Shakespeare is influenced by the Aristotelian idea of a tragic hero when writing King Lear. It is an idea that develops our understanding of what a tragic hero looks like and what characteristics they display. The influence from Aristotle shows us how Shakespeare intentionally shapes his approach to construct a play like King Lear and throughout the play, evidence shows the audience how Shakespeare develops a tragic hero around Lear himself.
A tragic hero, defined by the majority of people, is a protagonist of a tragedy in drama. Aristotle’s idea of a tragic hero is a lot more specific. Aristotle’s idea of a tragic hero is a character who makes a huge judgement error that leads into his or her own destruction. It is a judgement error that is usually influenced by revenge, causing the protagonist to make decisions that inevitably destroy them. Aristotle uses specific characteristics to outline his idea of a tragic hero so the audience can get a better understanding of what a tragic hero is. Aristotle once said that a tragic hero is “a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error of frailty.” This is shown in Aristotle’s first characteristic, Hamartia (flaw or error of judgement). It is a tragic flaw that often occurs when a character’s error of judgment leads to their own downfall. Peripeteia (A reversal of fortune), is the second characteristic that Aristotle uses to outline his idea of tragic hero. Peripeteia is the turning point in a drama after which the plot moves steadily to it’s end, shifting the protagonist’s fortune from good to bad. Aristotle found Peripeteia to be the “most powerful elements of emotional interest in tragedy.” From his point of view, Peripeteia is essential for tragedy.
Another characteristic is Hubris (excessive pride). It is defined as a person with extreme pride, arrogance and dangerous overconfidence and is often associated with a lack of humility. The accusation of Hubris can sometimes imply that punishment or suffering will follow. Aristotle says, “Hubris consists in doing and saying things that cause shame to the victim… simply for the pleasure of it.” He states that people mistreat others for no other reason but to feel superior to others. Aristotle’s final characteristic that outlines his idea of a tragic hero is that ‘the character’s fate must be greater than deserved’. Aristotle believes that the tragic hero’s morality should be neither better or worse than normal people so that the audience can identify with the tragic hero. Aristotle states that when the hero’s tragic downfall occurs, he must die with pure honour and accept his death.
With Aristotle’s idea of a tragic hero, we have developed a better understanding of not just what a tragic hero is but how a tragic hero is discovered in someone through characteristics they display. Our developed understanding of a tragic hero and Greek tragedy in general has helped us seek tragic heroes in genres other than tragic literature, such as ‘The Great Gatsby’. In ‘The Great Gatsby’, written by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the protagonist Jay Gatsby is also seemingly a tragic hero. He illustrates the corruption of the American dream through his error of judgement that unfortunately leads to his own death at the end of the novel. His tragic death portrays the consequences and dangers of focusing one’s life on money. Jay is a tragic hero that can identify with almost all of Aristotle’s characteristics, but his main flaw is that he is unable to see that the real and the ideal cannot coexist. Jay thought that If he pursued ‘The American Dream’ and rose to richness and wealth, he would be worthy of the girl of his dreams, Daisy, his ideal. Everything that Jay does and every decision he makes is for a reason, that reason is to win Daisy. Jay’s error of judgement is that he places Daisy on a pedestal and believes she is perfect and worthy of his affections. In reality she is undeserving and her actions prove that she is much more pathetic rather than perfect. Throughout the novel, Jay develops an obsession with money and more so, Daisy. These obsessions are what leads Jay into a situation that inevitably kills him.
When Shakespeare wrote the play ‘King Lear’, he revolved around the idea of a tragic hero and was specific to what personality traits the tragic hero should display, much like Aristotle’s views of a tragic hero. So, was the way Shakespeare constructed the play ‘King Lear’ influenced by Aristotle himself? Shakespeare definitely followed most of Aristotle’s ideas but not thoroughly. Shakespeare uses Aristotle’s idea to reveal a tragic hero, but the difference between the two, is their individual ways of approaching the idea. Aristotle would approach his idea with a more exaggerated manner whereas Shakespeare would approach Aristotle’s idea with a more realistic manner. Shakespeare was influenced by Aristotle’s idea but not to the point where it would change Shakespeare’s style of writing. Although, Aristotle’s influence did change the way the play ‘King Lear’ was constructed. Aristotle stated that, “a tragedy must be a drama about persons of importance or wealthiness, where the highly placed hero is brought low through the combination of his or her own faults and external forces.” This is shown in ‘King Lear’ as the protagonist, King Lear himself, is someone of importance and wealth, who makes an error of judgement that evidently leads to his own destruction.
Shakespeare combines all of Aristotle’s ideas to construct Lear as a tragic hero. The play begins with Lear’s decision to divide his kingdom between his three daughters. Lear says, “tis our fast intent to shake all cares and business from our age, conferring them on youngest strengths while we unburdened crawl toward death”. Lear’s flaw is his “excessive pride” and arrogance when he announces that he will offer the largest share of the kingdom depending on who professes the most love for him. However, one of his daughters Cordelia will not participate in his little game and exaggerate how much she loves him. Cordelia states that she loves him as much as a daughter should love a father, “no more nor less.” Lear is blind to the love and loyalty of Cordelia which causes him to make a rash decision to punish his daughter by banishing her from the kingdom. Furthermore, he becomes furious when Kent objects to his decision saying, “Thy youngest daughter does not love thee least, nor are those empty-hearted whose low sounds reverb no hollowness.” Lear’s fatal flaw induces him to make a huge error in his judgment, resulting in a foolish decision to divide the kingdom between the two daughters that professed their love for him in the way he asked. This also results in the loss of the two people who are most loyal to him – Kent and Cordelia. The consequences of this error escalate throughout the play, leading to Lear’s tragic downfall.
Overall, Aristotle’s idea of a tragic hero has given the audience a wider understanding of what a tragic hero is. Along with this idea, Aristotle influences the way Shakespeare constructs the play ‘King Lear’ as he follows along the lines of an Aristotelian idea of a tragic hero. Also, even though Aristotle’s influence does not shape Shakespeare’s overall motives and style when writing King Lear, his influence does shape the way Shakespeare constructs Lear as a tragic hero.
Shakespeare. W. (1608) King Lear (drama script) England, London.
Aristotle, 1920, Poetics. Translated by Ingram Bywater, A Scholtz, England (Oxford).
Wilson. J. (2011) ‘Aristotle’s information on the work of Shakespeare’, http://seven-thirty.blogspot.com/2007/11/aristotles-inspiration-on-work-of.html
Bard publishing, LLC, a Florida Limited Liability company, Orlando, Florida. (2018) ‘Shakespeare for all time.’ http://www.shakespeareforalltime.com/arisotlean-tragedy/