tragic hero


noun

a great or virtuous character in a dramatic tragedy who is destined for downfall, suffering, or defeat: Oedipus, the classic tragic hero.

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Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2020

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What is a tragic hero?

A tragic hero is a character in a dramatic tragedy who has virtuous and sympathetic traits but ultimately meets with suffering or defeat.

Something tragic is sadly disastrous, such as the untimely death of a loved one. A hero is someone who has accomplished special achievements and is viewed as a role model for others. In literature, tragic specifically refers to a play that is a tragedy (as opposed to a comedy), and a hero is the protagonist.

You’ll see a tragic hero in many dramas, such as Oedipus in Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex or Romeo in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Outside of classic literature, however, tragic hero is used more generally for characters who have a dark past or experience a downfall, such as Batman in DC Comics or Severus Snape in Harry Potter.

What are characteristics of a tragic hero?

What do Star Wars’ Anakin Skywalker and The Great Gatsby’s Jay Gatsby have in common? They both can be considered tragic heroes.

The concept of the tragic hero was described in one of the earliest surviving works of dramatic theory, Aristotle’s Poetics (c. 335 b.c.). In Greek tragedy, the tragic hero:

  • Is a male character, usually a noble, who suffers a reversal of fortune
  • Makes a consequential mistake
  • Experiences a downfall as a result of his hubris (excessive pride)
  • Typically dies in the end
  • Sparks sympathy and fear in the audience

The nature of the tragic hero has evolved as it spread from ancient Greece in Western literature: the hero doesn’t necessarily have to be male or noble, but still faces misfortune as a result of some personal flaw.

Nevertheless, you’ll often encounter the term tragic hero when discussing Greek plays, as we’ve seen, as well as Elizabethan dramas. Shakespeare created many notable tragic heroes: Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, and Othello, to name a few.

Let’s analyze a modern and a classic tragic hero as examples:

  • In Star Wars, Anakin Skywalker’s fear of losing his loved ones drives him to join the Dark Side, embracing evil powers in a twisted attempt to save them.
  • In Hamlet, Prince Hamlet is unable to cope with his father’s murder, resulting in extreme paranoia and an irrational thirst for revenge, leading to his loved ones’ deaths—and his own.

While you might initially come across tragic hero in literature class, it’s a useful way of thinking about complex, multidimensional characters in contemporary media, such as Walter White from Breaking Bad—and tragic figures in real life, such as the actor James Dean.

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While tragic hero has historically applied to men, women can of course be tragic heroes, too. Medea, the title character of another Greek tragedy by Euripides, is one. Here are two more:

  • Madame Bovary, in Gustave Flaubert’s 1856 novel Madame Bovary, spends her husband’s money and has numerous affairs. Her obsession for material satisfaction, while human, leads to her demise.

Daenerys Targaryen, in HBO’s popular 2010s adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, rises up from a youth of exile and abuse to free slaves and raise dragons. But, her pursuit of power results in countless deaths—and ultimately her own.

What are real-life examples of tragic hero?

This animated video helps illustrate what a tragic hero is:

 

What other words are related to tragic hero?

Quiz yourself!

A tragic hero generally exhibits the following traits:

A. Suffers a reversal of fortune
B. Makes a major mistake or has a major flaw
C. Inspires both sympathy and fear in the audience
D. All of the above