Renaissance Tragedy and the Tragic Hero

The tragedy and the tragic hero has always been a significant theme often present in renaissance texts. Richard II by William Shakespeare and Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe are both considered to be tragedies with a tragic hero present. These two texts will be used within this paper to discuss tragedy as renaissance literature as well as various elements present in tragedies as well as to what extent it relates to the philosopher, Aristotle’s idea of tragedy. The various elements include: Personal failure of the hero/heroine and their misfortune; The moral value systems that underlie each play and; The effect the play has on the audience and relating it to the way Aristotle described it. These various elements will be discussed with regard to Richard II first and then with regard to Doctor Faustus.

The Renaissance era was from 1300 – 1700 and this period in time within Europe can be regarded as being a bridge of some sort between the Middle ages and what we now consider as modern history. The word ‘renaissance’ though is derived from French and it translates to the word ‘rebirth’. The history of where the word or name of the era comes from is very important and valid when learning about the Renaissance era, because many changes occurred throughout Europe during this period almost as if though Europe has been reborn. The most significant changes that occurred during this time though is with regard to art and intellect. More and more people had the chance to get educated and to educate others in various fields and on various topics. On the other hand, another group of individuals explored art much more in the form of paintings, sculptures, poetry and plays. The Renaissance era was a very important period in time for literature as we know it today, because it helped shape the present and will continue shaping the future with what we learned from it. One of the important impacts the Renaissance era has on literature was in the form of plays, but more specifically, tragedies.

The tragedy type of plays emerged within the Renaissance era and is to this day one of the recognising characteristics of the Renaissance era. The tragedy however does refer to a play of some sort, but it had its origin roots pre-Renaissance, but not really in the form of a play exactly, but rather in the form of an extremely long poem telling the life story and sometimes the death of some known or fictional figure in the past (Pincombe, 2010: 3).

Sutherland (2014: 23), pointed out that Aristotle, with regard to tragedy, made the point that it is not what is portrayed in tragedy which affects the audience or reader, and gives aesthetic pleasure, but instead how the tragedy is represented. What the audience or reader enjoy is not the cruelty, but the art, the representation or imitation, mimesis as Aristotle called it. Aristotle also had other elements which he considered to be part of tragedy other than imitation which are the following: an action that is serious; complete and of a certain magnitude; language embellished with artistic ornaments; acting, not narration and; catharsis.

Reeves (1952: 187), wrote an article where he said the following with regard to what Aristotle’s idea of tragedy and the tragic hero: “Since man is by nature moral and since pity and fear depend upon certain moral conditions to evoke them, it is now clear why the type of tragic hero must be defined in moral terms. It could hardly be otherwise. The hero, the course of the plot, the character, the convolutions of discovery and reversal, and all the machinery of the practical creation of the tragic effect must be adjusted to the moral nature of man and the moral origin of the tragic emotions.”

Haupt (1973: 21), also had something to say with regard to Aristotle’s idea and what he said was that for Aristotle a tragedy must incite specific emotions in the audience or reader which is pity and fear, and that a totally ‘good’ man who meets a terrible fate is horrible instead of pitiful or fear-provoking. Thus, a tragic hero needs to be both good and bad. The tragic hero should also not be met with a ‘disaster’ he deserves, because that would not evoke pity in the audience or reader, the penance always outweighs the crime committed which in turn makes the character a tragic hero.

What also makes a tragic hero, other than what has been mentioned above, is that the character that is considered to be a tragic hero often strives for more and tries to be better and this has some sort of disastrous effect. Soon after the tragic hero realise that what they have done is wrong and they try to undo what has been done, this usually happens too late and then they have to pay for their actions or sins in a way that is much worse than anticipated.

Other than Aristotle’s idea of tragedy and the tragic hero, fate and fortune or perhaps rather misfortune, plays a very big role in tragedies. Another element that plays a big role within tragedies is the presence or absence of a moral or value system in the protagonist. Even though Aristotle said that a tragedy should inspire fear and pity in the audience or reader, it happens almost all the time anyway, because people live themselves into the play that they are watching or reading and this makes them feel everything vicariously through the characters.

Now what has been written above will be identified and applied within the two texts, Richard II and Doctor Faustus.

Aristotle’s idea of tragedy relates well to the Shakespearean play, Richard II, Richard was not a good king and definitely not a good man and that is why in the end when he falls, the audience or reader felt pity towards him and also a little bit of fear because of how he was lead to his downfall.

Richard II was written by Shakespeare and the play is considered to be both a history and a tragedy because it was originally called: “The Tragedie of King Richard, the Second.” Richard II also seemed to be a drama centred around the fall of the protagonist, Richard, producing the intense emotions unique to tragedy. Richard II is also considered to be a tragedy rather than just another history because the plot of the play goes beyond just political questions and makes them irrelevant (Elliot, 1968: 256).

Within the play, Richard II, Richard is a king and this is made clear to the audience or reader even within the first scenes of the play. He has to handle a dispute between two parties and this soon enough results into a problem for him. Richard is soon after suspected of murder after a character known as Woodstock was found dead. Richard is soon after arrested and held captive for his ‘sins’, not long after being prosecuted, Richard died. Richard was also described as being unruly, impulsive, conceited, and selfish. These are not qualities of a ‘good’ man and can lead to a swift demise as it did in this play (Franco, 2008: 7).

