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According to Aristotle, there are four essential qualities that a tragic hero possesses. A tragic hero must first of all be good, expressing through speech or in action strong moral caliber. He must also be appropriate, such that a man is manly or formidable. Third, he must be lifelike, showing human qualities so as to make a strong sympathetic connection with the audience. Fourth, a tragic hero must be consistent, keeping an established characteristic unchanged. A character that possesses all four of these fundamental traits, therefore, gives the hero’s downfall greater meaning and a greater tragic effect. Playwrights Sophocles and Henrik Ibsen are two of the greatest portrayers of the tragic hero’s downfall, and their works serve as vessels in carrying them to the audience.


In Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, the tragic hero is most certainly Oedipus. Oedipus, first of all, is a good man. When he declares, “My spirit grieves for the city” (l 75-76), he expresses a deep compassion that can only be associated with the epitome of goodness. His sympathy for his people and his desire to be their savior suggests Oedipus is a noble man, and with this nobility, he earns the respect and love of the audience. The respect of the audience is crucial in generating the tragic effect that comes with a tragic hero’s downfall, and Sophocles utilizes this by means of giving Oedipus human qualities and a tragic flaw. Compassionate, yet stubborn, he is certainly not superhuman, showing consistent strengths and weaknesses; for this, the audience has no reason to feel isolated from his situation. In the case of his tragic flaw, his lack of knowledge of his true identity is coupled with the audience’s preconceived awareness of his fate. Thus, when Oedipus finds himself in the dilemma after confronting Tiresias, the audience feels his pain and is afraid for his life, knowing that nothing he does can prevent the tragedy from occurring. When Oedipus finally falls from the throne, he doesn’t kill himself, rather he gouges out his eyes. The symbolic blinding of Oedipus suggests that he has a catharsis, experiencing a spiritual renewal where he learns to see the truth. Furthermore, because he is forced to live with a punishment worse than death, his suffering does not end, drawing greater pity from the audience. By fulfilling all the essential characteristics of the tragic hero, Oedipus attains a greater connection to the audience, further exemplifying the play’s underlying tragic effect.


Antigone, the first installment of the Oedipus Trilogy, though set chronologically last, also depicts the essence of the tragic hero. Through the character of Creon, Sophocles effectively conveys the essential elements of a tragic hero. Creon is, first, king of Thebes, thus illustrating his high state, but he more importantly embodies innate characteristics of nobility and virtue. In addressing the Chorus, he declares, “These are my principles. Never at my hands will the traitor be honored above the patriot. But whoever proves his loyalty to the state I’ll prize that man in death as well as life” (l -5). Creon puts country above all else, and for this, he personifies the tragic hero’s characteristic of nobility. He is, moreover, a man of strength and formidability. As a man who values his country, he punishes all those who threaten his country, exemplifying strong convictions and firm decisions. However, as good and formidable as Creon may be, he also embodies human qualities. True, he does good in punishing Polynices, the aggressor to Thebes, but his foolish decision to not bury him defies the gods, and in turn, illustrates him as a man of imperfection. His imperfection is further shown in his excessive pride. After Tiresias warns him of his transgressions, Creon declares, “It’s a dreadful thing to yield…but resist now? Lay my pride bare to the blows of ruin? That’s dreadful too” (l 11-11). His unwillingness to let go of his pride for the sake of the gods shows his central tragic flaw, and with it he brings about his lonely downfall. The most important characteristic of the tragic hero that Creon brilliantly personifies is the hero’s gained sense of enlightenment. Creon’s fall is not a total loss, and he achieves a newfound sense of awareness and self-knowledge. He proclaims, “Ohhh, so senseless, so insane…my crimes, my stubborn…Oh I’ve learned through blood and tears!” (l 1-1404). Creon reaches a point of enlightenment, from which the audience also learns. By embodying nobility, fallibility, downfall through flaw, and catharsis, Creon undoubtedly serves as a perfect example of the tragic hero’s essence.


In Ibsen’s A Doll House, the tragic hero is not as easily distinguished. However, despite similarities between the plights of Nora and Torvald, Nora proves a better candidate. A character of wealth, Nora clearly fits the traditional characteristic of a tragic hero’s high state of being. The one flaw that Nora has is her inability to discern reality from illusion. From the beginning of the play, Nora’s rather giddy and childish behavior expresses a rather suspicious state of happiness to the audience. Despite her husband’s rather oppressive name-calling, giving her names like “little skylark,” “featherbrained woman,” and “helpless little mortal,” she expresses a false sense of happiness through her constant charades of dancing and laughing with her husband (I). Her inability to live truthfully is a testament to her inability to tell Torvald the true farce that has embodied their marriage for eight years. Because of this flaw, the conflict between reality and illusion becomes so out of control that saving the marriage would be impossible to do. Nora is forced to relinquish everything in her life her home, her marriage, and her children. Nora’s downfall not only involves losing everything, but she becomes thrown into the real world, where she will be shunned for breaking the social contract of wifehood and motherhood. Though Nora experiences a tragic reversal of fortunes, plunged into loneliness and scorn from society, again, like Oedipus and Creon, her downfall is not a complete loss. She, too, has a catharsis and realizes that her life as been a charade, and though she may have to start life over amidst the angry jury of society, she realizes that she must learn to find herself, so as not to live falsely again.


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Among these three works, there is the possibility of other tragic heroes hidden amidst the central struggle of Oedipus, Creon, and Nora. In Oedipus the King, there really is no other character that qualifies to be a tragic hero, for no one else truly embodies a flaw, a downfall, and a catharsis. The play centralizes itself around the tragic plight of Oedipus and a second tragic hero would steal from him his ability to inflict the significance of the tragedy. In Antigone, Antigone perhaps embodies the same characteristics Creon holds. Her flaw is her stubborn refusal to “bend before adversity,” as the Chorus proclaims (Sophocles l 57). She does gain the sympathy from the audience, as her heroic determination to uphold her principles proves inspiring and righteous. However, though Antigone may seem to be a tragic heroine, she falls short because she does not have the same prolonged suffering and catharsis that Creon experiences. She remains proud and stubborn to the bitter end, and her death saves her from any tragic suffering. Thus, the possibility of Antigone of being a tragic heroine is completely illogical. Torvald, from A Doll House, however, does personify enough essential tragic hero characteristics to join Nora in her role as a tragic hero. Like Nora, Torvald’s tragic flaw is that he lives life as if he were in a doll’s house. By making Nora his dollhouse wife, he hopes to hide any indication that his marriage is unhappy. As proven by Nora, “Our home’s been nothing but a playpen. I’ve been your dollhouse wife here…. That’s been our marriage” (Ibsen III). Because he was unable to accept the facts, unable to see his flaw, Torvald fails to save his marriage, losing his wife, his dignity, and ultimately, true happiness. Like Nora, he has a catharsis at the end, desperately calling to Nora, “But I’ll believe. Tell me!” (Ibsen III). Upon Nora’s departure, Torvald finally realizes his mistakes and, though it becomes too late, he understands that he should never have falsified their marriage. Encompassing all of these important aspects, the audience can, in fact, relate to both the tragic plights of Nora and Torvald, with both clearly illustrating the fundamental characteristics of the tragic hero.


Conclusively, Sophocles and Ibsen both brilliantly exemplify, through their main characters, the essential characteristics of the tragic hero. Embodying the important qualities of goodness, nobility, humanness, and consistency, each of the plays’ tragic heroes reach out to the audience. Their downfalls are touching, their catharses enlightening. It is with such masterful illustrations of the tragic hero that both Sophocles and Ibsen effectively enhance the very meaning and essence of tragedy.


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