Theories Of Tragedy

Theories of Tragedy #

The two main opposing or dialectical concepts on literature’s effect on the responder are:

  • It should engage and evoke emotional empathy and identification, or
  • it should: detach, disassociate or distance the audience to make critical, objective and judgmental responses.

There is a fine line between tragedy and comedy. In a tragedy an actor, on stage, trips and falls and we empathise, while in comedy the event causes laughter and we become distanced from the his plight. Aristotle maintained that

“comedy tends to imitate persons below the level of our world, tragedy persons above it”.

It was Voltaire, who said that:

life is a tragedy for those who feel, and a comedy for those who think.

Comedies end in marriage; tragedies in death. I don’t know who rejoined with: that’s the same thing!

Tragedy’s origins lie in ancient rituals of the Festival of Dionysus, the purgation of passion to exemplify ancient truths. While a communal experience, it speaks to us individually. Formal tragedies were written in only two periods; Greek and Elizabethan/Jacobean.

Aristotle’s:“The impulse to imitate is inherent (inborn) in mankind from his childhood…. we take our first steps in learning through imitation.”

Most primitive societies engaged in re-enactments.

Comedy, the action of lower characters, light and flippant.

Tragedy is an imitation of characters above the level of the world; high action, sad and catastrophic. It is not about pitiable, poor wallowing victims, rather about heroic figures who try to do the extraodinary, that goes wrong.

The bare facts of alone should make us shudder so the dramatist must elevate the audience’s fear, terror and pity into a higher level creating Katharsis, transforming and cleansing us so that we feel emotionally purged. The hero’s suffering leads to Disclosure, (Anagnorisis) or self-recognition as they become aware of their true predicament, puncturing all their illusions of themselves.

Sophocles - Oedipus Rex: Human activity is a quest for self knowledge, a search for identity, self discovery, and self recognition which can lead to confidence and empowerment or to sobering humility and disillusionment. We begin in ignorance; we do not know where we came from, who fathered us, where we are, but go blinded by life and hope towards a destiny we cannot comprehend. Heroism is defined as an anguished acceptance of our own identity and nature forged in action and in a world we never made.

”born thus, I ask to be no other man than that I am and will know who I am”

“speak of no man’s happiness, Till, without sorrow, he has passed the goal of life.”

Shakespearean Tragedy #

  • A.C. Bradley Heroes – exceptional beings, nobly born and of high degree and public importance. Their actions and sufferings are of an unusual kind, not eccentric or paragons, rather we in elevated or intensified scales. Their fate is public and exemplary.

  • Tragic traits or flaws on a grand scale, while great, it can also be fatal. The tragic hero errs by action or omission which leads to ruin.

  • The tragic hero can be consciously villainous, such as Richard III or Macbeth or merely have a defect or imperfection, such as Hamlet or Lear.

Some predilections: 1) irresolute, 2) precipitancy, 3) pride, 4) credulousness, 5) excessive simplicity, 6) susceptibility.

Fintan O’Toole is the Advising Editor at The New York Review and a columnist for The Irish Times.

“As Shakespeare teaches us, all heroes have flaws, some tragic, some conquered, and those we cast as villains can be complex.”

How better to fill the gap between epic and asshole than with the lesson Shakespeare was apparently trying to teach us when he wrote Hamlet and King Lear?

Isaacson is not unusual in making such statements about what Shakespeare’s tragedies mean: they exist to instruct us, and their main lesson is that everything would be OK if only we could “conquer” our shortcomings.

We can read in The Guardian, of the Harry Potter novels, that “some of the most admirable adult characters, as in Shakespeare, are also revealed to have a tragic flaw that causes them to hesitate to act, to make foolish errors of judgment, to lie, or even to commit murder.”

The New York Times informs us that with Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus or Shakespeare’s Hamlet, their tragic flaws, enacted, became the definition of tragedy. It may be angst (Hamlet), or hubris (Faustus), but it’s there and we know, watching, that the ruinous end will be of their own making.

The former British prime minister Boris Johnson, who has supposedly been writing a book about Shakespeare, and who compared himself in the dying days of his benighted regime to Othello beset by malign Iago, claims that

“it is the essence of all tragic literature that the hero should be conspicuous, that he should swagger around and that some flaw should lead to a catastrophic reversal and collapse.”

Also in The New York Times Stephen Marche tells us that

we go to tragedy to watch a man be destroyed. Macbeth must be destroyed for his lust for power, Othello for his jealousy, Antony for his passion, Lear for the incompleteness of his renunciation. They are tragic precisely because their flaws are all too human.

In a review of a biography of Andrew Jackson, the president is called a “‘Shakespearean tragic hero,’ inflexible as Coriolanus, whose tragic flaw was ‘his incessant pursuit of virtue in the political realm.’”

