Tragedy: An Introduction

The word ‘tragedy’ in common usage today means little more than a sad or unnecessarily unpleasant event: a motorway crash in which several people died is described as a ‘tragedy’ in the newspapers; a promising career cut short by cheating is described as ‘tragic’. But in drama, the term ‘tragedy’ is specific, even technical, and refers to a particular type of play.

Discussion of tragedy as a dramatic form must begin with the Greek scholar and philosopher, Aristotle (384–22 BCE). In his small book – perhaps it is no more than lecture notes – known as The Poetics, he attempts a dispassionate, intellectual examination of poetry, focusing especially on drama, and within drama on tragedy. He never saw the plays of Aeschylus (c.525–456 BCE), Sophocles (c.496–06 BCE) and Euripides (c.485–07 BCE) – but he read them closely and tried to draw conclusions about what typifies their works.

Aristotle begins his examination with the assertion that poetry, like the other arts, is an ‘imitation’ of life. By this, he does not mean that poetry, or the arts in general, merely imitate the surface experience of living day-to-day; he means that art reproduces the rhythms of life, it creates experiences which, if we enter into them, are like the experiences of life. The sensitive spectator at a good performance of Shakespeare’s As You Like It has an experience something like ‘falling in love’: the play imitates falling in love. The appreciative listener at a concert performance of Beethoven’s Eroica symphony experiences something like heroism, pride, elation or triumph. For Aristotle, the purest form of poetic imitation is drama, and the purest form of drama is tragedy.

Aristotle says that: ‘Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is admirable, complete and possesses magnitude; in language made pleasurable . . . performed by actors . . . effecting through pity and fear the purification of such emotions’ (Aristotle, Poetics, p. 10).

This general definition, especially the last clause, raises serious issues which have been debated heatedly over centuries, and even millennia, and to which we shall return. Before we enter that debate, however, we should note Aristotle’s further observations.

He lists six elements of tragedy, as follows:

1 Plot, that is the action, the story, which, he adds, is enacted by people, actors, as opposed to be being narrated or sung.

2 Character, the way a person behaves (for behaviour defines character); it is important to note that tragedy, according to Aristotle, deals with ‘the better type of person’, that is royalty, generals, governors, people whose fate is of significance to more than just themselves;

3 Reason, the way plot and character are connected, the logic and coherence of what is presented, how what is shown is ‘likely to happen’.

4 Diction, the speaking of the text.

5 Poetry, the poetic qualities of the text itself.

6 Spectacle, what you see on the stage.

For Aristotle, the most important of these is the plot, which is the imitation of action, the way the events, or incidents, are organised by the playwright. The primacy of plot over the other elements is well established:

Tragedy is not an imitation of persons, but of actions and of life. Wellbeing and ill-being reside in action, and the goal of life is an activity, not a quality; people possess certain qualities in accordance with their character, but they achieve well-being or its opposite on the basis of  how they fare . . . So the events, i.e. the plot, are what tragedy is there for, and that is the most important thing of all. (Aristotle, Poetics, p. 11)

Aristotle argues that it would be possible to have a tragedy which contained action but no characters, but it would be impossible to have a tragedy which included characters but no action. Action, it may be noted, is a very wide term, and includes reaction (how characters react to events), for instance, as well as suffering, amusement, fear, and so on.

The action imitated, says Aristotle, evokes and purifies the emotions of fear and pity. ‘Purification’ is a translation of the vexed Greek word, katharsis. Katharsis was originally a medical term which referred to the way the body gets rid of poison or other harmful matter. Sometimes, with reference to drama, it has been translated as a purging of fear and pity. The concept is elusive, but it appears to contain within it for the spectator both fear (‘that could have been me’), and pity (the sorrow we feel for another person in misfortune). And after the event, when the tragedy has closed, we feel cleansed, purged, by the experience. It is this cleansing that tragedy performs which defines the genre for Aristotle. And paradoxically, the moment of katharsis (when we weep) is pleasurable.

Katharsis is the crux of Aristotle’s view of tragedy. This is what makes tragedy distinct from any other art form. It is also what makes it uniquely powerful.

Since tragedy imitates action to evoke fear and pity, plot is its most important element. But the plot is not simply a series of actions bundled up together piecemeal. The arrangement of the incidents is crucial to the tragedy. There are two qualities by which an effective plot may be recognised: first, it must be complete in itself, whole and self-contained; and second, it must have a clear structure, a beginning, a middle and an end. This may not be as simple as it sounds, as different tellings of the story of Oedipus demonstrate.

Two Oedipuses

First version

Once there was a king of Thebes called Laius, who married a woman called Jocasta, and they had a son called Oedipus. Apollo’s oracle foretold that this boy would kill his father and marry his mother. Laius and Jocasta decided to cheat the oracle: the child would have to die. But rather than become infanticides, they gave the child to a shepherd to leave on the mountainside with its ankles tied together.

