What is Tragedy?

by Poppy Goad


A modern day interpretation of a Tragedy follows the protagonists through an event of suffering or disaster. It was through Western art that such a definition arose; finding its origins first in the workings of Aristotle. Aristotle argued that a tragedy ‘is an imitation of a action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude’. Thus, Aristotle founded his definition upon the necessity of a calamitous outcome, centred upon the protagonist/s. However, Aristotle also asserted that the scope of the play’s action is limited in terms of the plot, time and action. Therefore, limiting the portrayal of a ‘tragedy’ so that its ‘artistic ornament’ can only be found ‘in the form of action, not of narrative’.

Although a tragedy was argued to centre around the protagonist it was later observed that the virtuous nature of the ‘tragic hero’ was not central to the tragedy. Therefore, the definition of a protagonist still holds its origins in its Greek interpretation to mean the first of three professional actors who play all the speaking roles in the drama. Aristotle also observed that ‘there remains an error between the two extremes’ of protagonists. For either they are presented wholly virtuous and thus provoke disgust at the injustice against them, or are wholly wicked and therefore enthrall no sympathy or empathy from the audience. Therefore, Aristotle established a protagonist with megalopsychia; a greatness of soul. Thus using this to write his protagonist in the Poetics; drawing on the idea of a central character from the plays of Sophocles.

A tragedy initially consisted of a hamartia, caused by a hubris. Thus, the excessive pride which brings down divine punishment causes the protagonist’s error in judgement. Whether the decision stemmed from moral of immoral intentions becomes an irrelevant factor. Furthermore, after this ill judgement a state of anagnorisis is reached, where a recognition of the protagonist’s hubris is acknowledged. This sequence can be clearly observed in Sophocles, Antigone, whereupon Creon is made to understand his mistake in defying the gods of the underworld. Senecan tragedies also developed, which consisted of a group of nine closet dramas, that had a predominate supernatural element. The senecan tragedy became the model for revival in the Renaissance era. Thus creating two new branches of tragedy: Neoclassical and Elizabethan. They presented a more tame interpretation of a ‘tragedy’ that reflected more of the English moralism at the time. The question of God’s role became heightened throughout the middle ages. Therefore, if it is the belief that God’s providence will ensure the wicked are punished and the good rewarded, then there is no need for art to make sense of human suffering. Thus, a Renaissance theistic interpretation would negate the significance of ‘tragedy’ plays. However, in a non-theistic interpretation, tragedy’s can be observed to possibly question whether the universe is ruled by a divine justice. Therefore, it can be asserted that God can hold no place in the tragic genre. This was contradicted by Sir Philip Sidney who claimed that tragedy’s ‘teacheth the uncertainty of the world, and upon how weak foundations guilden roofs are builded’. Therefore, arguing that in a tragedy the crimes and hamartia of tyrants will be revealed in a state of anagnorisis and thus punished by god.

Shakespearean tragedy, alike, is indebted to Aristotle’s theory of tragedy in the Poetics. Although Shakespearean tragedies hold many of the same characteristics that evolved for a tragedy, he moves away from the tame perspective of a logical order of justice that followed the Renaissance. There is often much tragic waste that accompanies Shakespearean tragedies. Thus involving an unjust loss of goodness that can have a possible impact on the internal and external conflict of the play. However, many of Shakespeare’s tragedy plays also invoke a cathartic response at a loss of goodness or of a protagonist. For example, in Hamlet the audience finds pity for him, but also finds cathartic relief in the fact that Claudius has received his proper punishment. Shakespearean tragedies do not also shy away from darker elements such as the supernatural, and graphic scenes of gore. Despite each tragedy holding its own unique qualities that separate it from a general characterisation of a ‘Shakespearean tragedy’, they are all united in their tragic vision. As German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche notes, ‘we children of the future, how could we be at home in this today’. Thus concluding on the lack of the tragic heroes comfort in their today, that transcends all Shakespearean tragedies.

Following the 20th century, arose the Romantic focus upon the uniqueness of the character of the protagonist. Thus it became a more psychological study than an external observation. A.C. Bradley proposed the ‘tragic flaw’ in the psychological makeup of the protagonist, which further drew emphasis to the focus on character, contrasting to Aristotle’s notion of hamartia and focus on action. Therefore, it can be argued, through the ‘tragic flaw’ that the protagonist's downfall is inevitable due to the conflicted individual moral psychology they possess. Thus the conflict in greatness and evil within a protagonist results in the ‘calamities and catastrophe that follow inevitably from the deeds of men, and that the main source of these deeds is character. The 20th century also saw a shift in its Shakespearean focus on the noble class as protagonists. Thus an equal presentation of character started to form, that followed partly the political assertion of the rights of the individual, particularly for American dramatists. Arthur Miller was especially influential in representing the ‘common man’ as the tragic hero. Thus, again allowing the tragedy to focus on the character and away from the broader topic of action. As Miller asserted, ‘It is time, I think, that we who are without kings, took up this bright thread of our history and followed it to the only place it can possibly lead in our time - the heart and spirit of the average man’.

In conclusion, a tragedy at its core is an event of human suffering that can be caused by either internal or external factors. Whilst the subject and focus shifts through time periods due to difference in moral beliefs and social focuses, it is paramount that a tragedy contain its basic foundations. Therefore, the emphasis on injustice, and thus the punishment of the protagonist, remains a transcendent feature in a tragedy. Thus, despite the difference in hamartia, whether action or character based, the tragic genre is united through the cathartic relief that, as noted by David Hume, is the ‘paradox of pleasing pain’.