Tragic Hero

King Lear 

Using my knowledge of Aristotelian tragic hero it reveals a lot about Shakespeare’s intentions when writing this play.

King Lear is a play written by Shakespeare about a King and his Kingdom. This play is a pure example of a tragedy. Tragedy was a popular genre for ancient Greek literature, it was used to create an interest or pleasure in reading them.  “A tragedy is an imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself; and in appropriate and pleasurable language;… In dramatic rather than narrative form; with incidents, arousing pity and fear wherewith to accomplish a catharsis of these emotions” – Aristotle. According to Aristotle people enjoy watching tragedy because people feel pleasure when reading tragic literature not because they want to experience the exact same emotions as the characters but because the pleasure they have is aesthetic. He believes that tragic literature arouses specific emotions such as pity and fear, this brings out a healthy and pleasurable experience called catharsis. Throughout the play, Shakespeare uses many different techniques to illustrate the tragedy.

A tragic hero as defined by Aristotle is a character in a story who makes a judgment error that leads to their own destruction.  Aristotle stated that “a man doesn’t become a hero until he can see the root of his own downfall.” An Aristotelian hero should be morally the same as general people in order for the audience to establish a relationship with them and identify themselves with the character. A crucial part of any tragedy is the ability for the audience to feel pity for the character, this stems from the character being morally the same as a normal person. This is an important part of any tragedy because if the character was perfect then the audience would feel as though the fate given to them was completely unreasonable or they wouldn’t care because of the superiority of the character. The same goes if it was the other way around. If the character was a really bad person then as the audience we would feel like the character had what was coming to them and that they deserved the fate. It is important for a hero to have a moral that is somewhere in between these two extremes. Typically the tragic hero dies after they realize what a terrible mistake they have made in the past. According to Aristotle, the hero must accept their death with honor.

In order to be a tragic hero, Aristotle came up with 5 characteristics that he believed a character must have in order for them to be a tragic hero. These characteristics are…

In King Lear, written by Shakespeare the main character King Lear fits the 1st characteristic as he has a hamartia. King Lear’s hamartia first becomes obvious in act 1, scene 1 when the King asks his three daughters to exclaim their love for him and he would divide the kingdom up depending on how much each daughter loved him. The first two daughters went on to tell Lear exactly what he wanted to hear, lying through their teeth that they loved him to undescribable lengths in order to gain wealth of the Kingdom. When his third daughter Cordelia didn’t want to play his game of who loves him most he got very defensive.   She stated that
” I love your majesty
According to my bond; nor more nor less”
Meaning that she loved him as a father and loved him as much as a daughter should love her father, not on material based items. Lear’s error of judgment is that he was blinded by the amount of pride and praise his first two daughters gave him and when his third daughter who truly loved him did not tell him what he wanted to hear he quickly become very offended by this. This also shows part of the 4th characteristic of showing excessive amounts of pride. The king uses the quote “come not between the dragon and his wrath”  to describe how furious he was by Cordelia saying such things. King Lear refers himself to a dragon as a dragon is a powerful creature that is dominant in the food chain. He has such pride in himself and believes that he is at the top of the food chain, he is invincible and everyone should always give him the respect he thinks he deserves. Lear goes on to banishing his daughter from the kingdom and telling her that he hopes that she will never have children.  Shakespeare has purposely given King lear this error of judgment because of his knowledge of Aristotle’s definition of a tragic hero. It also angers some of the audience that he has banished his daughter and used such harsh words to her just because he is so blinded by the pride he has in himself. This is evidence of the fourth characteristic from Aristotle’s poetics saying that a tragic hero must have excessive pride in themselves. The audience may see that Cordelia is being genuine in her response but King Lear does not see this side of it. This draws the audience to continue reading to see what the outcome of this fatal decision is.

