Tragedy

- introduce the genre we’ll be working in - consider what you know about tragedy - consider a couple of definitions of tragedy that demand we consider what the genre is able to do

Purpose
Shakespeare wrote comedies, tragedies, histories, and romances. A consideration of genre prepares us for an engagement with the text. It helps us know what to expect, and it provides us with a lens through which we can analyse the text. An appreciation of genre is also something that can give us insight into what the play might be trying achieve i.e. if the purpose of comedy might be to entertain,

Think, Pair, Share
Two things:

1. What is your definition of tragedy? - try to develop a single sentence definition - “we believe tragedy is...”
2. What do you think the purpose of tragedy might be? - think about what it does that other genres don’t, or at least what it does better than other genres. 3. Make a list of tragedies that you know - film, TV, books, etc. - modern or historical.

Aristotle on Tragedy
While this might seem like an obscure leap back to the past, Aristotle’s attitude towards tragedy works equally well today as it did in 335BC. It gives quite an insight into what tragedy does. “Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude...in the form of action, not of narrative; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its katharsis of such emotions.”

Unpacked...
Tragedy is the “imitation of an action”:

What Aristotle is saying here is that drama matters much more than narrative, i.e. tragedy shows rather than tells. Tragedy goes beyond the mere re-telling of history or events, which simply what did happen, rather than what might happen. History and events are specific, whereas tragedy takes those specifics and makes them universal. As a consequence it becomes far more applicable to an audience, who are being shown something about humanity, rather than something that happened to involve humans.

“Incidents arousing pity and fear”: This is Aristotle talking about the ideal impact of a tragedy. It is the combination of pity and fear. We should pity the protagonist, not disdain them, not utterly empathise with them, not love them. If we fall into this kind of attitude towards the protagonist, then the tragedy has failed according to Aristotle. - we’ll find that the conventions of tragedy work towards allowing us to have an appropriate connection to the protagonist. Equally though, the tragedy must arouse fear. And this goes back to the imitation of the action we just talked about. There must be a universal element to the tragedy, something about human nature or society, which allows us to be able to see the situation occurring in our own lives and thus eliciting the appropriate levels of fear.

“wherewith to accomplish its katharsis of such emotions”:

Katharsis is the Greek spelling - your marker is more likely to accept catharsis, the Anglicisation of the Greek.
This is a really debatable term, and if you web search is you’ll find a range of definitions. The word essentially means purging - the idea that through tragedy, the human soul is purged of its excessive passions. So, by watching tragedy, the audience is brought to a greater emotional balance. If they are overly emotive, overly addicted to pity then the tragedy reminds them of how small their problems are, while the under-emotive person is given cause to feel pity and fear, to connect

More on catharsis: In his definition, Aristotle was responding to Plato, who felt that theatre basically made people hysterical and uncontrollable (Plato was deeply skeptical of theatre) and so what Aristotle wants to suggest that theatre actually calms people, by giving them a socially acceptable outlet for their emotions. His belief is that we experience an exstasis - a relief (usually that our lives are less tragic than those we watch), which essentially allows us to be better citizens because we are more emotionally balanced after our experience with the tragedy.

Summary
- Tragedy is designed to show us the human condition, not just re-tell tragic events. - The events are designed to elicit pity and fear in the audience. - This pity and fear is designed so that we might experience a catharsis. I’d argue that much modern tragedy is designed to do exactly this. Tragedy isn’t political. And so, as we look at King Lear, we should always keep in mind how well it fits in with this attitude towards tragedy, so we might examine how well is succeeds as a classical tragedy and how much it’s looking to break those genre conventions and do its own thing.

Nietzsche on Tragedy
We should remember Nietzsche from our work on short story - he was interested in the will to power, and the ultimate unknowability of human nature. Nietzsche has a lot of respect for ancient Greek tragedy, and sees the work of the ancient Greeks as the high point of tragedy. And this was because of his belief that it brought together two core aspects that make up tragedy - the Dionysian and the Apollonian - referring to the Greek gods.

The Apollonian
Nietzsche saw life as involving a forever struggle between two elements - the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Apollo was the god of the sun and the god of reason, and so the Apollonian refers to a desire towards order and reason. I see it as a desire towards fitting in with the values and attitudes that are determined by our societies. It tends to be an individualising drive, as we judge ourselves against standard - separating us from the whole in order to make that judgement. In tragedy, the Apollonian might refer to the ordering principals of the tragic world itself, or it may refer to the ordering principals of the form - i.e. the structures of a play, which give order to our experience of it.

The Dionysian
Conversely, Nietzsche saw a forever conflict with the Dionysian. Dionysus was the god wine, intoxication, fertility, and ecstasy, and so the conflict is clear. What Nietzsche sees represented here is the drive towards the emotional, towards desire, towards something that lacks order or reason. The Dionysian is something like the chaotic, and is seen as ultimately pleasurable as it is the giving over to pure desire without thought. As a consequence, it tends to be a communal drive, as the elements of reason that separate us are forgotten. In tragedy, what we will probably see this as is the chaos that the characters face, their pure emotional turmoil, their pleasure drive. Beyond this though, it is the emotional experience of the audience, the loss of emotional selfcontrol that has us laughing, crying, etc. with the rest of an audience.

Interdependence
Nietzsche believed the two relied on each other in order to exist. The idea is that without one, there can’t be the other. However, these must be in balance to be healthy. What he thought was that tragedy was the ideal representation of this very struggle. Not only could it show stories that expressed the struggle between reason and emotion, but the form itself was a representation of how the two relied on each other. The experience of the tragedy as an experience of the Dionysian, yet tightly controlled and filtered through the Apollonian order provided by all the rules and structures that go with the process of observing a tragedy. So, for Nietzsche, the purpose of tragedy was the opportunity to experience the Dionysian within the safety of the Apollonian, to become healthy/balanced through an experience of both simultaneously.

Application
What we might do with this then, is examine the relationship between the Apollonian and the Dionysian. We might essentially do a Nietzchean reading of a tragedy, where we examine the consequence of too much order, or too much chaos. We might also examine how dramatist controls our experience of emotion throughout a play, so we might see how the Dionysian and Apollonian are balanced. Essentially, we’re looking out for how a piece of art goes about representing what Nietzsche saw as a fundamental tension within human nature.

A reading...
To finish then and solidify some of this knowledge, choose one of the tragedies we have up on the board here and work towards a short reading of it in terms of either Aristotle or Nietzsche.

Title: Philosopher: Examination: - How is pity and fear elicited? Is there a catharsis? Where does that catharsis come from? OR - What are the Apollonian elements of the text? What are the Dionysian elements of the text? How well does the text reflect the tension between the two?

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