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EDITH HAMILTON

Chapter XI
:The THE IDEA OF TRAGEDY
THE GREAT tragic artists of the world are four, and three

GREEK of them are Greek. It is in tragedy that the pre-eminence


of the Greeks can be seen most clearlv, Except for Shake-
speare, the great three, iEschylus, Sophocles, Euripides,
stand alone. Tragedy is an achievement peculiarly Greek.

WAY They were the first to perceive it and they lifted it to


its supreme height. Nor is it a matter that directly touches
only the great artists who wrote tragedies; it concerns
the entire people as well, who felt the appeal of the tragic
to such a degree that they would gather thirty thousand
strong to see a performance. In tragedy the Greek geWl~
penetrated farthest and it is the revelation of what was
most profound in them.
The special characteristic of the Greeks was their
power to see the world clearly and at the same time as
beautiful. Because they were able to do this, they pro-
duced art distinguished from all other art by an absence
of struggle, marked by a caIrn and serenity which is
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( theirs alone. There is, it seems to assure us, a region where enough to bear new and intolerable truth - that is
beauty is truth, truth beauty. To it their artists would lead 1Eschylus, the first writer of tragedy.
us, illumining life's dark confusions by gleams fitful Tragedy belongs to the poets. Only they have
) indeed and wavering compared with the fixed light of "trod the sunlit heights and from life's dissonance struck
religious faith, but by some magic of their own, satisfy- one clear chord." None but ~ poet can write a tragedy.
)
! ing, affording a vision of something inconclusive and yet
or era edv is nothing less than pain transmuted into
( of incalculable significance. Of all the great poets this is ~ation by the alchemy of poetry, and if poetry is

