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What Is a Tragic Protagonist?

Shakespeare's character Hamlet is an example of a tragic protagonist.
Romeo and Juliet are tragic protagonists.
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  • Written By: Mark Wollacott
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 16 March 2014
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A tragic protagonist is a character doomed to an unhappy ending. They are the leading characters of the drama, novel, film or music and are sometimes known as the tragic hero. The stories in which they appear are called tragedies and are, in the classical Greek sense of drama, the opposites of comedies because the tragic protagonist does not have a good ending. Examples include Hamlet, Orestes and Romeo and Juliet.

A protagonist is a character who forms the main part of a story. The main plot of the story revolves around this character and he or she has the biggest effect on the outcome of the story. Protagonists are either swept along in events they cannot control or contribute directly to their fates. Protagonists are the leading characters in any story from a novel to a comic or from a Shakespearean play to an opera. The main opponent of the protagonist is the antagonist; the latter's role is to create obstacles for the protagonist.

Greek thinkers such as Aristotle believed there were only two types of story: the comedy and the tragedy. The comedy had a happy ending and the tragedy a sad one. Deciding if a story is one or the other depends on the outcome of the protagonist and not everyone else combined. This probably explains why the term tragedy was used, because it means “goat song” in Ancient Greek, and the outcome for the goat was rarely good.

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The final outcome for the tragic protagonist does not have to be as disturbing as that of the goat. It, however, often is. Death is the ultimate tragedy alongside a loss of status, wealth, freedom and dignity. A tragic protagonist can also be tragic for wasting his talents and resources or for leaving a sense of what might have been if he had reached his potential. For Aristotle, the tragic protagonist and his or her tragedy must be presented as a drama or a play and not as a narrative as found in a novel.

Aristotle listed four Greek characteristics for the tragic protagonist: nobility, hamartia, peripetia and anagnorisis. First, a character must have some amount of nobility and wisdom, though these do not save him or her. Second is hamartia, the tragic flaw or mistake in character that leads to his or her downfall. Third is peripetia, the reversal of fortune brought about by the hamartia. Fourth is anagnorisis, the discovery or enlightenment regarding the person's fate and the role of the protagonist’s own flaws.

Key examples of the tragic protagonist can be found in classical and medieval dramatic works. These include the works of William Shakespeare such as with “Hamlet” and “Othello.” Examples are also found in Aeschylus’ “Oresteia” and Sophocles’ “Antigone.”

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