A Definition of Tragedy: Excerpts

Going all the way back to the time of Aristotle, there has been a tendency to discuss tragedy in terms of form. That is, we tend to describe, define, and judge tragedy in terms of certain formal or structural characteristics which we assert must pertain to all tragedies, as if a tragedy were a sonnet or a sonata, a symphony or a Chinese landscape scroll (Sewall, Tragedy 7).

Tragedy is "an imitation of an action that is serious, complete and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament... in the form of drama, not of narrative, through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions (catharsis)." Tragedy must tell of a person who is "highly renowned and prosperous" and who falls as a result of some "error, or frailty," because of external or internal forces, or both.

External forces include fate, fortune, the gods, and circumstances. The internal forces include "error or frailty." The Greek term he uses in The Poetics is harmartia, translated as "tragic flaw." The final elements are the reversal of action and the growth of understanding, or self-knowledge. Aristotle calls the reversal of action or intention the peripete : the instant when there is a "change by which the action veers around to its opposite." The moment of comprehension is the recognition (anagnorisis). This recognition means that the protagonist canes to understand his place in the scheme of things. --a paraphrase of Aristotle



Tragedy is restful; and the reason is that hope ... has no part in it. There isn't any hope. You're trapped. The whole sky has fallen on you, and all you can do about it is to shout. Don't mistake me, I said "shout"; I did not say groan, whimper, complain. That, you cannot do. But you can shout aloud: you can got all those things said that you never thought you'd be able to say, And you don't say these things because it will do any good to say them; you know better than that. You say them for their own sake; you say them because you learn a lot from them. ---Jean Anouilh



The tragic loans before us as an event that shows the terrifying aspects of existence, but an existence that is still human. It reveals its entanglement with the uncharted background of man's humanity. Paradoxically, however, when man faces the tragic, he liberates himself from it. This is one way of obtaining purification and redemption. Breakdown and failure reveal the true nature of things. In failure, life's reality is not lost; on the contrary, here it makes itself wholly and decisively felt. There is no tragedy without transcendence. Even defiance unto death in a hopeless battle against the gods and fate is an act of transcending: it is a movement toward man's proper essence., which he comes to know as his own in the presence of his doom. --- Karl Jaspers



Tragic drama tells us that the spheres of reason, order, and justice are terribly limited and that no progress in our science or technical resources will enlarge their relevance. Outside and within man is
l'autre, the "otherness" of the world. Call it what you will: a hidden or malevolent God, blind fate, the solicitations of hell, or the brute fury of our animal blood. it waits for us in ambush at the crossroads. It mocks us and destroys us. In certain rare instances, it leads us after destruction to some incomprehensible repose. ---George Steiner



Notes on
Oedipus Rex--Tragic Rhythm is Poiema (Purpose) to Pathema (Passion), to Mathema (Perception). Oedipus's ideas are different at the end of the play, not from a change in rational thought, but from suffering and direct experience--in other words--a change in the consciousness of self. Here Oedipus conceptualizes and visualizes finally, rather than becoming the tragic hero who acts. We see drama as a part of a dialectic: being/non-being (nothingness); mind/body; acceptance/exile etc.


The moment of discovery or anagnorisis which comes at the end of the tragic plot is not simply the knowledge by the hero of what has happened to him . . . but the recognition of the determined shape of the life he has created for himself, with an implicit comparison with the uncreated potential life he has forsaken" (Frye "The Mythos of Autumn: Tragedy" 128).


The tragic vision impels the man of action to fight against his destiny, kick against the pricks, and state his case before God or his fellows. It impels the artist, in his fictions, toward what Jaspers calls "boundary-situations." man at the limits of his sovereignty--Job on the ash-heap, Prometheus on the crag, Oedipus in his moment of self-discovery, Lear on the heath, Ahab on his lonely quarter-deck. Here, with all the protective covering stripped off, the hero faces as if no man had ever faced it before the existential question--Job's question, "What is man?" or Lear's "Is man no more than this?" The writing of a tragedy is the artist's way of taking action, of defying destiny, and this is why in the great tragedies there is a sense of the artist's own involvement, an immediacy not so true of the forms, like satire and comedy, where the artist's position seems more detached. (Sewall "The Vision of Tragedy," Corrigan 49-50).


One of the most remarkable characteristics of the human imagination is the fact that whenever we confront an unfamiliar situation or enter into an unfamiliar setting or milieu, we invariably perceive it as having a theatrical quality, and we tend to react to it in theatrical terms. When we travel in foreign countries and observe, what is to us, alien behavior, it is almost like watching a play. Even in societies with customs more attuned to our own, we experience the same thing. Whenever we feel that we are outsiders, all unfamiliar customs and behavior will appear to us as theatrical. We are spectators at a play.

But what happens when circumstances make it impossible for us to remain outside the action? That whether we like it or not, we have to give up our spectator role and become a participant. Again, we perceive both ourselves and our behavior in theatrical terms. We become actors; we imitate what we believe is expected behavior as a way of making it our own. Acting is a means of mastering an alien reality. . . . The tragic view of life, then, begins by insisting that we accept the inevitable doom of our fate, and this fact is the mainspring of all tragic drama. However, our experience of tragedy tells us that it is more than this. . . . The spirit of tragedy, the, is not quietistic; it is a grappling spirit. . . . Perhaps the history of the whole human race can be telescoped into this one tragic contradiction: man demands freedom, but wills to submit. Only the tragic hero refuses to make such a compromise. (Corrigan 1-13).