Aristotelian Concept of Tragic Hero

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      The Tragic Hero is “a (great) man who is neither a paragon of virtue and justice nor undergoes the change to misfortune through any real badness or wickedness but because of some mistake.” By “a great man”, Aristotle means “one of those who stand in great repute and prosperity, like Oedipus and Thyestes: conspicuous men from families of that kind”. The hero is neither a villain nor a model of perfection but is basically good and decent. On the other hand, “mistake” means hamartia, which is a Greek word meaning “flaw” or “error” in the character. The great man falls through - though not entirely because of - some weakness of character, some moral blindness, or error. We should note that the gods also are in some sense responsible for the hero’s fall. So Aristotle views - the tragic hero is neither pre-eminently virtuous nor pre-eminently wicked. He is to be a great man with yet a flaw in character; his misfortune is the result not of vice but of some error of judgment. He is a mixture of good and bad qualities which generally assume in him to inspire our admiration and awe for him while alive and pity in his fall.

      Aristotle sets down in his opinions about the requisite qualities of a tragic hero. Firstly, a good man must not be seen passing from happiness to misery. Secondly, a bad man must not pass from misery to happiness. Thirdly, an extremely bad man must not be seen passing from happiness to misery. The first case will not inspire fear or pity. It would be simply odious. The second will be un-tragic. It would not appeal either to the human feeling in us or arouse our pity or fear. The third case may arouse some human feelings in us, but it will not move either pity or fear. Pity arises from undeserved misfortunes and unfearing, and fear comes from the spectacle of the suffering of one like us. So, all the three situations would fail with the purpose of tragedy. So there would be no cathartic effect. Then a man remains not virtuous pre-eminently or just, whose misfortunes, however, is brought upon him not by vice and moral corruption but by some error of judgment. Similarly, according to Aristotelian law, a saint would be unsuitable as a tragic hero. He is on the side of the moral order and hence his fall shocks and repels. Besides, his martyrdom is a spiritual victory which drowns the feeling of pity. Drama, on the other hand, requires for its effectiveness a militant and combative hero. It would be important to remember that Aristotle’s conclusions are based on the Greek drama and he is laying down the qualifications of an ideal tragic hero.

      Aristotle’s concept of the effect of tragedy is that consequence which arouses pity and fear in the spectator. But a perfectly good man, if he suffers the fall from prosperity to misery, will not arouse pity or fear; he would simply shock the spectator’s sense of justice. The shock arises from the fact that a completely virtuous man is suffering; the suffering is wholly undeserved. It is an irrational suffering. Another type of character excluded by Aristotle from the sphere of tragedy is that of the utter villain. The completely bad man falling from prosperity to adversity, says Aristotle, would merely satisfy our sense of justice. There would be no pity or fear. The suffering is deserved, and we cannot feel pity for the one who suffers. Furthermore, the sense of identification is absent, just as it is in the case of the perfectly good man. We cannot tolerate the idea of bad man rising from adversity to prosperity. This would be entirely alien to tragedy, says Aristotle. This is quite acceptable. It would indeed offend our sense of justice. Even the aesthetic effect would be one tinged with disquiet.

      However, the exclusion of the villain from the sphere of tragedy is somewhat debatable. In this context, Aristotle seems to show a limited vision. Crime has no place in dramatic art. But presented in another light it becomes valid in drama. Macbeth outrages hospitality as well as loyalty by killing his guest and king, Duncan, under his own roof. Webster’s Vittoria is a “white devil”. But these people arouse pity. Vittoria standing undaunted before her enemies; Lady Macbeth, alone, and broken by her sorrow and guilt; Macbeth courageously drawing his sword in the face of certain defeat at Dunsidane, - all of them arouse pity though they are such Villains’. Pity, as Lucas remarks, is not so narrow. It needs, however, the genius of Shakespeare to evolve tragic villains of this type. Only he could perhaps create a Macbeth, or a Richard III.

      The person who stands between complete villainy and complete goodness, according to Aristotle, is the ideal tragic hero. He is a man like a ourselves, yet has a moral elevation. He is a more intense person; his feelings are deeper, and he has heightened powers of intellect and will. But he is essentially human, so that it is easy for us to identify ourselves with him and sympathize with him. Thus the tragic hero “must be an intermediate sort of person, a man not pre-eminently virtuous and just, whose misfortune, however, is brought on him not by vice or depravity but by some error of judgment, or Hamartia.”

