Since its inception in ancient Greece two millennia and a half ago, tragedy has never faded out. It is true that there were periods when other forms of entertainment or other types of drama eclipsed tragedy, but it has never failed to maintain the interest of both dramatists and philosophers. It is noteworthy that tragedy has often been written in verse; the use of prose as the medium of tragedy is only a recent phenomenon. This chapter is a survey of the history of tragedy from its birth in Athens twenty-five centuries ago up to the first half of the twentieth century.
This chapter also hopes to explore some basic theories of tragedy from Aristotle to Nietzsche. The views of the twentieth century upholders of poetic drama, e. g T. S Eliot and Maxwell Anderson will be examined. It is important to note that tragedy can transform experience and history into meaning, and the shock of significance may have the power to transform us. Tragedy lies in our expectation that knowledge might emerge out of the human suffering.
If we go back in history we can see that tragedy witnessed four great periods; fifth century BC in ancient Greece; The Elizabethan and Jacobean period in England; the seventeenth century in France; and the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century in Europe and America. To start with, the word tragedy refers to a work of art that probes with high seriousness questions concerning the role of man in the world. The ancient Greeks first used the word in the fifth century B.
C to describe a certain type of play, which used to be presented in ceremonies in Greece. The government paid for these dramas, which were attended by the whole city. The topics of the performances show that they focused more on the religious aspect of the celebrations than on entertainment. There were altars to the gods with the presence of priests, and the subjects of tragedies deal with the failures of the heroes of legend, religious myth and history. Works of art in this period relied heavily on the works of Homer and common knowledge in the Greek communities (” Tragedy ” www. ritannica. com, 12. Sep. 2012). Even the most sketchy description of ancient Greek tragedy cannot do without referring to Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles and what they contributed to tragedy. Any writer who would write about tragedy has to refer to Greek tragedy. Aeschylus was the first of the three ancient Greek tragedians whose plays can still be read and performed in various theatres. Other Greek tragedians include Sophocles and Euripides. He was born in 525 BC and died in 455 BC.
He is often described as the father of tragedy; our knowledge of the genre begins with his work and our understanding of earlier tragedies is largely based on inferences from his surviving plays (Freeman 243). He wrote about ninety plays such as Oresteia, Seven against Thebes, Prometheus Bound, Supplicants and The Persians. Among them, he is well known with his trilogy Oresteia. In Oresteia, Aeschylus presented a trilogy like Oedipus’ trilogy. The three-act drama dealt with sin, revenge, and reconciliation, Prometheus’s punishment is the predictable consequence of defying the supreme deity.
All of the elements of tragedy, all of its cruelty, loss, and suffering are presented in the works of Homer and the ancient myths but were dealt with as absolutes-self sufficient and without the questioning spirit that was necessary to elevate them to the level of tragedy (Bushnell 11). Aeschylus and his fellow tragedians made great achievements in handling the nature of existence. Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides were famously known as Athenian dramatists who maintained a vivid sense of the reality of their character’s knowledge.
In the fifth century BC, they learned from their tragedies the possibilities and limitations of the spirit. Aeschylus’s work can be compared to the Bible in its structure and preoccupation with the problem of suffering due to unfair deity. Aeschylus realized that evil is inevitable, loss is irreversible and suffering is irretrievable (Bushnell 12). To the Greeks, when the tragic hero suffers, it is a sign of learning about his mistakes. Suffering to Aeschylus is a means of acquiring knowledge. Actually, his tragedies set new tones in tragedy (Bushnell 12).
In fact, he is attributed for having added a second character in tragedy plays that involved choruses. This is because before Aeschylus started writing tragedy plays, only one actor was used, which limited the conversing of the chorus in the play. Aeschylus made it possible for two actors to have dialogue in the chorus or even change their masks to become different characters On the other hand, Sophocles is another great and famous ancient Greek tragedians. He was born on 496 BC and died on 406. He came after Aeschylus and wrote 123 plays during the course of his life.
