“Aristotle’s Definition of the Tragic Hero and Irony in Tragedy” Oedipus Rex, Othello, and Death of a Salesman

Topics: Tragedy, Poetics, Tragic hero Pages: 8 (3232 words) Published: January 30, 2010
Classification and definition of tragedy are among many things widely disputed in the all too equivocal realm of composition and literary studies. These erroneous concepts happen to be directly correlated in Aristotelian theory which leads us to his definition of the tragic hero. Aristotle’s conceptualization of tragedy and all that it encompasses is widely revered and accepted; setting the standard previously and contemporaneously. The interpretation of his definition of tragedy is ambiguous, but generally states that tragedy should evoke pity and fear within the viewer for the purpose of catharsis, or purgation of senses sequencing the climax of a tragedy. (Battin) This elicits his definition of the tragic hero, which states that a character of exceptionally high stature is relegated (literally, figuratively, or both) and is forced to succumb to misfortune due to some flaw of character or failure to find/some deviation from the moral and righteous path, which is referred to as the hamartia. (Myers) However, he cannot be of paramount virtue or righteousness for this would objectify him, in turn isolating him from human perceptivity and compassion though he must be of high or noble character. The hamartia at some point must be realized by the character and this experience is known as an anagnorisis; it is to be noted that the relationship between these aspects of the tragedy is in itself ironic. Moreover we cannot define the tragic hero without giving heed to irony, which may find its origin in ancient Greek playwriting and sustains its prevalence in modern times. (Hutchens) Irony allows us as the audience to collectively comprehend the situation on a level that the characters themselves can not. Oedipus Rex, Othello, and Death of a Salesman are three tragic and relatively prominent plays, all written in different time periods, which can be examined comparatively with Aristotle’s philosophy of the tragic hero and may draw certain parallel to one another by means of dramatic irony. Oedipus Rex, written in approx. 428 B.C., quite literally is the embodiment of Aristotle’s explanation of the tragic hero. It is also to be noted that Aristotle himself often exemplified Oedipus in his definition and writings on tragedy. Simply put, Oedipus is of familiar virtue and morality, falls into misfortune due to hamartia, and sustains a significant and auspicious position in social hierarchy (he is King). (Mullens) It would appear that Oedipus’ hamartia would lie within his pride and failure to subdue his destructive and rabid tendencies. If we wish to view the hamartia as being a matter of moral flaw (character-tragic flaw), it would certainly be attributed to his murdering his father. “If Oedipus’ proclivity to anger and his undue self-reliance account for his downfall, hamartia in Aristotle is moral: if Oedipus is without responsibility for his fate, then there is no place for morality in Aristotle’s hamartia.” (Kirkwood) If hamartia is indeed directly coordinated with morals rather than fate it seems as though cognizance of his supposed impending misfortune is what destroyed him. He would not have escaped initially if it were not for fear of what he believed would be so, ironically spawning the adverse outcome he intended to avoid. Conversely, we could view the theory of character flaw being responsible as an oversimplification of complex tragic issues. According to Aristotle himself in Poetics: a person who is neither perfect in virtue and justice, nor one who falls into misfortune through vice and depravity, but rather, one who succumbs through some miscalculation". Therefore, hamartia might better be translated as “tragic error”. Disaster ensues as a result of some miscalculation in judgment or action and as an incident of the plot. Taken into perspective there are several events in the story which fail to demonstrate pride as a motivation such as his escape from Corinth to protect his “perceived” parents, his success in...

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