“The best tragedies are conflicts between a hero and his destiny.” King Lear, written by William Shakespeare shows a prime example of the ideal Aristotelian tragedy in which displays a society suffering in grim circumstances. Aristotle, a greek philosopher and scientist is considered one of the greatest thinkers around the subjects of politics, ethics, psychology, philosophy and literature. Along with Socrates and Plato, Aristotle is credited for the birth of Western Philosophy. He is one of the major figures that has affected Shakespeare’s writing style about the genre of tragedy and tragic heroes. Shakespeare was fully aware of the success of Aristotle’s pieces which may have encouraged him to follow in Aristotle’s footsteps and helped him achieve the recognition he has today. The idea of the first tragic hero was first defined by Aristotle and have been followed and studied by many writers including Shakespeare which is evident in many of his scripts like King Lear.
“A tragedy is the imitation of an action that is serious and also as having magnitude, complete in it self; in appropriate and pleasurable language;.. in a dramatic rather than narrative form; with incidents arusing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish a catharsis f these emotions” Aristotle had six different elements that he would define a story, tragic. In King Lear, all six elements were cleverly accomplished as the imitation of a serious action that had magnitude was put int place by plotting Lear’s reversal of fortune.The script was written in ‘an appropriate and pleasurable language’ because of the script format which enabled different characters to talk with no proper narrative form explaining the events. A tragic hero is a very complex character that has to serve different qualities in order to be defined as a tragic hero. The idea of the first tragic hero was first defined by Aristotle during his study on Greek drama. He once said that ”a man doesn’t become a hero until he can see the root of his downfall” which means that not any character can be a tragic hero, they must have a realisation about the mistakes that they made along with other characteristics. An Aristotelian hero must possess the following attributes: Flaw or error of judgement (hamartia), a reversal of fortune (peripeteia),anagorosis which is the discovery or recognition that the reversal was brought about by the hero’s own actions, excessive pride (hubris) and lastly, the character’s fate must be greater than what they deserved. Examples of tragic heroes such as Lear, Oedipus from Oedipus Rex, Romeo from Romeo and Juliet all share the same characteristics of an Aristotelian tragic hero. The development and evolvement of the tragic hero is evident as our perception of heroes have definitely changed over the era. In comparison to the tragic hero in Aristotle and Shakespearean days, we consider heroes to be any individual who displays noble qualities and is admired for their courage. Heroes today usually gain the name by saving someone or something in the midst of danger. We also despise a tragic ending for our heroes today, thus authors and directors often create a happy ending, satisfying the audience’s demand.
William Shakespeare’s classical greek education has influenced that way he has constructed his writings including King Lear. Aristotle has created a great impact on the way that Shakespeare writes especially towards tragedies and tragic heroes. Another figure that has a similar writing style to Shakespeare is Sophocles. Sophocles was one of the greek writer who focused on the concept of tragedy during Classical Greece. He wrote over 120 plays but only seven survived in their complete form including Oedipus Rex and Antigone. Sophocles has definitely influenced the development of drama in which Shakespeare has learnt and been inspired by. Dramatic irony is a common concept between Shakespeare and Sophocles that they both shared in their writings. Dramatic irony occurs when the audience knows about its presence but is missed by the characters, meaning that we have more knowledge and information about what’s happening with the story than the character themselves. In Sophocles’s script, Oedipus the King, dramatic irony was seen between Oedipus, the hero, and his lack of understanding in a certain situation which led to his unfortunate fate. Whereas in King Lear, we see dramatic irony through the character’s aside speeches which is when they talk directly to the audience and the other characters are oblivious to the things that they are saying, At the start, we have already been given an example of dramatic irony because of Regan and Goneril’s false act of love towards their father and their bad intentions but is failed to be seen by any of the other characters. Another event of dramatic irony occurs when Goneril and Regan were in conflict due to their fight between Edmund. “I had rather lose the battle than that sister should loosen him and me” Goneril voiced our her motivated intentions to potentially harm her sister and she did this through an aside speech towards the audience. This explains how we foresaw Regan’s possible death before anyone else in the script.
Shakespeare followed Aristotle’s definition of tragic hero and constructed Lear to be the ideal tragic hero. He portrays all the attributes that Aristotle possessed that a hero must have. King Lear had an obvious characteristic of hamartia due to the error of judgement and flaw that he made through his blinded judgements and he also possessed excessive pride (hubris). He also suffered a reversal of fortune (peripeteia) which occurred when he gave up his kingdom to two of his daughters Goneril and Regan and he started receiving harsh treatments from them. Later in the script, he finally discovers and recognises the mistakes that he made which brought upon his reversal of fortune. At the end of the text, Lear suffers a great deal of loss from his status to his family. His fate was greater than what he deserves. Initially, his actions at the beginning of the novel were unjust and his excessive pride controlled him and his words but he did not deserve for his whole family and bloodline to die.
King Lear shows us the cruelty that us human beings are capable of possessing in which we could question if there is any hope for humanity. Redemption was a rare opportunity for tragic heroes during the Shakespearean days because their endings seemed to always result in death. Lear went through a series of transformation throughout the whole script where he was able to realise the evilness present in the world which included his daughters, Goneril and Regan. He had also finally comprehended about the mistakes that he made especially towards Cordelia and his blinded judgements towards her, yet he was still welcomed by his deathly fate. The savage behaviour that Goneril and Regan displayed towards Lear is a reflective matter to the world we have today. Human beings are cruel, to the extent that it ends in deaths and wars. Our globe have ongoing wars which show no remorse to anyone who’s life is being taken just like the characters in King Lear. Aristotle has definitely affected Shakespeare’s classical education which is evident in King Lear, as Shakespeare follows the same ideas as Aristotle towards the concept of tragedy and tragic Heroes. The people we define as heroes today have a simpler plot to follow as they usually only consist of having noble qualities and their act of saving something or someone, whereas the tragic hero has to follow different elements in ordered to be labelled as a ‘tragic hero’ and is only rewarded by a fate greater than what they deserved.
Menezes, Jolene (16 April 2015). Prezi.com. King Lear: A tragic hero. 8th June 2018
Charles H. Reeves (28 May 2012) The Aristotelian concept of the Tragic Hero. 18 Pages. 7th June 2018
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Shakespeare, William (1608) King Lear. Canada. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.