill-fated characters. At the turning point of the play in Scene 1: Act 3, it is the simple fact that not all the characters know everything about what is going which leads to two deaths and the subsequent banishment of Romeo. More infuriating still is the moment when we learn that Friar John, a very minor character, has not been able to send banished Romeo the knowledge of Juliet’s feigned death and he has already been given false information of her ‘death.’ This is another flaw in the character’s plots where it is only the audience who understands the entirety of the situation. If Romeo had only received this vital information, or even arrived to the crypt a few moments later than he had, then perhaps their story would have been very different. When Friar Lawrence learns of this information, he presents us with one of his greatest quotes in the play, “a greater power than we can contradict hath thwarted our intents,” rightly put! So while Shakespeare has once again made tweaks to Aristotle’s original teachings, he has used these teachings to create a story with compelling and captivating events which created some of the most influential tragic stories of all time.
After many centuries of more tweaks of a tragic hero’s traits, many new characters have emerged, creating even more famous stories. One of these in particular is Anakin Skywalker from Star Wars, created by George Lucas. Mr Lucas, in this situation, has made this tragic hero not part of a noble birth and far less aware of his fortune. A young slave boy on a slum like planet, Anakin is discovered by visiting Jedis (wielders of a power called ‘The Force’) to be the foretold, most powerful Jedi of all time. They take him on their travels and he begins to learn the Jedi way of life very quickly. As the story progresses over another film, Anakin is older, in his late teens and finds himself susceptible to the Dark Side of The Force. He makes decisions along the way that leads him to depression and his greatest weakness, fear. In secret, much like Romeo, marries the Senator Padme and attempts to protect her with his life, he fears that he will lose her. Driven to near madness at the end of the saga, Anakin makes rash decisions that take him away from his pregnant wife and take him to a battle with his original mentor, who realises that Anakin has made decisions and gone down the Dark path to far, he can never come back. An amputated, burning Anakin is picked up by those who control the Dark Side and transformed into the formidable, masked Darth Vader, the villain for the next trilogy, eventually killed by the forces controlled by his Jedi son, Luke. Despite Vader’s great efforts to also bring Luke over to his side, he cannot be seduced. In the end, father and son meet as Vader removes his mask for the last time, he appears to be an emotionally torn man turned evil by temptation. Almost like Shakespeare, Lucas has here done something with Aristotle’s ideas and turned it into a literal million dollar idea.
Tragic heroes are a very effective way of telling a story, and audiences find tragedy very entertaining way of storytelling. They have been used since almost the beginning of dramatic arts in Ancient Greek times and have evolved into ideas and characters that have been able to charm and inspire audiences for centuries. Authors and playwrights today are still using this style frequently and will most likely always use it for centuries into the future.