Although the form of tragedy written in Elizabethan England differs somewhat from that written in ancient Greece, in both eras tragedy was a reflection of a hierarchical society. Even late in the twentieth century with the tragedy of the average man well established critically, we still tend to think of a tragedy as “the story of the fall from the greatness of an exalted personage”–a king a general, or a man of great wealth, rank, and social prestige. Consequently, the fall of Michael Henchard from prosperity and power to obscurity and alienation is certainly the stuff of Aristotelian tragedy. Even though the French tragedian Beaumarchais argued that “The nearer the suffering man is to my station in life, the greater is his claim upon my sympathy” (Essay on the Serious Drama, 1767), whether there can be a truly tragic middle-class hero is highly debatable. Aristotle in The Poetics (330 B. C.) required two things of the tragic protagonist: he must be noble, and he must be responsible for causing his own suffering (not necessarily death). Making references to his favorite tragedy, Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, the Greek philosopher proposed that a tragic hero usually is
1. A leader in his society, exemplifying both the good and bad elements of that society.
2. Disclosed to the audience at the height of his prosperity, power, and influence in that social group so that his fall from its favor will seem that much greater.
3. Driven to his fall by some innate flaw in his nature, yet appear to have the ability to alter his course.
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