Theory of tragedy

Classical theories
As the great period of Athenian drama drew to an end at the beginning of the 4th century BCE,
Athenian philosophers began to analyze its content and formulate its structure. In the thought
ofPlato c. 4!"#$4" BCE%, the history of the criticism of tragedy began with speculation on the role
ofcensorship. &o Plato in the dialogue on the Laws% the state was the noblest wor' of art, a
representation mimēsis% of the fairest and best life. (e feared the tragedians) command of the
e*pressi+e resources of language, which might be used to the detriment of worthwhile institutions.
(e feared, too, the emoti+e effect of poetry, the ,ionysian element that is at the +ery basis of tragedy.
&herefore, he recommended that the tragedians submit their wor's to the rulers, for appro+al,
without which they could not be performed. It is clear that tragedy, by nature e*ploratory, critical,
independent, could not li+e under such a regimen.
Plato is answered, in effect and perhaps intentionally, by Aristotle)s Poetics. Aristotle defends the
purgati+e power of tragedy and, in direct contradiction to Plato, ma'es moral ambiguity the essence
of tragedy. &he tragic hero must be neither a +illain nor a +irtuous man but a -character between
these two e*tremes,.a man who is not eminently good and /ust, yet whose misfortune is brought
about not by +ice or depra+ity, but by some error or frailty 0hamartia1.2 &he effect on the audience
will be similarly ambiguous. A perfect tragedy, he says, should imitate actions that e*cite -pity and
fear.2 (e uses 3ophocles) Oedipus the King as a paradigm. 4ear the beginning of the play, 5edipus
as's how his stric'en city the counterpart of Plato)s state% may cleanse itself, and the word he uses
for the purifying action is a form of the word catharsis. &he concept of catharsis pro+ides Aristotle
with his reconciliation with Plato, a means by which to satisfy the claims of both ethics and art.
-&ragedy,2 says Aristotle, -is an imitation 0mimēsis1 of an action that is serious, complete, and of a
certain magnitude.through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation 0catharsis1 of these
emotions.2 Ambiguous means may be employed, Aristotle maintains in contrast to Plato, to a
+irtuous and purifying end.
&o establish the basis for a reconciliation between ethical and artistic demands, Aristotle insists that
the principal element in the structure of tragedy is not character but plot. 3ince the erring
protagonist is always in at least partial opposition to the state, the importance of tragedy lies not in
the character but in the enlightening e+ent. -6ost important of all,2 Aristotle said, -is the structure of
the incidents. 7or tragedy is an imitation not of men but of an action and of life, and life consists in
action, and its end is a mode of action, not a 8uality.2 Aristotle considered the plot to be the soul of a
tragedy, with character in second place. &he goal of tragedy is not suffering but the 'nowledge that
issues from it, as the denouement issues from a plot. &he most powerful elements of emotional
interest in tragedy, according to Aristotle, are re+ersal of intention or situation peripeteia% and
recognition scenes anagnōrisis%, and each is most effecti+e when it is coincident with the other.
InOedipus, for e*ample, the messenger who brings 5edipus news of his real parentage, intending to
allay his fears, brings about a sudden re+ersal of his fortune, from happiness to misery, by
compelling him to recognize that his wife is also his mother.
9ater critics found /ustification for their own predilections in the authority of :ree' drama and
Aristotle. 7or e*ample, the ;oman poet (orace, in his Ars poetica Art of Poetry%, elaborated the
:ree' tradition of e*tensi+ely narrating offstage e+ents into a dictum on decorum forbidding e+ents
such as 6edea)s butchering of her sons from being performed on stage. And where Aristotle had
discussed tragedy as a separate genre, superior to epic poetry, (orace discussed it as a genre with a
separate style, again with considerations of decorum foremost. A theme for comedy may not be set
forth in +erses of tragedy< each style must 'eep to the place allotted it.
5n the basis of this 'ind of stylistic distinction, the Aeneid, the epic poem of =irgil, (orace)s
contemporary, is called a tragedy by the fictional =irgil in ,ante)s Divine Comedy, on the grounds
that the Aeneid treats only of lofty things. ,ante calls his own poem a comedy partly because he
includes -low2 sub/ects in it. (e ma'es this distinction in his De vugari eo!uentia >$?4#?@< -5f
Elo8uence in the =ulgar2% in which he also declares the sub/ects fit for the high, tragic style to be
sal+ation, lo+e, and +irtue. ,espite the presence of these sub/ects in this poem, he calls it a comedy
because his style of language is -careless and humble2 and because it is in the +ernacular tongue
rather than 9atin. ,ante ma'es a further distinctionA
Comedy"differs from tragedy in its su#$ect matter% in this way% that tragedy in its #eginning is
admira#e and !uiet% in its ending or catastrophe foued and horri#e". &rom this it is evident why
the present wor' is caed a comedy.
