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Aspects of Tragedy

Tragedy is the art form created to confront the most difficult experiences we face: death, loss, injustice, thwarted passion, despair. From ancient Greek theatre up to contemporary performances, playwrights have found, in tragic drama, a means to seek explanation for disaster. Questions about the causes of suffering, which are raised in each culture, are posed powerfully in tragedy. Indeed, the rules and conventions of tragic drama arguably make the dramatisation of those questions possible. Tragedy, we might say, attempts to stage what might otherwise, by virtue of its extreme, harrowing nature, be considered unstageable. Tragedians have traditionally used the pattern and order of aesthetic form in order to test whether such order exists in the world they represent or whether surplus, inexplicable suffering somehow eludes them. So the theatre (literally the place for watching things) allows us to bear witness to the worst and most exemplary moments of sorrow and desperation that face us as human beings. This activity is something which we are prepared to pay money for, something that we traditionally admire, for the aesthetic and moral good which tragic representation can afford us. The Cambridge Introduction to Tragedy

From: Tragedy: A Student Handbook, by Sean McEvoy What is Tragedy? The word tragedy is in common usage in everyday life. While the light-hearted and exaggerated use of the term (missed penalties, break up of celebrity relationships) may have little to do with literary concepts of tragedy, descriptions of real life suffering as a tragedy reflect our need to make sense of, and dignify the unimaginable, unspeakable, inexplicable and unfair. These aspects of life are at the heart of tragic drama. The critic Raymond Williams wrote that to restrict the term tragedy only to literature, as some critics have sought to do, is to deny real events the understanding which tragic drama can confer upon them. Throughout history one of the roles of tragedy has been to provide a means of understanding our real lives through fictional representation. Tragedy is not just an artistic exercise, but a way of dignifying and making sense of suffering. How can art help us cope with suffering? How can it make sense of pain and death, and of the sense of injustice that often accompanies these central human experiences? Why does seeing suffering represented on stage in a tragic drama produce a sense of enjoyment rather than merely add to our sense of pain or awareness of suffering in the world? The word tragedy itself was coined by the Greeks who first chose to put these crucial questions about human suffering on the public stage almost 2500 years ago in democratic Athens. Pleasure and pain One of the paradoxical characteristics of tragic drama and a defining difference between the literary and everyday concept of tragedy is that at the same time as feeling sorrow and pity for those whose suffering we see on stage, we also take pleasure in the representation of suffering. This pleasure comes partly from the delight we take in beautifully crafted works of art in general. It also comes from our response more specifically to the tragic nature of the play and what we feel we have gained from the experience: emotional solace, perhaps a greater political understanding of our world, or perhaps a sense of striving to understand something almost beyond words. Art itself survives death and goes on speaking to generations whose sufferings could not even be imagined by the people for 3

whom a tragedy was originally written. In this sense the existence of tragedy as a literary concept seems to defeat suffering and even death: Tragedy is the art form created to confront the most difficult experiences we face: death, loss, injustice, thwarted passion, despair. (Jennifer Wallace, 2007)

Tragedy in Ancient Greece

Tragedy: the origins TRAGEDY (meaning goat song after the four-legged prize probably given to the winning playwright at the Dionysia) was probably a development of the earlier Greek tradition of the Dithyramb. The Dithyramb was a hymn sung in honour of Dionysus during festivals or banquets from the 7th century BC onwards. It was performed by a chorus of 50 actors, including a chorus of satyrs and a protagonist (chief character). The earliest forms of Dithyramb were improvised, then poets began composing them and competing against each other. Tragedy was able to develop as a fairly complex form because Greece had created a relatively stable society that could devote time to analysing the human condition. Our understanding of Geek Tragedy is largely based on Aristotles Poetics in which he outlined the rules tragedy followed. People have modified these over the centuries as definitions of tragedy and the dramatic genre itself - have changed. In your discussions of your two set texts, therefore, you can consider not just Aristotles definitions, but the ideas of others, too, in terms of how they enable the plays to create an impact on the audiences.

ARISTOTLE ON THEATRE Aristotle confronts the mystery of why audiences are drawn to tragedy and why they apparently enjoy watching people suffering on stage. The instinct for imitation is inherent in us. We enjoy looking at the most accurate representations of things that are painful to see because we learn and acquire information.

