Shakespeare’s tragic heroes are noble men who met with their downfall due to a certain weakness in their character. This hidden weakness of character is called a ‘Tragic Flaw’ (Hamartia in Greek) and due to this flaw, they become ‘Tragic’ heroes. I am reminded of the Hollywood actor Johnny Depp saying ‘Nobody is perfect, we are all damaged in our own ways…’ We are indeed flawed in many ways! However, if you are an eminent person holding a high position in society, your failure becomes all the more pronounced.
The greatness of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes is that the readers/spectators could always learn something from their mistakes. I’ve also learned a lesson or two from them.
King Lear: The powerful King of Britain decides to share his Kingdom among his three daughters. He asks them how much do they love him. His older daughters Goneril and Regan resort to flattery and get a fair share of the property. The youngest Cordelia’s matter of fact answer angers the King. ‘I love you as a daughter should love her father’, she says. It is contrary to King Lear’s expectations. Pride and anger get the best of him and he banishes Cordelia from his kingdom! He fails to recognise the vicious heart of the older daughters, he could have listened to his good old servant Kent, and of course he doesn’t! When he realises their treachery, the damage is already done. His arrogance makes him take one misstep after the other and at some point the mighty King admits that he is not in his perfect mind. From losing his power and falling prey for his daughters’ treachery to the death of his good daughter Cordelia and his own death in the end, King Lear’s life is a clear leap from good fortune to misfortune. Pride and arrogance did that for him. What a tragic ending to a majestic King!
Lesson learned: Do not let pride and anger get the best of you.
Macbeth: The eminent and brave General of Scotland gets a prophesy from three witches that he will be the King of Scotland and that a man born of a woman cannot kill him. He shares this secret with his wife Lady Macbeth and she instigates the plan to kill Duncan, the King of Scotland. Macbeth, with his overtly ambitious, power-hungry self falls for her malicious plot. He has a streak of impatience in him and refuses to wait for nature to run its course. He wants to kill Duncan right away and with Lady Macbeth as his ally, accomplishes this task. The more ambitious he gets, the more tyrannical he becomes. However, everything comes with a price and Macbeth is no exception. Overcome with guilt, Lady Macbeth kills herself. Macbeth’s downfall is evident at the time when he is waiting for his final battle and reflects on the meaninglessness of life. When Macduff (born of a Caesarean section, hence not “of woman born”) kills him, the witches prophesies are all fulfilled. When he said ‘Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage’, did he realise he was actually speaking for himself?
Lesson learned: Over ambition is harmful.
Othello: The honourable Moor who is the General of the Venetian army and the doting husband of beautiful Desdemona has his own share of struggles fitting in the Venetian society. Desdemona’s father who is a Senator accuses him for seducing her by witchcraft whereas it was Othello’s life stories that interest her. He is conscious about his looks and many a times feels that he isn’t good enough for Desdemona. People say Othello’s major flaw is jealousy. However, jealousy is not an inherent trait of his character; Iago instills that in him by mentioning Desdemona’s alleged extra marital affair. Othello gives high priority to honour and reputation and it clearly works against him and cause his downfall. He is gullible and trusts the wrong people. Iago is always “Honest Iago” for him. He loves Desdemona, perhaps a bit too much. However, he put his honour above everything and in order to guard his honour, smothers her to death. When he realises his mistake, he stabs himself to death. Othello is a good man and a loving husband but in his own words ‘not wise enough in love’.
Lesson learned: Don’t let the love of reputation cloud your judgement.
Hamlet: The Prince of Denmark is called home from Germany for his father’s funeral. His uncle Claudius takes possession of the throne and marries Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother. From the beginning, there is instability in Hamlet's character. He is pulled in different directions, the responsibility to avenge his father’s murder and then the ghost of his father appearing before him and revealing that Claudius killed him. Even though Hamlet promises the ghost of his father that he will kill Claudius for him, he isn’t sure about how reliable the ghost is. His instability in character is visible from the several incidents that ensue until his death in the end. With the instability to decide for himself coupled with the inability to decide on what he wants and what ought to be done, Hamlet goes through a great dilemma in life. The line ‘To be or not to be’ sums up Hamlet’s character and this indecisiveness is his flaw and results in his downfall.
Lesson learned: Don’t be wishy-washy.
Romeo: The impulsive, dim -witted son of Montague, who falls in love with his family rival Capulet’s daughter Juliet. There is an urgency and rashness in his actions—forgetting Rosaline who he thought he was in love with, falling head over heels in love with Juliet, the slaying of Tybalt, killing Paris, assuming Juliet is dead while she is only unconscious, killing himself in the end resulting in Juliet stabbing herself to death. Romeo’s flaw is his impulsive character. If only he had taken the time to think before his actions, waited a little while longer, perhaps, situations would have an altered course. But then, if he had done the right things, he wouldn’t be a tragic hero! He remains the ‘eternal tragic lover’ for all humanity.
Lesson learned: Look before you leap.
Shakespeare said, “All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts…” While we play the different roles in our lives, let’s not forget some of the lessons we learned from his characters.
Dr Anjana Sukumary Warren teaches at the Intercultural Studies and Languages Division of Mahidol University International College, Thailand. She has several international presentations and publications to her credit. She is an alumnus of Madras Christian College, Chennai.