Feelings of pity and fear are necessary for the spirit of tragedy. Aristotle in “Poetics” defines a perfect and ideal tragic hero for this purpose. Greek tragedies are still being read and even dramatised in the world and it is because of the portrayal of perfect tragic heroes. Characteristics of an ideal tragic hero, given by Aristotle, are widely accepted in the world. If a tragedy is written on the basis of the Aristotelian concept, it will indeed cause a catharsis of pity and fear.
Modern World and Aristotle’s Views on Ideal Tragic Hero
Aristotle’s views on the ideal tragic hero are rejected in modern times. Shakespeare made changes in tragedy and also redefined the tragic hero but the basic rules were not changed. Most of his tragedies were based on Aristotle’s views and the concept of an ideal tragic hero.
Besides Shakespeare, many other dramatists renewed tragedy. In fact, playwrights like Bertolt Brecht changed the whole concept of tragedy. Bertolt Brecht introduced epic theatre for this purpose. Raymond Williams also completely rejected Aristotle’s views and concept of an ideal tragic hero. However, it is a matter of fact that majority of dramatists tried to fulfil Aristotle’s requirements and wrote tragedies keeping in mind all the characteristics of the ideal tragic hero mentioned in poetics.
Aristotle’s Views on Ideal Tragic Hero
Chapter XIII of Aristotle’s “Poetics” demonstrates his views on the ideal tragic hero that are:
- The hero should neither be entirely bad nor completely good but a combination of both.
- He should be noble by birth.
- Hero Should Suffer.
- Women are not good for tragedy.
A mixture of Good and Bad in Hero
One of the important characteristics of an ideal tragic hero is that he should be a person, who has both good and bad qualities. Aristotle says that neither a good character can be an ideal tragic hero nor can a bad character fulfil the purpose of a true tragedy. The reason behind it is that a good character will not create fear, which is an important ingredient of tragedy. God-like person’s sufferings are not justified at all. It will only create sympathy. In this way, a totally bad person is also not good for a tragedy. If a villain suffers then his sufferings are entirely justified because he deserves it. He will neither evoke pity nor fear which is totally alien to the spirit of tragedy. Hence, an ideal tragic hero in Aristotle’s view is one who is a possessor of both good and bad qualities.
Aristotle has faced a lot of criticism on this point. S. H. Butcher’s views are important in this regard. He objected that a blameless character can also be a perfect tragic hero. Meaning thereby, a character, who is good can also excite feelings of pity and fear. For instance, Desdemona in “Othello” and “Antigone” in Greece play are tragic characters and we find no flaw in them yet they perfectly complete the tragedies. S.H. Butcher gives an example that a martyr who loses his life with courage for his fellowmen can also be admired and can be a true tragic hero.
All the above said objections can easily be rejected because they have no force at all. There are rare chances that a tragedy with a blameless character may become successful. A martyr may be admired and people will weep at his death but the end is heroic and not tragic which is totally against the spirit of tragedy.
Raymond Williams and Bertolt Brecht also rejected this concept. They were of the view that a character’s goodness and badness depend on circumstances. Further, a whore and a thief can also complete a tragedy. Nevertheless, they are against catharsis. Catharsis is not the purpose of a tragedy, they think.
A tragic Hero Should be a Noble Person
Aristotle expresses his views further and says that a tragic character should be noble by birth and he must fall from prosperity to adversity. Noble characters are best for a tragedy. The suffering of a person from the noble class is more effective than the suffering of a person from a lower class. There is more interest and fear in seeing a nobleman falling from a position of a lofty eminence.
It is one of the most ignored characteristics of an ideal tragic hero. Many modern writers underestimated it and still, their tragedies are successful. George Eliot wrote novels in which the characters were not noble but ordinary persons. Thomas Hardy also sketched characters who were common just like us but they perfectly completed tragedies. Perhaps, in ancient Romans and Greeks, this rule was acceptable; nowadays, it is ignored. With a little artistic talent, a noble character can be replaced with a common middle-class person. Raymond Williams also thinks the same. He also rejects this rule.
Suffering is an integral part of the tragedy. No tragedy is called complete until the hero suffers. In fact, suffering is the base of a tragedy. A tragic hero, who is a combination of both good and bad qualities, should suffer because of an error or frailty, called hamartia. It can be an error of judgement or a bad decision of the character or any other thing which leads him to destruction. Aristotle gives much importance to hamartia but he also adds that the suffering of the tragic hero can also be the reason for unavoidable circumstances.
Aristotle is at fault, think critics. Falling from prosperity to adversity due to circumstances is not reasonable. If a person is inflicted by circumstances then it means that he has no fault of his own as he does not suffer due to his own actions but because of his fate.
“Oedipus Rex” is the favourite tragedy of Aristotle and his hero is his ideal but we know that Oedipus does not suffer because of his own actions. He suffers because of his fate. It was a prophecy from the gods that the child would suffer. He rarely has a fault of his own in this regard. The only incident, in which he can be considered responsible to some extent is when he kills his father on the way to Thebes but he takes this step in total self-defence. He is a puppet in the hands of the gods. Thus, Aristotle is wrong in this regard. Only circumstances are not enough for the suffering of a tragic hero.
- Oedipus Rex as a Tragedy of Aristotle: Tragedy of Fate or Character
- Oedipus Rex as Tragic Hero: Aristotle’s Views Rejected
Aristotle’s words; “character is destiny” are not considered. A downfall of character, having fate only behind his destruction is not a good tragedy. Sophocles has written plays, in which some innocent characters are victims of fate and rarely their actions are responsible. Later on, changes were made regarding fate and chances. Even before Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe wrote dramas in which the character is fully responsible. “Dr Faustus” is a remarkable example of it. The only writer which very minutely follows the rule of Aristotle in the context of fate and chances is Thomas Hardy. In his novels, the character is blameless but nature, fate and chances are responsible for the tragedy.
- Dr. Faustus as a Tragic Hero | As Per “Poetics” by Aristotle
- Hardy’s Tragic Vision | Thomas Hardy as a Pessimist
Women and Aristotle’s Views on Ideal Tragic Hero:
Aristotle has something more to say in the definition of a tragic hero. He does not consider a woman suitable for tragedy. Women, in his eyes, are inferior and are not perfect tragic heroines.
This rule is also not being followed in the modern era. Nowadays, women can do anything even can become tragic heroines. It is strange that Aristotle has such low views about women especially when Greeks dramas are full of characters like Cassandra, Antigone, Phaedra and Medea. Anyways, whatever the reason behind it, modern dramas entirely reject this rule.
By and large, Aristotle defined tragedy and with it the tragic hero. He prefers a tragic hero to be a man like us, who is in possession of both good and bad qualities. He should be a noble person; someone like a king (in modern terms someone from the upper/elite class). He should suffer because of unavoidable circumstances and due to hamartia in order to excite pity and fear. However, death is not necessary, means Aristotle. A heavy assertion is on the sufferings of the tragic hero. Aristotle’s rules on the ideal tragic hero may not be accepted in modern times but still, some characteristics are being followed. Some of the rules have been renewed but there is no denying the fact that Aristotle gave a complete concept of a true tragic hero in “Poetics”.
- Write a note on the characteristics of an ideal tragic hero
- What are the characteristics of an ideal tragic hero mentioned in “Poetics”?
- Does the modern world accept the characteristics of an ideal tragic hero as provided by Aristotle?