As humans beings, we crave relief from our mundane day to day lives and a source to unload our built up emotions. This source is provided to us from Shakespeare’s “King Lear” Sophocles “Antigone”, Orsen Welles “Citizen Kane” and Ridley Scotts “Gladiator”. These texts all provide us with emotional cleansing because we experience the release of built up emotions, or catharsis when we watch or read them. As readers and viewers, we live for the tragedy of characters because it means we don’t have to focus on our own tragic lives. Tragic heroes are the foundation of any tragedy and are the providers of the cathartic experience and by recognizing the significant connections between these tragedies, we are able to identify this and the underlying importance of all tragic heroes; to evoke the audience’s feelings and relieve their pent-up emotions. Aristotle defined the tragic hero as a character who has a fatal flaw that inevitably leads to his own self-destruction. The texts that I have chosen are all connected significantly through their tragic hero characters; Lear, Creon, Kane, and Maximus. Each of these characters excessive pride or hubris eventually leads to their own individual self-destruction. As the audience to these tragic heroes, the catharsis that we feel through their journey forces us to self-reflect on our own lives. The realization that something is wrong only comes about when wrongdoing is done.
One of Shakespeare’s most renowned tragic heroes is King Lear. Lear’s excessive pride and eventual own destruction makes it hard to deny his role in the text. Shakespeare crafts Lear in a way that makes the audience despise him at the beginning. Lear declares “come not between the dragon and his wrath” this quote sets the foundation for Lear’s initial Hubris. The trait of hubris, or excessive pride, is a common characteristic of the tragic hero character. Excessive pride clouds Lear’s judgment leading to his downfall. This clouding of judgment is also seen in the tragic hero Maximus from Ridley Scotts “Gladiator”. Maximus is fuelled by the pride for his country and his seek for revenge against the current ruler of Rome forces him to take reckless actions that make the audience feel scared; “My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next”. In the same way, Lear becomes reckless when Cordelia rebels against him. The decisions these tragic heroes make directly impact the emotions the audience feels. Lears irrational decision making and betrayal to his daughter defies natural human instincts making it easy for us to disagree with the Kings decisions. However, the conclusion of the text leaves us feeling pity for the King at the loss of all of his loved ones. The journey from hatred to mourning that Shakespeare puts the audience through provides an effective catharsis. The feelings that we establish through the text are brought about by the tragic hero, which is their purpose. It is important that the audience experiences this catharsis in order to have an emotional cleansing. As the creator of this text, this was Shakespeare purpose. He developed Lear in this way so that he could impact the audience and make them reflect on their own lives from the mistakes that Lear made. This catharsis would have also been effective at the time of the play. During an unstable monarchy, this text would have been a little too real for the audience. Shakespeare provided them with an outlet to channel their emotions after the death of Lear. By experiencing Lear, the audience’s minds would’ve been taken off current tragedies, achieving the intent of a tragic hero.
Another text where the tragic hero directly impacts the audience’s emotions is Sophocles “Antigone”. Excessive pride and a power-hungry nature lead Creon to declare that only Etocles is to be buried and not Polyneics after they fought for Thebes and anyone who disobeys his orders will be punished: “By Zeus I swear, except ye find and bring Before my presence here the very man Who carried out this lawless burial, Death for your punishment shall not suffice.” This display of hubris defines Creon as a tragic hero. Creon acting against the gods and rejecting the burial of one of his nephews not only goes against the natural order but also directly impacts his niece Antigone. Her hatred for Creon is brought about because of this decision resulting in the audience feeling the same way because Antigone represents what is right and we sympathize her as the viewer because of this. Sophocles devised this Greek performance during a time where family, religion, and state were supposed to be in perfect harmony. During “Antigone” these forces become unbalanced as Creon goes against what is natural. His hubris leads him into making an irrational decision. He goes against God, by denying the truth that Tiresias, the messenger of religion, lays out for him. The unbalancing of his family comes about when Antigone and Haemon reject his decision but he refuses to see what they are clearly trying to project. Creon rebels directly against the state by abusing his inherited power muting his senators with his excessive pride. This unbalancing of powers goes against basic humanity and what we view as being right. By crafting Creon in this way Sophocles effectively manipulates the audience’s emotions with this tragic hero character. We can’t help but feel a sense of hatred for this leader. We see him in the same way that we see Lear. Their decision fuel our hatred but we can’t help but feel sorry for them during their downfall. Creon loses his family in the same way that Lear does and the parallel between these two characters reinforces the idea of catharsis being caused by the tragic hero character. By identifying the significant connection between Lord Creon and King Lear we are able to make sense of this nonsense pent up emotions. Similar to King Lear, the audience at the time of this play would have also battled with their emotions. Seeing a female disobey the king during a time of leadership and the great chain of being would have been very upsetting for the audience. However what Antigone is doing is the right thing. This mix of emotions would have provided an effective catharsis for the audience.
