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Tragic Heroes Essay, Research Paper

Since the beginning of time, people discussed and analyzed the

concept of the tragic hero in epic poetry and other stories. An epic poem

consists of a hero of high caliber whose actions affect a nation or a group of

people. The deeds of this hero must be exceedingly brave and have

supernatural elements. Many of these stories first began as an oral

tradition then eventually became written pieces of literature. ?Oral

literature comprises a vast range of verbal products, including modern

blues lyrics, African drum songs, ancient Greek epic poetry, folk tales,

etc….? Even when the heroes are characters of different authors, they

share common characteristics and abide by certain personality traits which

define them as heroes. A hero is an example of valiancy and intelligence.

In times of danger a hero must remain strong, brave, and audacious.

Many epic poems consist of tragedy?s. Tragedies consist of several

key points. First, they cannot be discussed and must be able to be acted

out. They also include a hero of high stature and nobility. The tragic hero

must have a tragic flaw, such as an excess of pride, ambition, passion, or

some other trait that leads directly to disaster. Aristotle describes that the

key element to a tragedy is that it should invoke Catharsis. The spectators

should be purged of their emotions of pity and fear through their vicarious

participation in the drama. In the Greek times, these plays were the center

of their culture and society. They used tragedies to demonstrate how

fragile their own lives could be. If a hero couldn?t escape fate and pain

then either could they. It also enforced the theory that no one is above the

gods and no person can control their destiny. Finally, a tragedy must

employ formal, poetic writing with the use of noble language. Four stories

that demonstrate a tragedy which a tragic hero are Hamlet, Beowulf,

Frankenstein, and Oedipus Rex. These stories show how the tragic hero

had evolved throughout history and how our changing society has impacted


The epic poem Beowulf, author unknown, discusses the meaning of a

hero in there primitive society. A nefarious monster named Grendel comes

to plague Heorot, the mead hall of Hrothgar, king of the Danes. The

monster battles in the hall for 12 years before Beowulf, prince of the Geats,

comes to destroy this villainous creature. Beowulf engages the monster

when it broke into the hall one night and kills him by ripping off his arms.

Grendel?s mother seeks revenge by stealing one of the Danes and Beowulf

dives down into the monster?s lair in the nearby lake, and kills Grendel?s

mother with a sword sent from the gods. Beowulf returns home to become

king of the Geats.

After many years a Geatish slave breaks into the lair of a dragon

which wakes him. The dragon begins to ravage the countryside before

Beowulf faces this ferocious beast with the help of his retainer Wicglaf.

Beowulf was mortally wounded in the battle but with his remaining

strength, was able to defeat the dragon. Wicglaf returns to the Geats to

proclaim Beowulf?s accomplishment.

Beowulf is considered a hero because he a man of exceptional

quality. According to Talvin Walter, ?The hero, Beowulf, is a seemingly

invincible person with all the extraordinary traits required of a hero.? Men

of this time were godless, fearless, fame seeking, strong, and most of all,

courageous. Warriors were in search of these things and often achieved

them through completing daring deeds, withstanding harsh conditions, or

beating the odds. ?There are also noble things in Beowulf- not only loyalty

and dauntless courage but courtesy in the hall and respect for ladies; the

style too has a grave dignity throughout; and the figure of the old king

going out to fight to die for his people, is truly heroic.? (Grierson 3)

Beowulf?s self-imposed purpose was to help others in need, and eventually

sacrifices his own life doing so. He was a courageous man willing to risk

his life in order to help the Danes. He traveled to another land in order to

rid the Danes of the nuisance of the monster. A hero must be a risk taker

and willing to give his life for his country. When Beowulf was discussing

the attack on Grendel with Hrothgar, he states that his bravery might

ultimately lead to his own death. He was aware of chance that he might

experience a cruel and torturous death by the hands of the monster. ?You

will not need to hide my head if death takes me, for he will have me

blood-smeared; he will bear away my bloody flesh meaning to savor it, he

will eat ruthlessly, the walker alone, will stain his retreat in the moor; no

longer will you need to trouble yourself to take care of my body. If battle

takes me, send to Hygelac the best war-clothes that protects my breast,

finest of mail-shirts. Fate always goes as it must.? Also, during this time,

armor and weapons were a vital part to being a well-known hero. Armor

was passed down from generation to generation. Lavish and fancy armor

signified that the warrior of his ancestors accomplished heroic tasks.

