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What is a Tragic Hero?

    What is a tragic hero?

    Are you preparing to teach the hero’s journey? As we all know, the journey doesn’t always go as planned. Enter the tragic hero. Consider this your guide to all things tragic heroes, from unpacking the definition, identifying the telltale characteristics, and discussing the significance of tragic heroes in storytelling.

    Tragic Hero Definition

    A tragic hero is a central character, typically the protagonist, who, despite their noble traits, characteristics, or choices, is ultimately doomed by a fatal flaw or poor judgment. Therefore, rather than saving the day, tragic heroes face an unfortunate fate. This downfall often leads to some sort of tragedy and, in many cases, their own death. (Whomp whomp.)

    The key to a tragic hero’s complex (and appealing) characterization lies in the balance between positive and negative traits. Therefore, instead of being viewed as the hated enemy, they often earn sympathy or compassion from the audience as they navigate the consequences of their dooming flaw(s). The result? A compelling character that hooks the audience into the plotline. The tragic hero is a popular archetype found in everything from ancient dramas to classic literature to modern movies—and everything in between.

    Tragic Hero Pronunciation

    Tragic hero is a phrase comprised of two two-syllable words and is pronounced like:  TRAH-jik HE-roh

    What are the Characteristics of a Tragic Hero?

    We can thank the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle for the term “tragic hero.” After a deep analysis of Greek drama, he started to notice certain characteristics in successful and emotionally evocative tragedies. These observations became the foundation for the essential elements and characteristics that define this archetype in literature. These traits contribute to the complexity and depth of the character, as well as their ultimate fate.

    According the Aristotle, a classic tragic hero possesses the following characteristics:

    1. Possess Noble Qualities

    Tragic heroes often show signs of literal and figurative nobility. For starters, many come from privileged backgrounds or hold high social status within the story’s world, raising the stakes of their actions throughout the story and underscoring the significance of their downfall. However, it also refers to the admirable traits such as courage or integrity that these characters possess. Ultimately, the possession of noble qualities enriches the character development of the tragic hero while highlighting the complexities of human nature.

    2. Have a Tragic Flaw (Hamartia)

    This tragic flaw is a personal trait or characteristic that leads to the character’s eventual downfall. The character’s shortcomings and flaws contrast their noble qualities, heightening the dramatic tension throughout the story and underscoring the tragic irony of the hero’s fate. Common examples of Hamartia include hubris (excessive pride), ambition, greed, and jealousy.

    3. Suffer a Reversal of Fortune (Peripeteia)

    A sudden reversal of fortune reveals a dramatic shift in the character’s circumstances. Often brought about by their own actions or choices, this change marks the beginning of their downfall and descent into tragic territory.

    4. Face a Tough Recognition (Anagnorisis)

    This is when the tragic hero realizes (or, as Aristotle would say, experiences anagnorisis). This is a crucial turning point in the narrative when the hero gains insight into their situation, finally recognizing the consequences of their actions. Unfortunately, this self-awareness is not enough to reverse their tragic fate.

    5. Experience a Tragic Outcome

    While this outcome doesn’t have to be death (although a common move in tragedies), it does have to feel unfortunate and tragic in some way. However, the extent of the character’s suffering should exceed their mistake, creating a sense of injustice. 

    6. Evoke Catharsis in the Audience

    Through witnessing the tragic hero’s struggles and ultimate downfall, the audience experiences a profound emotional release called catharsis. These feelings of pity, sadness, fear, or regret trigger the audience to consider the complexities of the human condition.

    The Modern Tragic Hero

    While Aristotle’s concept of the tragic hero remains influential to this day, modern interpretations of tragic heroes may differ from those that the ancient Greek philosopher studied. For example, while a classic tragic hero boasts characteristics like noble birth and a singular tragic flaw, modern tragic heroes encompass diverse backgrounds, identities, and experiences.