Maureen Dowd notes that Barack Obama “has read and reread Shakespeare’s tragedies” and “does not want his fatal flaw to be that he compromises so much that his ideals get blurred out of recognition.”

This stuff is part of the language. Like most clichés, it perpetuates assumptions, not just about Shakespeare but about the world: your ruinous end is of your own making. Tragedies happen not because human beings are dragged between large historical, social, and political forces that are wrenching them in opposite directions, but because individuals are branded from birth with one or another variant of original sin. In seeking to understand ourselves, we can forget the epic and think of the assholes—who receive satisfyingly just deserts.

As Boris Johnson put it in 2011, Shakespeare:

“was, frankly, the poet of the established order” because the troublemakers in his plays “get their comeuppance.” The tragically flawed heroes meet the gory deaths their flaws deserve. Alongside “many insights into the human heart,” Johnson tells us, Shakespeare provides “such ingenious defences for keeping things as they are, and keeping the ruling party in power.”

The most obvious problem with all that is, even if it were true, it would be crushingly dull. Moral tales in which people do bad things because they have wicked instincts and then get their comeuppance are ten a penny. Fintan O’Toole

Post Renaissance #

  • the great divide; the death of tragedy. The major change is one of scepticism and rationalism; human reason and order are limited and vulnerable to “occult and uncontrollable forces”, a loss of faith in the old gods, mythology and a loss of magic, awe and imagination, the shift from hierarchical societies to egalitarianism and the decline and death of verse tragedy. The modern writers have succumbed to the “void of meaning” as they feel language cannot no longer articulate the abyss and horror of the times. Heroes no longer exist and life is depicted in all its bizarreness and absurdities.

Hegel contends that a good drama aspires to be and a tragedy must be a depiction of a human interaction in which both antagonists are, arguably, in the right; there is good on both sides which perplexes us.

Arthur Miller denies that tragedy is necessarily tied to pessimism, rather implies more optimism as it reinforces the onlooker’s brightest opinions of the human condition. The tragic hero claims his whole due as a personality, and if this struggle must be total and without reservation, then it automatically demonstrates the indestructible will of man to achieve his humanity.

The possibility of victory must be there in tragedy. Where pathos rules, where pathos is finally derived, a character has fought a battle he could not possibly have won. The pathetic is achieved when the protagonist is, by virtue of his witlessness, his insensitivity, or the very air he gives off, incapable of grappling with a much superior force.

Pathos truly is the mode for the pessimist. But tragedy requires a nicer balance between what is possible and what is impossible. And it is curious, although edifying, that the plays we revere, century after century, are the tragedies. In them, and in them alone, lies the belief – optimistic, if you will, in the perfectibility of man.

It is time, I think, that we who are without kings, took up this bright tread of our history and followed it to the only place it can possibly lead in our time – the heart and spirit of the average man.

To maintain our dignity, we need to continually challenge imperious, vaunted authority and unentitled privilege.

Nietzsche #

From Wikipedia

In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche compares moralities from different times, different places and different cultures, with two major differences: some moralities are master moralities, some are slave moralities. And he puts Christianity and democracy on the side of slave morality.

Slave morality applies equally to all individuals. So are universal by design and ambition. One size fits all. There’s a common standard of value of what is good and what is evil, that should apply to all individuals.

Nietzsche found in classical Athenian tragedy an art form that transcended the pessimism and nihilism of a fundamentally meaningless world. The Greek spectators, by looking into the abyss of human suffering and affirming it, passionately and joyously affirmed the meaning of their own existence. They knew themselves to be infinitely more than petty individuals, finding self-affirmation not in another life, not in a world to come, but in the terror and ecstasy alike celebrated in the performance of tragedies.

the history of the tragic form and introduces an intellectual dichotomy between the Dionysian and the Apollonian (very loosely: reality as disordered and undifferentiated by forms versus reality as ordered and differentiated by forms). Nietzsche claims life always involves a struggle between these two elements, each battling for control over the existence of humanity.

In Nietzsche’s words,

“Wherever the Dionysian prevailed, the Apollonian was checked and destroyed…. wherever the first Dionysian onslaught was successfully withstood, the authority and majesty of the Delphic god Apollo exhibited itself as more rigid and menacing than ever.”

Antony and Cleopatra appears to conform to this theory.

And yet neither side ever prevails due to each containing the other in an eternal, natural check or balance.

Nietzsche argues that the tragedy of Ancient Greece was the highest form of art due to its mixture of both Apollonian and Dionysian elements into one seamless whole, allowing the spectator to experience the full spectrum of the human condition. The Dionysian element was to be found in the music of the chorus, while the Apollonian element was found in the dialogue which gave a concrete symbolism that balanced the Dionysian revelry. Basically, the Apollonian abstract forms were able to give shape to the passionate Dionysian experience.