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Elements of a tragic hero in literature

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What is a tragic hero?

The tragic hero is a man of noble stature. He is not an ordinary man, but a man with outstanding quality and greatness about him. His own destruction is for a greater cause or principle.

Common characteristics of a tragic hero

According to Aristotle:

# Usually of noble birth
# Hamartia - a.k.a. the tragic flaw that eventually leads to his downfall.
# Peripeteia - a reversal of fortune brought about by the hero's tragic flaw
# His actions result in an increase of self- awareness and self-knowledge
# The audience must feel pity and fear for this character.

Photo 10058

Above: Four of Shakespeare's principal tragic characters: King Lear, Macbeth, Richard III and Hamlet.

Aristotle: "A man cannot become a hero until he can see the root of his own downfall."

It should be noted that the hero's downfall is his own fault as a result of his own free choice, but his misfortune is not wholly deserved. Usually his death is seen as a waste of human potential. His death usually is not a pure loss, because it results in greater knowledge and awareness.

Hamlet as a tragic hero

Aristotle wrote down these characteristics of a tragic hero for classical Greek tragedy plays. However, Shakespeare plays are often noted for their excellent portrayals of tragic heroes.

Here's an example of a principal Shakespeare character who is regarded as a tragic hero. Hamlet's fatal flaw, as seen by Aristotle, would be his failure to act immediately to kill Claudius. Unlike classical tragic heroes, however, Hamlet is well aware of his fatal flaw from the beginning - he constantly questions himself on why he continues to delay the fulfillment of his duty. His continuous awareness and doubt delays him from acting. (This is slightly different from the Aristotliean classical tragedies such as Oedipus Rex where Oedipus is not aware of his flaw until the very end.)

Hamlet finally acts to kill Claudius only after realizing that he is poisoned. But by procrastinating, his tragic flaw, everyone whom he ridicules and targets also dies along the way, such as Laertes, Gertrude, Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern.

Other common traits

  • His downfall is usually due to excessive pride (hubris)
  • He is doomed from the start, he bears no responsibility for possessing his flaw, but bears responsibility for his actions.
  • He has discovered fate by his own actions, and not by things happening to him
  • He is usually a king, a leader of men - his fate affects the welfare of a whole nation or number of people. Peasants do not inspire pity and fear as great men do. The sudden fall from greatness to nothing provides a sense of contrast.
  • The suffering of the hero must not be senseless: it must have meaning!
  • The hero of classical tragedies is almost all male: one rare exception is Cleopatra, from Antony and Cleopatra

The strange, the supernatural and chance

Shakespeare occasionally represents abnormal conditions of mind: insanity, somnambulism, hallucinations - e.g. King Lear's insanity

Shakespeare also introduces the supernatural: ghosts and witches who have supernatural knowledge - e.g. the ghost of Hamlet's father who tells his son to avenge his death

Shakespeare, in most of the tragedies, allows "chance" in some form to influence some of the action - e.g. in Romeo and Juliet, if Juliet didn't wake up a minute sooner they both could have avoided death

Modern-day tragic heroes?
In the Modernist era (late 19th and early 20th century), a new kind of tragic hero was created out of a result of this "classical" definition. The modern hero, it seems, does not necessarily have to be of a high estate - but rather an "ordinary person". The story may not result in an epiphany of awareness or even come to a resolution of catharsis. He or she may not even die! The new tragic hero is also known as the "anti-hero".
Two examples of the modern-day tragic hero, or the anti-hero>


Jay Gatsby from The Great Gatsby and Willy Loman from Death of a Salesman


References: Perrine, Laurence, and Thomas R. Arp. Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense. 6th ed. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publications, 1991. Garrick, David

Photos Credit: Amazon, Gettyimages

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  1. avicster saidWed, 26 Nov 2008 16:29:48 -0000 ( Link )

    Macbeth and Hamlet are certainly the more celebrated among Shakespearan tragic heroes, but to me, Othello seems to embody the persona of a quintessential tragic hero most completely. As you have rightly pointed out, Hamlet is aware of his fatal flaw from the start. Macbeth has all the characteristics of a tragic hero too, but the entire episode with the witches and the prophecy is clearly meant to foreshadow his ultimate downfall, which adds the supernatural element to his tragic end, thus making it not entirely his fault. The same holds true for Hamlet.

    Othello is somewhat different. Shakespeare goes to great lengths to establish his courage, dignity, military genius, and character. However, his fatal flaws – jealousy, pride, and gullibility – have no supernatural veil to hide behind. His downfall is entirely his own doing. Although Iago is clearly the catalyst, Othello partly feeds his own jealousy. Despite this, he generates sympathy, possibly due to his suicide act.