However, the shepherd was tender-hearted and gave the baby to another shepherd from Corinth, who promised to bring it up as his own. But in fact he took it to the king of Corinth, who had no children, and who now adopted Oedipus as his son.

Oedipus grew up believing he was the son of the king and queen of Corinth. When he was eighteen, he was told by Apollo’s oracle that he would kill his father and marry his mother. Oedipus decided to cheat the oracle: he left Corinth and swore never to return till his parents were dead.

He wandered though the world, and once, at a crossroads, he met an arrogant old man who tried to whip him. Oedipus killed him, and his three servants. He wandered on till he came to Thebes – a stricken city whose king had been killed, and whose crops had failed. Moreover, Thebes was being terrorised by the Sphinx, who killed anyone unable to answer its riddle: What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs in the evening? The answer – humans, who crawl before they can walk, and who need a stick in old age – was given by Oedipus, who thereby freed the city from its curse. By acclamation, Oedipus was made king of Thebes, and he married the old king’s widow.

For fifteen years, Thebes enjoyed prosperity, and Oedipus and Jocasta had children. Then plague and famine struck again. Oedipus swore to find out the cause of the new disasters, and sent for Tiresias, the blind prophet. Tiresias riddlingly implied that the cause lay with Oedipus himself. Then Jocasta told of how her first husband, Laius, had been murdered at a crossroads by a stranger. Oedipus recognised himself in the story. He sent for the old shepherd, who confirmed what had happened. Horrified, Jocasta committed suicide, and Oedipus blinded himself.

Second version

Thebes is beset by famine and plague. The king, Oedipus, determines he will discover why Thebes is suffering, and promises to punish whoever is responsible.

The blind prophet, Tiresias, implies that Oedipus himself is responsible. Oedipus suspects that Creon, Jocasta’s brother, has put Tiresias up to this, because he (Creon) wants the throne. Oedipus confronts Creon, but Jocasta is able to still their argument by referring to her child with Laius, and telling them of Laius’ murder.

Oedipus is frightened by this revelation. He sends for the shepherd, and while waiting for him talks of his own childhood in Corinth, and the oracle which had foretold how he would kill his father and marry his mother. He reveals how he had tried to cheat the oracle, and how he had killed a man at the crossroads.

Unexpectedly, a messenger arrives with news that the king of Corinth, Oedipus’ supposed father, has died, and of natural causes. Oedipus rejoices that the oracle’s prophecy has not come true. But then the messenger reveals that Oedipus is not in fact the king of Corinth’s son. Jocasta tries to intervene, but Oedipus is adamant for the truth.

The shepherd arrives and tells his story. Oedipus and Jocasta both rush away, only for an attendant shortly afterwards to bring the news that Jocasta has committed suicide and Oedipus blinded himself. The sightless Oedipus now makes his peace with Creon. His daughters bid him goodbye, and he goes into exile. ‘Your rule is ended’, says Creon.

The two stories are largely the same, but the versions are very different. The first version, which we may call the fable, perhaps arouses curiosity, a desire to know what will happen next. The second version, which is effectively the plot of Sophocles’ tragedy, arouses emotions, perhaps fear and pity, and is the more likely of the two versions to ‘grip’ us.

The reasons for this are clear. The most obvious perhaps concerns the focus in the telling. The action is much more tightly focused in the second version, the tragedy, than it is in the fable. It is self-contained, and its references are organic to the story. Thus, it does away with the Delphic oracle as a character, and also the Sphinx. These may be interesting in themselves, but they do not assist directly in the arousal of pity and fear. The focus also applies to time. Whereas the fable covers twenty or thirty years, Sophocles’ plot takes less than a day. And similarly with place: the fable wanders all over the eastern Mediterranean, but the plot of the tragedy is confined wholly to Thebes.

The two versions may also be compared in terms of their structure. Structurally, the fable is something of a shambles! It jogs along with plenty of strong events – the handing over of the baby, the death at the crossroads, the confrontation with the Sphinx, and more – but it has little shape. The tragedy, on the other hand, is very tightly structured, with a beginning, a middle and an end. The beginning of the tragedy sees the city beset with plague and famine, and the good ruler determined to help his people. The end brings the solution to this problem: Oedipus himself is the problem, which is solved by his blinding and exile, and Jocasta’s suicide. The rhythm of the tragedy is long and strong, whereas the rhythm of the fable is more broken and certainly less oppressive.

The middle section of the tragedy, how the plot develops from the beginning to the end, illustrates the point about rhythm: it may be seen as a straight line driving inexorably towards the conclusion. Certainly, nothing is extraneous. In fact, the middle may be divided into three sections: first, the scenes with Tiresias and Creon, which deal with politics, power and the significance of the problem; second the almost-domestic scenes between Oedipus and Jocasta, in which their pasts are revealed; and third, the scenes with the messenger and the shepherd, in which we learn the truth. It is notable how the first and third sections of the middle balance one another, like two sides of a seesaw poised over the pivot of the scenes between Oedipus and his mother/wife.

