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Outdated ElementsEdit

Over the ages, two principial traits of Aristotle's Tragic Hero have been altered or abandoned altogether. 

  • First, the protagonist in Aristole's formula originated from noble birth and usually were kings or heirs to the throne.  On the other hand, protagonists of modern tragedies have generally been exposed to poverty and misfortune for a majority of their lives.
    • Oedipus Crying

      Oedipus at his lowest point.

      An example of the original formula can be found in Oedipus who was of noble birth, adopted into another noble family, and even grew up knowing he'd be King.  He didn't have to fight his way to the top or struggle for the privileges of authority and wealth, they were simply there for him.
    • However, the general misfortune can be found in Walter White, today's contemporary tragic hero.  He is from an ordinary middle-class background and lives like a cog in society for the majority of his life.  Only through heart-ache and turmoil does he gain the power, influence, and privileges heroes like Oedipus were given from birth.




  • Second, according to Aristotle, there is a predetermined contract of order within the characters' worlds in which the heroes cannot violate no matter if or how much they tried
    • In Oedipus's tragedy, the Gods' supremacy dictat
      Walter White Low Point

      Walter at his lowest point.

      es the course of events within the story.  Whatever happened, there are always obstacles and conditions that Oedipus and the others must work around.  The Gods curse Oedipus, condeming him to commit horrible and unnatural acts and it happened.  Even when Oedipus fortunately manages to elude this reality, the gods put him through all the guilt discovering the truth which leads to his pitiful downfall.
    • In contrast, Walter White and other contemporary Tragic Heroes like Jay Gatsby live life on their own terms.  Unlike the order of Oedipus, they don't feel bound to their place in their society.  Their ambitions are limitless and do not respect the lives society designated to them.  Specifically, Jay Gatsby comes from a poor, rural  background yet bootlegs his way to the top, defying the ordered structure of his world.  It is the same song and dance with Walter, who becomes fed up with the life of oppression laid out for him by peers, bosses, and society as a whole.  Trying to work his way up, he applies his chemistry knowledge to manufacturing extremely pure crystal methemphetamine, earning up to $80 million by the show's end. With this ability, he felt above the law, however, it was also the chief cause of his own fate.

Lasting ElementsEdit

  • One of Aristotle's five essential criteria of a tragedy is that it must contain a complex plot in which all actions have a consequence, essentially causes have one or more effects.  This criterion has lasted throughout the ages in various tragedies.  For example,


  • In Sophocles' Oedipus the King, this cause-and-effect relationship between plots is very complex and evident. Because Oedipus flees Corinth in an attempt to avoid his prophecy, he accidentally kills his biological father, Laius, on the road.  Thebes now lacks a king, so upon solving the Sphinx's riddle, Oedipus takes the role on himself.  When a messenger informs the new king that Laius's murderer is somewhere in Thebes, Oedipus places a curse on the criminal.  Through this hasty, extreme act, Oedipus is forced into his low point upon discovering that his prophecy indeed came true.  From this horrible discovery, he gouges his eyes out with his mother's jewelry and flees.
  • In Shakespeare's Hamlet, Claudius' and Hamlet's actions affect each other until they both ultimately suffer.  When Claudius poisons old Hamlet, he becomes Denmark's new king.  However, when the Ghost appears due to his anger with the injustice of the situation, Hamlet is now lowered into a life of frustration and artificial madness.  HIs insane demeanor begins to possess his actual character causing him, in a bout of excitement, to kill Polonius.  This enrages Laertes, who is only soothed by Claudius's plan for revenge. The plan ultimately results in the death of Gertrude, Claudius, Laertes, and Prince Hamlet himself.
  • In F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby's efforts to retake the affection of Daisy came back to hurt him in the end.  Additionally, because of his desire to get her back, he turns to bootlegging to aquire wealth to appeal to her liking.  At the beginning, he is now able to live in eyesight of Daisy's home which only sustained his emotions for her over a long time until he finally asks the narrator, Nick, about her. As a result of Nick's intervention, Daisy and Jay are reunited setting the tragedy in motion.  Unfortunately, Tom, Daisy's husband, discovers this, leading to a large fallout between the characters.  For example, as Tom reveals Jay's past to Daisy, Daisy tells Gatsby that she loves Tom instead despite what Jay had become.  Because Tom knows that Gatsby is no longer a threat that can take his wife, he sends Daisy to drive Jay home in Jay's car during which she runs over Myrtle.  This in turn inspires George Wilson to murder Gatsby in the end.
  • In Vince Gilligan's Breaking Bad, Walter's cancer diagnosis pushes him towards a life of producing crystal methemphetamine.  As a result of this new path, he is exposed to an un
    Heisenberg

    Power-hungry Walter feels on top of the world.

    derworld of dangerous figures.  At one point, Walter is forced to kill his boss in order to protect himself and his family,however, the DEA's investigation into this boss' death opens a lot of new potential ways that the meth production could be traced back to Walter.  In response, Walter hires a team of neo-Nazis, who have their connections in prison, to murder nine potential informants that would expose Walter to the DEA.  Walter's interaction with these Nazis ultimately lead to his downfall in the final season, as they murder someone Walt truly cares about. Walter's family discovers this murder and believes Walt is the killer.  By the show's end, everyone Walt loved and those he cooked meth to support were either afraid of him or dead.