i true, but truest of the tragic poets, for the reason that in true knowledge and the great poets guides safe to follow,
this transmutation has arresting implications.
them the power of poetry confronts the inexplicable.
Tragedy was a Greek creation because in Greece Pain changed into, or, let us say, charged with,
thought was free. Men were thinking more and more exaltation. It would seem that tragedy is a strange matter.
deeply about human life, and beginnwg to perceive There is indeed none stranger. A tragedy shows us pain
020re an~ :nore clearly that it was bound up with evil and gives us pleasure thereby. The greater the suffering
and that 1lliustlce was of the nature of thil1~ And then, depicted, the more terrible the events. the more intense
one day, this knowledge of something irremediably our pleasure. The most monstrous and appalling deeds
wrong in the world came to a poet with his poet's power life can show arc those the tragedian chooses, and by the
to See beau in the truth of human life, and the first spectacle he thus offers us, we are moved to a very
tragedy was written. As the author a a most distin- passion of enjoyment. There is food for wonder here,
guished book on the subject says: "The spirit of inquiry not to be passed over, as the superficial have done, by
meets the spirit of poetry and tragedy is bam." Malee it pointing out that the Romans made a holiday of a glad-
concrete: early Greece with her godlike heroes and iator's slaughter, and that even to-day fierce instincts,
hero-gods fighting far on the ringing plains of windy savage survivals, stir in the most civilized. Gram all
Troy; with her lyric world, where every common that, and we are not a step advanced on the way to ex-
thingis touched with beauty - her twofold world of plaining the mystery of tragic pleasure. It has no kinshiR
poetic creation. Then a new age dawns, not satisfied with cruelty or thg IllS' for blood.
with beauty of song and story, an age that must gy to - On this point it is illuminating to consider our
know and to explain. And for the first time tragedy every-day use of the words tragedy and tragic. Pain.
appears. A poet of surpassing magnitude, not content sorrow, disaster, are always spoken of as depressing, as
with the old sacred conventions, and of a soul great dragging down - the dark abyss of pain, a crushing
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sorrow, an overwhelming disaster. But speak of tragedy say, all in agreement with the common judgment of man-
and extraordinarily the metaphor changes. Lift us to kind, that tragedy is something above and beyond the
tragic heights, we say, and never anything else. The dissonance of pain. But what it is that causes a play to
depths of pathos but never of tragedy, Always the call forth these feelings, what is the essential element in
helgllt of tragedy. A word is no light matter, ~Words a tragedy,lBe gJ1lone seeks to define. In a notable passage
have with truth been called fossil poetry, each, that is. he says that the only tragic subject is a spiritual struggle
a symbol of a creative thought. The whole philosophy in which each side has a claim upon our math .'But,,,
of human nature is implicit in human speech. It is a matter as his critics have pointe out, e would thus exclude the i,
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to pause over, that the instinct of mankind has perceived trag-edv of the suffering of the innocent, and a definition/ '
a difference, not of degree but of kind, between traRc whlch' does not include the death of Cordelia or of S ~<;>pco.~$
pain and all other pain. There is something in tragedy Deianira cannot be taken as final. (oJ(V,SiDf1 +0 k~
which marks it off from other disaster so sharply that The suffering of the innocent, indeed. can itself be
in our common speech we bear witness to the difference. so differently treated as to necessitate completely differ-
All those whose attention has been caught by the ent categories. In one of the greatest tragedies, the
strange contradiction of pleasure through pain agree Prometheus of iEschylus, the main actor is an innocent
with this instinctive witness, and some of the most briI- sufferer, but, beyond this purely formal connection, that
Iianr minds the world has known have concerned them- passionate rebel, defying God and all the powers of the
selves 'with it. Tragic pleasure, they tell tIS. is in a class universe, has no relationship whatever to the lovely,
by itself. "Pity and awe," Aristotle called it, "and a loving Cordelia. An inclusive definition of tragedy must
sense of emotion purged and purified thereby." "Recon- cover cases as diverse in circumstance and in the character
ciliation," said Hegel, which we may understand in the of the protagonist as the whole range of life and letters
sense of life's temporary dissonance resolved into eternal can afford it. It must include such opposites as'&ptigooc,l
harmony. "Acceptance," said Schopcnhauer, the temper the high-souled maiden who goes with open eyes to her
of mind that says, "Thy will be done." "The reaffirmation death rather than leave her brother's body unburied, and
of the will to live in the face of death," said Nietzsche, Macbeth, the ambition-mad, the murderer of his Icing and
Mand the joy of its inexhaustibility when so reaffirmed." guest. These two plays, seemingly so totally unlike, call
Pity, awe, reconciliation, exaltation - these are the forth the same response. Tragic pleasure of the greatest
eIemcr;t; that make-~agic-pleasure. No play is a intensttv is caused by them both. They have something
tragedy that does not call them forth. So the philosophers in common, but the philosophers do not tell us what it
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THE IDEA OF TRAGEDY 233
THE GREEK WAY
2}2 this significance for tragic purposes depends, ill some
is. Their concern is with what a tragedy makes us feel, sort, upon outward circumstance, on
not with what makes a tragedy.
