Aristotle defined tragedy, as an imitation of action which is exalted and ‘serious’, evoking the twin emotions of ‘pity and fear’ of which there is a ‘Cathersis’ that is affected at the end. While defining tragedy thus in his treatise on the art of poetry named poetics, Aristotle realized that the tragic action requires a central agent to be carried out. This agent or the conveyor of the tragic action is the tragic hero. (In this context it should be mentioned that in poetics which deals with the art of poetry, by the word ‘Poetry’ Aristotle meant imaginative literature as a whole.)
While enumerating the characteristic features of the tragic hero, Aristotle first takes up the perfectly good man and dismisses his journey from happiness to misery as unfit for a tragic hero. The spectacle, he says of a blameless character encountering suffering does not evoke pain in us, nor is it piteous; such a sight of perfect innocence would evoke righteous anger instead of ‘pity and fear’ and would therefore be not tragic in essence.
Aristotle, then, considers the viability of the completely bad man as a tragic hero. He says that such a bad man passing from misery to happiness is also unsuitable for a tragic situation. In fact, the spectacle of a bad man rising from misery to happiness would be the most unfitting for tragedy, since it would be the grossest violation of all our sense of poetic justice.
Next comes the case of an extremely bad man passing from happiness to misery. Even such a situation would never arouse pity in us, nor would it evoke tear, since fear is the result of our identification with the hero, and we can never completely identify our selves with an agent of evil. Moreover, the sight of a guilty villian’s suffering is basically pleasing to us and caters to our sense of poetic justice.
There remains, then, the intermediate kind of personage, “a man not preeminently virtuous and just whose misfortune however is brought upon him not by vice and depravity, but by some error of judgment, of the number of those in the enjoyment of great reputation and prosperity like Oedipus, thyestes etc.” (Poetics Sec. VI, Page 35 Bywater’s translation) that essentially is the Aristotelian definition of a tragic hero. A tragic hero therefore is to be a big man and a great man, ‘Spoudaious’ that is exalted and elevated and grand. But he is definitely much more good than bad. His misfortune is not the result of any moral lapse, but of some error of judgment, ‘hamartia’ in Aristotle’s language.
Aristotle’s contentions about the tragic hero have been challenged by a host of critics of whom Dr. Smart is most convincing. Smart contradicts Aristotle on his observation that the perfectly good man is an unfit character of tragedy. Smart is of the opinion that ‘such prescriptions of innocent suffers have a peculiar attraction for readers since age’s. he cites the example of four Gospels and says: “they have been read with the deepest interest and the profoundest emotion. And the Four Gospels present a history of suffering inflicted on perfect innocence”. (Smart’s essay on Tragedy in Journal of the English Association, vol-8, page-781). [Smart points out that a very great part of Christian literature is filled with the stories of saints and martyrs who were destitute, afflicted and tormented, and of whom the world was not worthy. Heroic greatness and perfect guiltlessness are the secret of their power.] Had Aristotle’s contention that the blameless hero is not fit for tragic drama been true, the stories of Christ or Sri Chaitnya or even Cordelia would never have evoked the highest tragic emotions. One remembers the sad Dialogue of Plato which recounts the story of Socrates’s heroic death. We can also cite the instances of Beckett and Antigone in The Murder in The Cathedral and Antigone. These two characters are probably the best examples of tragic protagonists in the history of drama. Yet both Beckett and Antigone are blameless and do not fall a prey to any error of judgment. [Beckett’s determination to stick to the inviolable supremacy of the church over the state and Antigone's disobedience of the king to bury her own brother can not be called defiance or moral lapse.] thus it has been suggested that Aristotle’s contention about the tragic hero is not flawless.
Yet, in spite of all the force of Smart’s contentions, Aristotle can not be dismissed for, after all, the vaster majority of tragedies seem to support Aristotle’s views. The very paucity of tragedy on the blameless hero is itself the strongest argument in his favour. Only we have to recognize that what Aristotle has said about the guiltless man as unfitting a tragic hero is not the final inviolable statement on the issue; we have also to admit the possibility of the blameless hero turning tragic. [In this context one remembers Auden’s statement in the preface of I Believe:
“The perfect man is a rarity in literature. Moreover, those characters embodying blameless goodness and perfect innocence seem to be so far removed from the general sphere of fallible morality that such characters never excite our sense of identification with them and, therefore, to arouse fear at the spectacle of such tragic suffering is very difficult on the part of the dramatist.”]
Moreover, it must also be pointed out that Aristotle’s observation about the bad man as not incompatible to tragedy is also not without exceptions. Schiller, in his Aesthetical Essays, has pointed out that though wickedness is normally ugly, but when presented on a grand scale, it overwhelms us and wickedness disappears into the terrible. Probably Schiller had Macbeth in mind, but the point is that Macbeth is not an emblem of wickedness like Iago. Macbeth’s career is, no doubt that of a villain, but his character is not of a criminal. In spite of all his wickedness, Macbeth is after all a hero, a man whose horrible career moves us to pity for he could have done greater good than the evils that he had committed. Thus it appears that over and above all, Aristotle’s definition of the tragic hero is still relevant.