Some of his plays include Ajax, Philoctetes, Oedipus the King, Electra, Antigone, Trachiniae and Oedipus Tyrannus. Sophocles’ Oedipus the King can be considered an icon in his career. In his masterpiece, Sophocles provided to us all the basics of tragedy. It is the basis and the ground floor for Greek tragedies, no other play can be compared to it. In Sophocles’ plays, the chorus is less important if we compare him to other Greek writers. The course of action is fast and highly jointed; the dialogue is crisper, more disconnected and shows the real meaning of the play.
In Oedipus Rex, tragic hero can be a man for whom freedom of the self is a necessity. Tragedy must keep a balance between the optimisms of religion or philosophy or any other beliefs that result to explain the secrets of existence. On the other hand, pessimism would turn down the human experience as worthless and useless (Bushnell 13). In addition, Euripides was born on 406 BC and died on 480 BC. He is also one of the three great Greek tragedians. He wrote over ninety plays. Some of plays include Medea, Trojan Woman, Eumenides, Hecuba, Ion Cyclops, Rhesus, Hippolytus and Alcestis.
Medea is considered his masterpiece. The tragedies of Euripides examine in detail the breaks of human lives under the pressures that gods intentionally place on them. However, if the gods had nothing to do with the problems of humans they leave the human struggles with him causing his individual breaks. No Euripidean hero is ever compared to Sophocles’ Oedipus. In the play of Medea, Medea’s revenge on Jason is unfair by killing their children and poisoning his second wife’s dress to kill her and this raises the question of gods. Gods in Euripidean plays, in short, cannot be appealed to in the name of justice.
Euripides’ harmony towards moral tolerance leaves the audience in a moment of disability to choose the right thing from the wrong one. So the acts of gods in the Greek writers Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides do differ from one another. In Aeschylus’ plays, the gods are there and take action. In Eumenides, the goddess Athena is helping to solve the problems of justice. In Sophocles’ plays, the gods are far and their moral judgment is not questioned. In Oedipus Rex, Oedipus faces his vital ending without any justice act of the gods.
In Euripides, the gods are destructive, breaking their impulsive wills on a vulnerable character (” Tragedy ” www. britannica. com, 17. Sep. 2012). However, after the three great Greek tragedians came Aristotle. He made many developments to tragedy. Aristotle’s ideas about tragedy are mentioned in his famous book of literary discourse titled ‘Poetics’. Aristotle has discussed in detail the structure, purpose, and intended effect of tragedy in his book. His ideas have been adopted, expanded, and discussed for several centuries until now.
In chapter 6 Aristotle defines tragedy as follows: A tragedy is the imitation of an action that is serious, and also as having magnitude, complete in itself in language with pleasurable accessories, each kind brought in separately in the parts of the work; in a dramatic, not in a narrative form: with incidents arousing pity and fear; wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions. As Bushnell points out, “Aristotle gives a fuller account of this wholeness by differentiating the beginning, middle and end of the tragic action in terms of causality.
The beginning is not caused by anything that comes before; the middle is caused by the beginning and causes the end; the end is caused by the beginning and middle but causes nothing further. To this wholeness and seriousness Aristotle adds magnitude which he defines as the scope required for a probable or necessary succession of events which produce a transformation either from affliction to prosperity”(Bushnell 43). Aristotle has made it clear to us that there is no need for the beginning to be connected to the middle or it has to deal with it and the end.
However, the role of the hamartia in tragedy comes not from its moral status but from the inevitability of its consequences. As Bushnell points out, the fall of the hero is not pure loss. Though it arouses solemn emotions, tragedy does not leave its audience in a state of depression; a plot should be made of a hero going from happiness to misery. The misery should be the result of some hamartia, or error, on the part of the hero (Bushnell 46). Aristotle argues that one of the functions of tragedy is to arouse the unhealthy emotions of pity and fear through catharsis. According to D. W.
