What is a Tragic Hero? (From LitCharts.com)
Tragic Hero Definition
What is a tragic hero? Here’s a quick and simple definition:
A tragic hero is a type of character in a protagonist. Tragic heroes typically have heroic traits that earn them the sympathy of the audience, but also have flaws or make mistakes that ultimately lead to their own downfall. In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Romeo is a tragic hero. His reckless passion in love, which makes him a compelling character, also leads directly to the tragedy of his death., and is usually the
Some additional key details about tragic heroes:
- The idea of the tragic hero was first defined by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle based on his study of Greek drama.
- Despite the term “tragic hero,” it’s sometimes the case that tragic heroes are not really heroes at all in the typical sense—and in a few cases, antagonists may even be described as tragic heroes.
The Evolution of the Tragic Hero
Tragic heroes are the key ingredient that make tragedies, well, tragic. That said, the idea of the characteristics that make a tragic hero have changed over time.
Aristotle and the Tragic Hero
The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle was the first to define a “tragic hero.” He believed that a good catharsis (the process of releasing strong or pent-up emotions through art). As Aristotle puts it, when the tragic hero meets his demise, “pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a man like ourselves.”must evoke feelings of fear and pity in the audience, since he saw these two emotions as being fundamental to the experience of
Aristotle strictly defined the characteristics that a tragic hero must have in order to evoke these feelings in an audience. According to Aristotle, a tragic hero must:
- Be virtuous: In Aristotle’s time, this meant that the character should be a noble. It also meant that the character should be both capable and powerful (i.e. “heroic”), and also feel responsible to the rules of honor and morality that guided Greek culture. These traits make the hero attractive and compelling, and gain the audience’s sympathy.
- Be flawed: While being heroic, the character must also have a tragic flaw (also called hamartia) or more generally be subject to human error, and the flaw must lead to the character’s downfall. On the one hand, these flaws make the character “relatable,” someone with whom the audience can identify. Just as important, the tragic flaw makes the tragedy more powerful because it means that the source of the tragedy is internal to the character, not merely some outside force. In the most successful tragedies, the tragic hero’s flaw is not just a characteristic they have in addition to their heroic qualities, but one that emerges from their heroic qualities—for instance, a righteous quest for justice or truth that leads to terrible conclusions, or hubris (the arrogance that often accompanies greatness). In such cases, it is as if the character is fated to destruction by his or her own nature.
- Suffer a reversal of fortune: The character should suffer a terrible reversal of fortune, from good to bad. Such a reversal does not merely mean a loss of money or status. It means that the work should end with the character dead or in immense suffering, and to a degree that outweighs what it seems like the character deserved.
To sum up: Aristotle defined a tragic hero rather strictly as a man of noble birth with heroic qualities whose fortunes change due to a tragic flaw or mistake (often emerging from the character’s own heroic qualities) that ultimately brings about the tragic hero’s terrible, excessive downfall.
The Modern Tragic Hero
Over time, the definition of a tragic hero has relaxed considerably. It can now include:
- Characters of all genders and class backgrounds. Tragic heroes no longer have to be only nobles, or only men.
- Characters who don’t fit the conventional definition of a hero. This might mean that a tragic hero could be regular person who lacks typical heroic qualities, or perhaps even a villainous or or semi-villainous person.
Nevertheless, the essence of a tragic hero in modern times maintains two key aspects from Aristotle’s day:
- The tragic hero must have the sympathy of the audience.
- The tragic hero must, despite their best efforts or intentions, come to ruin because of some tragic flaw in their own character.