In Brief: On Tragic Heroes

Traditionally, a tragic hero is defined as a protagonist whose character contains a tragic flaw which eventually leads to some type of downfall. For example, Romeo in Romeo and Juliet is exceedingly impulsive and doesn’t think things through, which eventually leads to his hot-tempered suicide at the end of Act V; if he wasn’t so impulsive, he would think the situation through more thoroughly or would at least consult his old mentor, Friar Lawrence. But instead, he acts heatedly and without clear thought and drinks down a vile of poison, dying just moments before Juliet awakens from her feigned death. Tragic heroes like Romeo still pop up in our literary mediums today–books, plays, movies, and so on.  We have Sweeney Todd, who becomes so blinded by his bloody quest for vengence that he unknowingly murders his wife; there is Anakin Skywalker from the Star Wars prequels, who is so obsessed with preventing the death of his loved ones that he becomes power-hungry for the ability to prevent death and ends up falling to evil; you can even consider Severus Snape from the Harry Potter series a tragic hero since he–if only in back-story–falls under the sway of Voldemort due to his resentment for being made a social outcast by people like James Potter. These tragic heroes–from Romeo to Anakin Skywalker–show us that we all have our faults and–more importantly–the ability to let these faults ruin us. While we may not experience the melodrama or fantasy these ill-fated characters encounter, we too are guilty of the same faults and ultimately, the same tragic endings.

The Ancient Greeks saw the viewing of tragedies like Oedipus Rex as not just vital but as part of a man’s civic duty; they saw watching tragedies as important as we see voting. Why? The answer is quite simple–they felt tragic heroes provide the audience with instructions on how to live your life, or more precisely, how not to live your life. Do not, for example, let yourself become heated and impulsive; do not become blinded by vengence; do not become hungry for power; do not let resentment get the better of you; and so on. By living your life in contrast to someone like, say, Oedipus, you in turn are making yourself a decent and well-balanced citizen. Our contemporary society does not hold this view, and indeed, our output of tragedy is significantly less than that of the Ancient Greeks; sadly, we would rather produce mindless blockbusters like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, which offer about as much instruction as a soda can. We are not so far above the Ancient Greeks that we don’t need instruction on how to be good people; in fact, this is one of the things I feel our society needs the most. We are just as human as the Ancient Greeks, after all, which means we have just as many faults. By watching (or reading about) tragic heroes, we can learn how to keep these faults in check and in turn function as decent, well-balanced members of our society.

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2 thoughts on “In Brief: On Tragic Heroes

  1. so basically, we’ve been reduced to mindless drones that want movies with violence and special effects and maybe an explosion?

    wait, am i understanding this right?

    • Well, not everyone–but the mass public would prefer to go see a film like ‘Transformers’ over a film like, say, ‘Whatever Works’ or even ‘Public Enemies’. Sure, lots of people have gone to see the last two films, but not nearly as many as have gone to see the first one.

      It’s a sad state of affairs when a film like ‘Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen’ can even be made, much less become so popular.

      Ugh.

      Thanks for the comment!

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