Tragic Heroes By Matthew Elton Copyright 2006 Matthew Elton Tragic Greek dramas featured tragic heroes, good men who suffered incredible losses as a result of an inescapable fate. Of all the tragic heroes in Greek literature, Sophocles believed that the Oedipus was the truest. Sophocles was correct, for based on analysis of Aristotles Poetics; it is obvious that Oedipus is indeed far more of a tragic hero then any other hero of ancient Greek literature. According to Aristotle, a tragic hero is a character, usually of high birth, who is neither totally good nor totally evil, and whose downfall is brought about by a tragic weakness or error in judgment. A true tragic hero must have six key qualities. These are hamartia, hubris, anagnorisis, peripeteia, nemesis, and catharsis. Hamartia is a tragic flaw that causes the downfall of the tragic hero. This tragic flaw is often a result of hubris, which is extreme pride. Anagnorisis is a recognition or discovery made by the tragic hero. In other words, the tragic hero will learn a lesson, usually as a result of his downfall. Peripeteia is a reversal of fortune, the downfall of the tragic hero. Nemesis is a fate that cannot be escaped. Catharsis is a feeling of overwhelming pity and/or fear that the audience or reader is left with after witnessing the downfall of a tragic hero. Medea is a play written by Euripides. Medea is the main character of the play. She is considered to be a tragic hero. As the play begins, the audience learns that Medeas husband, Jason, had recently divorced Medea, leaving her to care for the children. The story reveals Medea's emotional variation as a steady development from the depths of despair to insane wrath. Medea was filled with uncontrollable rage, yet instead of killing Jason, Medea made him suffer in a far more horrifying way by killing her own children. In lines 795 through 810, Medea says, When I have ruined the whole of Jason's house, I shall leave the land and flee from the murder of my dear children, and I shall have done a dreadful deed. For it is not bearable to be mocked by enemies. So it must happen. What profit have I in life? I have no land, no home, no refuge from my pain. Let no one think me a weak one, feeble-spirited, a stay at home, but rather just the opposite. One who can hurt my enemies and help my friends; for the lives of such persons are most remembered. Strangely, most consider Medea to be the protagonist and Jason to be the antagonist. This is most likely because Jason establishes the conflict in the first place by divorcing Medea. However, once Medea conducts her sickening acts of infanticide, she no longer seems to be the protagonist, for her actions are clearly evil. Medea is an extremely poor example of a tragic hero. According to Aristotle, a tragic hero is a character, usually of high birth, who is neither totally good nor totally evil, and whose downfall is brought about by a tragic weakness or error in judgment. However, Medea is not of high birth, and she seems more evil than good. Furthermore, Medeas downfall is not brought about by a tragic weakness or an error in judgment. Medea lacks hamartia, a tragic flaw. Nowhere in the story does Medea show any sign of hubris, which is excessive pride that often leads to the downfall of a tragic hero. Medea does not experience anagnorisis, for nowhere in the story does she learn a lesson, have a sudden epiphany of understanding, or experience any type of radical change from ignorance to knowledge. Of all of Aristotles qualities of a tragic hero, Euripides has incorporated only two of these traits in his play Medea. These qualities are peripeteia and catharsis. Medea does experience peripeteia, a reversal of fortune, for she looses her husband and children. However, unlike most tragic heroes, Medeas tragic loss of her children is entirely her fault, for she kills them herself, committing a very dishonorable act of murder that is not heroic in any way. Most tragic heroes experience peripeteia as a result of a nemesis, an inescapable fate. In other words, their tragic flaw is something that is not
their fault and something they cannot escape. While one could argue that Jason divorcing Medea was not Medeas fault, the death of Medeas children, which is the greater tragedy, is entirely Medeas fault. As for catharsis, it is theoretically feasible, and perhaps even probable, that the audience will be left with a feeling of fear after witnessing the tragic events of the play. However, it is very unlikely that the audience will be left with a feeling of pity towards Medea. For all of these reasons, Medea is not a tragic hero. Antigone is a tragic play written by Sophocles. In this story there are two possible tragic heroes: Antigone and King Creon. The play begins shortly after Polyneices, Antigones brother, attacked Thebes with a massive army. Polyneices was killed in the battle. His body was left rotting on the ground. King Creon of Thebes then passed a new law that prohibited anyone from burying the body of Polyneices. The penalty for attempting to bury