Sunday, March 14, 2010

Shakespeare and Tragedy

Of the origins of tragedy, little is known beyond the fact that it played an important role in the rites devoted to the worship of the god Dionysius in ancient (6th century BC) Greece; the word itself means "a goat tale." The plays now known to us as tragedies (a tiny fraction of what once existed) were performed in the fifth century BC in Athens, in the theater of Dionysius. Whatever else we know comes from the few plays that survive, and from Aristotle's Poetics, written in the 4th century BC.

Aristotle's comments on tragedy are highly abstract and on some points obscure but useful nonetheless: "Tragedy," he says, "is a representation of a serious, complete action which has magnitude, in embellished speech . . . represented by people acting and not by narration; and accomplishing by means of pity and terror the catharsis of such emotions." By "embellished speech" he means "that which has rhythm and melody, i.e. song. . .  Key elements of the plot are reversals, recognition and suffering. The best plot should be complex. It should imitate actions arousing horror, fear and pity. . . .  It is much better if a tragical accident occurs because of a mistake the hero makes instead of things that might happen anyway . . . . A hero may have made it knowingly as in Medea or unknowingly as in Oedipus."

In other words, tragedy does not concern itself with the random or accidental events or crimes that one might read about in a newspaper. It is a performance or representation, in poetry or song (spoken or sung by actors, on a stage of some sort, in a theater) of the consequences of some choice or mistake.  Aristotle does allow for the possibility of unintentional choices—of choices made, in effect, by a failure to choose—and he gives Oedipus as an example.  But Oedipus, who tries to avoid the fate that has been prophetically fastened on him, that he would kill his father and marry his mother, but walks into it anyway, the victim of some divine prank, neither chooses nor fails to choose this fate; it is out of his hands.

How much of this would Shakespeare  have known when he began writing plays in the 1590s?  Aristotle's works were available in Latin translations, which he read easily. More to the point, what were the prevailing assumptions about tragedy in the theaters of that time? Simple: tragedies are sad stories about the fall of kings, as Shakespeare's Richard II says in the play of that name. But Shakespeare's tragedies are not simple tales about the fall of great men or women; nor can they be made to fit Aristotle's prescriptions. Aside from Macbeth, who makes a bad choice and knows it long before it catches up with him, the choices that matter in Shakespeare's tragedies are the choices we don't know we are making. You know how it goes: you wake up one day to find yourself in a corner that you've unintentionally painted yourself into. Shakespeare's other tragedies are about the muddles and confusions that people unintentionally and for the most part innocently get themselves into. "What's in a name?" asks Juliet innocently; "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." But names matter in human societies, which have histories which can't be ignored. Hamlet, averse to acting, politically or theatrically, thinks—innocently—that he can escape from a world of hypocritical seeming by just being his simple, ironical self;  and ruins everything. Lear, Othello, Coriolanus, innocents all, ask the wrong questions and, totally muddled, corner and destroy themselves; Lear and Othello, like Hamlet, manage to destroy the people they love as well. Coriolanus comes to his senses in time to avoid that fate.


  1. As you said, Piers, Oedipus is the victim of a divine prank. His very attempt to escape the predictions (and his father's atempt to do the same thing) is precisely what led to the tragedy. Nevertheless, Sophocles wrote a great play about a tragedy that was not caused by any tragic flaw.
    Gods are pranksters. The literal reading of the Abraham-Isaac story is a tale of a prank.

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