We may conclude, therefore, that while the fable behind any plot is likely to be chronological or sequential, the plot itself may jump about, may include flashbacks or omit details, and so on. The plot is the way in which the author treats the fable.

Oedipus the King by Sophocles is an example of what Aristotle considered a successful plot. He believed that tragedy depicted a change of fortune, either from bad to good fortune, or, more likely, from good to bad fortune. The latter, he thought, was the most common and best sort of tragedy, and today tragedy is regarded as dealing almost exclusively with a change from good fortune to bad.

The change of fortune must come about logically, Aristotle also observed, through a connected series of events which follow ‘necessarily’ or are ‘likely’; in other words, they are believable. The function of the playwright or poet is not to say what has happened, but what could happen. Aristotle allocated a special significance to plot devices which helped to intensify the focus, such as ‘recognition’ and ‘reversal’. Examples of these come from Oedipus: first, when the messenger brings news that the king of Corinth has died naturally, Oedipus knows more (‘recognition’), but when he adds that Oedipus is not the king of Corinth’s son, relief gives way to deeper despair (‘reversal’).

If Aristotle’s views on tragedy have been the most influential, they are by no means the only ones. For instance, he says little or nothing about the profound sense of loss or emptiness we can sometimes feel at the performance of a tragedy. Nor does he notice, as have later critics, that tragedy almost always deals with the protagonist’s private world, and that fear and pity seem to be at their most powerful when they occur in family situations. In the Renaissance, tragedy was often considered to be a kind of warning to princes: it depicted the fall of those who abused their power (‘When the bad bleed, then is the tragedy good.’). Sir Philip Sidney (1554–86), Jean Racine (1639–99), John Dryden (1631–1700), Georg Hegel (1770–1831) and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) are among many critics and philosophers of earlier ages who have addressed the question of tragedy, and the literature on tragedy has grown enormously in the last hundred years.

The German philosopher, Georg Hegel, believed that tragedy was the result of the clash between mutually exclusive but equally justifiable causes, such as that between Creon and Antigone in Sophocles’ Antigone, or that created by the requirement that Hamlet avenge his father, while not committing murder.

Friedrich Nietzsche refined and extended this. In The Birth of Tragedy, he asserted first that art was a unique synthesis of dream and intoxication, order and chaos, embodied in the Greek gods, Apollo and Dionysus. Apollo is self-aware, calm, the god of light, and the individual; Dionysus is the god of wine, drunkenness, self-forgetfulness and revelry. If Apollo is the guardian of each person’s uniqueness, Dionysus unites people and makes them one with nature. Somewhere in the union of these two opposites, Apollo and Dionysus, or in the dialectical clashes between them, Nietzsche argued, tragedy is born.

For Nietzsche, Prometheus, not Oedipus, is the archetypal tragic hero: Prometheus stole fire from heaven to warm and illuminate humankind, for which he was punished eternally. In his ending Nietzsche finds the justice which he asserts tragedy must uphold, for the endless suffering of the hero is matched by the extreme plight of the gods themselves, on the brink of their extinction brought about by the action of the hero. The suffering in both worlds provokes the oneness of heaven and earth, and points to an eternal justice above both gods and humans. In this view, the hero is a ‘great soul’ who will always, inevitably, strive for what is highest. Prometheus is Dionysian as he strives to unite people, to bring together people and nature, but in doing this he also asserts his Apollonian individualism, his self-centredness. Our humanity is realised only in communion with the world and with people, but we can only reach this distant goal in moments of supreme selfawareness. This, Nietzsche insists, is why tragedy is ennobling, profound and moving.

Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy gave George Steiner (b. 1929) the title for his work on the subject, The Death of Tragedy (published in 1961). Arguing that tragedy depended on a metaphysical view of the world, Steiner suggested that modern rationalism, the result of work by scientific thinkers like Copernicus (1473–1543), Darwin (1809–82) and Freud (1856–1939) had destroyed the basis for true tragedy. We no longer believe in humanity’s innate potential for greatness, more especially since the outrages of Nazism and Stalinism, and only the egotistical or the ignorant aspire to tragic status.

This view was countered by, among others, the American playwright Arthur Miller (1915–2005), who attempted to create in his plays heroes who could be called tragic. In Miller’s words, each of his significant heroes was prepared to lay down his life to secure ‘his sense of personal dignity’. Miller’s heroes have an almost Nietzschean will to life, to achieve their humanity, and indeed there have been enough playwrights in the last 150 years to refute the pessimistic notion that tragedy is dead: Henrik Ibsen, Eugene O’Neill (1888–1953) and Federico Garcia Lorca (1898–1936) are three significant modern tragic playwrights.

Tragedy is, perhaps, the supreme philosophical dramatic form. It asks, Why we are here? What is the point of life in a corrupt and corrupting world? Does death have significance? Does suffering bring wisdom? Can we – or should we – challenge Fate? Are we free?

Source: Leach, Robert. Theatre Studies, The Basics Taylor & Francis, 2013.

Categories: Drama Criticism, Literature

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