Eddie Jin (12) stepped to the front of his Independent Study Seminar class this week to ask his peers to consider the defining features of a tragic hero. The presentation was his second and final of the semester, and was far less cheerful than his first one, which explored the concept of altruistic heroism, Jin said.
Jin chose to begin his presentation with a clip from the 1996 Kenneth Branagh film adaptation of Hamlet, a play that most English 11 classes read, to foster a conversation about what it truly means to be a hero, he said.
“When I structure my presentations, I usually like to catch the listener’s attention with a movie or something they can understand easily,” Jin said. He integrated movie clips throughout his presentation because the visual component engages the listeners, and because his advisor, English teacher Dr. Deborah Kassel, is an expert on the area. Kassel has a degree in film, Jin said, and approaches movies from an analytical perspective he finds insightful.
“I love literature, but I am also fortunate to be living in the age of film. In dialogue the two media give us a much richer experience of what it means to be human,” she said.
Kassel and Jin meet approximately once a week to discuss interpretations of movies and books that focus on heroism. “Ultimately, [Jin] chooses, with guidance from me, what he wants to do,” Kassel said.
After Jin showed the class the clip from Hamlet, he asked the class for their opinions. Some argued Hamlet was a hero, as he acted on behalf of his father, whereas others stated that he wasn’t heroic in the least—he had simply gone on a revenge spree, they said. Jin acknowledged both perspectives, introducing Hamlet as a tragic hero. Though tragic heroes have mostly noble intentions, they ultimately cause destruction, Jin said.
Jin’s fascination with the complexities of heroism began in the latter half of Kassel’s English 11 class, when he read Oedipus Rex and Hamlet. For a creative project, in 11th grade Jin filmed himself reciting a very original and compelling version of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy, Kassel said. Even though Jin saw Independent Study as a rather unconventional course, he decided to enroll in the class to pursue his newfound interest. “I realized that heroism is something that’s interesting and complex and important to study,” he said.
After supplying a simple definition, Jin segued into an overview of Aristotle’s perspective of the tragic hero. According to Aristotle, the first person to critically analyze plays, a tragic hero is one “whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty.” Aristotle also emphasized that these heroes evoke a sense of pity and fear in the audience, Jin said. “The audience needs to think, ‘What if that were me?’”
Afterwards, Jin dedicated time to defining Aristotle’s terminology, such as the “hamartia,” or tragic flaw, of these heroes, and the “catharsis,” which is the sense of pity that the hero evokes. Jin proceeded to show the class a clip from Batman, and they discussed how the hero of the film fits Aristotle’s archetype.
Though appearing midway through his presentation, Aristotle’s theories were the first that Jin researched, he said. “After you get a base in some of the fundamental thoughts about a [tragic] hero, that’s when you can start watching movies through the lens of those classical views.”
Jin then presented one addition to Aristotle’s criteria: a tragic hero, Jin said, “often [has] to go against what they are told.” To support this point, he showed a final clip from the movie Schindler’s List.
The presentation concluded by debunking the “happily ever after” myth. “We think about a hero like Superman who flies off into the sunset, but that’s not always what happens,” Jin said.
Jin hopes that his listeners will walk away with the understanding that heroes may be frail and complicated after his presentation. It’s possible for both heroes and average people to try hard and still fail, he said.
“It becomes a question of the human being finding the hero within,” Kassel said. “Heroism lies in the act of finding the best part of ourselves and acting on it, in spite or even because of the obstacles we face.”
Not unlike Hamlet, Jin has a few decisions ahead of him: as he furthers his research, he will choose two additional subtopics of heroism to research and present to his class in the coming semester.