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What is a Tragic Hero? Definition & Examples

It was the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, who coined the term “tragic hero.” In essence, a tragic hero is a character (usually the protagonist) who makes a poor decision which leads directly to his/her downfall.

According to Aristotle, a tragic hero has the following characteristics:

  • Hamartia: a tragic flaw that leads to the hero’s downfall.
  • Hubris: excessive pride or self-confidence.

In addition, a tragic hero has the following experiences:

  • Peripeteia: a sudden and unexpected change of fortune.
  • Anagnorisis: a startling discovery which replaces the hero’s ignorance with knowledge.
  • Nemesis: an unavoidable punishment.

Finally, in all tragic stories, the audience/reader experiences catharsis – the releases of a strong feeling of pity – as a result of the tragic hero’s downfall.

Macbeth as a Tragic Hero

Macbeth is a good example of a tragic hero, according to Aristotle’s definition. His hamartia (downfall) is his ambition, and his hubris (excessive self-confidence) leads him to kill King Duncan and, later, to act as a tyrant by killing anyone who threatens his power. Macbeth’s ambition and tyranny directly contribute to his downfall: he is beheaded by Macduff in Act V, Scene VIII.

Romeo as a Tragic Hero 

Romeo, too, is a tragic hero and his impulsiveness is his fatal flaw. He always acts without thinking, as we see when he meets Juliet and when he kills Tybalt in revenge for Mercutio. His impulsiveness leads directly to his downfall (his death) because had he waited instead of vowing to commit suicide, he would have realised that Juliet was not dead at all. As the reader knows, she was just sleeping in the tomb after drinking the Friar’s potion. However, he was so determined to be with her that he committed suicide just moments before she woke up.

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