Aristotle Concept of the Ideal Tragic Hero

Poetry is a form of imitation, where the imitated objects/characters can be either superior, inferior, or similar to a real life. Aristotle made a clear distinction between comedy and tragedy; as tragedy involves imitating individuals who are superior to their real-life counterparts. Therefore, tragedy presents its characters in an idealized form, depicting life as it could be rather than as it necessarily is. These characters are superior to us, not necessarily in a moral sense, but in the sense that they lead more complete and intense lives than ordinary people in the real world dare to. This elevation of characters in tragedy is what makes them awe-inspiring, as they exist on a higher plane than regular individuals. In his work, “Poetics,” Aristotle outlines several characteristics for an ideal tragic hero, which have sparked controversy and varying interpretations among different critics.

The Main Features of the Tragic Character

In Chapter 15, Aristotle discusses dramatic characters and outlines four essential principles for their portrayal. These four principles are as follows:

  1. Goodness: The characters should possess virtuous qualities and demonstrate moral goodness.
  2. Appropriateness: The characters should be suitable for the roles they play, aligning with their social status, age, and other relevant factors.
  3. Likeness: The characters should reflect reality and be true to life, capturing the complexities and nuances of human nature.
  4. Consistency: The characters should exhibit consistent behavior and remain true to their established traits throughout the narrative.

Now we will discuss all characteristics in a detail.

Goodness (First Trait of Ideal Tragic hero)

According to Aristotle, a character is considered “good” if their words and actions demonstrate a noble purpose, regardless of their social class. Even women, whom Aristotle regarded as inferior, should be portrayed with some goodness if they appear in a tragedy. Aristotle assumes that the spectators have a balanced moral attitude and cannot sympathize with someone who is depraved or odious. Sympathy is essential because it forms the basis of the entire tragic pleasure. However, entirely wicked individuals have no place in tragedy, according to Aristotle. Nevertheless, it is implied that a “bad” or wicked character can be included in a tragedy if they are indispensable to the plot.

Aristotle allows for badness in a character only to the extent that it is necessary for the main action of the play. The overall action of the play should be “good,” meaning it should portray efforts to achieve a positive outcome. The characters driving the main action should be good, but bad characters can exist in the process of realizing this action. Therefore, a wicked character like Iago is not excluded in the context of Aristotle’s concept. Aristotle’s idea of “goodness” in tragic characters has sparked controversy and differing interpretations. Various scholars have understood “good” to mean magnificent, morally marked, dramatically effective, or noble. However, the important point is that Aristotle insists the characters in tragedy should be as noble as the plot allows them to be.


The next essential aspect of character is “appropriateness,” which has different interpretations. Some critics believe it means being true to a specific type. However, Aristotle did not imply that characters should be mere types and lack individuality. Instead, he meant that characters should be true to their age, profession, class, sex, or status while still being individuals in their own right. People of the same type can have different actions, which reflect their individuality. Aristotle believed that character is shaped through practice, so someone raised in slavery would not suddenly exhibit nobility or heroism. Their constant habit of acting as a slave would make them resemble a slave. Similarly, a woman should be portrayed as feminine rather than masculine.

Each character should have a personality appropriate to their status or situation, with room for individuality within that framework. Despite limitations, characters can transcend their expected traits. This notion also applies to dramatic treatment. Critics suggest another aspect of appropriateness is that characters should align with their historical or traditional portrayal. For example, Ulysses should be depicted as he is historically known, and characters from myths or traditional stories should stay true to their established characteristics. Therefore, Clytemnestra cannot be shown as gentle, and Ulysses cannot be portrayed as foolish.

Likeness (Realistic)

Aristotle’s third essential aspect of tragedy is that of likeness, but he does not provide a clear example to illustrate his meaning. Interpreting the term as being true to the original would restrict the freedom of the creative artist, so a more acceptable interpretation is being “true to life.” The characters must be relatable and resemble real-life individuals for the audience to identify with them. If the characters are too perfect or entirely wicked, the tragic emotions of pity and fear become irrelevant. Therefore, the tragic character should be a normal person, neither exceptionally virtuous nor depraved, to be convincing.

Some may argue that Aristotle contradicts himself because he also claims that tragedy represents characters better than ourselves. However, this is not necessarily a contradiction. Tragedy is a complete and coherent form of art with a well-defined end, unlike the unpredictability of real life. Consequently, to fit into such an action, characters must be modified from the ordinary norms of reality. Thus, the character is both true to life and different from reality. It strikes a balance between our desire for realistic imitation and our yearning for something better than what is found in real life.


