What characteristic does a tragic hero always have?

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e-martin eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Arrellbell's answer to this question adheres closely to Aristotle's definition of the tragic hero from his Theory of Poetry and Fine Art (aka Poetics). 

In that treatise, Aristotle defines the tragic hero as being someone who participates in a relatively concise narrative (a drama as opposed to an epic) and who possesses a few essential traits.

This character must be someone the audience can sympathize with - so not a god or a scoundrel.

The tragic hero is "a [great] man who is neither a paragon of virtue and justice nor undergoes the change to misfortune through any real badness or wickedness but because of some mistake" (Univ. of Ohio).

This character becomes the quintessential tragic hero when he or she is faced with a problem or conflict that has come about through circumstances that were not entirely under his or her control but which he or she may have contributed to creating. Oedipus is the classic example of the tragic figure, but Electra makes for another fine example.

When Electra's father, King Agamemnon, is killed by her mother, Clytemnestra, a situation is created (parallel to the central scenario of Hamlet) where the King's murder demands justice and that justice is the murder of the Queen. Killing her mother is a moral sin in the Greek tradition, so Electra is beset by a conundrum. Justice can only be done by committing a deeply immoral act.

When Electra and her brother carry out their plan to kill their mother and thereby honor the King and enact justice, they also commit an unforgivable crime. In that action, Electra becomes a tragic hero. 

The realization of her guilt comes as something of a shock to Electra and represents her moment of realization. The hamartia (tragic flaw) of her character may be seen as bearing too great a love for justice, which leads her to the anagnorisis (Aristotle's term for recognition) that is also necessary for a tragedy. Realizing her guilt, Electra is fated to be punished though she only did what she felt she had to do according to the dictates of honor and justice.

So, if Antigone is relatable, beset by a problem outside of her own control, and through her story comes to realize where she went wrong and thus come to "recognize" a truth about herself, she is definitively a tragic figure. 

mclouse eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I would add hubris to the list.  It is possible hubris would fit under "the character has a personality trait that leads to his/her downfall."  Hubris is excessive pride.  Two examples include:

Oedipus - ignoring warnings not to travel by the oracle, oversteps his boundaries as a human

Daedalus - created wings for himself and his son, as they were flying, bystanders thought them to be gods because only gods have the ability to fly

katemschultz eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"A man cannot become a hero until he sees the root of his downfall." ~ Aristotle

The characteristics of a tragic hero include the following:
1. The character should be born into some form of nobility or wisdom (remember that in ancient times, nobility was the royal family; modernly, nobility could be social.)
2. The character has a personality trait that leads to his/her downfall
3. The character is doomed to make an error in judgement.
4. The character should be neither good nor bad, but the audience should be able to identify with the character.
5. The character is responsible for his/her own fate.
6. The character will fall from great heights or esteem when s/he realizes s/he has made an irreversible mistake.
7. The character will face a tragic death with honor.

Remember that a tragic hero doesn't have to meet ALL of these characteristics, but should meet most of them.

Here is a video with further explanation of tragic heroes:

nishu2766 | Student

A tragic hero is a character in a work of fiction (often the protagonist) who commits an action or makes a mistake which eventually leads to his or her defeat. The idea of the tragic hero was created in ancient Greek tragedy and defined by Aristotle (and others). Usually, this includes the realization of the error (anagnorisis), which results in catharsis or epiphany.Aristotelian tragic heroCharacteristicsAristotle once said that "A man doesn't become a hero until he can see the root of his own downfall." An Aristotelian tragic hero must have four characteristics:Nobility (of a noble birth) or wisdom (by virtue of birth).Hamartia (translated as flaw, mistake, or error, not an Elizabethan tragic flaw).A reversal of fortune(peripetia) brought about because of the hero's Hamartia.The discovery or recognition that the reversal was brought about bythe hero's own actions (anagnorisis).Other common traitsSome other common traits characteristic of a tragic hero:Hero must suffer more than he deserves.Hero must be doomed from the start, but bear no responsibility forpossessing his flaw.Hero must be noble in nature, but imperfect so that the audience can see themselves in him.Hero must have discovered his fate by his own actions, not by things happening to him.Hero must see and understand his doom, as well as the fact that his fate was discovered by his own actions.Hero's story should arouse fear and empathy.Hero must be physically or spiritually wounded by his experiences, often resulting in his death.Ideally, the hero should be a king or leader of men, so that his people experience his fall with him.The hero must be intelligent so hemay learn from his mistakes.A tragic hero usually has the following sequence of "Great, Good, Flaw, Recognition, Downfall."Tragic virtueAn alternative view of the tragic hero, especially in Renaissance British literature, is one in which he or she possesses a tragic virtue (as opposed to the Classical idea of Hamartia). In thisparadigm, the hero exhibits traits that would under other conditions be considered desirable, but due to external circumstances cause their eventual undoing. For example, Shakespeare's characterHamlet from the eponymous play is often criticized for his contemplative nature, and his failure to act is cited as his tragic flaw. Under other circumstances, however, such as the kingship that Hamlet was to inherit, a contemplative nature is certainly avirtue. The tragedy of Hamlet, then, is not that of a flawed character who simply succumbs to his failings, but that of a virtuous character who is consumed by circumstances not under his control.Modern fictional tragic heroesIn the Modernist era, a new kind oftragic hero was synthesized as a reaction to the English Renaissance, The Age of Enlightenment, Gothic and Romanticism. The idea was that the hero, rather than falling calamitously from a high position, is actually a person less worthy of consideration. Not only that, the protagonist may not even have the needed catharsis to bring the story to a close. He may die without an epiphany of his destiny, or suffer without the ability to change events that are happening to him. The story may end without closure and even without the death of the hero. Thisnew tragic hero of Modernism is the anti-hero

arrellbelle | Student

A tragic hero must contain several qualities and characteristics:

  1. Must be of higher status or of noble stature.
  2. Must be relate-able, in a way, that the audience/readers may empathize with him.
  3. Must be at fault for whatever bad happens or be responsible for their wrongdoings.
  4. The punishment of their crime or misfortune is too great and the 'tragic' hero does not deserve such a punishment.
  5. Although in the end, there was much turmoil with the tragic hero, there was some gain in the end, possibly within the character themselves.
Miquelle Radich | Student

In classic Greek tragedy, the tragic heroes always display hubris, or excessive pride. This makes them blind to signs of their imminent downfall, which they otherwise might have noticed. 

zumba96 | Student

There may be different characteristics for the tragic hero type given by Aristotle and how a tragic hero may be, but the main four points in regard to this character would be;

  1. They must elicit sympathy from the audience
  2. They should have appropriate virtues
  3. They must be realistic
  4. They must be consistent in their psychology