Orson Welles “Citizen Kane” hosts yet another example of an Aristotelian tragic hero. Charles Foster Kane is specifically crafted as a tragic hero in this renowned American film. Welles uses the characteristic of hubris to achieve this. Kane’s hubris comes about by his great inherited fortune. Kane is perceived as someone who is always surrounded by people but is in fact very lonely. His loneliness means he cannot fully mature and his immaturity makes him yearn for power and control. In response to Susan, Kane’s wife, saying she doesn’t know many people Kane replies; “I know too many people. I guess we’re both lonely”. The power he craves blinds him with greed, leading him to push away the people he loves, causing his lonely demise. Charles Foster Kane is similar to the character King Lear. Kane and Lear are linked by their tragic flaw of hubris. Both of these characters require love and affection but are unable to do the same for the people in their lives. The only way they know how to return the visible signs of love are by showering their loved ones with materialistic things. If the perceived love they crave is lacked by one person the only way they can deal with it is by completely shutting this person out. Kane’s selfishness and impulsiveness find his family in a car accident killing his wife and son. Kane loses people he loves in the same way that Lear loses Cordelia with his impulsive decision to split up the kingdom. These two tragic heroes lose the people they love most in their lives through their own destructive, selfish pride. As the audience, we mourn these characters loses, but also predict their downfall because of their flaw. A person’s characteristics make it easy for us to predict their outcome. The tragic hero character and Kane specifically force us to experience catharsis and self-reflect on our own destructive characteristics. By experiencing his loss we can prevent our own. Kane’s heartache cures us of our own. Welles purpose is achieved through this character. Kane is such an easy character to dislike, but in some cases, we are looking in the mirror and it is up to us to change our own reflection.
Ridley Scott crafts the main protagonist Maximus as a tragic hero in the film “Gladiator”. Maximus is unlike any of the tragic hero’s I have analyzed so far in the fact that the audience immediately likes Maximus as a character. His connection to the natural world, through animals and the dirt he holds in his hands, and effective leadership, when he is leading his army in the opening scene means the audience can develop a positive relationship towards him. We resent his inevitable demise as we see his world crumble around him after the death of his family at the hands of the current ruler of Rome. We want Maximus to get justice for what has happened, and his pride is contagious in this way. Maximus is such an effective tragic hero because of his fatal flaw; hubris. Maximus’s excessive pride towards his country and family cloud his judgment. He becomes reckless and fights for revenge more than for justice. The pride that he has leads to his own death, similar to Creon. Creon saw his ideas towards what should happen to his family and country as the only way which ultimately leads to his downfall. He saw no other way than his way as being right. He was too caught up in his own selfish ideas that he didn’t take the time to open his eyes. Similarly, Maximus was fueled by hatred and became stuck in his tunnel vision for his family’s justice. The value of family, along with state and religion holds the highest tier in any leaders life. For any tragic hero, when their family is involved, hard decisions have to be made. This idea that is evident in many texts involving tragic heroes provokes a self-reflection for the audience. Family should be the most important thing that we consider but we must be careful to take actions that are right more than actions that are just. Catharsis is effective when it involves feelings towards the people we love because it proves that we actually do love them.
“King Lear, “Antigone”, “Citizen Kane” and Gladiator are all significantly connected through the idea of the tragic hero character provoking a catharsis of emotions and self-reflection. As the audience, we crave the tragic hero character so we can unload our pent-up emotions through their experiences. The use of this character to emotionally captivate the audience is effective and is used in all of the texts I have discussed. Lear, Creon, Kane, and Maximus all faced their downfall due to their excessive pride, they were the rot of their own destruction so that we don’t have to be. The self-reflection that we experience from these texts makes us consider the changes that we could make in our lives. Through wrongdoing, we do the right thing.