On this page you will find the definition of tragic hero, analyses of tragic heroes in Antigone, analyses of tragic heroes in various Greek myths, and whether or not tragic heroes exist in our contemporary culture.

Aristotle once said, "A man doesn't become a hero until he can see the root of his own downfall." An Aristotelian tragic hero must possess specific characteristics, five of which are below:
  1. Nobility (of a noble birth) or wisdom (by virtue of birth).
  2. Hamartia (translated as flaw or error in judgment). Either a mistake in the character's actions or in his personality that leads to a downfall.
  3. A reversal of fortune (peripeteia) brought about because of the hero's Hamartia.
  4. The discovery or recognition that the reversal was brought about by the hero's own actions (anagnorisis)
  5. The audience must feel dramatic irony for the character.


A tragic hero is a character who is doomed to fail due to a vital flaw. Aristotle, who can be considered the father of tragedy, defined tragedy as: "the imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself." The hero is destined to succeed in his own way, but for some reason, like the time or situation, are fated to fail. These heroes are most often trapped in a situation in which they cannot win. They are characters that relate to audience and are neither good nor bad, but possess a tragic flaw that ultimately leads to his/her downfall. A few other characteristics of tragic heroes are that: they are born into nobility, they are responsible for their own fate, they fall from extremely high esteem, they realize they have made an irreversible mistake, they face death honorably, meet a tragic death and the audience or readers are affected by their death with pity and fear. Even though they may be a fallen hero, he/she still wins a moral victory, and his/her spirit will live on. A tragic hero is doomed to make a serious error in judgment which will ultimately result in his downfall. The tragic effect will be stronger if the hero is "better than we are," in that he is higher than ordinary moral worth. Such a man is shown as suffering a change in fortune from happiness to misery because of a mistaken act, to which he is led by his effort of judgment, or his tragic flaw.

Analyzing Greek Myths:
Bronze sculpture of Achilles

One myth in which a tragic hero is present is the myth of Achilles. The son of the mortal Peleus and Thetis. He was the mightiest of the Greeks who fought in The Trojan War. Thetis attempted to make her son immortal and was unsuccessful. She decided to dip Achilles in the river, Styx; which made everything it touched invulnerable, placing him in the the river by his Achilles heel made his heal remain dry and therefore unprotected. Throughout his lifetime he fought many of the Trojans and their allies, including Agamemnon and the Amazon warrior Pethesila. Finally, Priam's son Paris, who knew that Achilles' heel was his only vulnerable spot, wounded him there with an arrow. Achilles died of the wound but will always be known as one of the most famous tragic heroes. Achilles is a tragic hero because from the beginning of his life he was doomed to fail due to his Achilles' heel, and although he brought much greatness to his people, his flaws brought him to his death (1).

Analyzing Antigone:

The tragic heroes and heroines in the play Antigone are Haemon, Creon, and Antigone. Haemon, who was born into nobility, is a tragic hero whose ties with Antigone cause him to cultivate the desire to kill his father. He ends up killing himself when he falls on his sword, and in olden Greek times, was considered an honorable death. Creon is the powerful king of Thebes. He is a tragic hero because he fell from high esteem and selfishness, to the realization of his irreversible mistake. This mistake was forbidding anyone to bury Polyneices. This unleashed a curse upon all of Thebes, resulting in his downfall and his relinquishment of his position as king. Antigone on the other hand, is a tragic hero because she stood up for her beliefs, and also led herself to death. The cause of this was the burial of Polyneices, her brother. Her extreme hubris and bravery also contributed to her downfall. The strength and honor that Antigone possesses is a threat to Creon's position of power. This threatens Creon to the point when he sentences Antigone to death. By trapping her in a cave, Creon hoped to starve Antigone to death. During the time when Creon was enlightened of his false decisions, Antigone hangs herself before Creon can actually save her. This shows how Antigone's flaw of strong pride and stubbornness, ultimately lead to her downfall, making her a tragic hero. All three of these characters in Antigone are tragic heroes whom experience a huge downfall from any source of power they were granted. Although also granted with hope for success, the fate of a tragic hero takes over.

Tragic Heroes Meet Our Contemporary Culture:

In contemporary culture, the phrase "tragic hero" would not necessarily apply. For example, "Bill Clinton may have a tragic flaw" and fall, "but it is doubtful that the average person would place him in the same category as the classical tragic heroes." (2) If you truly believe that a contemporary person who has fallen from high esteem and has made a tragic mistake, then in that circumstance, he/she can be referred to as a tragic hero. In any case, classical tragic heroes have greater consequences and harsher downfalls then today's "possible tragic heroes." Yet, none of the people that you might see as tragic heroes today could ever really compare to the tragic heroes read about in olden literature. Thusly, it all depends on what you think a tragic hero should be; and if you want the people like Bill Clinton to ever be held up at the same level of esteem as Antigone, then that is your decision.

In today's culture there are many examples of "today's tragic heroes." For example, all of our movie stars in today's culture that make mistakes are "tragic heroes." All movie stars and young athletes and singers have a chance at success but some are doomed to fail. The ones that do make the mistakes separate themselves from being a hero and a tragic hero. Many young athletes have this great potential to become great stars of our culture today. Some of this people though make decisions that show how they are really tragic heroes. Many great young talent has arrived in the MLB (Major League Baseball) in the last two years and the upcoming decisions that they make will decide whether they were destined to be a tragic hero or a real hero (superstar). In the NFL young uprising heroes, such as Adrian Peterson, and Darren McFadden will be faced with the question of whether or not they will become a tragic hero or a real hero. After the year that Adrian Peterson had it seems that he is going to avoid the fate of a tragic hero and become an NFL superstar. On the other hand, Darren McFadden has not yet entered the NFL, but there he will have to deal with whether or not he can face the pressure and make the right decisions and become a superstar.p1.david.price.jpg

David Price is one of the up and coming prospects in the MLB and his success and decisions in the next couple of years will decide timmy.jpgwhether he is a tragic hero or a real hero (superstar).

Tim Lincecum and his awkward size for a 99 mph fast ball has given him a chance at fame and hopefully his decisions in the near future will help him become a superstar and not a tragic hero.

Adrian Peterson in a great run for the Vikings in the 2007 season with the potential to become a superstar and avoid being a tragic hero.

Darren McFadden has the potential in 2008 to become a superstar.

Do Tragic Heroes Have to Be Born From Nobility?

Can an average person or poor citizen rise to nobility and high esteem, and then fall because an irreversible mistake? Is having nobility from birth a main characteristic of a tragic hero? I believe that a tragic hero could be anybody that rises to great esteem, ultimately plunges into despair, but accepts their fate honorably. Another belief might be that you must be born into greatness to achieve this feat, but it really depends on how you look at it.

Tragic heroes do not necessarily have to be born into nobility. We see tragic heroes in our everyday lives and no matter where they originate, they may still have a tragic flaw that could result in a loss of something valuable. Everyone makes mistakes and being born into nobility can increase the risk of making an irreversible mistake. However that is not the only way a tragic hero can be classified. Think of all the tragic heroes that do not come from nobility that you might have studied about.

Being a tragic hero is not about what level of class you were born into. External elements are not what change someone into a tragic hero. It is a definition of fate, and this fate can be granted to anyone at any time.


(1) - Hunter, James. “Achilles”. Encyclopedia Mythica. 03 march 1997. 30 November 2005. 16 March 2008. http://www.pantheon.org/articles/a/achilles.html
(2) - “Tragic Hero.” Wikipedia. 16 March 2008. 16 March 2008. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tragic_hero