When examining four texts, all of which centre around the main character archetype of a tragic hero, it is important to note the deep connections that span setting and context. The convention of the tragic hero and on a more detailed level, the aspect of Hamartia or fatal flaw is one that leaves a wide brush stroke across the record of literature and storytelling from the very first classics of Sophocles’, Oedipus Rex to the more modern takes such as Ridley Scott’s, Gladiator. In between are texts such as Shakespeare’s, King Lear and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s American Tragedy, The Great Gatsby. The genre of tragedy and the convention of a tragic hero are extremely well defined and laid out in Aristotle’s Poetics. Although this text is old and based on the original Ancient Greek interpretation of the genre, tragedies and tragic heroes haven’t varied too widely from the essential elements Aristotle identified. Poetics outlines five main stages of a tragic hero’s life that makes them a compelling and relatable character. These stages are initial happiness and goodness, this is then followed by the audience’s identification of a fatal flaw or Hamartia in the character, this was often pride or impiety in Greek times, morphing into greed and blindness in more modern texts. This, in turn, leads to his Peripeteia or sudden reversal of fate which is soon followed by Anagorisis, or the hero’s sudden realisation and acknowledgement of the part he has had to play in his own suffering. The final stage of the process is what Aristotle believed to be the purpose of the piece. It is the final part of a hero’s life cycle and often ends in death, this stage is called catharsis. Catharsis is known as the cleansing of emotions from the audience experiencing a Tragedy. It is achieved when an audience feels both pity and fear for the character and that in the end, their suffering is more than they deserved. Without a hamartia or flaw, the audience would not feel that the suffering was in any way deserved and there would be no satisfaction or emotional relief when the hero did meet his fate. There had to be, according to Aristotle, a balance between goodness and mistakes that make a character both relatable and admirable.
Oedipus Rex holds the firmest grasp over the concept of a tragic hero. Held up as a triumph and perfect example of the genre by Aristotle, the text is a brilliant template by which other versions of the convention and character archetype can be compared. Aristotle felt that what made Oedipus so perfect in its portrayal of the tragic hero was Sophocles’ exact use of the formula that Aristotle had theorised made a great and cathartic tragedy and by extension, a great and captivating tragic hero. Much of the beauty of Oedipus is in its irony, a common convention of the genre and a language device often used in the portrayal of Hamartia. Oedipus Rex is originally a good man, this is shown in his leadership and bravery. His life follows the pattern of a Greek hero; noble blood, a humble upbringing, a journey, the slaying of a sphinx and the attainment of a Kingdom. Once he becomes king, Oedipus is a respected and loved monarch. When Thebes suffers from a plague, Oedipus’ sentiment is firm in that “their plight concerns me now, more than my own life”.The chorus echoes the sentiment that he is a compassionate leader. Soon, however, under the pressure of distrust and disaster, the less heroic traits begin to dissipate to be replaced with tyranny and impiety. Oedipus disregards the loyal prophet Tiresias calling him a “brainless, senseless, sightless sot” when confronted with the truth that he has in fact fulfilled the prophecy of the gods. He then proceeds to proclaim that “Kingdoms are won by men and moneybags”, a statement which would not sit well with the democratic Greek audience, in addition to the impiety and disrespect he shows towards the gods. In Oedipus Rex, the audience knows from the beginning what Oedipus has done. They know he has fulfilled the prophecy, they know he has killed his father and married his mother. Oedipus, on the other hand, is completely unaware that he has committed these sins and remains unaware until his moment of recognition later on in the play. The words “How terrible– to see the truth when the truth is only pain to him who sees!” show the suffering his realisation brings to him. In the case of tragic heroes, the realization that their own flaw has caused their suffering is more painful than the suffering itself. Oedipus realizes at this moment that his own impiety and pride are the very things that have bought about this horror in his life. His cursing of the one who is hurting Thebes is ironic as it is he who becomes the recipient of his own curse. The idea of the tragic hero in Sophocles’ time was not only supposed to provoke the feeling, of pity and fear that would lead to catharsis; It was also meant to have a somewhat political impact on the audience watching. The Ancient Greek Drama festivals where this piece was originally performed were thought to be compulsory events for voting men in the city of Athens. They often, as Oedipus does, had themes that warned men of the dangers of becoming prideful, impious or tyrannical. The plays tried to portray these behaviours so that when voting, audience members could identify these traits and downfalls and make decisions based on this.