The second characteristic that Shakespeare has used in his play is the peripeteia (reversal of fortune). Shakespeare uses this characteristic as it starts to show the audience that Lear is getting what he deserves. King Lear splits his kingdom into two, half for Goneril and half for Regan. Lear’s reversal of fortune happens when he starts to realize that his daughters are running against him and taking over the whole kingdom. This realization comes when his two daughters devise a plan to kick lear out of the kingdom in order to gain total power and wealth behind Lear’s back. They then both kicked him out leaving him to fend for himself in the massive storm that is brewing. This leaves him homeless with none of his family around him. Lear seeks shelter in a nearby shed. This reversal of fortune comes as a massive shock to King Lear as he believes that because he has the title of the king everyone should respect him as a King should be respected. Out in the storm, Lear starts to realize that his daughters have treated him with such shame. He says
“Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! spout, rain!
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire, are my daughters;
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness’
I never gave you kingdom, called you children,
You owe me no subscription. Then I let fall
your horrible pleasure. here I stand your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak, despised old man”
This quote shows that Lear is mad with his daughters and is feeling sorry for himself because he believes that he has never done anything wrong and he should not be treated like this by anyone especially not his daughters. He compares his daughters to the storm, the storm has no reason to treat him any better than what his daughters have been doing and that is owed him nothing.
In Lear’s despair, he starts to go crazy and delusional. This is shown in the story with Lear’s language. Shakespeare has changed the way lear uses speech from changing to verse to pros. Verse is usually used for people with intelligence and a higher social status whereas Pros are everyday language that any normal person uses. King Lear, because of his status of being a king spoke in verse throughout the first few acts where he was still in this social status. When he was kicked out from his kingdom and left to be in the storm he started to go insane and realizing that his decisions had led to the position he was in, which is when he started to use prose. We could identify the different language techniques because Verse is written with a formal pattern of rhythm and often rhymes. All verse will begin with a capital letter, for example, earlier in the play when King Lear still had his sanity and status as a king he said when he was banishing Cordelia from the kingdom
“Peace, Kent!
Come not between the dragon and his wrath.
I loved her most, and thought to set my rest
On her kind nursery. Hence, and avoid my sight!”
As you can see this is very organized sentence structure and obviously written in verse.
This then changes to writing that does not have a structured meter and will only begin with a capital letter if its the first letter of a new sentence. An example of a prose speech from King Lear is
“Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! spout, rain!
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire, are my daughters;
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness’
I never gave you kingdom, called you children,
You owe me no subscription. Then I let fall
your horrible pleasure. here I stand your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak, despised old man”
This obviously not as structured as the last quote and doesn’t make as much sense.
Shakespeare uses a change in his language to help define the change in fortune that he is going through and highlight that he is going mad. Lear’s change in fortune brought about his realization that he has to lead to this fortune by the error of judgment he made when kicking out Cordelia. which is evidence of the third characteristic of a tragic hero.

In the last scene of the play, King Lear met his fate. This fate may be more than what he deserved which is the 5th and final characteristic of a tragic hero. All three of Lear’s daughters died. Goneril poisoned her sister Regan, she then felt such shame once she realized what exactly she had done and she believed the only option was to commit suicide. Cordelia was hung because she went to war against her sisters, once King Lear had discovered that all three of his daughters were dead he then passed of a broken heart. Shakespeare used his knowledge of an Aristotelian hero when deciding on the fate of King Lear. Aristotle stated in his poetics that a tragic hero should meet a fate that is more than what may be deserved. Shakespeare would have used this in order for the audience to be able to recognize that King Lear is a tragic hero.

Knowledge of an Aristotelian hero has revealed a lot about Shakespeare’s intentions when producing the play King Lear. He deliberately wrote this way so that the audience would be hooked on the play and would recognize that King Lear is a tragic hero. He used many techniques that Aristotle wrote about in his poetics about what he believed a tragic hero is. King Lear, the play was heavily influenced by these poetics. One example of this is that King Lear fits all 5 of the characteristics that Aristotle wrote saying that a tragic hero must fit.

One Reply to “Tragic Hero”

  1. Hey Reanna,

    Your opening paragraph about the tragic hero is clear and you communicate Aristotle’s ideas about a tragic hero well.

    I would like to see you think about how you can use connective phrases to explain the 5 key characteristics that you have numbered above. Consider how you can write that into your essay so it doesn’t stand alone in a list.

    Consider some of your language choices in the next section of your essay. In places, the things you are identifying (which are accurate) come across a little clumsy as you misuse some words. Read the work out loud to yourself and if something sounds slightly off, look to re-word it.

    Mrs. P

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