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Tragic Heroes in Greek Myth

Tragic Greek dramas featured tragic heroes, mortals who suffered incredible ? losses as a result of an inescapable fate or bad decisions. According to Aristotle, a tragic hero is a character, usually of high birth, which is pre-eminently great, meaning they are not perfect, and whose downfall is brought about? by a tragic weakness or error in judgment.

The three Greek heroes Oedipus, Medea and Agamemnon, who each killed a member of their family, carry most of the qualities that make up a tragic hero: being of noble birth, being surrounded by an extraordinary circumstance, and gaining self-awareness or some kind of knowledge through their downfall. There is an important need for the audience to identify with the Aristotelian hero through their faults; faults are what inevitably make the hero a human rather than a God since to be human is to make mistakes.

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According to Aristotle’s theory of tragedy and his definition of the central character, Oedipus, the hero of Sophocles, is considered a classical model of the tragic hero. The tragic hero is an essential element to arouse pity and fear from the audience to achieve the emotional effect. Sophocles features Oedipus in a trilogy of plays; however, it is during Oedipus the King that Oedipus experiences his tragic downfall. Although Oedipus is not of high birth, he rises to become a king rather early in his life. To complete the tragic hero profile, Oedipus inspires pity in audiences.

Oedipus however, like all tragic heroes, has one great weakness, or flaw as said by Aristotle; his excessive pride, which the Chorus describes as: “Insolence breeds the tyrant, insolence if it is glutted with a surfeit, unseasonable, unprofitable… But I pray that the God may never abolish the eager ambition that profits the state, for I shall never cease to hold the God as our protector” (Sophocles, Oedipus the King, 875-882). Not only does the chorus refer to his pride, but Oedipus himself hints at it. In line 8 he says, “I Oedipus whom all men call the great” (Sophocles, Oedipus the King, 8). This shows he has much pride for himself.

He feels he is very important, and that no one is above him. Eventually, Oedipus pays back for this pride by gouging his own eyes out which allows him, like every hero, to experience greater self-knowledge and repent. When referring to the reasons of committing a murder, Oedipus’s pride did contribute to the tragedy of killing his own birth father, but was not entirely the reason for his downfall. Oedipus and his father, King Laius, both believe that they have social indifference and that they are more important than the other. This leads to self-defense, the main reason Oedipus had to kill his father.

King Laius’ murder by Oedipus could be explained by some as fate that cannot be escaped because Oedipus did not know who he was killing at the time, and this is proven later on when Oedipus says: “Who so among you knows the murdered by whose hands Laius, son of Labdacus, died – I command him to tell everything to me, – yes, though he fears himself to take the blame on his own hear; for bitter punishment he shall have none, but leave this land unharmed” (Sophocles, Oedipus the King, 225-229). This also reflects his pride that leads to his selfishness, his own self-interest.

From the moment he learned of the former king’s death he was acting not as a king concerned for his people, but as a king concerned for his own life. Similar to Oedipus, Medea also, to some extent, displays Aristotle’s characteristics of a tragic hero. Medea is the daughter of Aeetes, who is the King of Colchis and the son of Helios, the Sun god, thus making her of noble birth. However, in the case of Medea, it is excessive passion that leads Medea to her destruction and her need to kill her kids. Because Medea is madly in love with Jason, Medea is crushed to find out that Jason has left her.

Medea explains to the women of Corinth and says, “it has broken my heart. I am finished. I let go. All my life’s joy. My friends, I only want to die” (Euripides, The Medea, 226-228). Therefore, Medea becomes outraged and overpowered with excessive passion. Euripides also carefully reveals the elements of Medea’s past that demonstrate her readiness to violate solidarity of family ties in order to pursue her intractable will; Jason and Medea’s original tryst, for example, required that she kill her own brother, thus choosing marriage ties over blood ties.

Secondly, Medea’s selfishness provides power to her fatal flaw. Medea’s selfishness and lack of humanity is displayed through the act of killing her own two sons. Medea understands that the slaying of her children will make Jason miserable. During this time, the chorus recognizes her self-worship and states, “But can you have the heart to kill your flesh and blood” (Euripides, The Medea, 816)? Medea does not stop to think what pain she may cause to herself by murdering them. She is only concerned about her happiness that will be derived from Jason’s grieving.

Medea comes to the conclusion that it is worth the suffering just to see her ex-husband unhappy. Medea states, “Yes, for this is the best way to wound my husband” (Euripides, The Medea, 817). This exhibits Medea’s selfishness by the slaying of her sons just to cause sorrow to Jason for her own pleasure. Medea’s rage also leads to her fatal flaw of excessive passion. Her excessive passion, fed by rage, leads Medea to do uncalled-for acts of violence and murder. In the opening stages of the Agamemnon the chorus describes Agamemnon as a great and courageous warrior, one who destroyed the mighty army and city of Troy.

