Monday, 13 February 2012

Who Are Shakespeare’s Tragic Heroes? | Men More Sinned Against Than Sinning

Shakespeare’s tragedies are among the most popular and frequently performed plays in the world, making his tragic heroes some of the most recognised characters.

Shakespeare Gives Us Some of
The Finest Examples of Tragic Heroes
King Lear’s claim that he is “
a man more sinn’d against than sinning” can be debated. After all, his ferocious temper and bad judgement are what lead him to running around the stormy British countryside in the nude. And the same can be said of most Shakespearean tragic heroes - not that they run around nude, but that they are, at least in part, responsible for their own downfalls. Whether they are, in fact, more sinned against than sinning really rather depends upon your point of view.

What’s a Tragic Hero?

However, a traditional, and by that I mean Aristotelian, view of tragic heroes is that they are, without doubt, more sinned against. Aristotle believed that tragic heroes had to be essentially ‘good’ guys. Not saintly, because then an audience would not be able to relate to him. But, he certainly couldn’t be a ‘baddie’, because a tragic hero is never deserving of his fate. If he were, we wouldn’t feel sorry for him.

And in this mix of not too good, and not too bad, there is the tragic flaw or hamartia, as Aristotle would call it. This innate character trait is the chink in a tragic hero’s armour, his Achilles heel; it is what makes his fall from grace inevitable.

Hamartia, which is now used to refer to any tragic flaw, is a little problematic if used in the way Aristotle intended it to be used, however, because, for Aristotle, it meant a flaw which caused an accidental or unforseen act of horror. Let’s use Aristotle’s favourite tragic hero and poster boy, as an example: Oedipus never intends to kill his father and marry his mother, those are completely unforseen events that occur due to his tragic flaw, which is hubris.

How Are Shakespeare’s Tragic Boys Different?

When it comes to some of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, it’s difficult to define their hideous deeds as accidental. Macbeth, for example, doesn’t say, “oops my ambition killed Duncan.” And for Othello, Desdemona’s death cannot be described as an unforseen consequence of his smothering her. Although, I suppose you could argue that he mistakenly thought he was murdering an unfaithful hussy - so that’s where the ‘accident’ comes in.

Anyway, without further ado, let’s look at Shakespeare’s tragic heroes; who they are, what they do and why they’re ‘tragic’.

Anthony Hopkins as The Fatally Flawed Titus (1999) 
Titus: Titus Andronicus was Shakespeare first tragedy (at least the first one we know of). Titus begins the play as a well-respected and recently victorious general in the Roman army.

Hamartia -Lack of interpersonal skills and a distinct lack of sympathy.

Titus makes two catastrophic errors at the beginning of the play, both caused by the character flaws above: First, he refuses to become emperor (even though the people want him to take the crown) and then he kills Tamora’s sons as a sacrifice. What follows is a cycle of revenge and one of Shakespeare’s bloodiest plays.

Romeo: The romantic hero of Romeo and Juliet is a young man with a bright future at the beginning of the play.

Hamartia - An impetuous nature, which leads to rash action

In almost everything he does, including falling in love, Romeo is a jump-straight-in kind of guy. His inability to be able to test the water level leads him to fall head over heels for Juliet, murder Tybalt and then commit suicide.

Caesar: Julius Caesar is unusual among his fellow tragic heroes, because he is murdered at the start of act three, meaning he spends very little time on stage. Although, Caesar is the play’s ‘official’ tragic hero, it could be argued that Anthony and Brutus are also tragic heroes.

Hamartia - Hubris

Whether Caesar is ambitious, as the conspirators claim, is a subject that could be debated. However, it cannot be denied that he has great pride, which he masks with false humility in turning down the crown, and is demonstrated in his unwillingness to listen to the warnings of the soothsayer and his wife, Calpurnia.

Sarah Bernhardt as The
Procrastinating Prince Hamlet (Circa 1880)
Hamlet: Perhaps the most famous example of a Shakespearean tragic hero, Hamlet is the young prince of Denmark whose uncle has killed his father, married his mother and usurped the throne.

