The story goes something like this: a royal, rich or righteous individual, who otherwise happens to be a lot like us, makes a mistake that sends his life, and the lives of those around him, spiraling into ruin. Sound familiar? This is the classic story pattern for Greek tragedy. For thousands of years, we’ve spun spellbinding tales that fit this pattern, and modern storytellers around the world continue to do so. Three critical story components influenced by Aristotle’s “Poetics” help us understand the allure.
First, the tragic hero should be elevated in rank and ability, but also relatable. Perhaps he is a king, or extraordinary in some other way. But because you and I are neither unusually good nor unusually bad, neither is the hero. And he has one particular tragic flaw, or hamartia, something like ambition, tyranny, stubbornness, or excess pride that causes him to make a critical mistake.
And from that mistake comes disaster and downfall. As an example of these elements in action, let’s look to Sophocles’s “Oedipus Rex,” about a man who doesn’t know he was adopted, and is warned by an oracle that he’s destined to murder his father and marry his mother. In trying to escape this fate, he kills a man who won’t get out of his way at a crossroad. He then cleverly answers the riddle of the monstrous Sphynx, freeing the Kingdom of Thebes from a plague. He marries the widowed queen and becomes king.
But after he finds out that the murdered man was his father, and the queen he married is his mother, Oedipus gouges out his eyes and retreats into the wilderness. At the beginning of his story, Oedipus is elevated in ability, and he’s elevated in rank. He’s neither unusually evil nor saintly. He’s relatable. Notice the height of the fall. Once a king, but now homeless and blind. It’s more tragic, after all, if a king falls from a tall throne than if a jester falls off his step stool.
Oedipus’s tragic flaw is hubris, or excessive pride, and it causes him to attempt to avoid the fate prophesied for him, which is exactly what makes it happen. He’s a particularly unlucky soul because his mistake of killing his father and marrying his mother is done in complete ignorance. Of course, these narrative principles transcend classic Greek tragedy. In Shakespeare’s canon, we see Hamlet’s indecisiveness lead to a series of bad decisions, or perhaps non-decisions, that culminate in the death of almost every character in the play, and Macbeth’s ambition catapults him to the top before sending him careening to his grave.
Even modern pop culture staples like “Game of Thrones” and “The Dark Knight” resonate with the tropes Aristotle identified over 2000 years ago. So what’s the point of all of this suffering? According to Aristotle, and many scholars since, a good tragedy can evoke fear and pity in the audience: Fear of falling victim to the same or similar catastrophe, and pity for the height of the hero’s downfall. Ideally, after watching these tragic events unfold, we experience catharsis, a feeling of relief and emotional purification.
Not everyone agrees why this happens. It may be that empathizing with the hero allows us to experience and release strong emotions that we keep bottled up, or maybe it just lets us forget about our own problems for a little while. But regardless of how you feel when you watch poor Oedipus, never has there been a more salient reminder that no matter how bad things get, at least you didn’t kill your father and marry your mother.