Shakespeare is an author who seems influenced directly by the Aristotelian and classical Greek interpretation of a hero. King Lear is a text that follows the stages laid out in Poetics closely. Lear is extremely similar to Oedipus, even in the title the two texts are alike, Oedipus Rex translating to Oedipus the King from Greek. Lear has a similar noble birth and initial fortune as Oedipus, he also falls from grace in a similar way as his Kingdom crumbles around him. His initial nobility is established with the line“I do invest you jointly with my power, pre-eminence, in all the large effects that troop with majesty.” His initial goodness is implied through the loyalty displayed by Kent and Gloucester, nobles in his court who stand by him even when he banishes them from his court. Also his daughter, Cordelia remains loving and devoted even after he allows his pride and emotional instability to get the better of him and he acts cruelly towards her. Lear’s initial goodness is slowly and surely corrupted by the madness within him, his own mind, his own flaws, become his biggest enemy. Even more so than the betrayals happening around him. He rejects Kent and Cordelia, those who speak the truth, in favour of trusting liars and blind men, as Oedipus disregards Teiresias. Soon he suffers for his pride and misjudgement and becomes victim to his own internal tempest as well as the one occurring naturally around him. Out in the storm, his fall from grace begins. He is stripped of his garments, symbols of wealth and prestige and becomes fumbling in his speech. Where Oedipus loses his ability to rule fairly or justly, Lear also loses his ability to think and act in a sane manner. Shakespeare shows this decay of the mind through speech and language use. He becomes Germanic and speaks in prose compared to his original Kingly and latinate verses. This signifies his downfall. The pain he experiences when he realises he has made a mistake is similar to Oedipus’ the line: “pray do not despise me for I am a fond foolish old man”. A significant connection between King Lear and Oedipus Rex is actually in Lear’s subplot involving the Count of Gloucester. The quote of “madmen leading the blind” relates to the metaphorical blindness of Gloucester and the mental instability of Lear. Later in the play, this metaphorical blindness becomes literal when Gloucester has his eyes gouged out by his own son. This is close to the fate of Oedipus who blinds himself when he learns of what he has done. Although Oedipus does so by his own hand, in a sense, it is Gloucester’s actions, his hamartia, blindness that leads him to this fate. Had he trusted his other son and not allowed himself to be tricked he wouldn’t have fallen victim to the mutilation. Likewise, had Oedipus listened to Terisias at first he may have avoided some of the pain he had caused.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is an example of a modern American tragedy. Therefore some of the themes remain where others differ. A key difference in Gatsby compared to Lear or Oedipus is the absence of noble birth. Gatsby is initially a poor farm boy born James Gatz. He abandons this life to become seek wealth and create a new identity for himself that is respectable and high flying. Still, Gatsby possesses the essential Hamartia that all tragic heroes do. His is an insistence that he can repeat the past and a deep inner pride that means he drowns himself in material luxuries and cares deeply about his own appearance as a wealthy man. More so, some may say, than he does about his own morality. However, he is still admirable, as a hero must be, in the eyes of Nick at least who claim that Gatsby is “better than the rest of them put together. Unfortunately, Gatsby believes so fervently in the American dream and desires the idealistic version of Daisy so greatly that he is willing to lie, cheat and bribe his way to ‘success’. As the narrator of the novel notes, Gatsby “paid a high price for living too long with a single dream”. This delusional pursuance of an unobtainable dream is, in essence, his greatest flaw. Gatsby also displays excessive pride similar to both Lear and Oedipus, as he exclaims to Nick “Can’t repeat the past?… Why of course you can!”, this showing his delusional thought. A specific connection between Lear and Gatsby is the language feature of metaphor and symbolism that is embedded in the rain. For Lear, the rain and the storm represent his own madness and loss of control over his mind. For Gatsby, the rain represents the inevitable flow of time. The quote “and so we beat on, boats against the current, born back ceaselessly into the past” draws a connection time to water again. Also like Lear, Gatsby is blind to who truly cares for him. Lear chooses his corrupt and plotting daughters against the one who is loyal and good. Gatsby chooses the shallow and cruel Daisy of whom Nick states “(she and Tom) smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness…” This quote indicates Gatsby’s own faults and the part he had to play in his own fate i.e being shot for taking the fall for Daisy’s carelessness. It also shows, however, that Gatsby was in some ways a victim to the people around him, specifically Daisy. Fitzgerald’s intent has connections to Sophocles intent in that it sought in a way to approach a socio-political issue from an emotional standpoint. As well as feeling pity and fear for the character there is also a message about how they have let wider society influence them. Where Gatsby has not kept him down to earth way of life and goodness because of the time’s hysterical pursuit of wealth, so, Oedipus has not kept his level ruling and piety when he is given both power and pressure where his goodness turns to impiety and tyranny.
