Aristotle’s Ideal Tragic Hero

Aristotle first lays down the general rule that characters in a tragedy should be “good” or, if possible, ‘better’ than the ‘good’. Like the painter, the dramatist sketches his characters to that the quality of ’goodness’ shines out more clearly than in life. Then he proceeds to examine the qualities which the ideal tragic hero must have. No passage in the Poetics, with the exception of the Catharsis phrase, has attracted so much critical attention as his ideal of the tragic hero.

Not an Utter Villain

The function of a tragedy is to arouse the emotions of pity and fear, and Aristotle deduces the qualities of his hero from this function. He should be good, but not too good or perfect, for the fall of a perfectly good man from happiness into misery, would be odious and repellent. His fall will not arouse pity, for he is not like us and his undeserved fall would only shock and disgust. Similarly, the spectacle of an utterly wicked person passing from happiness to misery may satisfy our moral sense, but is lacking in the proper tragic qualities. Such a person is not like us, and his fall is felt to be well-deserved and in accordance with the requirements of ’justice’. It excites neither pity nor fear. Thus according to Aristotle, perfectly good, as well as utterly wicked persons, are not suitable to be heroes of tragedies. However, Elizabethan tragedy has demonstrated that, given the necessary skill and art, even villains, like Macbeth, can serve as proper tragic heroes and their fall can arouse the specific tragic emotions. “There is, no doubt, that there is something terrible and sublime in mere will-power working its evil way, dominating its surroundings with the superhuman energy” (Butcher). The wreck of such power excites in us a certain tragic sympathy: we experience a sense of loss and regret over the waste or misuse of gifts so splendid.

Not Perfectly Good or Saintly

Similarly, according to Aristotelian canon, a saint—a character perfectly good—would be unsuitable as a tragic hero. He is on the side of the moral order and not opposed to it, and hence his fall shocks and repels. Moreover, his martyrdom is a spiritual victory and the sense of his moral triumph drowns the feeling of pity for his physical suffering. The saint is self-effacing and unselfish, and so he tends to be passive and inactive. Drama, on the other hand, requires for its effectiveness a militant and combative hero. However, in quite recent times, both Bernard Shaw and T.S. Eliot have achieved outstanding success with saints as their tragic heroes. In this connection, it would be pertinent to remember first, that Aristotle’s conclusions are based on the Greek drama with which he was familiar, and secondly, that he is laying down the qualifications of an ideal tragic hero; he is here discussing what is the very best, and not what is good. On the whole, his views are justified, for it requires the genuis of a Shakespeare to arouse sympathy for an utter villain, and saints as successful tragic heroes have been extremely rare.

An Intermediate Sort of Person

Having rejected perfection as well as utter depravity and villainy, Aristotle points out that the ideal tragic hero, ‘‘must be an intermediate kind of person, a man not pre-eminently virtuous and just, whose misfortune, however, is brought upon him not by vice or depravity but by some error of judgment.” The ideal tragic hero is a man who stands midway between the two extremes. He is not eminently good or just, though he inclines to the side of goodness. He is like us, but as Butcher points out, raised above the ordinary level by a deeper vein of feeling, or heightened powers of intellect or will. He is idealised, but still he has so much of common humanity as to enlist our interest and sympathy .

Hamartia: Various Interpretations

The tragic hero is not depraved or vicious, but he is also not perfect, and his misfortune is brought upon him by some fault of his own. The Greek word used here is, “hamartia”. The root meaning of Hamartia is, “missing the mark”. He falls not because of the act of some outside agency or vice or depravity, but because of Hamartia or “miscalculation” on his part. Hamartia is not a moral failing, and hence it is unfortunate that it has been translated rather loosely as, “tragic flaw” as has been done by Bradley. Aristotle himself distinguishes hamartia from moral failing, and makes it quite clear that he means by it some error of judgment. He writes that the cause of the hero’s fall must lie, “not in depravity, but in some error or Hamartia on his part.” Butcher, Bywater and Rostangi, all agree that “Hamartia” is not a moral state; but an error of judgment which a man makes or commits. However, as Humphrey House tells us, Aristotle does not assert or deny anything about the connection of hamartia with moral failings in the hero. “It may be accompanied by normal imperfection, but it is not itself a moral imperfection, and in the purest tragic situation the suffering hero is not morally to blame.”

Hamartia: Its Three Sources

Thus Hamartia is an error or miscalculation, but the error may arise in three ways. It may arise from “ignorance of some material fact or circumstance”, or secondly, it may be an error arising from hasty or careless view of the special case, or, thirdly, it may be an error voluntary, but not deliberate, as in the case of acts committed in anger or passion. Else and Martin Ostwald, both critics of eminence, interpret Hamartia actively and say that the hero has a tendency to err, created by lack of knowledge, and he may commit a series of errors. They further say that the tendency to err characterises the hero from the beginning—(it is a character-trait)—and that at the crisis of the play, it is complemented by the recognition scene (Anagnorisis), which is a sudden change, “from ignorance to knowledge”.

Hamartia: Its Real Meaning and Significance

As a matter of fact, Hamartia is a word which admits of various shades of meaning, and hence it has been differently inter-preted by different critics. However, all serious modern Aristotelian scholarship is agreed that Hamartia is not moral imperfection— though it may be allied with moral faults—that it is an error of judgment, whether arising from ignorance of some material circumstance, or from rashness and impulsiveness of temper, or from some passion. It may even be a character-trait, for the hero may have a tendency to commit errors of judgment, and may commit not one, but a series of errors. This last conclusion is borne out by the play Oedipus Tyrannus to which Aristotle refers again and again, and which may be taken to be his ideal. In this play, the life of the hero is a chain of errors, the most fatal of all being his marriage with his mother. If King Oedipus is Aristotle’s ideal hero, we can say with Butcher that, “his conception of Hamartia includes all the three meanings mentioned above, which in English cannot be covered by a single term.” Hamartia is an error, or a series of errors, ‘Whether morally culpable or not,” committed by an otherwise noble person, and these errors derive him to his doom. The tragic irony lies in the fact that hero may err innocently, unknowingly, without any evil intention at all, yet he is doomed no less than those who are depraved and sin consciously. He has hamartia, he commits error or errors, and as a result his very virtues hurry him to his ruin. Says Butcher, “Othello in the modern drama, Oedipus in the ancient, are the two most conspicuous examples of ruin wrought by characters, noble, indeed, but not without defects, acting in the dark and, as it seemed, for the best.”

The Ideal Hero: His Eminence

Aristotle lays down another qualification for the tragic hero. He must be, “of the number of those in the enjoyment of great reputation and prosperity”. In other words, he must be a person who occupies a position of lofty eminence in society. He must be a highly placed individual, well reputed. This is so because Greek tragedy, with which alone Aristotle was familiar, was written about a few distinguished, royal families. Aristotle, basing his qualification of the tragic hero on what he was familiar with, considers eminence as essential for the tragic hero. Modern drama, however, has demonstrated that the meanest individual can serve as a tragic hero as well as a prince of the blood royal, and that tragedies of Sophoclean grandeur can be enacted even in remote country solitudes.

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