Imagine being born virtuous, having everything going well for you. A bright future, maybe a positive prophecy along the way. You’re a good person, a great person even. Strong, attractive and kind. You seem to have everything; but, as always, there’s a catch: one little slip up, a minute oversight and everything crumbles. In the end, your graceless downfall was inevitable. This is the plight of a tragic hero.
Coined by Greek philosopher Aristotle, the entire plot of a tragedy revolves around human suffering and intends to evoke pity and fear from the audience. In the centre of this heartbreak lies the tragic hero, who, no matter what he does, will– literally or figuratively– die.
While the tragic hero might seem like the most important aspect of the tragedy, it is important to understand that the essence of the story is the plot rather than the hero. Before trying to understand a hero we must acknowledge the circumstance he is a part of. Aristotle clarifies that “Most important of all... is the structure of the incidents. For tragedy is an imitation not of men but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality.”
Once the importance of action is established, Aristotle delineates six main characteristics of a tragic hero. While in modern literature, authors tend to stray quite far from Aristotle's idea of a tragic hero, it is worth noting the traditional structure of the cursed protagonist.
Hubris- Hubris refers to excessive pride and stubbornness. A tragic hero must be bull-headed and unwilling to listen. This could be attributed to the fact that he feels like he has to listen to someone inferior to him or someone “beneath” him, he may have to stoop below his status, and we all know the last thing he wants is to be schooled. In most cases there are either explicit or, at the very least, implicit warnings provided to the hero, which he unfortunately ignores and therefore infuriates the audience.
Hamartia- Hamartia refers to a tragic flaw and— quite literally— a fatal weakness. The flaw, be it greed, love or even just a heel, is the tipping point. It is the one element that comes into conflict with his environment and leads to the hero's demise.
Peripeteia- Peripeteia refers to a shift in the plot of the tragedy. It is the sudden reversal of circumstances— in this context— for the worse. Peripeteia is when things really start to go downhill for the protagonist, as he is shoved towards doom.
Anagnorisis- Anagnorisis refers to the moment in the narrative, typically during or after the climax, where the hero gains the ability to take a step back, assess his journey and acknowledge his identity in a more absolute way. It is when the character reflects upon himself and his surroundings and realises the mammoth part he played in his own misfortunes. This moment is truly heartbreaking as the hero is aware of his flaws and repents them but there is still no chance for redemption.
Suffering and Catharsis- the drama usually ends with the death of the hero. However, he is not allowed to die in peace, but is often massacred in a brutally-passionate and meaningful way. Interestingly, the audience never actually sees downfall, but it is heavily insinuated. The extreme hardships and turmoil the hero goes through in the last moments of his life is believed to evoke an extremely emotional response from the audience. Further, the audience is said to release their own personal baggage and, therefore, be cleansed at the end of the tragedy.
Tragic heroes are everywhere. They are a part of our society, in movies, mythology, freedom movements, classic poetry, modern novels and everyday life. They are the real and imagined people whom we love, despise, admire and admonish. They fascinate us because of the dichotomy between their virtues and flaws. How, a single person can hold in them a crippling defect that overpowers the hundred other aspects that also make them who they are.