Tragic Heroes Essay, Research Paper
Tragic heroes are found throughout Greek mythology and folklore. They are called tragic because their stories are tragedies. The two Greek plays, Antigone and Oedipus, are good examples of tragedy. These plays, written by Sophocles, are very different and yet they share one similarity tragic heroes. There are certain criteria that must be met for a person to qualify as a tragic hero. He (or she) is usually of noble blood, but not a god. To be a tragic hero, one must experience hamartia, peripateia, anagnorisis, catharsis, and usually a punishment. He begins by making a mistake, one that anyone in the same position could make. The mistake is usually a flaw of character or judgement that seems to be the right decision at the time. More often than not, the mistake is not recognized as an error or flaw. This is called the hamartia, or tragic flaw. The hamartia can be anything such as an action, a character flaw (such as bad temper), a defiance of or disbelief in the gods, or a simple error in judgement. After the hamartia has occurs, which is usually unknown to the hero, it sets in motion the series of inevitable events that follow. The tragic hero then begins to go through the motions, or results of his hamartia. He experiences peripateia and anagnorisis almost simultaneously. Peripateia is best defined as an irony or a reversal of fortune. This is when nearly everything the hero has done to either accomplish or avoid something, has been in vain. The results are exactly opposite of his wishes. Anagnorisis is a Greek term meaning recognition. The tragic hero experiences realization as his intentions are destroyed and the very circumstance he has tried to avoid has occurred. Occasionally he receives an indirect punishment due to his tragic flaw. The last requirement a person needs to be classified as a tragic hero is catharsis. Catharsis is a Greek word, meaning the cleansing of one s self. But when it comes to tragic heroes, it s meaning is closer to the cleansing of one s self through a redeeming action. After a tragic hero has his hamartia, he realizes (anagnorisis) that his tragic flaw, whatever it may be, has led to his reversal of fortune (peripateia). He then does something to either try to mend the damage caused (catharsis) or if he cannot he punishes himself; because hamartia, his tragic flaw, always hurts someone else other than himself. A tragic hero s catharsis usually involves harming himself in order to cleanse and redeem his self after realizing what has happened.
In Sophocles Oedipus Rex, Oedipus is the Ruler of Thebes. From a young man and on, he has always feared the prophecy he received from the Oracle at Delphi. The prophecy revealed to him that he would kill his father and marry his mother. Oedipus s hamartia begins here. Anyone in this situation would try everything in his or her power to avoid this from happening. This is exactly what Oedipus does. He should know not to try to go against the oracle because it is blasphemous toward the gods. But who would stand by and wait to kill their father and marry their mother? Oedipus goes to Delphi to make sure he knows who his real parents are, so he can avoid the prophecy. Of course, on his way, he meets Laius at the crossroads and kills him. Some might say that Oedipus s tragic flaw is killing Laius, but his tragic flaw begins when he tries to evade his fate. Oedipus goes on to become the king of Thebes and marry Laius former wife, Jocasta, by answering the Sphinx s riddle correctly. Unknown to him, he has already fulfilled the prophecy he has tried so hard to avoid. This is Oedipus s peripateia, his reversal of fortune. Although at the time, he thinks everything is good and right, but he has already sealed his fate; it s only a matter of time before he realizes it. An interval of time passes in which Jocasta and Oedipus have two sons and two daughters together. When a plague falls upon the city, Oedipus sends a messenger to find out why. The messenger reports that the plague in Thebes is due to Laius murder never being avenged; Oedipus immediately sends for the only witness to the murder. Then he announces the murderer is to be condemned to exile upon apprehension. The investigation goes on and Oedipus begins to suspect himself. Finally, the blind prophet Tiresius comes and convinces Oedipus that the prophecy has come true. He goes to his wife, Jocasta, and tells her his prophecy. Now she, too, also knows the truth and can not live with it; thereupon immediately killing herself. Indirectly, this is Oedipus s punishment for his hamartia, for trying to elude the prophecy. The tragic hero now recognizes what has happened due to his actions and decisions; this is his anagnorisis. This is the moment when he realizes that he has, in fact, done everything he tried so desperately hard to avoid: killing his father, marrying his mother, and that the murderer of Laius he s been seeking is himself he s condemned himself to exile. Oedipus, realizing how terrible the sins of killing his father and allocating an incestuous marriage with his mother are, cannot bear to look upon his children. His children are a direct result of his disgusting incest, the most malicious and offensive crimes to be committed to the gods and to his self. In an effort to cleanse himself of this, he cuts his eyes out. This is Oedipus s catharsis. He blinds himself because he was blind in his actions. Oedipus is a tragic hero because he fits the role. His tragic flaw, trying to outwit and avoid the Oracle s prophecy, brought this on. Had he went to Delphi that day at the crossroads, he still would have killed his father, but he may not have ever known. If only he wasn t so self-consumed in his inquiry of Laius killer, he might have lived a long and prosperous life.
