Aristotle’s Views on Ideal Tragic Hero
Feelings of pity and fear are necessary to the spirit of tragedy and for this will be fulfilled by the tragic hero. Aristotle has given the definition of a tragic hero in “Poetics”.Greek tragedies are still being read and even dramatized in the world and it is because of their perfect tragic heroes. Later on, Shakespeare made changes in the tragedy and also redefined the tragic hero but the basic rules were not changed. Most of his tragedies are based on Aristotle’s concept of tragic hero. Aristotle has defined a tragic hero so perfectly that it is widely accepted. If a tragedy is written on the basis of Aristotelean concept of tragic hero, even today, it will arouse the feelings of pity and fear and completes the purpose of a tragedy. Except Shakespeare, rarely any other writer tried to touch the Aristotle’s rules of a tragic hero. In fact, everyone tried to fulfil Aristotle’s requirements, while sketching the main character a true tragic hero.In chapter XIII of the “Poetics”, Aristotle has outlined the characteristics of an ideal tragic hero.
First and foremost characteristic of a tragic hero is that it should be a person, having both good and bad qualities. Aristotle says that neither a good character can be an ideal tragic hero nor a bad character can fulfil the purpose of a true tragedy. Reason behind it, is that a good character will not create fear, which is an important ingredient of tragedy. A god like person’s sufferings are not justified at all. It will only create sympathy. Similarly 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. Again, it will neither create pity nor fear, which is totally alien to the spirit of tragedy. Hence, a tragic hero, in view of Aristotle, is the one who is possesor of good and bad qualities.
Aristotle has faced a lot of criticism on this point. S. H. Buthcer’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 the 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 these objections are rejected because the have no force at all. There are rare chances that the tragedy with blameless character is successful. A martyr may be admired and people will weep on his death but the end is heroic and not tragic, which is totally against the spirit of tragedy.
Aristotle goes further and says that the character should be noble by birth and he must fall from prosperity to adversity not the vice versa; such like characters are best for a tragedy. The suffering of a noble person is more effected than the person from lower class.There is more interest and sympathy in seeing a person falling from a position of lofty eminence. Although, this rule has been ignored by many modern writers and still their tragedies have importance.George Eliot has written novels in which the characters are not noble but ordinary person. Thomas Hardy has also painted characters, who are common just like us but they perfectly complete the tragedy. Perhaps, in ancient romans and Greeks, this rule was accepted but nowadays it can be ignored. Witha little artistic talent, a noble character can be replaced with a common middle class person.
A tragedy is not called tragedy until hero suffers in it. In fact, suffering is the base of a tragedy. Tragic hero, who is combination of both good and bad qualities should suffer because of an error or frailty, called hamartia. It can be an error in judgement or a bad decision of the character or any thing which leads it to destruction. Aristotle gives grave importance to hamartia but he also adds that the sufferings of the tragic hero can also be the reason of unavoidable circumstances. Here we, like critics, can say that Aristotle is on fault. 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 is not suffering due to his own actions but because of his fate. “Oedipus Rex” is ideal tragedy of Aristotle but we know that Oedipus does not suffer because of his own actions; he suffers because of his fate. It is was prophecy from the gods that the child will suffer i.e. Oedipus Rex. He has rarely any fault of his own in this regard. The only incident, in which he can be considered responsible to some extent is when he killed his father on the way to Thebes but this step was taken totally in self-defense. He was compelled in the hands of fate. Thus, Aristotle is wrong in this regard. Only circumstances are not enough for the suffering of a tragic hero.
Aristotle’s words; character is destiny are not considerable. The downfall of character, having fate only behind his destruction is not a good tragedy. Sophocles has written plays, in which some innocent characters are victim of fate and rarely their actions are responsible. Later on changes have been made with regard to fate and chances. Even before Shakespeare, Christopher Marlow has written dramas in which character is fully responsible. “Dr. Faustus” is remarkable example of it. The only writer which very minutely follows the rule of Aristotle in context to fate and chances is Thomas Hardy. In his novels, character is blameless but nature, fate and chances are responsible for the tragedy.
Aristotle has something more to say in 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 heroes/heroines. This rule is also not being followed in modern era.Nowadays, women can do anything even can become tragic heroes/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 is the reason behind it, Aristotle does not think that women are good for any tragedy.
By and large, Aristotle has defined tragedy and with it the tragic hero. He prefers tragic hero a man like us, who is in possession of both good and bad qualities. He should be noble person; someone like king (in modern terms someone from upper/elite class). He should suffer because of unavoidable circumstances and due to hamartia in order to excite pity and fear. Death of the characters in not necessary in the eyes of Aristotle. Heavy assertion is about sufferings of the tragic hero. Aristotle’s rules may not be accepted in modern times but he has very beautifully defined the characteristics of tragic hero. Although, some of the rules have been renewed yet there is no denial the fact that Aristotle has given the concept of a true tragic hero in “Poetics”.