What aided in Richard’s fall and ultimate demise was a rebellion that arose against him and so Richard was forced to resign his crown and throne. Henry Bolingbroke is the one who took the crown afterwards and this made Richard want revenge on him, but Henry was a better man than Richard and did not make the same mistakes as he did as king. Richard’s vengefulness is what ultimately lead to his death (Franco, 2008: 8).

Fortune is not permanent and secure, but instead it can be modified and changed. Henry was able to alter his own fate and fortune as well as Richard’s fate and fortune when he took the crown, but Richard’s take on fate and fortune was completely different to Henry’s take on it. Richard believed it to be fixed and that no matter what, he will always have it. His take on fate and fortune was quite medieval (Franco, 2008: 32).

Richard was quite conceited and did not want to believe that Henry Bolingbroke could take his throne from him and that the rebellion would fail, he said the following words with regard to this topic as written by Shakespeare (1986: 386): “His treason will sit blushing in his face, not able to endure the sight of day, but self-affrighted tremble at his sin. Not all the water in the rough sea can wash the balm off from and anointed king. The breath of worldly men cannot depose the deputy elected by the Lord, for every man that Bolingbroke hath pressed to lift shrewd steel against our golden crown, God for his Richard hath in heavenly pay a glorious angel; then, if angels fight, weak men must fall, for heaven still guards the right.”.

Stow (1999: 601), believed that Richard’s personality is what actually lead to his downfall to an extent and not just his vengefulness alone. There was never any agreement or deals to be reached with him and even today he is still considered to be one of the most mysterious and misunderstood kings of all time.

Richard was a dangerous man and his breakdown in the end was considered to be a tragedy. The revenge he wanted to achieve made him reckless, he lost control and this lead to his demise (Stow, 1999: 602).

The play evokes some form of fear within the audience or reader, but more so pity was evoked. One starts feeling pity towards Richard from the point where he lost his crown to Henry, failed at revenge and ultimately then he fell. Some of Richard’s last words while alone in prison shows how he came to the realisation of his life and time coming to an end and he also acknowledges that he did not live his life right, he concentrated too much on the wrong things and not on what he was supposed to, he wasted time as written in Shakespeare (1986: 398): “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me: For now hath time made me his numb’ring clock; My thoughts are minutes, and with sighs they jar their watches on unto mine eyes, the outward watch, whereto my finger, like a dial’s point, is pointing still, in cleansing them from tears. Now, sir, the sound that tells what hour it is are clamorous groans which strike upon my heart, which us the bell – so sighs, and tears, and groans, show minutes, times, and hours”.

Marlowe was another playwright alongside Shakespeare in the Renaissance era and he wrote a well-known tragedy himself, Doctor Faustus, which can also be applied to Aristotle’s idea of tragedy and the tragic hero and this is what will be discussed below.

Aristotle’s idea of tragedy and the tragic hero is well represented within Doctor Faustus, because Faustus was a man who was never content with what he had and he always strived for more knowledge and power. His constant craving for more lead to him making bad decisions causing him misfortune and his ultimate demise all because of his own personal failures. He forgot all about all his morals he once had in the process and lost himself completely. Only when it was time for him to die and pay for his ‘sins’ did he realise how wrong he was, but it was too late for him and thus both fear and pity is felt by the audience or reader of this play.

Within Doctor Faustus, Marlowe showed a renaissance man of curiosity and intelligence as a protagonist, Faustus, who is also a tragic hero. In the play, Faustus tries hard to go against human limitations formulated in medieval Christian tradition and he sells his soul to the devil for more knowledge which is an ancient motif found within Christian Folklore (Rahman, 2015: 23).

Faustus, in his first speech, rejects medicine and law which were common studies in the renaissance era to do, for ‘metaphysics of magicians’ also known as studies of the occult which is an untested and experimental field of study. This field of study was also considered to be wrong by the Catholic Christian religion that was prominent at the time. Faustus rejected organised control, order and blessedness. Instead he chose atomistic wilfulness, anarchy and despair (Green, 1946: 277). Faustus said within his first speech the following words as written by Marlowe (1994: 4): “These metaphysics of magicians and necromantic books are heavenly; Lines, circles, scenes, letters, and characters, ay, these are those that Faustus most desires”.

According to Demers (1971: 74 – 75), Faustus represents a mortal man who looked upon his rescue and escape in a way unlike the tragic heroes who had some form of morality. Having decided that everyone sins and therefore must sin, Faustus disregards death and the ultimate judgement of God. Faustus summoned a demon also described as a devil but not Lucifer himself, Mephistophilis in order to make a deal with the devil for ultimate knowledge and to be able to learn more about metaphysics as he previously said he most desires. After he summons Mephistophilis he asks him to serve and obey him, but Mephistophilis rejects this offer saying he is under the command of his master Lucifer, but he will otherwise give Faustus what he pleases in turn for Faustus’ soul for Lucifer which he will come and retrieve when his time is over. Mephistophilis said the following to Faustus before the deal has officially been made and Faustus’ soul signed over as written by Marlowe (1994: 20): “Then Faustus, stab thy arm courageously. And bind thy soul that at some certain day great Lucifer may claim it as his own; and then be thou as great as Lucifer”.

