The Tragic Hero (Hamartia, Hubris):Aristotle’s Concept in Poetics - Fundamental Insights

The hero is of overwhelming importance in most literary works, but in no other form of literature is he as important as in tragedy. This is because while most literary forms such as the novel, the short story and comedy are concerned with a host of characters, in a tragedy the entire attention of the audience is focused upon a single character, the protagonist. This is also the reason why most tragedies are known by names of their protagonists Examples are Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Euripides’ Hippolytus, Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. Consequently, a discussion of the tragedy is tantamount to a discussion of the hero. Aristotle’s concept as laid down in the Poetics is of such fundamental insights, that it is of abiding importance ever in the 21st century. 

Searching for a viable tragic hero, Aristotle begins with a series of negatives. According to him a good man must not be seen passing from happiness to misery. The Faultless hero reeling under the blows of fate arouses our indignation rather than the tragic emotions of pity and fear. The second case of the bad man falling from happiness into misery would, again, call for celebration rather than the tragic emotions because we rejoice at the sight of the criminal suffering his due punishment. Read More Literary Terms The only other option the third possibility is that the bad man might be seen to become prosperous. But this is certainly the most untragic that a play can possible be. Therefore, Aristotle finds the ideal tragic hero to be an ‘intermediate kind of personage, a man not pre – eminently virtuous and just, whose misfortune however is brought upon him not by vice and depravity, but by some error of judgment’.

The phrase ‘error of judgment’ has been a source of great confusion because the original Greek word, hamartia may also mean a ‘moral flew’. Hamartia is actually a term taken from Archery, which means the missing of the mark by the archer. Since the missing of the mark is not itself a culpable act, and often proceeds from chance, many would argue that the hero is not himself guilty. But other would argue that it may also result from in aptitude and that this would amount to a ‘flaw’ on the part of the protagonist, even if not a ‘moral flow’. Read More Literary Terms

Tragedy may proceed from an accidental error, an error that may proceed from a chance event for which the protagonist is in no way responsible. One example is that of the hero in Sophocles’ Oedipus. He have been banished from home in his infancy and brought up by foster parents in a distant land. He accidentally meets his actual father, whom he does not know, in a distant land, enters into a fight with him and kills him for his arrogance. Later, he rides a country of its plague and is rewarded with marriage to its queen whom he does not know to be his own mother. Latter, he comes to know of this and blinds himself. In his case, the accidental killing of his father and marriage with his mother therefore is not due to any moral fault on his poet. Read More Literary essays 

But there are other tragedies in which the responsibility or the fault of the protagonist is incontrovertible. The most obvious example of such responsibility is King Lear in which the fault of the king lies in his craving for flattery. Hubris or excessive pride is another quality of many tragic heroes. In Julius Caesar it is the unwonted pride of Caesar which leads him to call himself in destructible. Read More Literary essays

It is not worthy that Aristotle emphasizes the necessity of the tragic hero being in the enjoyment of prosperity and regard. It is only on rare occasions that the 20th century writers of tragedies such as Galsworthy with his Strife   or Synge whit his Riders to the Sea, has been able to make the ordinary character tragic. Read More Literary essays  But this exception only reinforces the general validity of the Aristotle principle of sublimity.

Ref: 1. History of English Literature- Albert      

     2. The Concise Cambridge History of English Literature

      3. Microsoft Students’ Encarta

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