Lucas, Catharsis is a term in dramatic art that describes the effect of tragedy or comedy and quite possibly other artistic forms principally on the audience although some have speculated on characters in the drama as well. Nowhere does Aristotle explain the meaning of “catharsis”, as he is using that term in the definition of tragedy in the Poetics, for this reason a number of diverse interpretations of the meaning of this term have arisen (Lucas 24). The second great period of tragedy was during The English Renaissance drama. A distinctly English form of tragedy began with the Elizabethans.
The translation of Seneca and the reading of Aristotle’s Poetics were the major influences. Many critics and playwrights, such as Ben Jonson, insisted on observing the classical unities of action, time and place i. e. , the action should be one whole and take place in one day and in one place (” Tragedy ” www. britannica. com, 24. Sep. 2012). Christopher Marlowe contributed greatly to English literature. He developed a new meter, which has become one of the most popular in English literary history, and he revitalized a dying form of English drama.
Christopher Marlowe was the first English dramatist of the traditions of the Greeks. His tragedy Tamburlaine is the most famous and significant of his tragedies. The qualities of Tamburlaine defined as tragic are primarily stylistic: both metrical and rhetorical (Bushnell 301). As Bushnell points out, Marlowe intended his story to end, not with Tamburlaine’s fall but with his violent subjection of the kings of Arabia and his marriage to the fair Zenocrate (Bushnell 302). Nevertheless, it was romantic tragedy, which Shakespeare wrote in Richard II, Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear, which succeeded.
Romantic tragedy ignored the unities as in the use of subplots, mixing tragedy and comedy, and emphasizing action, spectacle, and increasing sensation. As Nda points out, Shakespeare’s plays meet true Elizabethan conventions. In classical tragedy, the protagonist is always a man or woman of magnificence. This is also true in Elizabethan tragedy, which, however, depends on shock and violence for much of its consequence (14). Shakespeare violated the unities in these ways and in mixing poetry and prose and using the device of a play-within-a play, as in Hamlet. The Elizabethans acted on stage the violence that the Greek dramatists reported.
A case in point is William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. It is a revenge play in which fourteen people died. Some of the killings were performed on the stage. Violence was not the only distinctive feature of Elizabethan tragedy. Elizabethan and later Jacobean playwrights had a diverse audience to please, ranging from Queen Elizabeth and King James I and their courtiers to the lowest classes (“Tragedy” www. britannica. com, 19. Sep. 2012). In Macbeth, William Shakespeare conforms to the classical concept that the tragic action should be built around royalty. Macbeth is a Scottish general and later becomes the king of England.
In this play, we find ourselves let in on the plot to murder Duncan and we hear the prophecies that motivate Macbeth. Such characterization of the central figures is well suited to expressing tragedy. The hero is like most other traditional works and not mere characters and individuals, but- representative symbols of an entire cultural entity. According Nda, Macbeth is caught in a series of actions, which eventually lead to his destruction. The influence of witches and the persuasion of Lady Macbeth lead the hero to commit regicide, and from this point, there is no hindrance to his tumbling to the final fall.
The tragic hero is presented as brave and courageous, even in the face of death. He seems to accept responsibility for what has befallen him (Nda 13-14). As mentioned earlier, seventeenth-century French tragedy is one of the four great periods of tragedy. Pierre Corneille’s and Jean Racine’s tragedies are representative of that period. They dominated the stage of French classical tragedy. They espoused radically different views of the tragic genre appeared to their contemporaries and to succeeding generations locked in artistic rivalry (Bushnell 393)”.
This competition opposed two ethical views: political and personal. In 1634, Pierre Corneille wrote his first tragedy Mêdée. He chose his first tragedy to enter the door of tragedy through myth. The heart of this tragedy is sexual desire, jealousy and revenge. Corneille chose to follow Seneca’s depiction of the passions, fears and murderous powers of a woman (Bushnell 394). In this depiction, he follows the theatrical style, which took over the Parisian stage in the first third of the century. Drama at this period was known for the twisted plots, dramatic misprisions and plot reversal at the end.
