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The classical tragedy was defined by Aristotle in Poetics. Within this text, Aristotle outlined the characteristics typical of the classical tragedy. These characteristics are as follows.
The protagonist must possess hamartia (meaning a tragic flaw). The downfall of the protagonist is not fully the fault of the protagonist (other factors play into his or her downfall). The protagonist is typically of high status (therefore, his or her fall is greater than that of a "normal person").
In regards to Shakespearean plays, many of the tragedies followed the characteristics denoted by Aristotle. For example, in Shakespeare's Macbeth, the protagonist's (Macbeth) ambition (his hamartia) leads to his downfall. His place as king, and his fall from king, shows his downfall as being rather extreme. Macbeth is not completely at fault (both the prophecies and Lady Macbeth push his actions).
According to Aristotle, the chief elements of the classical tragedy are as follows:
- the protagonist's downfall is caused by some tragic flaw in his character which prompts him to break moral rules
- many other factors are also responsible for the hero's misfortune
- the hero is often hubristic
- the hero is a prominent person in society; this therefore makes his downfall even more terrible and harder to bear
- the tragedy that befalls the hero is imminent due to fate or the choices he makes
If we take a look at some plays written by Shakespeare, we can notice many of the previously mentioned elements in them. For instance, let us briefly examine Macbeth. Macbeth's tragic flaw is his unrestrained ambition, which drives him to kill king Duncan and many others (Banquo, Lady Macduff, etc.).
Macbeth is very hubristic because he plans to disrupt the natural order of things by murdering the innocent leader of the country.
He is a prominent person, admired by many at the beginning of the play for his bravery and seeming loyalty.
Once he decides to kill Duncan, we witness the beginning of Macbeth's downfall. He descends deeper and deeper into the realm of evil, and his downfall is imminent.
Finally, some other factors are responsible for Macbeth's downfall, such as the witches' prophecy and Lady Macbeth's persuasion and manipulation.
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