Yet after praising the character of Agamemnon, the chorus recounts that in order to change the winds in order to get to Troy, Agamemnon sacrificed his own daughter, Iphigenia. “If I must slay the joy of my house, my daughter. ?A father’s hands stained with dark streams flowing from blood of a girl slaughtered before the altar” (Antistrophe 4), Agamemnon speaks these anguished words after learning that the Greek ships cannot sail for Troy unless his daughter, Iphigenia, is sacrificed to appease the angry Artemis.

Though the very idea of the act is ghastly and repulsive to him, Agamemnon follows through with it, as it seems the only honorable way to perform his duty to his fellow Greeks and uphold the oath he has sworn to help his brother Menelaus reclaim his wife, Helen. Here, one is immediately presented with the crucial problem of Agamemnon’s character. Is he a man who is virtuous and ambitious or cruel and guilty of his daughter’s murder? The sacrifice of Iphigenia is a complicated issue. It is clear that Agamemnon was in an unenviable position before sailing to Troy.

In order to have his revenge for Paris’ crime, and in order to aid his brother, he must commit a further, perhaps worse crime. Iphigenia, Agamemnon’s daughter, has to be sacrificed so that the battle fleet of the Greek forces can avenge the reckless actions of Paris and Helen. In this context, the act of sacrificing one’s kin for the sake of the state could indeed be deemed a righteous act. Agamemnon’s decision to sacrifice his daughter could be deemed a logical decision, especially since the sacrifice was for the sake of Troy and the victory of the Greek army.

To Agamemnon, his allegiance is with his social brotherhood more than with his family, for he feels the dishonor of preventing the Greeks from sailing is greater than the dishonor of murdering his own child. Agamemnon could not escape bloodguilt either way. Despite the ill-fated decisions of Agamemnon’s driving ambition, the chorus depicts him as virtuous. The chorus presents Agamemnon as a moral character, a man who faced the dilemma of whether or not to kill his own daughter for the good of the state.

Agamemnon fought the city of Troy for the sake of virtue and for the state; therefore he has to be an honorable character, explaining the hero in Agamemnon. All three of these tragic heroes are substantially affected by fate. Given Oedipus’ circumstance, not knowing that he was killing his birth father, Sophocles’ moral message seems to be that one cannot escape destiny. Sophocles’ audience would, of course, have known the story of Oedipus, which only increases the sense of complete inevitability about how the play would end.

It is difficult to say how justly one can accuse Oedipus of being “blind” or foolish when he seems to have no choice about fulfilling the prophecy: he is sent away from Thebes as a baby and by a remarkable coincidence saved and raised as a prince in Corinth. Hearing that he is fated to kill his father, he flees Corinth and, by a still more remarkable coincidence, ends up back in Thebes, now king and husband in his birth father’s place. Oedipus seems only to desire to flee his fate, but his fate continually catches up with him.

As for Medea, it can be argued that Medea seals the certainty of her children’s death from her opening cries. While it can be argued the children’s deaths are fated from the beginning, it nevertheless remains true that such a fate represents the triumph of perverse forces within human behavior. To reach the point of infanticide, Medea’s basic human nature has to be transformed, ushering in conflict of some type, where Medea rethinks her decision: “I cannot bear to do it. I renounce my plans I had before… Why should I hurt their father with the pain they feel, and suffer twice as much pain myself?

Do I want to let go my enemies unhurt and be laughed at for it” (Euripides, The Medea, 1044-1050)? Consequently, Medea’s eventual indecision and motivational conflicts manifest the warping of natural sentiments. From the beginning of the play the seeds of this cruel revenge have been planted, but the natural obstacles of a mother’s love still had to be surmounted. Medea fits within the tragic hero definition because she does finally discover her wrongdoing and how it leads to her downfall.

In conclusion, Medea’s fatal flaw of excessive passion is due to the three main reasons of her love for Jason, her selfishness, and her rage. These factors all contributed to the downfall of Medea’s character. It can be argued that Agamemnon’s downfall was brought about by fate too, because he was in a difficult situation, and no matter what choice he made, he would have been accused of blood guilt. We see this when Agamemnon says: “My fate is angry if I obey these, but angry if I slaughter this child, the beauty of my house” (Aeschylus, Agamemnon, 206-208).

Agamemnon’s response to killing his daughter is that he “must” do it, not as something asked of him. He believes that any mandated duty to a god is justified, even if it entails a horrible crime like murdering one’s own daughter. Despite this apparent justification, perhaps Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter was a flawed and wrong action. One could argue that he sacrifices his daughter on the altar of his own ambition. What is clear, however, is Agamemnon is responsible for the blood that he has spilled and that his drive and ambition does seem to have been a factor in the sacrifice.

Fate, it seems, cannot be avoided in Greek tragedy. No matter how much of a tragic hero a character appears to be to the audience, fate seems to have some control over their actions. Although decisions of humans can affect their destiny, as in Medea’s case, in all three of these tragic plays, fate is seen as the driving force, and for both Oedipus and Agamemnon, it is seen as the ultimate controller of their lives, even when they do everything in their power to avoid prophesy, destiny, and their ultimate fate.


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