The protagonist of Doctor Faustus, Faustus has been considered to have been extremely foolish and irresponsible, but never truly criminal in his endeavours. As a tragic hero, Faustus’ insubordinate defiant pride is the main obstacle in the way of his potential return to grace (Campbell, 1952: 220 – 222). Before it is Faustus’ time to go, some scholars show up and ask him what ails him and he tells them the following as written by Marlowe (1994: 53): “But Faustus’ offences can never be pardoned: the serpent that tempted Eve may be sav’d, but not Faustus. Ah, gentlemen, hear me with patience, and tremble not at my speeches! Though my heart pants and quivers to remember that I have been a student here these thirty years, oh, would I had never seen Wittenberg, never read book! And wat wonders I have done, all Germany can witness, yea, the world; for which Faustus hath lost both Germany and the world, yea Heaven itself, Heaven, the seat of God, the throne of the blessed, the kingdom of joy; and must remain in hell for ever, hell, ah, hell, for ever! Sweet friends! what shall become of Faustus being in hell for ever?”.

Faustus had the chance to redeem himself and repent for his sins and still be saved by the mercy of God, but he felt as if though he was not worthy and had to face what was coming to him even though the scholars that was with him in his last hours told him that if he called upon God he would probably have been saved.

After watching or reading Doctor Faustus, the audience or reader feel fearful because of the lesson the play teaches us, pity is also experienced and felt towards the protagonist, Faustus, because it seems as if though his punishment outweighs his crime. Faustus realised he was wrong in his pursuit of knowledge and power and he still goes to hell for it in the end.

Tragedy and the tragic hero as explained by Aristotle evokes both pity and fear in the audience or reader, has misfortune of some sort that is usually a result of personal failure of the protagonist, and has a moral or value system undertone underlying the play. All of these elements were present in the two chosen texts, Richard II by William Shakespeare and Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe, it has also been examined and discussed. This was both brilliant plays to use with regard to the topic of the Aristotelian tragedy and the tragic hero. Not only has these elements mentioned above been discussed, but some history was given on the Renaissance era as well and some history of tragedies as a unique form of literature. The two of these plays made me re-evaluate the way in which society and people strive for more knowledge and more power without thinking of what they are giving up for it, or the fact that they may have to face punishment for their endeavours at some point or another. The lesson taught within these tragedies is to always work hard, be humble and be a good person.






Campbell, L.B., 1952, Doctor Faustus: A Case of   Conscience, PMLA, 67 (2): 219 – 239.

Demers, P., 1971, Christopher Marlowe and His Use         of Morality Tradition, date viewed 13 April 2017,             from      016/1/fulltext.pdf.

Elliott, J.R., 1968, History and Tragedy in Richard II,          Studies in English Literature 1500 – 1900, 8 (2):            253 – 271.

Franco, T.M., 2008, Shakespeare’s Richard II:        Machiavelli for the Good of England, date viewed            13 April 2017, from      401/71493/000000274.sbu.pdf?sequence=3.

Green, C., 1946, Doctor Faustus: Tragedy of           Individualism, Science and Society, 10 (3): 275 –     283.

Haupt, G.E., 1973, A Note on the Tragic Flaw and Causation in Shakespearean Tragedy,         Interpretations, 5 (1): 20 – 32.

Marlowe. C., 1994, Doctor Faustus, Dover   Publications: New York.

Noor, F., 2015, Assignment of Criticism, date viewed         23 April 2017, from       elements-of-tragedy.

Pincombe, M., 2013, English Renaissance tragedy:           theories and antecedents, in: McEachorn, C., (ed.),   The Cambridge Companion to Shakespearean            Tragedy,  2nd Edition, Cambridge University Press,   pp. 3 – 16.

Rahman, M., 2015, Evolution of the Tragic Hero: A            Shift from God to Man, date viewed 13 April 2017,        from      dle/10361/5014/final.pdf;sequence=1.

Reeves, C.H., 1952, The Aristotelian Concept of the          Tragic Hero, The American Journal of Philosophy, 73 (2): 172 – 188.

Shakespeare, W., 1986, William Shakespeare The            Comedies and The Histories, Cambridge University      Press: London.

Stow, G.B., 1999, Stubbs, Steel, and Richard II as             Insane: The Origin and Evolution of an English     Historiographical Myth, Proceedings of the         American Philosophical Society, 143 (4): 601 –    638.


About Channah_Reynecke

I am a college graduate with a Bachelor of Arts degree majoring in psychology and English. I love both reading and writing and consider myself a book nerd. I also enjoy doing art and writing poetry. I plan on using my 'blog' as a place where I can upload assignments that has already been marked, any thesis I wrote or might still write, my poetry and perhaps on occasion some reviews or personal experiences.
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