pomp and feast and revelry,
Only twice in literary history has there been a great
With mask, and antIque pageantry'-
period or tragedy, in the Athens or Pericles and in
Ellzabethan England. What these two periods had in Nothing or all that touches tragedy. The surface of life
common, two thousand years and more apart in time, is comedy's concern; tragedy is indifferent to it. We do
that they expressed themselves in the same fashion, may not, to be sure, go to Main Street or to Zenith for tragedy.
give us some hint of the nature or tragedy. for far from but the reason has nothing to do with their dull famil-
being periods or darkness and defeat, each was a time iarity. There is no reason inherent in the house itself why
when lire waS seen exalted, a time or thrilling and un- Babbitt's home in Zenith should not be the scene of a
-fathomable possibilities. TIley held their heads high, tragedy quite as well as the Castle or Elsinore. The onlv
those men who conquered at Marathon and Salamis, and reason it is not is Babbitt himself. "That singular swing
those who fought Spain and saw the Great Armada toward elevation" which Schopenhauer discerned in
sink. The world was a £lace or wonderLmankind was tragedy, does not take any of its impetus from outside
'7 beauteous; lire was lived on the crest or the wave. ~ things.
\"d'12- ""' than all. the ~Y or heroism had stirred men's The dignity and the significance of human life - or
f' (F _0" \ hearts. Not stuff for tragedy, would you say? But on these. and or these alone, tragedy will never let go. Wirh-
d;?S' ~rest or the wave one must reel either tragically or out them there is no tragedy. To answer the g~estion,
« joyously; one cannot reel tamely. ::rhe temper or mind what makes a tragedy. is to answer the guestion wherein
_i),."othat sees tragedy in life has not ror its a oSIte the temrer lies the essential significance of life, what the dignity of
7 t at sees JOv. Ie opposite pole to the tragic view or humanity deFends uFon in the last analysis. Here the
life is the sordid view. When humanity is seen as devoid tragedians speak to us with no uncertain voice. The great
or dignity and significance, trivial, mean. and sunk in tragedies themselves offer the solution to the problem
dreary hopelessness, then the spirit of tragedy departs. they propound. It is by our power to suffer, above all.
"Sometime let gorgeous tragedy in sceptred pall come that we are of more value than the sparrows. Endow them
sweeping by." At the opposite pole stands Gorki with with a greater or as great a potentiality of pain and our
The Lower DePths. foremost place in the world would no longer be undis-
Other poets may, the tragedian must.1eek for the puted. Deep down, when we search ont the reaSOD fQf
sirmificance
I> or lire.
_ An error strangely common is that
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THE GREEK WAY THE IDEA OF TRAGEDY 23)
( our conviction of the transcendent worth of each human I and the executioner. That breaks the heart, but is not
f )being, we Imow that it is because of the p~ssibility that tr agedy. ' it is pathos. No heights are there for the soul to
, each can suffer so terribly. What do outside trappmgs ( mount to, but only the dark depths where there are tears
) matter, Zenith or Elsinore? Tragedy's preoccupation IS for things. Undeserved suffering is not in itself tragic, '\
\. with suffering. 1:'\
Death is not tragIc ill Itself, not the de.ath of the beautiful
But, it is to be well noted. not with all suffering. and the young, the lovely and beloved. Death felt and = ')
( )
There are degrecs in our hi~h cstate of pain. It is not I suffered as Macbeth feels and suffers is tragic. Death felt LJ
given to all to suffer alike. We differ in nothing more than ' as Lear feels Cordelia's death is tragic. Ophelia's death !
in our power to feel. There arc souls of little and of great / is not a tragedy. She being what she is, it could be so only)'
~ and upon that degree the dignity and significance i£ Hamlet's and Laertes' grief were tragic grief. The,
of each life depend. There is no dignity like the dignity conflicting claims of the law of God and the law of man
of a soul in agony. are not what make the tragedy of the Antigon~.1LiL
\
Here I and sorrows sit; Antigone herself, so great, so tortured. Hari1Iet's hesita-
Here is my throne, bid kings come bow to it. non to kill JUS uncle is not tragic, I he tragedy is his.power
) to feel. Change all the circumstances of the drama and
Trazcdv
D , is enthroned, and to her realm those alone ' Hamlet in the grip of any calamity would be tragIC, just
are admitted who belong to the only true aristocracy, ; as Polonius would never be, however awful the catas-
that of all passionate souls. Tragedy's one essential is a trophe. The suffering of a soul that can suffer greatly-
.5fi(. soul that can feel greatly. Given such a one and any that and only that, is tragedy.
catastrophe may be tragic. But the earth may be removed It follows, then, that tragedy has nothing to do with
and the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea, the distinction between Realism and Romanticism. The
and if only the small and shallow are confounded, tragedy contrary has always been maintained. The Greeks went
is absent. to the myths for their subjects, we are told, to insure
One dark page of Roman history tells of a little remoteness from real life which does not 2dmit of high
seven-year-old girl, daughter of a man judged guilty of tragedy. "Realism is the ruin of tragedy," says the latest
death and so herself condemned to die, and how she writer on the subject. It is not true. If indeed Realism
passed through the staring crowds sobbing and asking, were conceived of as dealing only With the usual. tragedy
"What had she done wrong? If they would tell her, she would be ruled out, for the soul capable of a great passion
would never do it again" - and so on to the black prison is not usual. But if nothing human is alien to Realism, then
a