Nearly all writing on tragedy returns to Aristotle. He was a Greek philosopher who believed that playwrights should be concerned with universal truths. In the Poetics, he maintains that the essence of tragedy is to be found both in the components of the tragic drama itself, but also in the effect it has upon the audience. These truths could be explored through simple plots (where a change of fortune comes about without reversal or discovery) or complex plots the most appropriate for tragedy (where a change comes about with reversal or discovery). He writes in the Poetics that: We have stipulated that tragedy is a mimesis of an action that is complete, whole and of magnitude . . . A whole is that which has a beginning, middle and end. A beginning is that which does not itself follow necessarily from something else, but after which a further event or process naturally occurs. an end, by contrast, is that which itself naturally occurs . . .but need not be followed by anything else. A middle is that which both follows a preceding event and has further consequences. Well-constructed plots, therefore, should neither begin nor end 6

at an arbitrary point, but should make use of the patterns stated. The 2 most important ways by which tragedy plays on our feelings are through reversals and recognitions. A reversal is a change from one state of affairs to the opposite. Recognition is a change from ignorance to knowledge, leading to love or hatred. Fear and pity should be aroused. We should pity underserved misfortune and fear it happening to someone like us. The fall of the tragic hero is not due to vice, but to error. Aristotle placed particular emphasis upon the choices and decisions which the individual hero makes. The crucial shift from the beginning to the middle of the plot is dependant upon a wrong decision taken or a wrong course of action pursued: a change [from] prosperity to adversity, caused not by depravity but by a great error [hamartia] of a character. Tragedy must therefore deal with the reversal of fortune of the protagonist. It is the representation of an action worth serious attention. Spectacle is essential, as well as song and diction. Language is enriched (with rhythm, music or song) by artistic devices; presented in the form of action rather than narration. Tragedy has a cathartic effect on the audience. Our emotions are aroused and this leads, inevitably, to the calming of them. Thus, the very fact of pity and fear being stirred up in the theatre ultimately eliminates, moderates or exhausts them so that they are no longer troubling in the world outside: . . . through pity and fear accomplishing the catharsis of such emotions. We are purged of our fear and pity through watching the spectacle of suffering and since tragedy takes place in a social setting, we sympathise, thus making the play relevant to our own lives.

Aristotles rules for tragedy are as follows: 1. UNITY OF TIME, PLACE AND ACTION Each play deals with an action in 1 location within 1 day. It takes the most vital moment (just before the climax) and presents that to the audience. 2. FAMILIARITY The audiences were familiar with the stories and therefore aware of their outcomes before they entered the theatre. Only the perspective (who the writer sides with) changed, 3. OB SKENE ACTION Although the plays dealt with horrific events, all violence occurred ob skene (offstage). The playwrights were concerned with the human consequences of the events rather than obscene violence for cheap thrills. 4. SIMPLICITY There were no sub-plots since these distracted from the importance of the main issues. Everything (action, chorus, audience) was drawn towards the one fall. 5. CATHARSIS This is the name given to the emotional effect of purging or cleansing the audience through their experience of watching the play. Aristotle perceived these as destructive emotions so by removing them, the plays could have a positive moral effect. The tragic hero/ine moved the audience to pity because s/he was not an evil person and so their misfortune was greater than they deserved. But the audiences were also moved to fear because they recognised similar possibilities of error in themselves. 6. CHARACTER OF THE HERO/INE The hero or heroine is at the centre of the plot. They had to be an important person (for example a King) to make their fall, which was inevitable, even greater. They had to contain both good and bad characteristics in order to be like a real person and not a stereotype. This would allow greater audience involvement. 7. HAMARTIA/HUBRIS The hero/ine had to make an error of judgement (Hamartia) which led to their fall from greatness. The most common form of Hamartia was Hubris, or pride the arrogance of the great that could lead a person to disregard a divine warning or violate an important moral law. 8. ANAGNORISIS/PERIPETEIA The action was a single progression from fortune to misfortune, usually involving the disclosure/discovery of a previously unknown fact (Anagnorisis) or a reversal of events (Peripeteia).

9. RELATION TO AUDIENCE Greek tragedy does not refer directly to the audience, playwright, stage mechanics or anything relating to theatrical performance. 10. RELEVANCE The stories covered by the plays were as much myths to the audiences then as now, but were relevant through their socials, moral and psychological interpretations.

