Tragic hero

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For other uses, see Tragic hero (disambiguation).

A tragic hero (or tragic heroine, if a woman) is the protagonist of a tragedy.

Aristotle's tragic hero[edit]

Aristotle shared his view of what makes a tragic hero in his Poetics. Aristotle suggests that a hero of a tragedy must evoke in the audience a sense of pity or fear, saying, “the change of fortune presented must not be the spectacle of a virtuous man brought from prosperity to adversity."[1] In other words, the focus of the tragic hero should not be in the loss of his prosperity. He establishes the concept that the emotion of pity stems not from a person becoming better but when a person receives undeserved misfortune - and fear comes when the misfortune befalls a man like us. This is why Aristotle points out the simple fact that, “The change of fortune should be not from bad to good, but, reversely, from good to bad.” According to Aristotle a tragic hero ought to be a man whose misfortune comes to him, not through vice or depravity but by some error of judgment. For example King Oedipus kills his father from impulse and marries his mother out of ignorance.

A great example of a tragic hero is Creon in the play Antigone by Sophocles. He dooms his family by making a law forbidding the burial of Polyneices, the former king. He and his brother were kings, and Polyneices wanted more power, so he left and assembled an army from a neighboring city. They attacked and the two brothers killed each other.

Aristotle contests that the tragic hero has to be a man “who is not eminently good and just, whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty.” He is not making the hero entirely good in which he can do no wrong but rather has the hero committing an injury or a great wrong leading to his misfortune. Aristotle is not contradicting himself saying that the hero has to be virtuous and yet not eminently good. Being eminently good is a moral specification to the fact that he is virtuous.[2] He still has to be - to some degree - good. Aristotle adds another qualification to that of being virtuous but not entirely good when he says, “He must be one who is highly renowned and prosperous.” He goes on to give examples such as Oedipus and Thyestes.”


  1. ^ S.H. Butcher, The Poetics of Aristotle, (1902), pp. 45-47
  2. ^ Charles H. Reeves, The Aristotelian Concept of The Tragic Hero, Vol. 73, No. 2 (1952), Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press Stable URL: pp. 172-188


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