3.4- The Tragic Hero

Shakespeare made certain events in the play king Lear portray King Lear as Aristotle’s tragic hero.

Inevitably, we all have flaws, little things that add up to something greater and if we let them get out of hand or take control of a situation then it is likely that these little things could add up and eventually lead to a downfall of some kind. It can be selfishness, ignorance, excessive pride, and more that we all hold a little bit of. Maybe to Aristotle, we are all Tragic Hero’s? The play King Lear written by the playwright William Shakespeare in 1603 shows that Shakespeare used certain events in the play to perceive King Lear as Aristotle’s Tragic Hero. King Lear starts at the top, and from his first action of dividing the kingdom due to his own selfish ways. It is a slippery slope into his ultimate and inevitable downfall, according to Aristotle’s theories; a Tragic hero. The most evident bits of the play that have portrayed king Lear as a tragic hero has been the scene at almost the beginning of the play in which he decides to split the Kingdom between is three daughters, when he disowns Cordelia and gains hubris, or the storm or the “Tempest” scene. These are all body scenes, sculpting the play and storyline as we figure out how Shakespeare crafts the character of King Lear to perceive him as a Tragic Hero.

Aristotle’s “Tragic hero” is described by him as “a character who ultimately makes a judgment error that inevitably leads to his/her downfall”. The judgment error can also be described as Hamartia which is ultimately the fatal flaw which leads to the characters inevitable downfall as a tragic hero. Hubris is another big flaw on the ingredients list to making a Tragic Hero such as King Lear. Hubris is excessive pride, disrespect, and ignorance to the natural order of things which in this Elizabethan era was demonstrated by the Great Chain Of Being which was what the people lived by and this chain could never be disrespected or mixed around. When someone disrespects this natural order of things, all is in chaos and it contributes to the characters inevitable downfall. The last feature which adds up to a Tragic hero is peripeteia. Peripeteia is the reversal of fate that a hero experiences. A tragic hero is usually the protagonist in a tragedy, for example, Romeo is the tragic hero in the famous play Romeo and Juliet, because of his reckless attitude towards love he is a compelling character. However, it leads to his eventual downfall, similar to King Lear. Aristotle’s Tragic hero was a hero experiencing Hamartia, Hubris, and Peripeteia and we will soon find out how Shakespeare used events to show King Lear as a tragic hero.

Towards the beginning of the play there is a scene in which King Lear makes a mistake, selfishly, which brings out his Hamartia and Hubris. In this scene, he decides to create disorder within the kingdom when he makes a selfish decision to split the Kingdom between his three daughters. Lear commands his daughters to reveal which one loves him the most so he can gift the biggest share of the kingdom to that daughter. His youngest daughter, Cordelia decides not to speak and when interrogated admits that she cannot “heave her heart into her mouth”, saying that she loves him as much as a daughter should, no more and no less. Because he is so selfish and must always be pleased, he is not having a word of that and immediately disowns Cordelia. He then announces that he will divide his kingdom between his two eldest daughters who love him the most. In this scene and situation, King Lear’s Hamartia is vividly revealed. Hamartia is the fatal flaw that inevitably leads to a character’s downfall. It is one of Aristotle’s key traits on the list to being a tragic Hero and in this scene Shakespeare crafts the character, King Lear to have this inevitable Hubris which will ultimately be a step to his downfall. King Lear’s Hamartia, his fatal floor is selfishness. You can tell he is a generally selfish person from the get-go when one of his first ever lines in the play reads ” Which of you shall we say doth love us most? That we our largest bounty may extend. Where nature doth with merit challenge. Goneril, Our eldest born, speak first.” King Lear is blatantly in need of reassurance that he is loved and needs to hear his daughters say it. Shakespeare’s purpose in perceiving King Lear as a tragic hero is to achieve catharsis. catharsis is a purge of emotions that the audience experiences to either make the audience cry or be incredibly happy. Catharsis draws the audience in and in King Lear they are feeling incredibly sorry for King Lear because of his inevitable fate and his obvious downfall throughout the play. He is making a life decision over a few words to make himself feel contempt and this fatal flaw, Lear’s Hamartia becomes his fatal flaw leading to his inevitable downfall as a tragic hero.

