If Harry Potter is the perfect example of a hero, then the sullen potions master of Hogwarts school, Severus Snape, can be considered as an example of a tragic hero. A hero with a flaw, is predominant in tragedies since the olden Greek playwrights. This Penlighten article gives you the meaning, characteristics, and examples of tragic heroes.
The term ‘Tragic Hero’ was first recorded in Poetics (335 BCE), which is a work of the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BCE).
Poetics is one of the earliest surviving works of Aristotle. However, it is in an incomplete state, which is thought to be in the form of lecture notes taken by his students. This compilation of notes is considered as the first treatise that focuses on literary theory.
In Poetics, Aristotle notes the characteristics of an ideal tragedy and its elements. He defines a tragedy as the imitation of a serious action of magnitude. However, to carry out such actions, the play needs a large character. That character appears in the form of a tragic hero.
At the time of Aristotle, several great playwrights like Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides had entertained the audience with their tragic plays. Taking the works of these masters of Greek drama as an example, Aristotle built an image of a tragic hero as a guidance for new playwrights. Let us find out what an Aristotelian tragic hero is like.
What is a Tragic Hero?
According to Aristotle, a tragic hero is the protagonist of a tragic play who experiences a reversal of fortune from happiness to misery because of his own tragic flaw.
Characteristics of a Tragic Hero
1. A tragic hero must be of a noble stature. He must hold a high position that exemplifies his nobility and virtues.
2. He should have all the great qualities like strength, greatness, intelligence, etc. However, he should not be perfect. He should have at least one flaw in his personality. Aristotle named that flaw as Hamartia, which could mean error of judgment or a wrong choice of action. In most of the old Greek dramas, Hubris i.e. pride, used to be a tragic flaw. However, a flaw or weakness like jealousy, infidelity, indecisiveness, etc. can accompany pride.
3. This tragic flaw is the most important characteristic of a tragic hero according to Aristotle. A flaw in the noble protagonist helps the audience identify themselves with him. The identification leads to catharsis, which means evoking pity and fear among the audience. Identifying with the character leads the audience to cleanse these negative emotions. Therefore, for Aristotle, an ideal tragic hero should evoke pity and fear in the audience.
4. A tragic hero should be consistent in his behavior throughout the play. He should not deviate from the way he speaks and acts.
5. His reversal of fortune must always go from happiness to misery; in most cases, towards his tragic death. It should not be the other way round.
6. A tragic hero’s reversal of fortune or his downfall should be partially, if not wholly, his own fault. His lack of perfection should lead him to a downfall.
7. A tragic hero’s misfortune or punishment must be greater than what he deserves.
8. A tragedy always ends with some discovery on the part of its tragic hero.
A character having these characteristics is a tragic hero according to Aristotle.
Examples of Tragic Heroes
Creon, the king of Thebes, is a tragic hero of Sophocles’ tragic play Antigone. Being the king, he has the highest status. He has all the good qualities that a king needs. However, he has a flaw—excessive pride, which becomes the reason for his downfall.
In Antigone, King Creon’s nephews die while fighting among themselves. Creon orders a proper burial for one nephew, but not for the other, who he believes is the traitor. Antigone, his niece, gives a proper burial to her brother against her uncle’s wish. This leads to her arrest and a fatal punishment for her. Creon doesn’t bend for his son’s wishes to free Antigone with whom he is in love. His flaw, excessive pride, does not let him see his son’s love for Antigone and Antigone’s wish to honor the dead. However, it is too late when he realizes his mistake. He has to suffer with the knowledge that his pride cost his son, wife, and Antigone their lives. The play ends with Creon realizing how his flaw led to the death of his family members.
Tragic heroes can be found in Shakespeare’s plays as well. (Read about Shakespearean Tragedy.) Othello is one example. The protagonist of the play, Othello, experiences a reversal of fortune due to his tragic flaws of suspicion and acting without thought.
Not noble by birth, Othello is shown as a respected military general. He loves his wife Desdemona. However, the jealous antagonist of the play, Iago plants seeds of suspicion in Othello’s mind about Desdemona’s affair with Cassio to whom Othello has promoted. Othello’s choice of believing in Iago’s tales, rather than confronting Desdemona, leads him to kill her. The discovery of truth cannot be handled by Othello, and he kills himself.
► Severus Snape
Severus Snape is a new-age tragic hero of the Harry Potter Series, who holds similarities with the Aristotelian tragic hero. A mistaken choice becomes his tragic flaw, which is also the reason for his downfall.
Snape considers himself as a Half-blood Prince as his mother, Eileen Prince, is a witch and his father, Tobias Snape, is a Muggle. Though he does not belong to a family of a high status, his self-given nickname ‘Half-blood Prince’ works as a nice pun of a noble status. He loves his childhood friend Lily; however, is attracted to dark magic, which Lily hates. Throughout his school days and later, he makes the wrong choices. Another wrong choice, which becomes the reason for his downfall, is telling Lord Voldemort about a prophecy that makes Voldemort kill Lily. However, the realization of his actions leads Snape to take on a punishment of working for and spying on Voldemort and protecting Lily’s son, Harry Potter.
It is always heart-wrenching to see a good man spiraling down due to his own flaw on which he may not have had control. As George Orwell rightly said, “A tragic situation exists precisely when virtue does not triumph but when it is still felt that man is nobler than the forces which destroy him.”.