Jean Racine is one of the three greatest French dramatists of the seventeenth century, the other two being Hardy and Corneille. Racine’s tragedy is always a family affair (Bushnell 404). What this means is that in Corneille’s tragedy we see a separation between family and state. On the other hand, in Racine’s tragedy we see that there is no separation between family and state (Bushnell 404). Corneille applies Aristotle’s three unities of time, place and action limits the action of his plays is to one day. There is no change of scene; there is neither comedy nor relief.
The nature of the process is sharp and powerful. Racine’s conception of character and the analysis of them, suggested the presence of Sophoclean heroic humanism (”Tragedy” www. britannica. com, 1. Oct. 2012). The last flickers of the torch of the French revolution lighted up the sunrise of the 19th century; and its earlier years were filled with the echoing cannonade of the Napoleonic occupations. It was not until after the battle of Waterloo that the battle-field of Europe became only a parade-ground; and this is perhaps one reason why there was a dearth of ramatic literature in the first quarter of the century and why no dramatist of prominence flourished (Matthews 269). The twentieth century describes a period of great change within the theatrical culture of the 20th century. There was an extensive challenge to long established rules surrounding theatrical illustration; resulting in the growth of lots of new forms of theatre, including modernism, expressionism, political theater and other forms of experimental theatre, as well as the continuing development of already established theatrical norms like naturalism and realism.
All through the century, the artistic reputation of theatre improved after being derided throughout the 19th century. However, the growth of other media, especially film, has resulted in a diminished role within culture at large. In the light of this change, theatrical artists have been forced to seek new ways to engage with society (Drain 16). After that overview of writers who supported and enhanced tragedy, there are four great critics of tragedy. These critics include Hegel, Nietzsche, T. S. Eliot and Miller respectively.
Hegel’s theory of tragedy is based on two things; the notion of conflict and the possibility of its resolution. Hegel made a big shift in the terms of thought about tragedy. It was neither a simple dramatic genre anymore nor a kind of story to tell. Tragedy to Hegel was more than the number of plays by Sophocles, Shakespeare, Corneille and Schiller. It was an idea to which these plays were more or less adequate embodiments. The idea was more or less philosophical, ethical and theological (Poole59).
To Hegel, tragedy was a way of representing the conflicts suffered by spirit in its descent into the world; spirit becomes dispersed into specific forms and figures that represent one aspect of it. As Poole puts it, tragedy represents the conflict not of right against wrong which is melodrama or justice but it is right against right (Poole 52). For Hegel, it is important that this conflict is a necessary stage, no matter how painful, in the cause of historical progress. Hegel went further to acknowledge the conflict at the heart of tragedy that it was extremely purposive.
It is important to note that Friedrich Nietzsche gave a new life to the modern reception of tragedy mainly in its Greek form. Tragedy with Nietzsche became a very powerful label. Nietzsche’s main views on tragedy are stated in his memorable book The Birth of Tragedy. At the heart of the birth of tragedy lies the opposition between the Greek gods, Apollo and Dionysus who in turn stand for two antagonistic aesthetic principles that are nonetheless complementary and equally vital to the production of the highest are.
Apollo represents the realm of clear and¬- luminous appearances, dreams, harmless deception and traits that are typically Hellenic and classic. On the other hand, Dionysus represents hidden metaphysical depths, disturbing realities, intoxication and traits that are exotic and unclassical (Bushnell 69). Nietzsche considers the Greek tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles to be among the humankind’s accomplishments, achieve their sublime effects by taming Dionysian passions by means of the Apollonian.
According to Poole, the Greek tragedy evolved out of religious rituals featuring a chorus of singers and dancers, and it achieved its distinctive shape when two or more actors stood apart from the chorus as tragic actors (Poole64). By witnessing the fall of a tragic hero, the Greeks witness the death of individual who is absorbed back into the Dionysian primal unity. T. S. Elliot is a very critical writer. He has a tendency to pick things apart and give you every explanation he can to help you to understand exactly what he wants you to know in his work. The Possibility of a Poetic Drama is a classic T. S.