Consistency is the fourth and last essential aspect of character that cannot be disputed. It is crucial for a character to maintain a cohesive nature throughout the story, remaining true to their initial portrayal from beginning to end. Unless there is a valid reason for any deviation, their behavior should be consistent and aligned. Any changes in the character’s development should adhere to logical and understandable principles. The character’s actions and words must possess a sense of probability or necessity. Aristotle acknowledges the possibility of a character being inconsistent, but even in that case, their inconsistency should be consistently portrayed. In other words, the character’s actions and thoughts should align logically with what we can expect from that particular individual. This mirrors Aristotle’s belief in a plot being a causally connected entity. Therefore, the character’s actions and words should be suitable not only to their representation but also to the circumstances they find themselves in.

An Ideal Tragic Hero According to Aristotle’s Theory

The passage discussing the ideal tragic hero in Aristotle’s Poetics has received significant critical attention. According to Aristotle, it is evident that the change in fortune portrayed should not be the spectacle of a virtuous person transitioning from prosperity to adversity. This scenario fails to evoke fear or pity in the audience; it merely shocks them. Likewise, the transition of a wicked individual from adversity to prosperity is incompatible with the essence of tragedy. Furthermore, Aristotle argues against depicting the downfall of a completely villainous character. Although such a plot might satisfy the moral sense, it would not inspire either pity or fear since pity arises from undeserved misfortune and fear from the misfortune of someone similar to ourselves.

From this, we can observe that Aristotle excludes two types of characters from tragedy—the perfectly virtuous and the thoroughly depraved or wicked. Therefore, a tragic character is one who is not exceptionally good and just, but whose misfortune is not caused by vice or depravity. They should possess a notable reputation and prosperity.

The Perfectly Good: Not Fit for a Tragic Hero

Aristotle’s understanding of the impact of tragedy is that it evokes feelings of pity and fear in the audience. However, if a completely virtuous individual experiences a downfall from prosperity to misery, they would not elicit pity or fear; instead, they would simply shock the audience’s sense of justice. The shock stems from the fact that a wholly virtuous person is suffering unjustly, leading to an irrational form of suffering.

The notion that the tragic hero cannot be perfect is connected to the emphasis on moral goodness. A perfect individual would have their desires under control and possess an intellect capable of making correct calculations and practical inferences. As a result, their actions would become increasingly spontaneous and immediate, leaving limited room for deliberation. Ultimately, there would be no scope for the dramatic display of action. A blameless, virtuous character lacks the dramatic effectiveness required in theater. Furthermore, it is difficult for us to identify ourselves with such an saintly character. While Shaw and Eliot have successfully created drama with saintly characters as tragic heroes in recent times, Aristotle was primarily referring to the Greek drama he knew. Traditionally, saints have been excluded from the realm of drama. However, even within Greek drama, Antigone herself was blameless. She had to make a choice and did so as well as possible given the circumstances, sacrificing a lesser duty for a higher one.

One could argue that blameless goodness is not suitable material for drama. Perfect goodness tends to be immobile and non-confrontational, bringing action to a halt. Yet it would be incorrect to claim that witnessing a perfect individual’s suffering only shocks and fails to elicit pity. Characters like Desdemona, Cordelia, and Antigone indeed evoke pity. It would also be inaccurate to suggest that terror outweighs pity in these cases. The sense of injustice is present, but it does not exclude pity.

The Thoroughly Depraved Character: Not Suited for Tragedy

Aristotle excluded a specific type of character from the realm of tragedy: the utter villain. According to Aristotle, if a completely evil individual were to fall from prosperity to adversity, it would only satisfy our sense of justice. There would be no pity or fear because the suffering would be deserved, making it difficult for us to feel compassion for the one who suffers. Additionally, there would be a lack of identification with such a character, just as there is with a perfectly good individual.

Similarly, Aristotle argued against the idea of a bad person rising from adversity to prosperity in a tragic narrative. This notion would be entirely foreign to tragedy, as it would offend our sense of justice. It would also create an aesthetic effect tinged with disquiet.

Nevertheless, the exclusion of villains from the domain of tragedy is somewhat debatable, and Aristotle’s perspective appears limited in this regard. While it is true that crime in itself has no place in dramatic art, when presented in a different light, it can become valid within the context of drama. For instance, Macbeth violates the principles of hospitality and loyalty by killing his guest and king, Duncan, under his own roof. Webster’s Vittoria is a character described as a ‘white devil.’ However, these individuals still manage to evoke pity. Vittoria, standing undaunted before her enemies; Lady Macbeth, alone and broken by her sorrow and guilt; Macbeth, courageously drawing his sword in the face of certain defeat at Dunsidane—all of them generate a sense of pity despite their villainous nature. As Lucas notes, pity is not so narrow-minded. However, it takes the genius of Shakespeare to create tragic villains of this kind. Only he could potentially give life to characters like Macbeth or Richard III.

