According to Aristotle, the ideal tragic hero should be good but not too good or perfect, for the fall of a perfectly good man from happiness into misery, would be odious and repellant. His fall will not arouse pity, for he is not like us, and his undeserved fall would only shock and disgust.
Similarly, the spectacle of an utterly wicked person passing from happiness to misery may satisfy our moral sense but is lacking in the proper tragic qualities. Such a person is not like us and his fall is felt to be well deserved and in accordance with the requirement of ‘justice’. It excites neither pity nor fear. Thus according to Aristotle’s perfectly good as well as utterly wicked persons are not suitable to be heroes of tragedies. However Elizabethan tragedy has demonstrated that given the necessary skill and art even villains like Macbeth, can serve as proper tragic heroes and their fall can arouse the specific tragic emotions.
Similarly, according to Aristotelian canon a saint, a character perfectly good, would be unsuitable as a tragic hero. He is on the side of the moral order and not opposed to it and hence his fall shocks and repels. Moreover, his martyrdom is a spiritual victory and the sense of moral triumph drowns the feeling of pity for his physical suffering. The saint is self-effacing and unselfish and so he tends to be passive and inactive. Drama on the other hand requires for its effectiveness a militant and combative hero. However, in quite recent times both Bernard Shaw, T.S. Eliot and Christopher Fry have achieved outstanding success with saints as their tragic heroes. In this connection, it would be pertinent to remember first that Aristotle’s conclusions are based on the Greek Drama with which he was familiar and secondly that he is laying down the qualification of an ideal tragic-hero he is here discussing what is best and not what is good. On the whole, his views are justified, for it requires the genius of a Shakespeare to arouse sympathy for an utter villain and saints as successful tragic heroes have been extremely rare.
Having rejected perfection as well as utter depravity and villainy, Aristotle points out that the ideal tragic hero, “must be an intermediate kind of person a man not pre-eminently virtuous and just, whose misfortune, however is brought upon him not by vice or depravity but some error of judgement. The ideal tragic hero is a man who stands midway between the two extremes. He is not eminently good or just, though he inclines to the side of goodness. He is like us, but as Butcher points out, raised above the ordinary level by a deeper vein of feeling or heightened powers of intellect or will. He is, idealised, but still he has much of common humanity as to enlist our interest and sympathy.
The tragic hero is not depraved or vicious but he is also not perfect, and his misfortune is brought upon him by some faults of his own. He falls not because of the act of some outside agency or vice of depravity but because of hamartia of “miscalculation” on his part.
Aristotle lays down another qualification for the tragic hero. He must be “of the number of those in the enjoyment of great reputation and prosperity”. In other words, he must be a person who occupies position of lofty eminence in society. He must be a highly placed individual well- reputed. But Modern drama has demonstrated that the meanest individual
can serve as a tragic herb as well as a prince of the blood royal and that tragedies of Sophoclean grandeur can be enacted even in remote country solitudes.
But Aristotle’s concept of the tragic hero does not apply fully to the Elizabethan or modern tragedies. Aristotle is too rigid. Modern literature has amply demonstrated it. Even the plays of Shakespeare have revealed new meanings in the ideas of the tragic hero. Its dramatic possibilities have been enlarged and deepened. In Hamlet, Othello, Lear, Macbeth, Coriolanus, we have the ruin of noble natures through some defect of character. The heroes of the tragedies of Arthur Miller. Tenessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill are not people of higher strata, they are very ordinary, common people. Yet they arouse the feelings of pity and fear.