Shakespeare What Makes A Tragic Hero Essay

Shakespeare: What Makes A Tragic Hero Essay, Research Paper

What makes a tragic hero?

In all of Shakespeare’s tragedies, the hero must suffer and in some if not most cases, die. What makes a tragic hero? One has to be a man of high estate: a king, a prince or an officer of some high rank.

It was common practice for Shakespeare to tell of his tragic hero through the voices of others around his hero. This way we can understand his conflicts, his struggles, and flaws. Usually the hero’s own actions and obsessions bring him to his tragic end. (Bradley 2)

v The calamities of tragedy do not simply happen, nor are they sent—

v The calamities of tragedy proceed mainly from actions, and those, the actions of men.

v Shakespeare’s tragic heroes are responsible for the catastrophe of their falls.

(Lewin 51)

Who is the tragic hero in Julius Caesar? I believe it to be Brutus, and not Caesar. Even though the play is actually about the fall of Julius Caesar. The difficulty of relating to Caesar in terms of words, actions and reputation can contribute to an understanding of Brutus’s behavior. (Fox 140) This is one of the reasons Brutus is the tragic hero.

Marcus Brutus is a servant, but also friend to Caesar. He has a strong bond with Caesar, but he also cares about Rome and his people. Brutus said to Cassiius in Act 1 “What means this shouting? I do fear the people do choose Caesar for their king…yet I love him well.” (I.II)

Brutus feels a great friendship with Caesar, but he is afraid that Caesar will turn away from Rome and his people once in power. “I know no personal cause to spurn at him… how that might change his nature…” (II.I) He has great respect for his friend Caesar even though he knows he must put him to death. Because of Brutus’s love of Rome’s people, he felt that executing Caesar was the wise thing to do. “If then that friend demand why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer: not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more.”(III.II)

Brutus is a very important tragic hero in the play. He is of high ranking, (servant of Caesar) and he struggles with conflicts and flaws. (loving Caesar and trying to care for Rome’s people) His actions brings on the death of Caesar, this makes Brutus an excellent example of a tragic hero.

Shakespeare’s King Lear is an excellent example of two tragic heroes’. King Lear himself and his friend Earl of Gloucester. King Lear fits the typical tragic hero outline, he is of high ranking: a king. His tragedies are caused by his bad judgment, arrogance and foolishness. King Lear’s first mistake is giving up his throne and dividing his kingdom among his daughters. He creates a contest amongst the three daughters, in which they must declare their love for him. His daughters Goneril and Regan meet the challenge, but the third daughter Cordelia, does not. She does not express her love like her sisters have even though she is the only daughter who truly loves her father. She is banished by her father. “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is…to have a thankless child! Away, away!” (I.IV) This is King Lear’s first of many down falls.

In the sub plot Gloucester makes basically the same mistake King Lear makes. Gloucester is a good-natured but na?ve man. Edmund, Gloucester’s illegitimate son creates a plan to get rid of his half brother Edgar and Gloucester falls easily for the plan. And Edgar must flee the castle for his life.

“It is the deed of men that bring about their own destruction.” Lear calls upon the great Gods, Edgar and Kent blame fortune, and Gloucester states that “The Gods kills us for their sport.” (IV.I) But in reality the calamities that befall both occurs because of their own actions. (Dover 52)

These two tragic heroes don’t realize they have committed a vast error until they have suffered. Lear’s suffering is so intense he goes mad realizing his mistake was giving his kingdom to his spoiled daughters and casting out the one daughter that truly loved him. After Gloucester is blinded and finds out the truth about his two sons, he attempts and fails suicide. Both men misunderstanding their children, mistaking the good for the evil, and both suffering terribly for their misunderstanding. (Lamb 15)

Even though most of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes are male, there are few exceptions. Romeo and Juliet is one of them, besides Romeo being the tragic hero, Juliet is a tragic heroine. This happens in Shakespeare’s “Love Tragedies” (Bradley 2)

Does Romeo and Juliet fit the tragic hero curriculum? This play fits most of the tragic hero curriculum. They both come from high estate families, and you learn about them from the people around them such as Juliet’s nurse and Friar Lawrence. There are actions that lead up to the tragic deaths of Rome and Juliet but they are not by the actions of man. These two lovers did not bring their tragic death by there own actions. (Lewin 42)

It was love at first sight between a very young Romeo and a very naive 13-year-old named Juliet. But their families would damn their love.

“My only love sprung from my only hate!

Too early seen unknown and know to late!

Prodigious birth of love it is to me

That I must love a loathed enemy.” (I.V)

But they thought that love could conquer all. After a very short secret wedding, Romeo and Juliet decide to meet secretly that evening. As Romeo walks with his friend Mercutio, waiting the evening, they are confronted by Tybalt. After a deadly fight Mercutio and Tybalt lay dead, and Romeo is banished forever.

Banished is banish’d from the world,

And world’s exile is death; then “banished,”

Is death misterm’d. Calling death banished!”

Thou cuts’t my head off with a golden axe.

And smilest upon the stroke that murders me. (III.III)

After the banishment, Juliet’s family has arranged a marriage between Juliet and Paris. This is too much for Juliet and refuses to marry him. Friar Lawrence helps device a plan to help Juliet in predicament. They will fake Juliet’s death, and then Romeo and Juliet could run away together.

A message is sent to Romeo right away. But with circumstances out of their control, Romeo never receives the message. Arriving at the tomb, finding Juliet dead, Romeo poisons his self. “Thy drugs are quick. Thus with a kiss I die.”(V.III) Juliet awakes to find Romeo dead, stabs herself with his dagger.

Thy lips are warm

yea, noise? Then I’ll be brief. O happy dagger,

This is thy sheath there rust, and let me die.

After the tragic deaths of the “Star crossed lovers” the two families are brought together by the loss if their children. And there is peace again in Verona.

Romeo and Juliet are a different kind of tragic hero. They are an exception to the tragic rule. This is a tragedy of fate. The whole play revolves around bad luck, poor timing, mistakes and misunderstandings.

Between man and man, man and himself, man and fate. In this conflict, Shakespeare asks us to accept an improbable series of events as the basis of the plot. (Webster 230)

It was not the fault of the heroes, that their families had a feud between them, the conflict between Romeo and Tybalt, the message that didn’t make it to Romeo. These were all due to fate.

As shown in these three plays in Shakespeare’s tragedies, the hero must suffer and most cases die. They have to face conflicts, struggles and flaws. And all must have a tragic end. In most cases tragic heroes are responsible for their own falls.

Primary Resources

Shakespeare, William. Julius Caesar Barnes and Noble Inc

New York, 1963.

Shakespeare, William. King Lear HarperCollins Publishers

New York, NY, 1994

Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet Berkley Publishing Corp

New York, NY, 1967

Secondary Resources

Bradley, A.C. Shakespearean Tragedy


Dover, James. An Intro to Shakespeare Oxford University

Press, New York, NY, 1961

Fox, Levi. The Shakespeare’s Handbook. G.K. Hall & Co.

Boston, Mass, 1987

Lamb, Sidney. Complete Study Edition to King Lear Cliff Notes

Incorporated, Lincoln, Nebraska, 1979

Lewin, Michael. An Introduction to Shakespeare’s tragedies D.C.

Heath & Company Publishers, Boston, 1909

Webster, Margaret. Shakespeare without Tears The World Publishing

Company, New York, NY 1942


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