The Tragic Hero
The tragic play comes from Greece; the genre was established by the fifth century BCE. Plays were performed during an Athenian festival, the City Dionysia, and actors evoked the heroic figures of myth and legend.  In his Poetics, Aristotle said that tragedy is an imitation of ‘events terrible and pitiful’.  The tragic hero, said Aristotle, should not be ‘a virtuous man brought from prosperity to adversity: for this moves neither pity nor fear; it merely shocks us’. Neither should he be ‘a bad man passing from adversity to prosperity: for nothing can be more alien to the spirit of Tragedy; it possesses no single tragic quality; it neither satisfies the moral sense, nor calls forth pity or fear’. Finally, Aristotle cautions, ‘Nor, again, should the downfall of the utter villain be exhibited. A plot of this kind would, doubtless, satisfy the moral sense, but it would inspire neither pity nor fear; for pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a man like ourselves’. Aristotle pronounces the hero of tragedy properly to be ‘the character between these two extremes – that of a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty. He must be one who is highly renowned and prosperous – a personage like Oedipus, Thyestes, or other illustrious men of such families’. 
The Poetics, along with the tragedies of the Roman playwright Seneca, were influential in the Elizabethan period. Shakespeare’s tragic heroes conform to many of the precepts of Aristotle. They may have royal blood, be renowned military leaders, or both. They may exhibit villainy, but this is not usually the villainy of an out-and-out tyrant, but the result of a tragic flaw in character that leads them to commit errors or acts of violence. Thus, Hamlet’s melancholy and inner torment, although partly induced by circumstances, also seem to be part of his own character. Othello’s jealousy and failure to recognise Iago’s manipulation result in the murder of Desdemona. Antony’s excessive love for Cleopatra weakens him, and Lear’s pride and rejection of Cordelia bring about his madness and death. As Aristotle suggested, characters who are flawed, rather than wholly villainous, are characters with whom the audience can identify. Seneca’s tragic heroes tend to be more extreme, consciously doing wrong and driven by wild passions.  Perhaps another aspect of the audience’s ability to identify came because Shakespeare varied the classical pattern by including comic elements.  For example, much of Hamlet’s dialogue is blackly comic.
Shakespeare’s tragic heroes are often victims of their own excesses or self-deception.  Although they may be prey to manipulative characters, like Iago in Othello or Goneril and Regan in Lear, some lack of understanding prevents them from seeing the truth. Othello woos Desdemona with charm and the use of storytelling, yet is unable to discern Iago’s use of similar techniques, so that he swallows Iago’s stories whole. Perhaps one aspect of these heroes’ struggle with self-understanding is that they suffer from inner conflict: Hamlet is torn between the desire for revenge and a sense of the futility of life and action, Othello is tormented by the gap between Iago’s lies and what he knows Desdemona to be, Antony hesitates between Egypt, where his passions lie, and Rome, seat of his military responsibilities,  and Lear’s incompatible desires for absolute power and genuine affection push him from order and control into chaos and madness.
To some extent, the heroes all display the flaw of hubris, or overweening pride. Othello believes he has the right to dispose of Desdemona, and Hamlet serenely dispatches Polonius and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Antony places his romantic life above the fate of nations, and Lear believes that human affection is his to arrogate, and that he has control over his domain, which he ends by ceding to France. Despite the heroes’ inevitable downfall, Shakespeare emphasises that they are noble to the end:  Cassio calls Othello ‘great of heart’,  Caesar says of the grave of Antony and Cleopatra that ‘No grave upon the earth shall clip in it/ A pair so famous’,  and Fortinbras speaks an epitaph on Hamlet: ‘Let four captains/ Bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage,/ For he was likely, had he been put on,/ To have proved most royal. And for his passage/ The soldiers’ music and the rite of war/ Speak loudly for him’.  Shakespearean tragedies end with a poignant sense of what might have been if the hero had been able to overcome his circumstances and his tragic flaw.
1. Cf. Adrian Poole, Tragedy: Shakespeare and the Greek Example
(Oxford: Blackwell, 1987). Return to text
2. Aristotle, Poetics, trans. by S. H. Butcher, 3rd edn (London: Macmillan, 1902), 9, p. 39. Return to text
4. Tom McAlindon, ‘What is a Shakespearean Tragedy?’, in The Cambridge Companion To Shakespearean Tragedy, ed. by Clare McEachern (Cambridge: CUP, 2002), pp. 1-22 (p. 4). Return to text
9. William Shakespeare, Othello, ed. by E. A. J. Honigmann, The Arden Shakespeare, 3rd edn (London: Thomson Learning, 1997, 2004), 5.2.359, p. 331. Return to text
10. William Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra, ed. by John Wilders, The Arden Shakespeare, Third Series (London: Routledge, 1995; Thomson Learning, 2003-4), 5.2.358-9, p. 300. Return to text
11. William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. by Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor, The Arden Shakespeare, 3rd Series (London: Thomson Learning, 2006), 5.2.379-84, pp. 463-4. Return to text