THE IDEA OF TRAGEDY


236 THE GREEK WAY '37
tragedy is of her domain, for the unusual is as real as the before mankind that can so suffer. The Russian sees
usual When the Moscow Art Players presented the life in that way because the Russian genius is primarily
Brotbets Karamazoff there was seen on the stage an absurd poetical; the French genius is not. Anna Karenina is a
little man in dirty clothes who waved his arms about and tragedy; Madame Bovary is not. Realism and Romanti-
shuffled and sobbed, the farthest possible remove from 1)/ cistn.,or comparative degrees of Realism, have nothing to
t he traditional figures of tragedy, and yet tragedy was do WIth the matter. It is a case of the small soul against the
there in his person, stripped of her gorgeous pall. but I great ;o;;':U;-d the power of a wnter whose special endow-

) sceptred truly. speaking the authentic voice of human ment IS VOlT clair dam ce qui est" against the intuition of
.. poet. l.> Lu:h" -9vr"ft, see. cJet,-rly ~at Cld-ua.lly is"
agony in a struggle !2ast the power of the human heart to
liear. A drearier setting, a more typically realistic setting, ?\ . If the Greeks ha~ left no tragedies behind for us, the
\ highest reach of their power would be unlmown. The
~
h:Jc\O)
it would be hard to find, but to see the play was to feel
~ and ~ before a man dignified by one thing only,
fhree p_oets..,who
L,.•• O....
were able t 'Sound the depths of uunans> l't! I (;~ /
made great by what he could suffer. Ibsen's plays are not (
a.gonYt-,vere able also to recogruzeAmd reveal it as trag~." CD
tragedies. Whether Ibsen is a realist or not'- the Realism I he mystery of evil, tfiey said, curtains that of which
of one generation is apt to be the Romanticism of the 'every man whose soul is not a clod hath visions." Pain
next - small souls are his dramatis personz and his plays c2.uld exalt and in tragedy for a moment men could ~
are dramas with an unhappy ending. The end of Gbosts ~ght of a mearung beyond their grasp. «Yet had God not
leaves us with a sense of shuddering horror and cold turned us ltl hiS hand and cast to earth our zreatness,"
anger against a society where such things can be, and these Euripides makes the old Trojan queen say in h~r extre~­
are not tragic feelings. iry, "we would have passed away giving nothing to men.
The greatest realistic works of fiction have been They would have found no theme for song in us nor
made great poems from our sorrows."
written by the French and the Russians. To read one of
the great Frenchmen's books is to feel mingled despair ( . .'Why,is the ~eath of the ordinary man a wretched,
and loathing for mankind, so base, so trivial and so I chilling thing which we turn from, while the death of
I the he~o. always trag.ie, war:ns us with a sense of quick- •
wretched. But to read a great Russian novel is to have an
altogether different experience. The baseness. the beast ened life? Answer this quesuon and the enigma of tragic
in us, the misery of life. are there as plain to see as in \ pleasure is solved. "Never let me hear that brave blood
the French book, but what we are left with is not de- ?as be,en shed in vain," said Sir Walter Scott; "ir sends an
spair and not loathing, but a sense of pity and wonder imperious challenge down through all the generations."
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/ So the end of a tragedy challenges us. The great soul in . \ ;[
/ pam and ill death transfonn~ .~~1. and de~th. Through It 1::\Tr-"-j ~"~ )
( :.ve catch a ghmpse of the §t01C Emperor. s Dear CIty of
' \ God. of a deerer and morc ultimate reality than that ill

XII
(\"IUCh our lives arc lived.

pter
IESCTIYLUS /
E FIRST DRAMA T~

'VHICN Nietzsche de his famous/definition of tragic


pleasure he fixed his ey • like all chc other philosophers
m like case. not on the Mus'l.lierself but on a smgle
tragedian. His "reaffirmatio of the will to live in the
face of death. and the joy/bf .1S inexhaustibility when
so reaffirmed" is not the/traged~Sophocles nor the
tragedy of Euripides. !;ut it IS the H~-,ry essence of the
tragedy of .iEsehylu~( The strange po\~r tragedy has
to present suffering/and death in such a Vlay as to exalt
and not depress is to be felt in iEschylus'''plays as ill
those of no other tragic poet. He was the first agedian;
tragedy was Ius creation, and he set upon it the stamp
of his 0~'I1~irit.
It w a soldier-spirit. iEschylus was a lIlaratho •
warrror the title given to each of the little band who had
bc~te/ back the earlier tremendous Persian onslaught.
As uch, his ~rltaph would seem to show, he merited
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