,ante)s emphasis on the outcome of the struggle rather than on the nature of the struggle is repeated
by Chaucer and for the same reasonA their belief in the pro+idential nature of human destiny. 9i'e
,ante, he was under the influence of De consoatione phiosophiae Consoation of Phiosophy%, the
wor' of the BthCcentury ;oman philosopher Boethius that he translated into English. Chaucer
considered 7ortune to be beyond the influence of the human will. In his Canter#ury Taes, he
introduces -&he 6on')s &ale2 by defining tragedy as -a certeyn storie. D of him that stood in greet
prosperitee, D And is yCfallen out of heigh degree D Into miserie, and endeth wrecchedly.2 Again, he
calls his Troius and Criseyde a tragedy because, in the words of &roilus, -all that comth, comth by
necessitee. D &hat forsight of di+ine pur+eyaunce D (ath seyn alwey me to forgon Criseyde.2
Absence of tragedy in Asian drama
In no way can the importance of a conceptual basis for tragedy be better illustrated than by a loo' at
other dramaCproducing cultures with radically different ideas of the indi+idual, human nature, and
destiny. Ehile the cultures of India, China, and Fapan ha+e produced significant and highly artistic
drama, there is little here to compare in magnitude, intensity, and freedom of form to the tragedies
of the Eest.
In Buddhist teaching, the aim of the indi+idual is to suppress and regulate all those 8uestioning,
recalcitrant, rebellious impulses that first impel the Eestern hero toward his tragic course. &he goal
of nir+ana is the e*tinction of those impulses, the 8uieting of the passions, a 'ind of 8uietus in which
worldly e*istence ceases. Eestern tragedy celebrates life, and the tragic hero clings to itA to him, it is
ne+er -sweet to die2 for his country or for anything else, and the fascination for Eestern audiences is
to follow the heroGas it were, -from the inside2Gas he struggles to assert himself and his +alues
against whate+er would deny them. In Asian drama there is no such intense focus on the indi+idual.
In the Fapanese 4oh plays, for instance, the hero may be seen in moments of weariness and despair,
of anger or confusion, but the mood is lyric, and the structure of the plays is ritualistic, with a great
deal of choral intoning, dancing, and stylized action. Although a number of 4oh plays can be
produced together to fill a day)s performance, the indi+idual plays are +ery short, hardly the length of
a Eestern oneCact play. 4oh plays affirm orthodo*y, rather than probing and 8uestioning it, as
Eestern tragedies do.
&he drama in India has a long history, but there too the indi+idual is subordinated to the mood of the
idyll or romance or epic ad+enture. Perhaps one reason why the drama of India ne+er de+eloped the
tragic orientation of the Eest is its remo+al from the people< it has ne+er 'nown the communal
in+ol+ement of the :ree' and Elizabethan theatres. Produced mainly for court audiences, an upperC
class elite, it ne+er reflected the sufferings of common or uncommon% humanity. 5nly in the midC
!?th century did the drama in China embrace the +igour and realism of the common people, but the
drama was in the ser+ice not of the indi+idual but of a political ideology, which replaced the
traditional themes of ancestor worship and filial piety. In all this, the mighty pageant figureG
5edipus, Prometheus, 9ear, or Ahab standing for the indi+idual as he alone sees and feels the
wor'ings of an un/ust uni+erseGis absent.
An e*ample from the 4oh plays will illustrate these generalizations. In The (o'a Priests, by
Henchi'u I/inobu >4>4#JJ%, a son is confronted with (amlet)s problemGi.e., that of a+enging the
death of his father. (e is uncertain how to proceed, since his father)s murderer has many bold
fellows to stand by him, while he is all alone. (e persuades his brother, a priest, to help him, and
disguising themsel+es as priests, they concoct a little plot to engage the murderer in religious
con+ersation. &here are a few words of lamentG-5h why, D Ehy bac' to the bitter Eorld D Are we
borne by our intentK2Gand the Chorus sings lyrically about the uncertainties of life. &he theme of the
con+ersation is the unreality of the Eorld and the reality of &hought. At an appropriate moment, the
brothers cry, -EnoughL Ehy longer hide our plotK2 &he murderer places his hat on the floor and
e*its. &he brothers mime the 'illing of the murderer in a stylized attac' upon the hat, while the
Chorus describes and comments on the actionA -3o when the hour was come D ,id these two brothers
D By sudden resolution D ,estroy their father)s foe. D 7or +alour and piety are their names
remembered D E+en in this aftertime2 translated by Arthur Ealey, The )ō Pays of *apan, >J!>%.