      Hamartia has been interpreted variously. It has come to be rather loosely interpreted as “tragic flaw” by Bradley. This interpretation has stuck and has tended to confuse the true meaning of the term. Hamartia is not a moral failing, as the term, tragic flaw implies. Aristotle makes it clear that Hamartia is some error of judgment — that the fall of the hero comes about not because of some depravity, but from some error on his part. Critics like Butcher, Bywater, Rostangi and Lucas agree that Hamartia is not a moral drawback. It may be connected with moral drawback but it is not itself a moral imperfection.

      The Hamartia is an error or miscalculation. It may arise in three ways. Firstly, it may have derived from an ignorance of some material fact or circumstance. Secondly, the error of judgment may arise from a hasty or careless view of a given situation. The case is illustrated by Othello. In this case, the error was avoidable but the hero does not avoid it. Thirdly, the error may be voluntary, though not deliberate. This happens in an act of anger or passion. Lear commits such an error when he banishes Cordelia.

      In the case of Oedipus, all three errors are included. The defect of Oedipus lies in his proud self-assertion. But the ruin brought upon him is through the force of circumstance. The Hamartia in his case includes a defect of character, a passionate act, and ignorance. The tragic irony lies in the fact that the hero commits this error in blindness and in innocence, without any evil intention. But the result is disastrous. This is closely connected with Peripeteia, or the production of a result opposed to the one intended. Then there comes the discovery of truth. In this connection Butcher remarks:

“Othello in the modern drama, Oedipus in the ancient, are the two most conspicuous examples of ruin wrought by characters, noble indeed, but not without defects, acting in the dark and, as it seemed, for the best.”

      Greek drama had for its heroes men of eminence and nobility. They held a position on exaltation in society. When such a man falls from greatness to misery, a nation as a whole is affected. The fall seems to all the more striking because of the hero’s eminence. The concept was acceptable and relevant in a situation in which prominent men of the nobility were held to be representatives of the society. The concept is, however, outdated today. Modern tragedy has shown that tragedy is possible with all its effectiveness even when the hero is ordinary and commonplace. Rank and nobility of birth are now irrelevant. But the man who is the tragic hero should, nevertheless be a man of eminence, not of rank and position, as far as quality goes.

      On the whole, we see that Aristotle’s concept of the tragic hero is not unacceptable. In some ways, he has a limited vision. Tragedy is possible with saints, as Shaw and Eliot have shown. But this is not a generally found fact. That tragedy is also much possible with a villainous hero, has been remarkably shown by the Renaissance dramatists, especially Shakespeare. Further, the tragedy arises from Hamartia. This, too, is proved by many of our best tragedies, for these are indeed what Lucas calls tragedies of error. It is the most effective of tragedies. However, the chief limitation of Aristotle’s concept is that it is based on one section of world drama.

      The ideal tragic hero is a man who stands midway between the two extremes. He is not eminently good or just, though he inclines to the side of goodness. He is like us, but raised above the ordinary level by a deeper vein of feeling or heightened powers of intellect or will. He is idealized, but still he has so much of common humanity as to enlist our interest and sympathy. The tragic hero is not evil or vicious, but he is also not perfect and his disaster is brought upon him by his own fault. The Greek word used here is “Hamartia” meaning “missing the mark”. He falls not because of the act of outside agency or evil but because of Hamartia or “miscalculation” on his own part: “It may be accompanied by moral imperfection, but it is not itself a moral imperfection, and in the purest tragic situation the suffering hero is not morally to blame.”

      While working on tragedy, Aristotle lays down another qualification for the tragic hero. He must be, “of the number of those in the enjoyment of great reputation and prosperity.” He must be a well-reputed individual occupying a position of lofty eminence in society. This is so because Greek tragedy, with which alone Aristotle was familiar, was written about a few distinguished royal families. Aristotle considers eminence as essential for the tragic hero. But modern drama demonstrates that the meanest individual can also serve as a tragic hero, and that tragedies of Sophoclean grandeur can be enacted even in remote country solitudes. However, Aristotle’s dictum is quite justified on the principle that, “higher the state, the greater the fall that follows,” or because heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes, while the death of a beggar passes unnoticed. But it should, be remembered that Aristotle nowhere says that the hero should be a king or at least royally descended.