    Here’s a thought: Try pitting the tragic hero of Shakespeare against a typical Hemingway protagonist – the “Code hero”. Think Frederic Henry from “A Farewell to Arms”. He’s not of noble birth, but that’s clearly because the 20th century setting does not require him to be. Or maybe that’s a conscious departure Hemingway chose to make. However, by virtue of sheer strength of character, he’d fit right in the tragic hero mould. Another significant difference between the two is that the code hero does not suffer as a result of his own tragic flaw, but is portrayed as an outright victim of fate.

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  2. hcraig saidWed, 26 Nov 2008 19:05:45 -0000 ( Link )

    Avicster, I think we need to remember that the idea that a tragic hero comes from noble birth is being present to us by Aristotle, and he came from a time when class was much more strongly defined then it is in many cultures today, as you touched on..

    In contemporary lit, I think we’ve seen a change from noble birth to noble character, which is very much reflective of 20th century attitudes to class.

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  3. lucyinthesky saidWed, 26 Nov 2008 19:23:56 -0000 ( Link )

    @avicster,


    Great points. Frederic Henry from “A Farewell to Arms” would definitely classify as a modern tragic hero. The tragic hero in modern literature, it seems, does not necessarily have to be of a high estate, and usually is not. I definitely find these types of characters quite interesting in that they are not of noble birth, but yet that have almost noble-like, classical qualities. It’s almost as if contemporary literature has turned the concept of the “tragic hero” into more of a symbol than a place in society (that is, noble birth). To me, the definition of a tragic hero has evolved to mean a person who is real, filled with initial integrity or optimism and so well-intentioned that his idealism is what leads to his inevitable downfall. I believe these qualities can be seen in both the Shakespearean and modern sense of the term.

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  4. lucyinthesky saidWed, 17 Dec 2008 01:23:20 -0000 ( Link )

    P.S. If you enjoyed this lesson on tragic heroes, you should also check out my lesson on Anti-Heroes in Literature. Characters like V from “V for Vendetta” and Batman are included.

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  5. hannah27 saidMon, 26 Jan 2009 07:02:11 -0000 ( Link )

    very helpful =)

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  6. carlymat saidTue, 07 Apr 2009 00:18:00 -0000 ( Link )

    I agree. Very helpful. But could you elaborate a little on the anti-hero. possibly of Willy Loman from Death of a Salesman. Since i have not read The Great Gatsby? Thanks

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  7. carlymat saidTue, 07 Apr 2009 00:18:25 -0000 ( Link )

    I agree. Very helpful. But could you elaborate a little on the anti-hero. possibly of Willy Loman from Death of a Salesman. Since i have not read The Great Gatsby? Thanks

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  8. carlymat saidTue, 07 Apr 2009 00:18:48 -0000 ( Link )

    I agree. Very helpful. But could you elaborate a little on the anti-hero. possibly of Willy Loman from Death of a Salesman. Since i have not read The Great Gatsby? Thanks

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  9. carlymat saidTue, 07 Apr 2009 00:19:18 -0000 ( Link )

    I agree. Very helpful. But could you elaborate a little on the anti-hero. possibly of Willy Loman from Death of a Salesman. Since i have not read The Great Gatsby? Thanks

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  10. carlymat saidTue, 07 Apr 2009 00:21:14 -0000 ( Link )

    im not quite sure why that keeps posting. im sorry.

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  11. katie_cain saidWed, 22 Apr 2009 14:25:22 -0000 ( Link )

    Another amazing tragic hero was Brutus in William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Brutus was a very complex character from the beginning to the end of the play. He was very noble and did what he felt was best for Rome.

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  12. drratanbhattacharjee saidSun, 04 Jul 2010 08:34:45 -0000 ( Link )

    A tragic hero of the classical tragedies is different from his counterpart in the Elizabethan tragedies. Shakespeare gave an altogether new meaning to the term ‘tragic hero’. For example , Macbeth is a villain -hero while Hamlet’s had no hamartia or tragic flaw in his character. Macbeth had a villainous motive while Hamlet suffers for none of her own faults. His sufferings seem to be preordained like that of Oedipus and he feels that he is cursed to set the wrong world right.

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  13. tigger16 saidTue, 11 Dec 2012 16:12:38 -0000 ( Link )

    i agree with this!

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  14. yory saidTue, 26 Mar 2013 13:13:20 -0000 ( Link )

    It a very helpful page .I wish all the best for you magic help.

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