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Forum Home > The Theatre, Plays & Playwrights > Death of a salesman - Tragic hero

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My class are currently studying death of a salesman, i have to write an essay on how Willy is a 'Tragic Hero' but i'm not sure what the term means and how it applys to him.. Any help would be appreciated. :)

October 14, 2016 at 4:35 AM Flag Quote & Reply

Neil Bowen
Posts: 855

The term derives from Aristotle's writing on tragedy. It's part of a character-based approach that views the tragic events as emanating from the character and action of the protagonist. Hence, Macbeth's downfall is caused by his excessive ambition, Hamlet's by his procrastination and so forth. A useful term from Aristotle is 'hamartia' which is usually glossed as 'fatal or tragic flaw'. In Aristotle the hamartia could be a terrible decision, but often hamartia has been interpreted as a flaw in the character of the hero.

According to Aristotle the tragic hero must also be a noble, high born. This is because his fall will therefore be more dramatic, like dropping off an enormous cliff. It's also because the tragedy of a high-born character, such as a King, has enormous implications for a society. 

Miller wrote a short essay on 'Tragedy and the Common Man' which is on peripeteia somewhere of can be found on line. Examining the question you should consider:


  • in what ways Willy could be seen as being 'noble', not least in his own self-conception 
  • the extent to which he is responsible for his own downfall because of a hamartia
  • the nature of this hamartia (e.g. having an extra-marital relationship)
  • the extent to which his tragedy affects other characters and resonates more widely. 
Good luck.


October 14, 2016 at 7:57 AM Flag Quote & Reply

Neil Bowen
Posts: 855

Arthur Miller: Tragedy and the Common Man & The Nature of Tragedy (1949)


  • Miller argues that ‘the common man is as apt a subject for tragedy in its highest sense as kings were’.

  • ‘The tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing - his sense of personal dignity.’

  • ‘The flaw, or crack in the (tragic hero’s) character, is...his inherent unwillingness to remain passive in the face of what he conceives to be a challenge to his dignity.’ 

  • ‘The possiblity of victory must be there in tragedy’. The audience should understands how the protagonist ‘might have avoided their end’. 

  • Tragedy is ‘inseperable from a certain modest hope regarding the human animal. And it is the glimpse of this brighter possibility that raises sadness out of the pathetic toward the tragic’. 

  • ‘The revolutionary questioning of the stable environment is what terrifies’. 

  • Through this ‘stretching and tearing of the cosmos’, the protagonist gains ‘tragic stature’. 

  •  And, in particular, Miller sought to differentiate the ‘higher’ mode of the tragic from the lower of what he labels the ‘pathetic’: ‘the precise difference between tragedy and pathos is that tragedy brings us not only sadness, sympathy, identification, and even fear’ it also, unlike pathos, brings us knowledge and enlightenment’.


October 31, 2016 at 5:05 PM Flag Quote & Reply

Mr M McDowell
Posts: 1
This is a very useful response - particularly like the lifting from Tragedy and the Common Man. Thanks.
January 30, 2017 at 5:56 PM Flag Quote & Reply

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