    While the essence of the tragic hero is the same (tragic flaw, reversal of fate, tragic outcome, and catharsis), modern dramas reflect contemporary cultural and social issues. This shift offers insights into the complexities of modern life and moral dilemmas relevant to today’s audiences, making the stories more appealing, compelling, and relatable.

    What it’s NOT: Tragic Hero vs. Antihero

    Many people get confused between tragic heroes and antihero heroes. However, it’s essential to understand the differences between the two as they represent contrasting character archetypes, and each serves a different purpose in a narrative.

    Let’s unpack the differences below:

    • Tragic Hero: Despite their flaws, tragic heroes possess classic “heroic” qualities, such as courage, honesty, and integrity. Because of these redeeming traits, such characters can draw a sense of empathy from the audience when they experience their downfall and, ultimately, face their tragic outcome. While their downfall is a result of their own actions or decisions, the audience still feels a sense of sorrow or sympathy.
    • Anti-Hero: Anti-heroes lack traditional heroic attributes, defying any of the stereotypes and redeemable qualities we think of when we hear “hero.” In fact, antiheroes may even engage in morally questionable or straight-up villainous behavior. While often cynical and showcases instances of poor judgment or disregard for rules, these characters offer a unique perspective as they challenge the status quo. Oftentimes, these characters underscore critiques of societal norms, values, or institutions, leading the audience to face uncomfortable truths and ethical dilemmas—and saving themselves from being classified as villains. 

    Neither tragic heroes nor antiheroes fit the mold of a classic hero. However, they both provide valuable insights into human nature and the complexities of moral decision-making. While they may be two different character archetypes, both have a way of captivating an audience, elevating the sense of drama, and inspiring meaningful reflection around ethics, morals, and identity.

    Why Do Writers Use Tragic Heroes in Their Stories?

    Tragic heroes are what make tragedies so… tragic. But it’s about more than having readers gasp at the dreadful demise of a (somewhat) redeemable character. Authors use tragic heroes to add depth and complexity to their narratives, opening the doors for exploring profound themes and emotions connected to life and the human experience.

    They help create that sense that readers find themselves between a rock and a hard place, feeling bad for a character whose demise is of their own doing. Sounds like a recipe for a compelling narrative if you ask me!

    Here is a breakdown of some of the ways a tragic hero contributes to a narrative:

    • Explores Human Nature: By portraying characters who possess noble qualities but are ultimately flawed, writers can offer nuanced insights into the human condition, fostering empathy and understanding among the audience.
    • Increases Emotional Engagement: Through witnessing the hero’s struggles and ultimate demise, audiences experience a profound emotional and psychological impact, fostering a deeper connection to and reflection on the story and its themes.
    • Examines Morality and Fate: By confronting ethical dilemmas and facing the consequences of their actions, tragic heroes lead audiences down a path of reflecting on existential themes and considering questions about morality, free will, and fate.
    • Adds Depth and Complexity: The inclusion of a tragic hero adds depth and complexity to the narrative, offering layers of meaning and leaving room for multiple interpretations while creating an enriching experience for readers.
    • Creates Universal Relevance: Tragic heroes resonate with audiences because they speak to universal truths about the human condition, no matter when the story was written or takes place. 

    Tips for Teaching Tragic Heroes 

    • Start with Engaging Examples: Introduce students to classic tragic heroes using engaging excerpts or summaries to pique students’ interest and spark engaging classroom discussions about the characteristics of tragic heroes.
    • Analyze Character Traits: Encourage students to analyze the traits of tragic heroes, including their noble qualities, fatal flaws, and moments of recognition. Provide opportunities for close reading and textual analysis, guiding students’ analysis.
    • Track the Character’s Journey: Help students stay organized while identifying a tragic hero by paying attention to the protagonist’s journey throughout the story. Have them note any significant changes in fortune or circumstances, signifying a transition from success to adversity.
    • Incorporate Multimedia Resources: Engage students with examples of tragic heroes by showing film adaptations of classic texts or watching video clips referencing examples from pop culture. Not only will this help pique student interest, but it will also help provide diverse perspectives on tragic heroes, too.
    • Promote Critical Thinking: Dive deeper by posing open-ended questions about character motivations and moral dilemmas. Consider exploring ethical dilemmas and moral ambiguities using pre-reading activities, like anticipation guides or a game of Four Corners.
    • Foster Empathy and Reflection: Prompt students to consider the emotional experiences of tragic heroes and the impact of their stories on the audience by facilitating discussions about the story’s themes and the power of storytelling on readers’ emotions.