Finally, Gladiator, a film created in 2002 captured the classic Greek tragedy whilst taking elements of the modern tragedy that is seen in Gatsby. Maximus, the tragic hero is closer to Gatsby in the sense that he built up his prestige by fighting in wars, however, unlike Gatsby, Maximus remains pure of deed and loyal to the Empire of Rome. A sudden turn in his fortune occurs when he is cheated of his place as Empire when the true if corrupt, heir to the position kills the previous ruler. After this Maximus has his entire family taken from him, almost loses his own life and is stripped of his position and forced to work in a slavers ring.
This fall from Grace is marked in many ways. Maximus’ initial status is shown with him being watched in awe and respect by his men as he rides a horse into battle. Or the symbol of a loyal dog representing those he leads illustrating him as an honourable and brave man. This is all taken from him and ironically it is his perch atop his moral high horse that leads to his downfall. The moment where the audience can see a flaw in the seemingly flawless Maximus is when he stands in defiance of Commodus. Commodus asking “Take my hand, I only offer it once” to which Maximus turns and walks away. This moment displays his stubbornness, he cares more for his own morals than for his survival. This results in his downfall. Compared to Oedipus, Lear and Gatsby, Maximus’ flaw is almost an honourable and likeable one. He is almost better for it and yet it is still this righteousness that destroys his life. Maybe a more balanced man would be more balanced in his reaction but due to Maximus’ pride and tough morals, he is indignant and belligerent. When warned by a senator to “be careful” and that his actions were “not prudent”, replying; “Prudent! The Emperor has been slain.” His actions are brash and not well thought through, however, they still hold merit in some way. Thus the audience relates to him, there are many times when a righteous position has cost one the argument or battle. Similarly to Oedipus, the audience understands why it is difficult for him to admit that he is his own worst enemy. Still, Maximus does suffer the consequences of his flaws, like Lear he loses his child, he loses his position and he loses his will to live. All of this stripped from him he becomes completely vulnerable, the film shows him as naked, as Lear is in the scene where he has fallen to his own madness.
In conclusion, the Tragic heroes of these 4 pieces are all strikingly similar whilst being distinctly different in their own ways. There is a common belief that they can somehow defy the natural laws of the world or of God. Oedipus believing he can escape his divine fate. Gatsby believed who could defy the laws of time. Lear believed he was entitled to break the chain of being and that his own anger could prevail against overwhelming odds. Maximus believed he could defeat the standing Roman Emperor through sheer force of will and moral fibre. All of these beliefs have a common strand of arrogance and pride. However, they are also examples of courage in some ways. Thus the split of the tragic hero between good and flawed. He is neither completely good or bad and for this invokes both pity and fear from the audience. His plight is both underserved but also of his own doing simultaneously and this is what makes him a tragic hero. It is interesting to note on the topic of Hamartia that there is scholarly debate over what the term truly means. The Greek word itself is an archery term and translates to ‘missing the mark’. This meaning would imply that is was not even an inherent or defining flaw that made a hero who they were, but instead, a momentary lapse in judgement or a good intention gone awry that just so happened to result in their suffering and misery for the rest of their lives. This is debatable but it does open a passage of debate over how a hero could be examined for the flaws. Either way, a tragic hero had to be flawed to be relatable as well as good. Aristotle believed that an audience wouldn’t experience catharsis by watching a bad man suffer as they would simply think he got what was coming to him and would enjoy watching his downfall. He also believed that the audience would not like to see a good man suffer as it would seem unjust and imply there was no balance in the world and a bad man cannot have sudden good fortune as it would also imply injustice. All four of the heroes in these texts are both good and tragically flawed. There may be variance from the original formula especially between the common heroes and the classical ones. The flaws of the common man ranging more from the classic pride and arrogance of Oedipus and Lear. Being too good for you own good, or for being fixated on a dream have slightly more nuance to them than simple hubris. Still, the concept of the flaw binds these characters and texts closely. The way they result in suffering is unchanging throughout them and the inevitable outcome of a tragic hero is assured.