Another essential criterion is that these stories are to arouse fear and pity in the audience. This is true for all of these tragedies where the protagonists are not fundamentally evil men, but are relatively forced into doing what they do.  Oedipus places a curse so that justice can be served and Hamlet plans to murder Claudius to avenge his father. Gatsby sells alcohol to rescue Daisy from an unhappy marriage and Walter manufactures meth to keep his family from death. Because the characters' motives are partially good-intentioned, the audience can identify with the characters and see at least a fraction of themselves in these characters.  They are all human and make mistakes, but the people they are at the beginning of these stories don't deserve the punishments they get at the end.

There are important elements other than the five essential criteria that contribute to the definition of a tragic hero:

  • Hero must be doomed from the start, but bears no responsibility for possessing his flaw.
    • Jocasta sums up the story of Oedipus's tragic journey when she says, 'Ill-fated man. May you never find out who you are!" (Sophocles 61).  Oedipus was doomed from birth, faced with a horrible prophecy of killing his father and sleeping with his mother.  He had no say in the matter, and in fact even worked very hard to avoid it.  He fled home, faced the Sphinx, and became king of Thebes, yet in his adulthood and so far from his birthplace, his fate still caught up with him.
    • Walter White faces his cancer diagnosis, repeating the words after his doctor, "Lung cancer. Inoperable. Best case scenario, with chemo, I'll live maybe another couple of years."  In only one scene of the 62 episodes of Breaking Bad do the characters discuss how Walter may have gotten this cancer, but no one is ever able to discover the reason, rather, he was unlucky.
  • Hero must have something gone wrong in his/her current life.
    Hamlet Mad

    Hamlet struggles to face the circumstances surrounding his father's death and his mother's betrayal.

    • Hamlet faces a period of gloom after his father's death.  Additionally, he is disgusted by his mother's capability to find happiness once again in her husband's brother.  However, the truly terrible event Hamlet discovers is revealed when the Ghost states, "Sleeping within my orchard... Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole, With juice of cursed hebenon in a vial, And in the porches of my ears did pour The leperous distilment" (I. v. 59-64).  This discovery of Claudius's crime is the act of aggression within this play and is the beginning of the end.
    • For an unexplained reasons, Walter White, a chemistry mastermind, resorts to teaching high school chemistry and is diagnosed with lung cancer.  On top of that he was persuaded to sell his share of Gray Matter, a company he started with a friend, for a few thousand dollars just years before it grew to become a multi-billion dollar company.  Walter has always been dealt the wrong hand. This repression of his intellect and lack of appreciation pushes him to become the power-hungry man that he ultimately becomes in the final season.
  • Hero must suffer more than he deserves.
    • Gatsby was a fundamentally wonderful man: his heart and mind were pure since virtually everything he did was to win back Daisy's heart.  Nick reflects on his experiences with Gatsby by
      Gatsby Sad

      Jay doesn't like how all of his efforts to win Daisy's affection are turning out.

      saying, "Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men" (Fitzgerald 2).  Jay let his emotions interefere with his best judgment.  As a result, he spent years passively waiting for Daisy to come into his life.  His inability to act on his desires resulted in a long period of loneliness that the audience sympathizes him for.  When he finally does see Daisy again, it isn't long before Tom destroys their relationship and sets George up to kill him. 
    • Walter was not a bad man in the beginning of the show either: he was a family man on whom many people relied.  Additionally, his wife and son loved him very much and he taught teenagers chemistry.  He lived his entire life in fear and made a series of unfortunate mistakes, which he reflects by saying, "I have spent my whole life scared.  Frightened of things that could happen, might happen, might not happen.  Fifty years I spent like that... What I came to realize is that fear... that's the worst of it.  That's the real enemy.  So, get up, get out in the real world and you kick that bastard as hard as you can right in the teeth."  Indeed, upon turning towards a life of crime, Walt feels the appreciation and power that he's been craving for so long. Unfortunately, his downfall results as these emotions get the better of him.

Dramatic Structure - Freytag's PyramidEdit

Oedipus Pyramid

Dramatic structure of Oedipus

Pages in category "Aristotle's "Tragic Hero""

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