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Tragic Hero: Definition, Characteristics & Examples

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  • 0:01 Tragic Hero
  • 0:38 Characteristics
  • 3:40 Examples
  • 5:44 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

You may have cried and rooted for a few tragic figures in your lifetime, but do you know what this term really entails? Watch this video lesson to learn more about these dramatic figures and meet a few exemplary individuals.

Tragic Hero Defined

Have you ever been moved by the fates of Romeo and Juliet, or brought to tears by the plight of Bruce Wayne (perhaps better known as Batman)? If so, you've probably recognized these individuals as tragic heroes, or the protagonists of tragedies. Despite how simply defined the term can be, the Greek philosopher Aristotle was very specific when he first characterized tragedy and what type of person could be its protagonist. Since he had a lot to say on the subject, let's jump right into determining what Aristotle considered to be the crucial characteristics of a tragic hero.

Characteristics of a Tragic Hero

  • Pity & Fear: In the course of a successfully tragic work, Aristotle says that the audience should be moved by the actions of the hero to experience the emotions of pity and fear. For instance, you may pity the plight of the star-crossed lovers who cannot be involved due to their familial ties, or you might even fear the same parental loss experienced by Bruce Wayne.
  • Relatability: Tragic heroes (or heroines: i.e. Juliet) are able to elicit emotions in people because they are just that: people. Even if the characters were deities, Aristotle would argue that they are still relatable to audiences because they are displaying very human characteristics (i.e. jealousy, sadness) in human situations (i.e. infidelity, war, etc.). Being able to see ourselves in their positions is what makes tragic heroes capable of bringing on the appropriate emotional release.
  • Goodness: Although we can relate to the tragic hero through his innate humanity, there are some aspects of his character that should be somewhat foreign to us. Aristotle claims that he must be a 'good' man, which to the Ancient Greeks meant much more than it might today. For them, this meant that the hero would be well-known, perhaps even of high stature (i.e. Romeo or Wayne's famous families), but not overly virtuous or morally upright. Aside from money or titles, he may also possess extraordinary abilities (i.e. Hercules' strength). All of these things, of course, make the inevitable decline all the more tragic as the hero's transition from good fortune to bad.
  • Hamartia: Many people who discuss tragedy often mention the hero's 'fatal' or 'tragic flaw.' However, Aristotle would never accuse a hero of such a personal defect. Instead, he asserted that they were guilty of hamartia, or missing the mark. This means that the hero has made a bad decision or miscalculation (typically with good intentions) as a result of poor reasoning or an external stimulus (i.e. divine madness). For example, Romeo and Juliet could've probably come up with a better plan than poison if they weren't so caught up in their own passion and were able to think clearly.
  • Consistency: The last, but perhaps most important characteristic of the tragic hero that Aristotle describes is his consistency. What he means by this is that the hero should behave and speak in a manner consistent not only with his own character but with how people would perceive such a person to act and to talk. We might be a bit put-off, for instance, if Batman were able to address his foes in obscure street slang, or if Romeo would have refused to avenge his friend Mercutio's death. This, of course, also meant to Aristotle that the tragic hero behaved consistently with his own model of the character.

With all this in mind, let's take a look at some examples to see how consistent they are with what Aristotle imagined.

Examples of Tragic Heroes

  • Hamlet

Many of us are probably familiar with Shakespeare's Hamlet, but what makes him such a model tragic hero? First of all, he is, of course, the prince of Denmark, providing him with the required stature and notoriety. Driven to the brink of madness by the tortured ghost of his father, Hamlet is convinced the new king is responsible for this treachery.

He affects a plan to avenge his father (consistent with his character); however, considering that he is effectively blinded by his cause (hamartia), he neglects his other personal relationships, which inadvertently leads to many deaths (i.e. Ophelia, Gertrude, etc.). Hamlet himself also falls in the final bloodbath, giving one last tug at our heartstrings and highlighting one of our most primal fears: death itself.

  • Anakin Skywalker

Star Wars creator George Lucas incorporated numerous elements from ancient mythology and storytelling traditions into his work, so it's no surprise that he would also follow Aristotle's example in creating a tragic hero, namely Anakin Skywalker. From an early age, Anakin was known throughout the Jedi Order as 'The Chosen One,' apparently possessing extraordinary abilities surpassing most other Jedi.

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