the body of Polyneices was death. Creon believed that Polyneices does not deserve a proper burial because of the horrendous crimes he had committed against Thebes. As the play begins, Antigone insists that his body of Polyneices must be buried so that his spirit can rest in peace. Breaking the law, Antigone tried to bury Polyneices herself. However, she was captured and brought before King Creon. Creon sentenced Antigone to death, along with Antigones sister Ismene, who had nothing to do with the crime but was accused of helping Antigone bury Polyneices. To complicate the plot even further, Creon's son Haemon, the prince of Thebes, was engaged to marry Antigone. Haemon begged Creon to release Antigone. However, Creon mocked him, and Haemon ran away heartbroken. Suddenly, Creon realized that Ismene was indeed innocent, and decided to release her. However, he did not release Antigone, but instead he sent her to starve to death in a cave. While Antigone suffered in the cave, the blind old prophet Teiresias warned Creon that the gods are angry and Haemon will soon die. Creon did not believe Teiresias. However, Creon finally agreed to bury Polyneices after the Chorus reminded him that Teiresias is always right. After the burial was complete, King Creon went to release Antigone from the cave where she was being held captive. But he was too late. Antigone had already committed suicide by hanging herself. Weeping uncontrollably, Haemon stabbed himself, also committing suicide. Haemon died holding his beloved Antigone's in his arms. With his son dead, Creon thought things couldnt possibly get any worse. But they did. When Creon returned to his palace he learned that his wife Eurydice had also committed suicide after learning about her son's tragic death. Creon was left in a state of insanity, weeping uncontrollably and wishing he was dead. Some consider Antigone to be the tragic hero of this story. However, Antigone, like Medea, is a very poor example of a tragic hero. According to Aristotle, a tragic hero is a character, usually of high birth, who is neither totally good nor totally evil, and whose downfall is brought about by a tragic weakness or error in judgment. Although Antigone seems to be neither good nor evil, Antigone is clearly not of high birth. Antigones downfall is brought about by hamartia, a tragic flaw. This hamartia is Antigones willingness to break the law to bury Polyneices because in her opinion family more important than law. Compared to King Creon, who is portrayed by Sophocles as being tremendously arrogant, Antigone is not very prideful. Therefore, hubris is not a character trait of Antigone. Antigone does not experience anagnorisis, for nowhere in the story does she learn a lesson, have a sudden epiphany of understanding, or experience any type of radical change from ignorance to knowledge. Antigone does experience peripeteia, a reversal of fortune, for she looses her brother and her life. Most tragic heroes experience peripeteia as a result of a nemesis, an inescapable fate. While one could argue that Antigone was destined to die in the cave, it is clear that Antigone could have prevented her death if she did not break the law. Antigone knew the law and she knew that the penalty for burying the body of Polyneices was death. However, Antigone buried the body anyway, sacrificing her own life to put the spirit of Polyneices at peace. After witnessing the tragic events of Antigones death, it is logical that the audience would feel fear and/or pity towards Antigone. Therefore, catharsis is an element
of Antigone. However, because Antigone lacks hubris, anagnorisis, and nemesis, she is not a tragic hero. King Creon is a tragic hero; however, he is not the ideal example of a tragic hero. Unlike Medea or Antigone, Creon is of high birth. Creon is also portrayed by Sophocles as being neither completely good nor completely evil. Creon created a foolish law and mocks his son, yet at the same time, Creon wants only what is best for Thebes. Creon has excessive pride. This hubris is his tragic flaw, also known as his hamartia. Unlike Medea or Antigone, Creon actually experiences anagnorisis, a sudden epiphany of knowledge and understanding, and a change from ignorance to knowledge in which Creon learns a valuable lesson. This anagnorisis follows Creons tragic peripeteia, his downfall in which he looses both his wife and his son. Upon witnessing this peripeteia, it is logical that the audience will feel both pity and fear. Of the six qualities of a tragic hero listed by Aristotle in his Poetics, Creon has five of them. What Creon lacks is a nemesis. While one might argue that Creons downfall was his destiny, it is clear that if Creon did not create the law that bans the burying of Polyneices, Creons tragic downfall would never have occurred. Other foolish decisions made by King Creon that contributed to his peripeteia include arresting Ismene when she obviously innocent, ordering that Antigone be killed by starvation when all she wanted to do was help her dead brother, cruelly mocking his son