A great significance of critical consideration has been attracted by the passage in the Poetics (by Aristotle) which deals with an ideal tragic hero. Two types of characters, according to Aristotle, have no place in tragedy. The flawlessly honest and the exhaustively wicked or bad are not suitable for tragedy according to Aristotle. An Ideal Tragic Hero is one who is not extraordinarily good and just, yet whose bad luck is brought about not by vice and wickedness, but he must commit some error of judgment. He must also be highly well-known and prosperous.
Ideal Tragic Hero according to Aristotle
The Perfectly Good: Not Fit for a Tragic Hero
Aristotle’s notion of the effect of tragedy is that it incites pity and fear in the viewer. But the fall of a perfectly good man from prosperity to misery will not arouse pity or fear. It would ultimately shock the viewer’s sense of justice. The shock rises from the fact that a wholly honorable man is suffering, the suffering is wholly unjustifiable. It is an illogical suffering.
An innocent, honorable character cannot be dramatically effective. Furthermore, we cannot categorize ourselves with such a virtuous character. It is true that in recent times Shaw and Eliot have made successful dramas with saints as their tragic heroes. But then Aristotle was speaking about the drama he knew, i.e., the Greek drama.
One might say that a blameless good character is not for the drama. Desdemona, Cordelia, and Antigone surely arouse pity. It would not be correct to say that terror, here, outweighs pity. The sense of outraged justice is there but it does not exclude pity.
The Thoroughly Depraved Character: Not Suited for Tragedy
Aristotle excluded another type of character from the circle of tragedy; the absolute villain. Aristotle says that the entirely wicked man falling from prosperity to adversity would only satisfy our sense of justice. It will not raise pity or fear. The suffering is justified, and we cannot feel pity for such type of character.
Even we cannot accept the idea of the wicked man rising from adversity to prosperity. This would be entirely alien to tragedy according to Aristotle. It would indeed offend our sense of justice. Even the aesthetic effect would be one tinged with disquiet.
However, the rejection of the villain from the sphere of tragedy is debatable. In this, Aristotle gives the impression to show a limited vision. True, crime as crime has no place in dramatic art. But presented in another light it becomes valid in drama. As Lucas remarks, Pity is not so narrow.
One might, perhaps, offer a resistance of Aristotle, here too. After all, he says that an utterly depraved person is not fit to be a tragic hero. Macbeth, one could argue, is not completely depraved, for he shows inordinate courage.
An Intermediate Sort of Person is an Ideal Tragic Hero
According to Aristotle, the person, who positions between complete villainy and complete goodness, is the ideal tragic hero. He is a man comparable to us, yet has a moral advancement. He is the more penetrating person, his feelings are deeper, and he has discriminating powers of intellect and will.
But he is basically human so it is easy for us to categorize ourselves with him and feel sorry for him. Thus the tragic hero “must be an intermediary sort of person, a man not pre-eminently virtuous and just whose bad luck is brought on him by some error of judgment or Hamartia.
Hamartia: Not a Moral Falling but an Error of Judgment
Hamartia has been taken to mean in different ways. It has come to be rather loosely understood as a “tragic flaw” by Bradley. This explanation has trapped and has inclined to confuse the true meaning of the term. As the term tragic flaw suggests, Hamartia is not a moral weakening. Aristotle makes it clear that Hamartia is some error of judgment that causes the fall of the hero, not because of some depravity, but from some error on his part. Critics like Butcher, and Lucas come to an agreement that Hamartia is not a moral drawback.
Hamartia can arise in Three Ways
The Hamartia is an error or mistake. There are three ways hamartia arises. Firstly, it may have emerged from ignorance of some fact or circumstance. Secondly, the error of judgment may arise from a thoughtless opinion of a given condition. Thirdly, the error may be voluntary, though not measured. This happens in an act of anger or passion. King Lear commits such an error when he exiles his daughter Cordelia.
In the case of Oedipus, all three errors are included. The fault of Oedipus lies in his proud self-assertion. But the destruction brought upon him is through the force of circumstance. The Hamartia in his case contains a flaw of character, an ardent act, and ignorance. The tragic irony lies in the fact that the hero compels this error in blindness and in innocence, without any malicious purpose. But the result is calamitous.
Greek Drama had for its heroes men of prominence and nobility. They held a strong position in society. When such a man falls from immensity to misery, a nation as a whole is affected. Because the fall of a king is the fall of a nation. The notion was suitable and relevant in a situation in which prominent men of the nobility were held to be representatives of the society.
Modern tragedy has shown that it is possible that tragedy may occur with all its effectiveness even when the hero is from ordinary society. Rank and nobility of birth are now irrelevant. There has got to be some sort of dignity that makes the fall from prosperity arouse sympathy in the spectator.
We see that Aristotle’s theory of the tragic hero is not unacceptable. He has a limited vision in some ways. As Shaw and Eliot have shown, tragedy is possible with saints. But this is not a commonly found fact. Tragedy may also occur with a villainous hero, as it has been exposed by Renaissance dramatists, especially Shakespeare. Further, the tragedy arises from Hamartia. This is shown by many of the best tragedies. However, the dominant restriction of Aristotle’s notion is that it is based on one section of world drama.