      They were the Renaissance critics who distorted Aristotle and made the qualification more rigid and narrow. Aristotle distinguishes between tragedy which depicts people of high or noble character, and comedy which imitates those of low or base character. Renaissance scholars understood this passage to mean that tragic characters must always be kings or princes, while comedy is peopled with the working or servant classes. But Aristotle was not talking about social or political distinctions. For him character is determined not by birth but by moral choice. A noble person is one who chooses to act nobly. Tragic characters are those who take life seriously and seek worthwhile goals, while comic characters are “good-for-nothings” who waste their lives in trivial pursuits.

      Searching for the tragic flaw in a character often oversimplifies the complex issues of tragedy. For example, the critic predisposed to looking for the flaw in Oedipus’ character usually points to his stubborn pride, and concludes that this trait leads directly to his downfall. However, several crucial events in the plot are not motivated by pride at all: (1) Oedipus leaves Corinth to protect the two people he believes to be his parents; (2) his choice of Thebes as a destination is merely coincidental and/or fated, but certainly not his fault; (3) his defeat of the Sphinx demonstrates wisdom rather than blind stubbornness. He kills Laius on the road, refusing to give way on a narrow pass, but the fact that this happens to be his father cannot be attributed to a flaw in his character. (A modern reader might criticize him for killing anyone, but the play never indicts Oedipus simply for murder.) Furthermore, these actions occur prior to the action of the play itself. The central plot concerns Oedipus’ desire as a responsible ruler to rid his city of the gods’ curse and his unyielding search for the truth, actions which deserve our admiration rather than contempt as a moral flaw. Oedipus falls because of a complex set of factors, not from any single character trait. King Oedipus kills his father from impulse and marries his mother out of ignorance. Another great example of a tragic hero is Creon in the play, Antigone by Sophocles. He dooms his family by making a law forbidding the burial of Polyneices, the former king. He and his brother were kings, and Polyneices wanted more power, so he left and assembled an army from a neighboring city. They attacked and the two brothers killed each other.

      This misunderstanding can be corrected if we realize that Aristotle discusses hamartia in the Poetics not as an aspect of character but rather as an incident in the plot. What Aristotle means by hamartia might better be translated as “tragic error” (Golden’s ‘miscalculation’). Caught in a crisis situation, the protagonist makes an error in judgment or action, “missing the mark,” and disaster results. Aristotle once said that “A man does not become a hero until he can see the root of his own downfall.” An Aristotelian tragic hero must possess specific characteristics, five of which are mentioned below:

(i) Flaw or error of judgment (hamartia)

(ii) A reversal of fortune (peripeteia) brought about because of the hero’s error in judgment.

(iii) The discovery or recognition that the reversal was brought about by the hero’s own actions (anagnorisis)

(iv) Excessive pride (hubris)

(v) The character’s fate must be greater than deserved.

      Initially, the tragic hero should be neither better nor worse morally than normal people, in order to allow the audience to identify with him. This also introduces pity, which is crucial in tragedy. If the heroes were perfect we would be outraged with their fate or not care especially because of their ideological superiority. If the hero was imperfect or evil, then the audience would feel that he had gotten what he deserved. It is important to strike a balance in the hero’s character. Eventually, the Aristotelian tragic hero dies a tragic death, having fallen from great heights and having made an irreversible mistake. The hero must courageously accept their death with honor. Some other common characteristics of a tragic hero are as noted below: 

(i) Hero must suffer more than he deserves.

(ii) Hero must be doomed from the start, but bears no responsibility for possessing his flaw.

(iii) Hero must be noble in nature, but imperfect so that the audience can see themselves in him.

(iv) Hero must have discovered his fate by his own actions, not by things happening to him.

(v) Hero must understand his doom, as well as the fact that his fate was discovered by his own actions.

(vi) Hero’s story should arouse fear and empathy.

(vii) Hero must be physically or spiritually wounded by his experiences, often resulting in his death.

(viii) The hero must be intelligent so that he may learn from his mistakes.

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