    Examples of Tragic Heroes in Literature

    1. Hamlet as a Tragic Hero in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

    Hamlet is a classic tragic hero, as are many of the protagonists in Shakespeare’s tragedies.  As the prince of Denmark, he holds a position of high social standing and has a lot of potential ahead of him. Of course, this makes his tragic downfall all the more… well, tragic. Hamlet’s fatal flaw is his indecisiveness and procrastination.

    Rather than seeking vengeance against his father’s murderer (and Hamlet’s uncle), King Claudius, when the opportunity arises, Hamlet gets caught up in internal conflicts and indecision. (Missed opportunity #1.) A handful of unfortunate deaths and indecisions later, Hamlet eventually manages to kill his father’s murderer, but not until he is on the brink of death himself.

    2. Jay Gatsby as a Tragic Hero in The Great Gatsby

    Even the Great Gatsby himself isn’t immune to a tragic downfall of his own doing. Jay Gatsby is a tragic hero with the flaw of idealism, a trait that gets in his way of achieving true love and happiness. Thanks to Gatsby’s unwavering belief in the possibility of recreating the past, he is blind to the reality before him.

    He fails to see Daisy for who she really is and cannot comprehend that the past is in the past—and cannot be resumed in the present despite his “new money” status. His obsessive pursuit of wealth and status, driven by his desire to win Daisy’s love, ultimately leads to his downfall and, ultimately, his death.

    3. John Proctor as a Tragic Hero in The Crucible

    John Proctor isn’t an evil-spirited man. Did he succumb to lust? Yes. However, his eventual demise all stems from his fatal flaw of pride. John’s pride is no secret throughout the play. He expresses it to his wife, his mistress (Abigail), and his fellow townspeople. His pride gets the best of him when he is reluctant to confess his sin of adultery–even when it could save his life. Instead of confessing his act of adultery, he tries to focus on Abigail’s poor character.

    In the end, he values his integrity and his reputation above all else. As a result, he sticks to his commitment to preserve his good name, ultimately leading to his arrest, conviction, and eventual hanging during the Salem witch trials.

    • Peter Pan from J. M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy: Peter Pan is a tragic hero thanks to his refusal to grow up and accept responsibility. His desire to remain young and carefree leads to his loneliness and keeps him from experiencing (and enjoying) life to the fullest.
    • Anakin Skywalker from the Star Wars franchise: Before becoming Darth Vader, Anakin Skywalker was a boy with the fatal flaws of fear and attachment. Unfortunately, he loses sight of what he was once fighting for (love) and turns to the Dark Side.
    • Macbeth from Shakespeare’s Macbeth: Macbeth’s fatal flaw of ambition pushes him to kill others to hasten his position as king. Ironically, the decisions he makes to secure his kingship ultimately lead to his death.
    • Romeo Montague from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: Romeo’s impulsivity leads him to let his emotions control his rash decision-making. Ultimately, these sudden and emotionally driven decisions lead to tragic misunderstandings and death, including his own.

    Additional Resources for Teaching Tragic Hero

    Help students track the tragic hero’s characterization with this downloadable STEAL chart.

    Show students this list of “The 10 Most Tragic Heroes in Movie History”

    Darth Vader: Villain or Tragic Hero? Have students decide after reading this article.

    Unpack the tragic hero archetype with the following videos:

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