Reading the play King Lear, one of the major themes you vividly notice is pride. Lear hold’s excessive pride in himself, his daughters, and his kingdom. Pride is something to be proud of but when it becomes excessive, much like King Lear’s, it becomes hubris. Hubris is another one of Aristotle’s key traits that a tragic hero hold’s. It is excessive pride or self-confidence. Lear’s pride is that he wishes to be exceedingly flattered all the time and constantly reassured that he is the best which ties in with his hamartia which is how selfish he is. When he asks his daughters to tell him which one loves him the most you notice that it is only to build his self-confidence and pride in himself. King Lear blatantly acts upon his pride. Gloucester is another character in the play that acts upon his pride as he is embarrassed to have Edmund as a son. This excessive need of pride brings us back to the opening scene in which King Lear, because he needs to be constantly flattered asks his daughters “Which one of you shall we say doth love us the most?” Lear had always preferred his youngest daughter Cordelia with hopes of giving her the largest share of the kingdom and expected to be flattered by her the most by a statement of nothing but love. When this doesn’t happen his excessive pride takes over and, as I said before he disowns her. King Lear, who lets the excessive use of pride take reign over his life leads too his inevitable downfall as a tragic hero. King Lear is portrayed by Shakespeare as a tragic hero in this play because of the excessive amounts of pride he has and his need for constant reassurance that he is loved and wanted. Shakespeare portrays him as this selfish and naive character to make it clear that what he is creating is a tragic hero and the way that king Lear inevitably acts, as well as his hubris leads to his downfall as seen in other tragic heroes.

Act three, scene four. The storm. The Tempest, a low point, and a climax. One of the key scenes that Shakespeare uses to perceive King Lear as a Tragic hero in Aristotle’s sense is the storm scene. In this scene King Lear’s thoughts are in chaos, a resemblance of the surrounding storm. The storm around him is a clear metaphor for how King Lear is feeling and it represents him at his lowest point. The storm is a tempest for King Lear’s emotions, the rain is a symbol from the love to the loath he now feels for his ungrateful daughters. Lear accuses the storm of being his daughter’s agent with the quote; “I never gave you kingdom, called you children; You owe me no subscription. Then let fall Your horrible pleasure. Here I stand, your slave, A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man. But yet I call you servile ministers.” This quote shows how disappointed he is in this moment, full of chaos yet different emotions emerging. The disappointment and anger he now has for is daughter is imminent and clear. This tempest is his downfall, this is his perepiteia. His sudden reversal of fortune is where he is left locked out of his kingdom with nothing and no one except the Fool who would follow King Lear off a cliff through loyalty. This is Aristotle’s final ingredient to create a tragic hero. The seasoning in your soup, and here we have him, King Lear, a tragic hero.

Shakespeare clearly perceives King Lear as a tragic hero as you can tell from the story-line and the key traits that both King Lear and a Tragic hero has. Both Hamartia and Hubris are vividly shown from the get-go, through King Lear’s actions towards his daughters and what he expected verse the reality of a reply. This is the beginning of his inevitable downfall as a tragic hero. Shakespeare also portrayed King Lear as an Aristotle “Tragic hero” through the final trait, peripeteia. Peripeteia was King Lear’s final step off the edge to his inevitable death. King Lear was clearly supposed to be a tragic hero and was portrayed as one very well by Shakespeare as he used the Tragic hero traits on King Lear, the selfish, needy, and obsessive Tragic hero.

2 Comments

Add Yours →

Hi Sarah,

Well done on making the most of your first two assessment periods. You have clearly been productive during this time.

You have a strong foundation here and have clearly understood the concepts we have discussed in class. It will be very important for you to leave time to go back and edit your work. As it is now, your work has many technical errors in it (punctuation, grammar, vocabulary choices). Reading your work out loud to yourself will help you to spot these errors.

Ensure you discuss the manner that Shakespeare crafts the character of Lear within your selected scenes to form an Aristotelian tragic hero. Keep coming back to the statement and using the key words to ensure you are addressing each part of it.

Mrs. P

Hi Sarah,

Over your final assessment periods, I encourage you to think about:

-Being more specific in places. You have not actually analysed HOW Shakespeare crafts Lear’s qualities to mirror those of the tragic hero. At the moment, you are just using the plot to explore these elements, rather than the details which are in the language.

  • You are not explicitly addressing Shakespeares intentions and the impact these intentions have on his audience. You must do so. Consider why he is conforming to this ancient structure and how he demonstrates that he has done so. What does this do to our view of the script?
  • Check your work for technical accuracy. You have many grammar errors throughout this piece at the moment.

Mrs. P

Respond now!