when he demanded that Antigone be released, and waiting until after the burial procedure was complete to rescue Antigone. Evidently, if King Creon had made better decisions, his downfall could have been prevented. Therefore, King Creon does not have a nemesis. While King Creon is a better example of a tragic hero than Medea or Antigone, his lack of a nemesis is the reason he is not an ideal example of a tragic hero. Oedipus is a true tragic hero. Oedipus is featured in a trilogy of plays written by Sophocles, the same man that wrote Antigone. In fact, Antigone is one of the plays in the Oedipus trilogy, even though Oedipus himself never appears in the play. The other two plays in the trilogy are Oedipus at Colonus and Oedipus the King which is also known as Oedipus Rex. It is in Oedipus the King that Oedipus experiences his tragic downfall. When Oedipus was just a baby, his parents tied his feet and left him to die on a mountaintop, hoping to escape a prophecy that Oedipus would someday kill his own father and marry his mother. Oedipus was rescued by a shepard and adopted by another family. As a child, Oedipus never knew that he was adopted. When he visited the Oracle of Delphi to learn about his future, Oedipus learned that he would one day kill his father and marry his mother. In a futile attempt to escape this fate, Oedipus ran away from home. While running, he encountered a man at a crossroads. The man wouldnt get out of the way, so Oedipus killed him and continued running. Oedipus then fell in love with a woman and married her. Oedipus saved the city of Thebes from the legendary Thebes. As a result, Oedipus was made the king of Thebes. As Oedipus the King begins, the blind old prophet Tiresias, the same prophet who warned Creon of his coming doom, helped Oedipus solve the mystery of the prophecy from the Oracle of Delphi, and uncover the truth. Oedipus learned that the man he killed at the crossroads was his father. Even more horrifying, Oedipus learned that the woman he married was his mother. In an instant, everything changes from tranquility to chaos and from contentment to catastrophe. Upon learning that she was married to her son, Oedipuss wife and mother killed herself. Oedipus then stabbed himself in the eyes, blinding himself, and ran away filled with sorrow and insanity. After this, Creon became the King of Thebes and cared for Oedipuss children. Oedipus is a tragic hero. Although Oedipus is not of high birth, he rises to become a king rather early in his life. Sophocles portrays Oedipus as being neither completely good nor completely evil. Oedipus clearly has a tragic flaw. This flaw is known as hamartia. Oedipuss flaw is partly his extreme pride, which is also known as hubris. In the beginning of Oedipus the King, Oedipus is very arrogant. In lines seven through nine, he states Here I am myself you all know
me, the world knows my fame; I am Oedipus. Oedipus obviously has hubris. However, hubris is only part of his tragic flaw. His downfall is mainly caused by his nemesis, his fate that he cannot escape. The fact that he has this nemesis is his real tragic flaw. He is cursed with a prophecy, a destiny that he cannot escape no matter how hard he tries to do so. This inescapable fate leads directly to his downfall, a reversal of fortune known as his peripeteia. Finally, the audience or reader will definitely be left with intense feelings of both fear and pity after witnessing the extremely tragic events of Oedipuss life. While the audience or reader might feel pity towards Medea, Antigone, or Creon, they will undoubtedly feel much more pity towards Oedipus. This is because Oedipus was a good man who lost everything simply because he was a victim of fate. While Medea, Antigone, and Creon could have escaped their downfalls if they had made better choices, Oedipus faced a downfall he could not escape. Ironically, in an attempt to escape his nemesis, he ran right into it. An audience or reader will feel much more fear after witnessing the events of Oedipus the King then they would after witnessing the story of Medea or Antigone because the tragedy of Oedipus the King. Most people will never kill their own children to get revenge on their ex-husband. Likewise, most people will never be thrown into a cave to die of starvation after trying to bury their brother who died in battle and now needs to be buried in order for his spirit to rest in peace. However, although it is extremely unlikely that the events of Oedipus the King would actually happen to anyone, it is possible, and this is why Oedipus the King achieves a deeper level of catharsis then Medea or Antigone. Anyone could have a nemesis, a horrible downfall that awaits them because of a tragic fate. Euripidess Medea, Sophocless Antigone, and Sophocless Oedipus the King are all masterpieces of Greek drama. However, of the three, only Oedipus the King contains a real tragic hero that matches Aristotles definition of a tragic hero as described in his Poetics. Medea, Antigone, and King Creon are not tragic heroes. Oedipus is a tragic hero.