There is something grand about these villains. Their wickedness operates on a grand scale; it is an intellectual and resolute evil that elevates the criminal above the ordinary, granting them a certain dignity. Witnessing the spectacle of a strong willpower working out its malevolent course and dominating its surroundings is both terrifying and tragic. The downfall and disintegration of such power evoke a tragic feeling or sympathy within us. It is not the pity one feels for an undeserving sufferer, but rather a sense of loss and regret over the squandering or misuse of such exceptional gifts. As long as a person possesses some redeeming quality—courage, intellect, beauty, wit, passionate devotion—and exhibits some form of magnificence, their fellow human beings can sometimes forgive them to an astonishing extent. In this light, one could possibly defend Aristotle’s position. After all, he suggests that a completely depraved person is unfit to be a tragic hero. It can be argued that Macbeth is not entirely depraved, as he displays immense courage.

The Tragic Hero: An Intermediate Sort of Person

Aristotle defines the ideal tragic hero as the person who stands between complete villainy and complete goodness. This hero is like us in many ways, yet possesses a higher moral standing. He is a more intense individual, with deeper emotions and enhanced intellectual and volitional abilities. However, he remains fundamentally human, allowing us to easily identify with and sympathize with him. Thus, the tragic hero must be someone who falls in an intermediate position, not exceptionally virtuous or just. His misfortune is not a result of vice or depravity but rather a mistake in judgment, known as Hamartia.

The concept of Hamartia has been subject to various interpretations. Bradley’s loose interpretation has popularized the idea of Hamartia as a “tragic flaw,” which has led to some confusion regarding its true meaning. However, Hamartia should not be understood as a moral failing, as the term “tragic flaw” implies. Aristotle clarifies that Hamartia refers to an error in judgment—the downfall of the hero occurs not due to moral depravity but rather as a result of his own misjudgment. Critics such as Butcher, Bywater, Rostangi, and Lucas concur that Hamartia is not a moral shortcoming in itself. It may be connected to a moral drawback, but it is distinct from moral imperfection.

Hamartia can Arise in Three Ways

The Hamartia represents a mistake or misjudgment that can occur in three different ways. Firstly, it may stem from a lack of knowledge regarding a crucial fact or circumstance. Secondly, the error in judgment may result from hastily or carelessly assessing a given situation. This is exemplified in the case of Othello, where the mistake could have been avoided, but the hero fails to do so. Thirdly, the error can be voluntary, though not intentional, arising from an outburst of anger or passion. Lear commits such a mistake when he banishes Cordelia.

In the case of Oedipus, all three types of errors are present. Oedipus’s flaw lies in his excessive pride and self-assertion. However, the ruin that befalls him is due to the power of circumstances. His Hamartia encompasses a character flaw, an impulsive action, and ignorance. The tragic irony lies in the fact that the hero commits this error unknowingly and innocently, without any malicious intent. Unfortunately, the outcome is catastrophic. This is closely linked to Peripeteia, or the production of an outcome contrary to what was intended. Subsequently, the truth is revealed. Regarding this, Butcher notes: “In the modern drama, Othello, and in the ancient drama, Oedipus, are the two most notable examples of destruction caused by characters who are indeed noble but not without flaws, acting in the dark and, as it appeared, for the best.”

The Eminence of the Tragic Hero: Not Relevant in the Modern Context

In Greek drama, the protagonists were men of distinction and nobility who occupied positions of high status in society. When such individuals experienced a downfall from greatness to misery, the entire nation felt its impact. This fall was particularly striking due to the hero’s elevated stature. This concept was acceptable and relevant in a time when prominent noblemen were seen as representatives of society. However, in the present day, this notion has become outdated.

Modern tragedy has demonstrated that the power of tragedy remains intact even when the hero is ordinary and commonplace. The hero’s social rank and noble lineage have lost their relevance. Nevertheless, the tragic hero should possess a certain eminence, not based on social rank or position, but rather on their personal qualities. There must be a sense of dignity that evokes sympathy in the audience when witnessing their fall from prosperity.


Overall, Aristotle’s understanding of the tragic hero is not entirely invalid. However, his perspective is somewhat narrow. It has been demonstrated by Shaw and Eliot that tragedy can also be achieved with saintly characters, although this is not commonly observed. Renaissance playwrights, particularly Shakespeare, have remarkably shown that tragedy can also stem from a villainous protagonist. Additionally, tragedy arises from the concept of Hamartia, a notion supported by numerous exceptional tragedies, often referred to as tragedies of error by Lucas. This concept proves to be highly effective in conveying tragedy. Nevertheless, the main drawback of Aristotle’s concept is that it is grounded solely in a specific subset of world drama.