Swords were also a significant to the warriors of this time period. In

Beowulf, there were also many references to swords. There are three

swords in the story. These include Naegling, Beowulf?s sword, Hrunting,

the sword lent by Unferth, and the magic sword used against Grendel?s


A prime example of Aristotle?s view of tragedy is Oedipus Rex by

Sophocles. Oedipus was kind of Thebes as was his father. He was a good,

just king and he saved Thebes from the Sphinx. His tragic flaw was his

arrogance. He made interpretations of the Oracle?s prophecy and acted on

them without consulting the oracle himself, nor does he seek the answers

elsewhere. He just runs off and defies fate. There are a number of

characteristics described by Aristotle that identify a tragic hero. First, the

hero must have cause his own downfall and the punishment must exceed

the crime. Oedipus makes a few fatal decisions and is condemned to

profound suffering because of them. Even though he does not know it, he

fulfills the oracles prophecy by killing his father, Laius, and then marrying

his mother, Jocasta. However, his father was just a mistake. Oedipus

thought that the person killed was just some random person harassing him.

In the play, Oedipus? misfortune happens because of his tragic flaw.

If he hadn?t been so judgmental or narcissistic, he would have never been

so oblivious about Laius? death. The oracle informs Oedipus that the

plague is a curse from the gods for sheltering the murderer of the previous

king. He then orders any citizen of Thebes that has information on the

murder must come forward. The killer would face nothing worse than exile.

?This murderer, no matter who he is, is banished from the country where

my power and my throne are supreme.? Oedipus is then encountered by a

blind prophet Teiresias which is the first time he was confronted with the

idea that he might have fulfilled the prophecy. When Teiresias tries to warn

him by saying, ?This day will give you parents and destroy you, Oedipus

still doesn?t care and continues to question him. Oedipus realizes he may

be the culprit and starts to discover the truth about his past. This tragic

king then learns he is the murderer and who his true mother is and replies

?Oh, oh, then everything has come out true. Light, I shall not look on you

Again. I have been born where I should not born, I have been married

where I should not marry, I have killed whom I should not kill; now all is

clear.? He is now aware how blind and naive he has been and how his

negligence has led to his downfall. In a state of shock and trauma, he

gouges out his own eyes so he will not be able to see what the world has

done to him. ?What use are my eyes to me, who could never- See anything

pleasant again?? His stubbornness and negligence led to his downfall and

the devastation of life and his throne. Oedipus learns a lesson about life

and how there is more to it than just one person?s fate.

Arguably the best piece of writing ever done by William Shakespeare,

Hamlet is the classic example of a tragedy. ?Aristotle states that tragedy is

an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain

magnitude.? Hamlet is a great example of this. The play is centered

around Hamlet?s quest to avenge his father?s death by killing his uncle.

Hamlet also follows Aristotle?s idea of the tragedy being of a large

magnitude. The characters are supposed to be of high nobility. Hamlet is

a wealthy prince, however he deals with similar problems as the common

man. He is confused, paranoid, and angered about the circumstances

surrounding his fathers death. Aristotle also feels that in order for a play to

be called a tragedy it must invoke fear and pity. Hamlet, an innocent

bi-stander, suffers immense misfortune which causes the audience to worry

that bad situations could happen to them.

Hamlet is the perfect example of the tragic hero. He is very brave

and daring. He put his life on the line in order to murder his uncle . He

was also very intelligent. He was first able to act insane in order to try to

prove his uncle?s guilt. ?That I essentially am not in madness, But mad in

craft.? This statement reveals Hamlet?s intent to fool people with his odd

behavior. Later in the play a troop of actors come to act out a play, and

Hamlet has them reenact the murder of his father in front of his uncle

Claudius. He is also very loyal. He stood by his father when everyone,

including his mother, moved on and forgot about his father. The audience

is also able to feel sympathy towards this character. He has been through

many tragedies in a short time, such as his father?s death, mother

remarriage, and Ophelia?s death. Hamlet?s tragic flaw was his indecision.

His dilemma is not about what decisions he should take but rather whether

he will be able to make any decisions at all. Jean-Louis Barrault said of

him that ?he is the hero of unparalleled hesitation.? According to Charles

Boyce, Hamlet?s notorious procrastination of his revenge has a similar

function. Though he accepts the Ghost?s orders, he senses the evil in his

duty sent from heaven and hell.? (Boyce 18) This eventually leads to his

downfall. These attributes are what made Hamlet a tragic hero.


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