Elliot. He is picking apart the world of writing. He does this regardless of whether or not the society wants certain types of drama or the writing community cannot write the poetic drama. Certainly, he feels that it is not the writers who cannot seem to write them or lack the talent but it is society uttering what they desire in drama. This brings to mind the age-old question of supply and demand. If society wants a poetic drama, he feels that someone out there should be able to write it. Eliot is only trying to establish when poetic drama may become popular. Eliot believes that this is true of any writing.
There is always a place and a time that it will become popular, but that does not mean that if it is not popular now that it should not be written. It may only become popular after it has been published and one person begins to like and spreads the word. Society does dictate what is popular at the time, but as society changes, so does popularity (“Tragedy” www. britannica. com, 1. Jan. 2013). The term poetic drama became popular during the middle of the twentieth century. T. S. Eliot revived this term as a reaction to the drama of ideas popularized by Galsworthy and G. B.
Shaw under the influence of Ibsen. Even Shaw has written ‘The Quintessence of Ibsen’s’, in which he gave his manifesto and showed the influence of Ibsen. As a critic, T. S. Eliot has written essays like ‘Poetry and Drama’ and the ‘Possibility of Poetic Drama’ and others. In ‘Poetry and Drama’ he points out that, poetry and drama are inseparable from each other. Poetry mirrors the heart of the person, which the reader cannot conceal. Poetic Drama, according to T. S. Eliot, has far reaching effects as it affects the emotions of person directly as a practitioner of poetic drama (“Tragedy” www. ritannica. com, 1. Jan. 2013). Whereas Eliot showed interest in the possibility of poetic drama and the relationship between poetry and drama, Arthur Miller was interested in the possibility of the common person as a tragic figure. Arthur Miller states in his essay, Tragedy and the Common Man that we are often held to be below tragedy or tragedy below us; tragedy is fit only for the highly placed and where this admission is not made, in so many words it is most often implied. However, Miller believes the common person is as apt a subject for tragedy in its highest sense as kings were.
Bushnell tries to show that this belief causes Miller to use a common person, Willie Loman as the subject of his tragedy, Death of a Salesman. According to Bushnell, Miller redefines the tragic hero to fit a more modern age, and the product of this redefinition is Willie. Miller states that the tragic feeling is evoked in people when they are in the presence of a character that is ready to lay down his life to secure one thing for his/her sense of personal dignity (Bushnell 500). Willie is no exception. Willie’s sense of personal dignity is primarily found in his family, most notably his son Biff.
Willie transfers his dreams of being great onto Biff and, when Biff is a failure in the world, these dreams affect Willie’s self-image and sense of personal dignity. To regain this personal dignity, Willie must make Biff great. In the end, it is the love for his son and the belief that his insurance money will make Biff magnificent that give him the needed excuse and cause him to end his life (Bushnell 501). Therefore, tragedy is the consequence of a man’s total compulsion to evaluate himself in a just way. It is the nature of man to make his evaluations based upon his peers.
Bushnell puts out that Willie’s peer with whom he evaluates himself is Charley. Willie and Charley are about the same age; their children grew up together, and have been friends for many years. Charley has achieved what Willie has dreamed of for so long. Bushnell continues to elaborate that Charley’s son is a successful lawyer, whereas Biff is a loafer. Charley is successful in business, whereas Willie has washed out. As mentioned before, for Willie to be great, Biff must be great. Willie has failed his job in making Biff better than Charley’s son has; therefore, he fails his evaluations of himself (Bushnell 501).
In addition to Bushnell explanation, the flaw is really nothing but his inherent unwillingness to remain passive in the face of what he conceives to be a challenge to his dignity. Willie’s dignity is also challenged by his lack of success in business and in the raising of his son. Willie’s unwillingness to remain passive manifests itself in his desire to kill himself. Bushnell finalizes that Willie believes that once he kills himself his son will be great, therefore so will he. His refusal to remain passive makes him modern tragic hero according to Miller’s redefinition (Bushnell 502).