From: Tragedy A Student Handbook, by Sean McEvoy

Tragedy in the Renaissance By the Renaissance, there was a new, more sceptical and political slant evident in dramatic tragedy. Sir Philip Sidney, writing in around 1581 was sure that tragedy Teacheth the uncertainty of the world, and upon How weak foundations guilden roofs are builded. That is, tragedy also showed tyrants that their crimes would be revealed and punished by God. It was the dramatists who decided that kings and princes were not the only candidates for the role of protagonist. Although Shakespeares tragedies typically concern noble figures such as Hamlet and Othello, Shylock the Jewish moneylender in the Merchant of Venice can also certainly be seen as a tragic figure. Early modern English tragedy also looked beyond the protagonist the noble individual showing not only a wider interest in society, but also questioning whether the universe is ruled by divine justice, a radical, even dangerous perspective at the time. In King Lear, the plays ending notoriously defies any notion that God has rewarded the just. The Romantics After the great days of Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre, tragedy in England fell under the influence of neo-classical ideas. It was at the end of the eighteenth century, with the Romantic movement, that the tragic protagonist became a sensitive individual striving for self-expression against the constraints of a society 10

with its hierarchies of power and organised religion. Now, sensibility, not royal blood, was what made an individual a potentially tragic protagonist. The tragedy of the Romantic protagonist lay in the failure of the world to fulfil the emotional and creative vision of the sensitive individual. In continental Europe, the protagonists of Chekhov and Ibsen are often sensitive Romantic individuals. In Hedda Gabler, Hedda is a woman raging against the world which traps her. However, this movement was losing strength by the end of the nineteenth century the Romantic instinct had become something obscure and, in Heddas case, self-destructive as she kills herself. Twentieth century interpretations of tragedy (Idealist Tragedy) In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Romantic focus upon the uniqueness of the character of the individual protagonist, combined with the beginnings of the study of psychology, encouraged close scrutiny of the character of the protagonist as a means of understanding the nature of tragedy. A further factor was the contemporary belief in the ability of great men to transform history on their own. A.C. Bradleys Shakespearean Tragedy (1904) proposed the idea of the tragic flaw in the psychological make-up of the protagonist. (This is not to be confused with Aristotles notion of hamartia, which is a matter of action, not character). Bradley drew on the ideas of the German philosopher Hegel who argued that political and social progress is made by the synthesis of opposing and conflicting forces. The character of the protagonist embodies just such a conflict: greatness in conflict with evil. According to this view, the protagonist is noble, but possesses a flaw which means that their downfall is inevitable. According to Bradley, Othellos flaw is jealousy: such jealousy as converts human nature into chaos, and liberates the beast in man. Othello murders his wife and commits suicide. Modern Tragedy (Materialist Tragedy) In the 20th century the protagonist can be any man or woman. Partly this was a political assertion of the rights of the individual. Yet a residue of Romanticism insists that the tragic protagonist must be someone who is prepared to devote themselves to some idea or notion, which may range from a political or economic belief to the simple need for utter personal integrity in a world which demands compromises. In the case of the former, the political and economic belief may be 11

wrong, and this is the source of the tragedy. Alternatively, the dramatist can present the protagonist as fundamentally good, but doomed in attempting to be virtuous in a world where selfishness is what society values. In both cases, however, there is a refusal of the protagonist to surrender: rather than compromise their sense of who they are, they choose death or destruction. While we, the audience, may recognise the futility of this uncompromising and fatal view of life, the plays encourage us also to admire the man or woman who takes to its logical extreme the right to assert an individual belief in the face of an uncomprehending or unsympathetic society. This 20th century protagonist is devoted to the fulfilment of her or his own personal ideal or the following of her or his own beliefs. The cost of that fulfilment upon themselves and society is often at the heart of the tragedy. Materialist philosophers (influenced by Marx) argue that history is a process which can be explained by mans actions, and not, as Bradley thought, by reference to an otherworldly or mysterious force. In Britain, the critic who put Marxism most powerfully to use in explaining tragedy was Raymond Williams. For Williams, talk of cosmic good or evil, as evident in Bradleys literary criticism, was a way of avoiding the truth that human suffering is caused by the avoidable actions of other humans. Williams interest in the scope of tragic action lay in his refusal to explain suffering as a result of individual psychology or mysticism. He argues that violence is not necessarily part of human nature but what people turn to in the particular circumstances in which they have to live. According to this view, tragic criticism which places responsibility for events on fate of the human condition and does not show them to be the result of human agency, is blind and bankrupt, and written in the interest of those who have power now.