A tragic hero is the protagonist of a tragedy in drama. In his Poetics, Aristotle records the descriptions of the tragic hero to the playwright and strictly defines the place that the tragic hero must play and the kind of man he must be. Aristotle based his observations off of previous dramas. Many of the most famous instances of tragic heroes appear in Greek literature, most notably the works of Sophocles and Euripides.
Aristotle's tragic hero
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." 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 is thought to be a man whose misfortune comes to him, "not through vice or depravity but by some error of judgment." In Sophocles' Oedipus the King, for example, the title character kills a man without knowing that the man in question is his father, then marries his mother out of ignorance.
Creon of Sophocles' Antigone is another notable example of a tragic hero. Polyneices and his brother, Eteocles, were kings, and the former wanted more power, so he left and assembled an army from a neighboring city. They attacked and the two brothers killed each other. Through Creon's law forbidding the burial of Polyneices, Creon dooms his own family.
Therefore, the Aristotelian hero is characterized as virtuous but not "eminently good," which suggests a noble or important personage who is upstanding and morally inclined while nonetheless subject to human error. Aristotle's tragic heroes are flawed individuals who commit, without evil intent, great wrongs or injuries that ultimately lead to their misfortune, often followed by tragic realization of the true nature of events that led to this destiny. This means the hero still must be - to some degree - morally grounded. Other examples provided by Aristotle include Thyestes.
In other media
The influence of the Aristotelian hero extends past classical Greek literary criticism. Many iconic characters in film are considered by some critics to follow the archetype of the tragic hero. These include Charles Foster Kane of Citizen Kane (1941), Anakin Skywalker of Return of the Jedi (1983), Okonkwo of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart (1958), Stannis Baratheon of A Song of Ice and Fire (1996-) and Game of Thrones (2011-). A minority of critics have also called Michael Corleone of the Godfather trilogy a tragic hero, although he is traditionally considered a villain, not a tragic hero.
- Aristotle, On Poetics, Ingram Bywater
- S.H. Butcher, The Poetic of Aristotle, (1902), pp. 45-47
- Charles H. Reeves, The Aristotelian Concept of The Tragic Hero, Vol. 73, No. 2 (1952), Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/291812 pp. 172-188
- Carlson, Marvin. 1993. Theories of the Theatre: A Historical and Critical Survey from the Greeks to the Present. Expanded ed. Ithaca and London: Cornell UP. ISBN 0-8014-8154-6.
- Janko, Richard, trans. 1987. Poetics with Tractatus Coislinianus, Reconstruction of Poetics II and the Fragments of the On Poets. By Aristotle. Cambridge: Hackett. ISBN 978-0-87220-033-3.
- Pavis, Patrice. 1998. Dictionary of the Theatre: Terms, Concepts, and Analysis. Trans. Christine Shantz. Toronto and Buffalo: U of Toronto P. ISBN 978-0-8020-8163-6.