Tragedy is a fundamental genre in the modern film industry and has been used to enhance feelings of viewers across the globe. Despite tragedy being a vital genre in modern texts, it is tragedy’s influence from historic figures, such as Aristotle, that have shaped what it looks like today. One of Aristotle’s 6 conventions of tragedy is character. In the text “Gladiator”, directed by Ridley Scott, it is obvious that Scott’s film has been manipulated by Aristotle’s convention of character. Through the protagonist Maximus, “Gladiator” reaches a point of catharsis, a feeling of pity and fear, in addition to displaying the 6 traits of a tragic hero. These are the fundamental aspects of Character in an Aristotelian tragedy and their influence on Scott’s directing of the film is blatant through his use of language features including, costume, dialogue, camera angles, lighting and sound. These techniques are used in both the opening and closing scenes to display some of these major traits and portray Maximus as a tragic hero.

In the film “Gladiator”, Maximus begins as the “general of the Felix Legions”. He has both power and wealth and is thought of as a son by the Emperor himself. Maximus is offered the rulership of Rome which angers Commodus, the natural heir. His frustration at being denied rulership leads to Commodus murdering his own father, the Emperor, in order to become the ruler of Rome. Commodus then orders the execution of Maximus and his family however, despite successfully murdering Maximus’ son and wife, Commodus’ men do not manage to execute Maximus as he escapes on horseback. Exhausted and lying in tears next to his family’s graves, Maximus is found by slavers who force him into fighting as a Gladiator. Maximus formulates a plan to escape his captivity and return with the soldiers he once led into battle however is caught in the act by Commodus and his men. Emperor Commodus then orders a fight to the death between himself and Maximus before all of Rome in the Colosseum. Despite Commodus stabbing Maximus seconds before the fight, Maximus manages to avenge the deaths of his family by killing Commodus in this highly anticipated battle. Maximus’ stab wound is too deep however and, shortly after the battle’s end, he also passes. To conclude the film, we see Maximus returning to his family in the afterlife.

One of the traits of a tragic hero in Aristotle’s poetics is that he must be of “royal or noble descent”. This is shown almost immediately within the opening scene through Scott’s selection of costume. In this opening scene we see only Maximus wearing a fur robe over top of his armour. A wide angled shot is deliberately used to show Maximus as the only Roman wearing the robe. This type of robe in Roman times was exclusive to those of “royal or noble decent” and was only worn by those of importance. Scott brings the viewers attention to this through a close up of Maximus and his robes. In this shot, the background is completely blurred out, drawing all attention to Maximus. Additionally, Scott combines these camera angles with lighting to place emphasis on Maximus’ robes. The “sunlight” in the scene comes from behind Maximus’ face and lathers the top of his fur robe, highlighting its importance and again drawing the viewer’s attention. Through the combination of specific camera angles, costume and lighting, the director portrays Maximus’ noble descent as “general of the Felix Legions” to us, the viewer, therefore fulfilling one of Aristotle’s traits of a tragic hero.

It is within this opening scene that Scott also fulfils the tragic hero’s trait of hubris. Hubris can be defined as “displaying excessive pride and/or disregard for the natural order”. In historic times the natural order was, in essence, a set of laws put in place by God himself. Breaking the natural order was thought of as a terrible sin and was heavily frowned upon. Ridley Scott clearly portrays Maximus breaking this order through blatant dialogue in collaboration with selective camera angles. Marcus Aurelius, the current Emperor of Rome, offers Maximus “rulership of Rome” however Maximus modestly turns down the proposal. Marcus then replies “and that is why it must be you” almost forcing Maximus into taking the role. Further on in the scene, after Marcus and Maximus’ discussion ends, Maximus tells his assistant “we may not be able to return home”, quite blatantly accepting that he is to soon become the ruler of Rome. Ridley Scott combines this obvious use of dialogue with a more subtle choice of camera angles. Scott uses a wide shot to show Maximus’ head perfectly lined up in between the two statues of previous Roman Emperors’ heads. This shot is used to foreshadow Maximus accepting the role and joining those statues as prior leaders of Rome. This is Scott’s way of both blatantly and subtly portraying Maximus’ hubris (disregard for the natural order) because the natural heir to the emperorship was Commodus and by accepting the role himself, Maximus was therefore disregarding the natural order. The intertwining of the obvious with the complex, the dialogue with camera angles, shows Scott’s clear intentions to fulfil the trait of hubris through Maximus.

A tragic hero should also experience peripeteia according to Aristotle’s poetics and Ridley Scott does not fail to display this trait through Maximus either. Peripeteia can be defined as a “reversal of fortune”, typically from good to bad. Maximus’ reversal is made blatantly obvious in both the opening and closing scenes of “Gladiator” through a combination of lighting, camera angles, costume and contrast)

As previously explained,  Scott portrays Maximus’ noble descent to us, the viewer, through the combination of specific camera angles, costume and lighting. Using Maximus’ fur robe as a symbol of wealth and good fortune is key to Scott’s portrayal of peripeteia. This is because displaying the contrast in costume between the opening and closing scenes helps the viewer understand Maximus’ reversal of fortune. In the opening scene Maximus is portrayed as a powerful leader and “general of the Felix Legions”. He has a beloved family back home and is living what can easily be considered a great life. Scott uses a wide angle shot to show the vast number of soldiers that are not only under Maximus’ command but clearly respect and honour him. When Maximus raises his sword in victory his men all raise their swords too, their actions accompanied by a roaring cheer. Scott’s use of dialogue is combined with this wide angle shot to blatantly emphasise that the soldiers are cheering for Maximus. Current Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, proudly whispers to Maximus “For you Maximus, they honour you” as the loud ovation continues in the background. Ridley Scott implements this selection of camera angles and dialogue in addition to costume to show Maximus’ good fortune initially.

