The Tragic Hero


Aristotle distinguishes between tragedy which depicts people of high or noble character, and comedy which imitates those of low or base character. However noble does not necessarily imply rank or wealth but instead moral rectitude: 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.


The hero of tragedy is not perfect, however. To witness a completely virtuous person fall from fortune to disaster would provoke moral outrage at such an injustice. Likewise, the downfall of a villainous person is seen as appropriate punishment and does not arouse pity or fear. The best type of tragic hero, according to Aristotle, exists "between these extremes . . . a person who is neither perfect in virtue and justice, nor one who falls into misfortune through vice and depravity, but rather, one who succumbs through some miscalculation". The term hamartia, which Golden translates as "miscalculation," literally means "missing the mark," taken from the practice of archery.


Much confusion exists over this crucial term. Critics of previous centuries once understood hamartia to mean that the hero must have a "tragic flaw," a moral weakness in character which inevitably leads to disaster. This interpretation comes from a long tradition of dramatic criticism which seeks to place blame for disaster on someone or something: "Bad things don't just happen to good people, so it must be someone's fault." This was the "comforting" response Job's friends in the Old Testament story gave him to explain his suffering: "God is punishing you for your wrongdoing." For centuries tragedies were held up as moral illustrations of the consequences of sin.


Given the nature of most tragedies, however, we should not define hamartia as tragic flaw. While the concept of a moral character flaw may apply to certain tragic figures, it seems inappropriate for many others and 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.


True, 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.


This misunderstanding can be corrected if we realize that Aristotle uses hamartia not as character trait but rather as an incident in the plot: caught in a crisis situation, the protagonist makes an error in judgment or action, "missing the mark," and disaster results.


Most of Aristotle's examples show that he thought of hamartia primarily as a failure to recognize someone, often a blood relative. For Aristotle the most tragic situation possible was the unwitting murder of one family member by another. Mistaken identity allows Oedipus to kill his father Laius on the road to Thebes and subsequently to marry Jocasta, his mother; only later does he recognize his tragic error. However, because he commits the crime in ignorance and pays for it with remorse, self-mutilation, and exile, the plot reaches resolution or catharsis, and we pity him as a victim of ironic fate instead of accusing him of blood guilt.


While Aristotle's concept of tragic error fits the model example of Oedipus quite well, there are several tragedies in which the protagonists suffer due to circumstances totally beyond their control. In the Oresteia trilogy, Orestes must avenge his father's death by killing his mother. Aeschylus does not present Orestes as a man whose nature destines him to commit matricide, but as an unfortunate, innocent son thrown into a terrible dilemma not of his making. In The Trojan Women by Euripides, the title characters are helpless victims of the conquering Greeks; ironically, Helen, the only one who deserves blame for the war, escapes punishment by seducing her former husband Menelaus. Heracles, in Euripides' version of the story, goes insane and slaughters his wife and children, not for anything he has done but because Hera, queen of the gods, wishes to punish him for being the illegitimate son of Zeus and a mortal woman. Hamartia plays no part in these tragedies.


It is true that the hero frequently takes a step which initiates the events of the tragedy and, owing to his own ignorance or poor judgment, acts in such a way as to bring about his own downfall but this cannot make him guilty in the same way that we all believe we cannot really be guilty for the accidental wrongs we do. Thus, the hero’s fate, despite its immediate cause in his actions, comes about because of wider, more universal issues: the limited nature of mankind, our inevitable ignorance in an unfathomably complex world, and the role played by chance, destiny or the gods in human affairs.


Given these examples, we should remember that Aristotle's theory of tragedy, while an important place to begin, should not be used to prescribe one definitive form which applies to all tragedies past and present.