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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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