Hamartia - Indecisiveness and procrastination

In an attempt to avenge his father’s murder, Hamlet feigns madness. However, when he has the opportunity to kill his uncle, Claudius, he falters. In fact, he spends huge swathes of the play soliloquising about his indecision; “to be or not to be” being just one example. When he does act, he gets it wrong by accidentally killing Polonius. In the end, the play culminates in a bloodbath; the deaths of eight of its dramatis personae.

Othello: Despite rampant racism in Venice, Othello has risen to the rank of general and has won the heart of Desdemona, who elopes with him

Hamartia - Blind trust in the wrong person

For me, it’s far too simplistic to say that Othello’s fatal flaw is jealousy, partly because jealousy springs from other things, such as low self-esteem (which could be a result of the racism he’s faced, rather than an innate character trait). He simply places all his trust in the wrong man, a man with whom he fought with and, therefore, had to trust with his life - so it’s an understandable mistake.

Lear: King Lear is among Shakespeare’s most complicated tragedies, partly because there are so many sub-plots, which support the main action between Lear and his daughters.

Hamartia - Misjudgement, fierce temper and blindness

To be more specific, he places appearance (shows of affection or “the name and all the additions to a king”) over genuine loyalty and reality. Whereas Gloucester is made literally blind, Lear is blind to his faults and the deception of his elder daughters.

As mentioned briefly above, how much of Lear’s downfall is his own doing can be debated. It would be fascinating to know more about the background of the characters, specifically the childhoods of the sisters - what kind of father has Lear been? Unfortunately, Shakespeare leaves this to our imaginations. However, it is something explored in the Japanese/French re-telling of King Lear, entitled Ran.

Edwin Forrest as The Regicidal Scotsman
Macbeth (Before 1872)
Macbeth: Yes, on the face of it, Macbeth might seem more of a villain than a hero, but the regicidal Scotsman is, indeed, one of Shakespeare’s finest tragic hero.

Hamartia: Ambition and hubris

When Macbeth is first met by the witches, he’s already ambitious. After he discovers that one of their prophecies has come true, he’s determined to get his backside on the Scottish throne. Of course, later, when the witches tell Macbeth that “
none of woman born shall harm Macbeth,” he begins to think he’s immortal. Ambition and hubris prove to be a rather nasty cocktail.

Antony: There are many who argue that Antony and Cleopatra isn’t really a tragedy per se, because both characters are passive participants in their downfalls. However, just because it’s not a traditional tragedy doesn’t make it any less interesting.

Hamartia - Worldliness

What do I mean by that? Simply, a love for the finer things in life; good food, wine, art, the pleasures of physical love and, more importantly, a desperation to cling on to those things no matter what the consequences. And, of course, although I’m referring specifically to Antony as a tragic hero, this equally applies to Cleopatra.

Timon: Timon of Athens is another difficult play to categorise definitively, because it often seems more like a philosophical work or political satire than a tragedy, but, of course, it is possible to be all of those things.

Hamartia - An excess of emotions

Whatever Timon feels, he feels strongly, whether that is joy, love for his friends, generosity, anger or hate. He wants to be loved as much as he loves others. However, they take advantage of him and his strong positive emotions are swiftly exchanged for negative ones.

Act V, Scene iii of Coriolanus Illustrated
by Gavin Hamilton (1803)
Coriolanus: Shakespeare’s last tragedy (that we know of) was Coriolanus, another Roman romp, which is an examination of the democratic system and the pitfalls of popular rule.

Hamartia - A lack of enlightened leadership

Just like Titus, Coriolanus is a great warrior, who has been incredibly successful on the battlefield. However, that success does not translate into wisdom in civil leadership.

Many would state that there is hubris involved in Coriolanus’ character and may even claim that this is his fatal flaw. While there is no doubt that Coriolanus has a great deal of pride, in my opinion, this does not have any effect upon his fall from grace.

But what do you think?

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