It is in the closing scene where the contrast in Maximus’ costume, and hence his reversal of fortune, is made clear to the viewer. Just as Scott uses the fur robe to portray Maximus’ good fortune in the opening scene, Scott uses Maximus’ rags to portray the protagonist’s reversal to bad fortune in the closing scene. Seconds prior to his fight against Emperor Commodus, Maximus is shown held in chains, clothed in only a grimy, disheveled rag. Scott again brings attention to his selection of costume through his choice of camera angles. Scott uses a medium shot of Maximus however the silhouettes of support beams block out the edges of the shot, focusing all attention on Maximus and his rags. The ruined aesthetic of the rags symbolises how his life has fallen into ruins also. Maximus’ bad fortunes are evident in “Gladiator”. His family, power and generalship taken from him, forced into slavery and fighting as a gladiator, the list is blatantly awful. This use of costume is implemented to support the blatant portrayal of Maximus’ reversal of fortune through the storyline itself. This is enhanced by the use of a high angle shot to show Maximus as weak and defeated. This is again in direct contrast with typical eye level shots or in some early cases low angled shots which portrayed Maximus as confident and strong. Scott’s intentional use of contrast through the language techniques of costume, camera angles, lighting and dialogue are all used to show Maximus’ peripeteia in the film “Gladiator”. This reversal of fortune may seem obvious through the storyline, however it is Scott’s intricate use of language features that enhance this trait of a tragic hero. This cinematography truly displays the director’s intentions to fulfil the characteristics of an Aristotelian tragic hero.

Nemesis is also a fundamental trait of any tragic hero. Nemesis in an Aristotelian tragedy is “a fate that the protagonist cannot avoid” and is again established in the closing scene of “Gladiator”. Maximus’ fate in the film is his death which he inevitably arrives at in this final scene. However, it is Scott’s use of montages that show the director’s intention for Maximus to die all along, to show the viewer that Maximus’ death was inevitable, not just a consequence of one random action. As Maximus nears his death after bleeding out from Commodus’ stab wound, Scott uses a montage of Maximus with his family up in heaven. We know it is just Maximus’ hallucinations/dreams due to the lighting and colour tone choice. A greyish, bluish tone coats the screen during these clips, separating these scenes from the “real world”. The first clip we see is of a gate which opens to his family’s home and the second is of him, his wife and son, all playing in their wheat fields together. The most interesting part of this however, is that we, the viewer, have actually seen these clips before. Scott previously placed clips of this montage throughout the film whenever Maximus was in a life-threatening situation. In fact the very first clip we see in the entire text is one from the final scene’s montage. This shows that Scott intended for Maximus’ death to be his unavoidable fate or hubris. It allows the viewer to understand that no matter what path he took there, Maximus was always destined to pass away. Throughout the opening and closing scenes in particular, Scott’s combination of montages and lighting/colour tone clearly portray his intentions to fulfil the characteristic of nemesis via Maximus.

This nemesis also has an alternative purpose in the film “Gladiator”. It is Maximus’ inevitable fate which is used to evoke catharsis in the viewer. Catharsis, “the releasing of emotions, typically pity and/or fear”, is the ultimate purpose of any tragedy according to Aristotle’s Poetics and this remains true with Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator”. As Maximus’ death is portrayed as inevitable (as explained previously), it is easy to feel pity for the protagonist as the viewer. Scott shows us that no matter what Maximus did, his path was always going to include peripeteia, a reversal of fortune from good to bad, and end up in his nemesis, inevitable fate. Knowing that Maximus had no chance undoubtedly enhances the viewers feelings of pity and teaches the viewer that sometimes the worst things in life aren’t avoidable, sometimes they are just fate.

Aristotle’s ideologies around tragedy have clearly influenced the decisions of Ridley Scott when directing “Gladiator”. Scott uses Maximus as his tragic hero in the text and through the opening and closing scenes, Maximus displays some of the major traits of an Aristotelian tragic hero. Maximus is of noble/royal descent as shown through the director’s use of costume in collaboration with lighting and camera angles. Scott uses these exact same language features to use Maximus’ robe as a symbol of the general’s good fortunes initially. The director then contrasts this with an opposing use of costume to show Maximus’ reversal to bad fortune hence displaying the trait of peripeteia. Through the use of blatant dialogue and subtle camera angle choices Ridley Scott also portrays his protagonist’s hubris in the film. Nemesis is also portrayed by Scott’s clever use of a montage in the closing scene. All of these traits combine to enhance catharsis in the viewer, the purpose of any tragedy according to Aristotle’s Poetics. Knowing that Maximus’ death was inevitable and seeing how his good fortunes turned for the worse allow the viewer to feel pity for Maximus and results in a strong expression of emotion from the viewer. This is the entire purpose of Ridley Scott’s use of specific language features in the opening and closing scenes. We know this through the obvious similarities between Scott’s Maximus and Aristotle’s convention of character. As the viewer our feeling of pity for Maximus teaches us that sometimes the worst things in life, the things that evoke pity from onlookers, aren’t always avoidable. It teaches us that some things are just fate and it is better to accept it as Maximus eventually does and find the happiness in the controversy.

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About Jake Nicholson

Just a 16-year-old doing his best to get Excellence Credits

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