&hus, 4oh a+oids directly in+ol+ing the audience in the emotions implicit in the e+ents portrayed on
the stage. It gi+es only a slight hint of the spiritual struggle in the heart of the protagonistGa struggle
that is always speedily resol+ed in fa+our of traditional teaching. In play after play the action does
not ta'e place on stage but is reenacted by the ghost of one of the participants. &hus, the e+ents
presented are tinged with memory or longingGhardly the primary emotions that surge through and
in+igorate Eestern tragedy at its best.
Loss of viability in the West
&he absence, e+en in the Eest, of a continuing great tragic theatre may be e*plained by the pantheon
of panaceas in modern life. Politics, psychology, social sciences, physical sciences, nationalism, the
occultGeach offers a conte*t in terms of which one might act out one)s destiny, were it not crowded
out by the others. &he indi+idual is not tested but harried and not by gods but, too often, by demons.
In the dramas of Athens and England, tragedy was born of the impossibility of a clearCcut +ictory in
the human struggle with powers greater than oneself. In the modern drama, the struggle itself seems
&he wouldCbe hero is sa+ed from a meaningful death by being condemned to a meaningless life. &his
too, howe+er, has its tragic dimension, in its illustration of the power of e+il to sur+i+e from
millennium to millennium in the presence or the absence of the gods.
&ragedy is a means of coming to terms with that e+il. &o assume that tragedy has lost +iability is to
forget that this +iability was seriously 8uestioned by the first Eestern philosopher to address himself
to the problem. An account of the de+elopment of the theory of tragedy will re+eal a resourcefulness
in critical powers that can help to compensate, or occasionally e+en supersede, lapsing creati+e
+ichard ,. -ewa
,efinitions of the word iterature tend to be circular. &he >>th edition of .erriam/0e#ster1s
Coegiate Dictionary considers literature to be -writings ha+ing e*cellence of form or e*pression
and e*pressing ideas of permanent or uni+ersal interest.2 &he >JthCcentury critic Ealter
Paterreferred to -the matter of imaginati+e or artistic literature2 as a -transcript, not of mere fact, but
of fact in its infinitely +aried forms.2 But such definitions assume that the reader already 'nows what
literature is. And indeed its central meaning, at least, is clear enough. ,eri+ing from the 9atin ittera,
-a letter of the alphabet,2 literature is first and foremost human'ind)s entire body of writing< after
that it is the body of writing belonging to a gi+en language or people< then it is indi+idual pieces of
But already it is necessary to 8ualify these statements. &o use the word writing when describing
literature is itself misleading, for one may spea' of -oral literature2 or -the literature of preliterate
peoples.2 &he art of literature is not reducible to the words on the page< they are there solely because
of the craft of writing. As an art, literature might be described as the organization of words to gi+e
pleasure. Met through words literature ele+ates and transforms e*perience beyond -mere2 pleasure.
9iterature also functions more broadly in society as a means of both criticizing and affirming cultural
Table Of Contents
The scope of literature
9iterature is a form of human e*pression. But not e+erything e*pressed in wordsGe+en when
organized and written downGis counted as literature. &hose writings that are primarily informati+e
Gtechnical, scholarly, /ournalisticGwould be e*cluded from the ran' of literature by most, though
not all, critics. Certain forms of writing, howe+er, are uni+ersally regarded as belonging to literature
as an art. Indi+idual attempts within these forms are said to succeed if they possess something called
artistic merit and to fail if they do not. &he nature of artistic merit is less easy to define than to
recognize. &he writer need not e+en pursue it to attain it. 5n the contrary, a scientific e*position
might be of great literary +alue and a pedestrian poem of none at all.
&he purest or, at least, the most intense% literary form is the lyric poem, and after it comes elegiac,
epic, dramatic, narrati+e, and e*pository +erse. 6ost theories of literary criticism base themsel+es on
an analysis of poetry, because the aesthetic problems of literature are there presented in their
simplest and purest form. Poetry that fails as literature is not called poetry at all but +erse.
6anyno+elsGcertainly all the world)s great no+elsGare literature, but there are thousands that are
not so considered. 6ost great dramas are considered literature although the Chinese, possessors of
one of the world)s greatest dramatic traditions, consider their plays, with few e*ceptions, to possess
no literary merit whatsoe+er%.
&he :ree's thought of history as one of the se+en arts, inspired by a goddess, the muse Clio. All of
the world)s classic sur+eys of history can stand as noble e*amples of the art of literature, but most
historical wor's and studies today are not written primarily with literary e*cellence in mind, though
they may possess it, as it were, by accident.