In Antigone, another play written by Sophocles, there is only one possible tragic hero Creon. This play is the last in the Theban Saga written by Sophocles. It begins with the death of Oedipus two sons, Eteocles and Polynices. They both died by each other s hand, fighting over the throne of Thebes. Creon is now the next in line for the throne and he takes his new reign seriously. As the new king, he wants to prove his abilities. Creon s total regard for the laws of the city makes him abandon all other beliefs. This is Creon s tragic flaw, his hamartia. His methods of enforcing the laws are strict. By being overbearing and resolute, Thebans won t see him as a weak king; this will prevent problems from arising. Creon feels that if someone dishonors the polis in which he rules, they must be punished. His first order of business is to decide what to do with his two dead nephews, Eteocles and Polynices. He resolves to give Eteocles an honorable funeral because he fought on the side of Thebes. But as for Polynices, because he fought against the city, he is not to be touched and to stay as he lays for the birds and rats to have their share of him. Creon forbids anyone on pain of death to give him a proper burial; this is Polynices punishment for fighting against Thebes. Creon s harsh punishment on those who disobey his laws causes many to fear him and dare not go against him. Antigone, on the other hand, holds the beliefs of the gods in high reverence. It is a direct insult in the gods eyes to not give a proper burial, particularly for your own blood. She believes the laws of the gods should be obeyed above all others, including a king s, especially with respect to family. Antigone decides to try to bury her beloved brother and show him her respect and love. Being a religious person, she does this to assure his acceptance into heaven. Her justification for her actions after she is caught and brought to her uncle is that the sacred laws of the gods are by far more important than those set by the king. Antigone holds strong in her resolve and refuses to back down even when confronted by the king and sentenced to death. Creon s anagnorisis comes when he is finally convinced by Tiresias, the prophet, that he is wrong to deny Polynices a burial and to imprison Antigone for trying to do what is right. It is Tiresias that tries to help him recognize his hamartia, his belief in only the laws of Thebes. But Creon is humbled and distraught in learning he was wrong; this explains why his priorities are confused. When he tries to redeem himself and do what is right by burying Polynices and freeing Antigone, he doesn t think to free Antigone first and then bury Polynices. Instead, Creon s first action is to appease the gods by burying Polynices. Creon s attempt to set things right is his catharsis. Then he and his son Haemon, Antigone s betrothed, depart to where Antigone is buried. When Creon opens the cave to set her free, he finds her lifeless body hanging in the air by a noose. Her lover, Haemon, unable to avert her fate, would not survive her, and falls by his own hand. Carrying his son s body home, Creon then learns of his wife s suicide, occurring only moments before he arrived. This is Creon s peripateia, the death of his wife and son, Eurydice and Haemon. If only he had let Antigone bury Polynices, none of this death would have happened. Antigone s side of the conflict held a much more heavenly approach, as opposed to the mundane road her uncle-king chose to follow. In the end, Creon remains alone with his city-state, to lament his costly errors; his rueful, decaying decline is his punishment.
In these two tragedies, the heroes are different, but they both fit the same criteria; they have hamartia, anagnorisis, peripateia, and catharsis. Oedipus Rex and Antigone are similar because of the gods limited role in the heroes actions and the fact that the characters of each epic have a great common point in terms of their leadership in situations. But they differ in the order of events concerning the requirements of the tragic hero. Their ruinous reigns are the product of their unwillingness to deviate from their self-indulgent, all-consuming omnipotence. In both tragedies, Sophocles concludes that all mortals are fated by the gods, and must render their lives to higher powers.