The name “tragic hero”, which has become synonymous with Shakespearean dramas, was developed before Hamlet, Macbeth or any of Shakespeare’s well-known plays were written. The literary term was actually discovered around 330 BC by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. Through his theory of catharsis, Aristotle debated that the great plays of Sophocles, Euripides, and other Greek playwrights contained tragic heroes similar to each other, which all portrayed four basic characteristics (“English Lit.”). These qualities were tragic flaw or hamartia, they all were from a noble class, with very human personalities, and they all face their tragedy with dignity. It is not until the late 1500s that Shakespeare began to utilize Aristotle’s observations in the production of his many tragedies (Desjardens).
Probably the most important characteristic of a Shakespearean tragic hero is that one must possess a tragic flaw because, without the flaw, there would never be a downfall. The ultimate flaw varies from one play to another, King Lear’s flaw is that of arrogance while Macbeth’s it one of ambition. Some characters may be guilty of harbouring many flaws, like Othello. Among Othello’s wrongs are gullibility and stupidity. In either case, the character never realizes one’s flaws until act five, however, by that time it is too late (Desjardens).
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While the tragic flaw is the key element in a tragedy, the tragic hero’s social status is also of high importance. All tragic heroes are from a very noble class. Whether the heroes are Thanes or Generals in the army, like Macbeth, Othello, and Antony, or from royalty, like King Lear, Hamlet, or Cleopatra, each eventually falls from grace. This characteristic was used mostly to help the common people identify with the wealthier upper class. If the ruling class, which was generally looked upon with favour and prestige, could sin much as the commoners did, then no one group of people were more superior (Desjardens).
Though the tragic heroes were from the noble class, every person could identify with them because the heroes possessed very human qualities. Neither Macbeth, King Lear, Hamlet or Othello were overly good and heroic nor were they too sinister and nasty. This characteristic allowed the audience to feel pity for the character and to learn a lesson about excessive pride, greed, ambition or stupidity. The tragic hero mirrors everyone, positive traits and faults, to point a finger and explore all to beware; if horrible events took place due to a character flaw in a genuinely good character, the same thing could repeat in an audience member’s life as well (Desjardens).
After all the people are killed, all the futures damned, and all the plots become undone, the tragic hero must face his punishment. The tragic hero always excepts his downfall with dignity and grace. By act five the protagonist has realized his flaw and must come to terms with it. Othello and Antony face their tragedy by honourably committing suicide while King Lear, after renouncing his sins, collapses from a broken heart, while Macbeth is courageously killed in man-to-man combat. For each tragic hero the suffering has gone on too long and the only way to receive redemption, and to end the suffering, is death. It is in this death scene that the tragic figure is transformed into the tragic hero (Desjardens).
Although it was Aristotle who characterized the tragic hero, it was Shakespeare that made the tragic hero famous (“English Lit.”). Through his a great many tragedies Shakespeare developed each tragic hero beautifully, making sure that each harboured a tragic flaw, were from the nobility, with identifiable human qualities, and faced their downfall with dignity. It is hard to believe such simple characteristics are the backbone for some of the most profound and complicated dramas the world has ever known (Desjardens).
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