&he essay was once written deliberately as a piece of literatureA its sub/ect matter was of
comparati+ely minor importance. &oday most essays are written as e*pository, informati+e
/ournalism, although there are still essayists in the great tradition who thin' of themsel+es as artists.
4ow, as in the past, some of the greatest essayists are critics of literature, drama, and the arts.
3ome personal documents autobiographies, diaries, memoirs, and letters% ran' among the world)s
greatest literature. 3ome e*amples of this biographical literature were written with posterity in mind,
others with no thought of their being read by anyone but the writer. 3ome are in a highly polished
literary style< others, couched in a pri+ately e+ol+ed language, win their standing as literature
because of their cogency, insight, depth, and scope.
6any wor's of philosophy are classed as literature. &he Diaogues of Plato 4th century BC% are
written with great narrati+e s'ill and in the finest prose< the .editations of the !ndCcentury ;oman
emperor 6arcus Aurelius are a collection of apparently random thoughts, and the :ree' in which
they are written is eccentric. Met both are classed as literature, while the speculations of other
philosophers, ancient and modern, are not. Certain scientific wor's endure as literature long after
their scientific content has become outdated. &his is particularly true of boo's of natural history,
where the element of personal obser+ation is of special importance. An e*cellent e*ample is :ilbert
Ehite)s )atura (istory and Anti!uities of -e#ourne >"NJ%.
5ratory, the art of persuasion, was long considered a great literary art. &he oratory of the American
Indian, for instance, is famous, while in Classical :reece, Polymnia was the muse sacred to poetry
and oratory. ;ome)s great orator Cicero was to ha+e a decisi+e influence on the de+elopment of
English prose style. Abraham 9incoln)s :ettysburg Address is 'nown to e+ery American schoolchild.
&oday, howe+er, oratory is more usually thought of as a craft than as an art. 6ost critics would not
admit ad+ertising copywriting, purely commercial fiction, or cinema and tele+ision scripts as
accepted forms of literary e*pression, although others would hotly dispute their e*clusion. &he test
in indi+idual cases would seem to be one of enduring satisfaction and, of course, truth. Indeed, it
becomes more and more difficult to categorize literature, for in modern ci+ilization words are
e+erywhere. 6an is sub/ect to a continuous flood of communication. 6ost of it is fugiti+e, but here
and thereGin highCle+el /ournalism, in tele+ision, in the cinema, in commercial fiction, in westerns
and detecti+e stories, and in plain, e*pository proseGsome writing, almost by accident, achie+es an
aesthetic satisfaction, a depth and rele+ance that entitle it to stand with other e*amples of the art of
Literary composition
If the early Egyptians or 3umerians had critical theories about the writing of literature, these ha+e
not sur+i+ed. 7rom the time of Classical :reece until the present day, howe+er, Eestern criticism has
been dominated by two opposing theories of the literary art, which might con+eniently be called the
e*pressi+e and constructi+e theories of composition.
&he :ree' philosopher and scholar Aristotle is the first great representati+e of the constructi+e
school of thought. (is Poetics the sur+i+ing fragment of which is limited to an analysis of tragedy
and epic poetry% has sometimes been dismissed as a recipe boo' for the writing of potboilers.
Certainly, Aristotle is primarily interested in the theoretical construction of tragedy, much as an
architect might analyze the construction of a temple, but he is not e*clusi+ely ob/ecti+e and matter of
fact. (e does, howe+er, regard the e*pressi+e elements in literature as of secondary importance, and
the terms he uses to describe them ha+e been open to interpretation and a matter of contro+ersy e+er
&he >stCcentury :ree' treatise On the -u#ime con+entionally attributed to the $rdCcentury
9onginus% deals with the 8uestion left unanswered by AristotleGwhat ma'es great literature -great2K
Its standards are almost entirely e*pressi+e. Ehere Aristotle is analytical and states general
principles, the pseudoC9onginus is more specific and gi+es many 8uotationsA e+en so, his critical
theories are confined largely to impressionistic generalities.
&hus, at the beginning of Eestern literary criticism, the contro+ersy already e*ists. Is the artist or
writer a technician, li'e a coo' or an engineer, who designs and constructs a sort of machine that will
elicit an aesthetic response from his audienceK 5r is he a +irtuoso who abo+e all else e*presses
himself and, because he gi+es +oice to the deepest realities of his own personality, generates a
response from his readers because they admit some profound identification with himK &his
antithesis endures throughout western European historyG
3cholasticism +ersus (umanism,Classicism +ersus ;omanticism, Cubism +ersus E*pressionismG
and sur+i+es to this day in the common /udgment of our contemporary artists and writers. It is
surprising how few critics ha+e declared that the antithesis is unreal, that a wor' of literary or plastic
art is at once constructi+e and e*pressi+e, and that it must in fact be both.