Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)





First Advisor

Prof. DING Ersu

Second Advisor

Prof. SEWELL Andrew John


Suffering and death are the basic human conditions, hence the importance of the cognitive function and value of tragic art that re-presents suffering and death on stage. Aristotle’s Poetics is the first theoretical work in the history of Western aesthetics to comprehensively discuss the topic of tragedy. In answer to Plato’s criticism of dramatic art, Aristotle argues that tragedy “effects through pity and fear the catharsis of such emotions”, which are best aroused by the spectacle of a moderately good man who falls into misery not through vice but through some hamartia. By evocation of such passions, our emotions are purged of discomforting elements. However, Aristotle based his theory solely on, and therefore was limited by his knowledge of the tragic works appealing to him most. In fact, this generalization is not universally applicable to Greek tragedy; certainly it is too narrow to encompass the whole truth about tragic works that take place after his time.

Fortunately not all the tragedians are Aristotelians. After tragic drama made a triumphant return to Elizabethan England, we see at the first glance that the tragic protagonist is radically different from Aristotle’s ideal one. The English dramatists, instead of strictly observing Aristotle’s stipulation, had absolutely free choice of subject matter, and among them Christopher Marlowe is an influential figure. His tragic hero with a morally shocking nature parade through a series of incidents which reveal dramatically his destructive or evil quality. However, traditional critics still attempted to interpret Marlovian tragic characters in heroic terms, denying the fact that a downright villain can be placed in the position of tragic protagonist. As a matter of fact, Marlowe’s presentation of evil genius impedes any critical approach either from an Aristotelian perspective, with its demands for a decent hero, or from a romantichumanist erspective, which exalts and values the rebel and the individualist. Inwardly and inherently, Marlovian heroes are incarnation of guileful wickedness, whose insatiable will triumphs over any other considerations and justifies them to themselves. Correspondingly, the emotions aroused by his villain-hero tragedy are much more intense and varied, in which pity is felt for the innocent victims; and fear is not sufficient to explain the overwhelming sense of horror, it is a deeper sense of the sublime.

In short, Marlowe’s contribution to the subject-matter for tragic drama is particularly noticeable, drawing our attention to the destruction of villains that were largely neglected and condemned by classical dramatists and theorists alike. Later critics and philosophers are encouraged to develop tragic theories to provide a useful compliment to Aristotle’s. Instead of sticking to one particular kind of subject or one distinctive textual effect as being essential to tragedy, we should invite different debates about how to appreciate presentations of human suffering on stage. Though we live in a brighter world than what many tragedians painted dramatically, it is also full of sufferings; the real tragic pleasure lies in our recognition of human suffering and exploration of its possible solutions. In answer to the question why people who do not welcome and enjoy scenes of terrible suffering in reality seek out those scenes and enjoy them in tragic drama, we may propose that tragic art has a wide range of effects that reach beyond pleasure, such as the cognitive value in grappling with the difficulties of human existence.



Recommended Citation

Zhu, Y. (2020). An apology for the villain-hero: A study of Christopher Marlowe’s tragic works (Doctoral thesis, Lingnan University, Hong Kong). Retrieved from