Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Introduction to Tragedy

Read this brief list of key points about tragedy, taken from a variety of print sources. Then click here for an on-line resource from the Classics Technology Center on the same topic. Read the Introduction page and come to class with questions and comments. We will use part of this site as we read Oedipus the King and Antigone over the next two weeks.

• A tragic character is one who is usually highly renowned and prosperous, who comes to misfortune because of some weakness or error in judgment (hamartia). This error has several possible sources: a miscalculation or misunderstanding, a lack of knowledge, ignorance of family relationships, or hubris.
• Because of this error, or “tragic flaw,” the tragic characters isolate and destroy themselves. Because they possess many fundamentally virtuous qualities, their destruction is a waste of potential good. Yet in dying they triumph over the madness and darkness within themselves and gain a degree of insight into their dilemma.
• Even if the hero is subject to the relentless, inexorable qualities of human fatality, the downfall is the result of choice, not the result of pure accident or villainy or some overriding malignant force. Accident, villainy, or fate may contribute to the downfall but only as cooperating agents.
• Aristotle identifies an important tragic moment (anagnorisis), the recognition or discovery, a revelation of some fact not known before or some person’s true identity. Modern critics have taken the term to mean the terrible enlightenment that accompanies such a recognition. “To see things plain—that is anagnorisis. It is what tragedy ultimately is about: the realization of the unthinkable.”
• According to Aristotle, the audience pities the central character and fears being in the same predicament. In the end, we feel purged of these emotions (catharsis) and learn something from these incidents, since their larger, universal significance is clear.
• In the end the tragic character is fallen in worldly state but uplifted in moral dignity. With the fall of the hero and his gain in wisdom or self-knowledge, there is, besides the appalling sense of human waste, a fresh recognition of human greatness, a sense that human life has unrealized potentialities. Both the hero and the audience gain understanding from his defeat.
• “I believe the writers who get the most lasting response from readers are the writers who offer a happy ending through moral development. By a happy ending, I do not mean mere fortunate events—a marriage or last-minute rescue from death—but some kind of spiritual reassessment or moral reconciliation, even with the self, even at death.”--British novelist Fay Weldon

N.B. Some of the above sentences are taken verbatim from their sources; others are slightly paraphrased. All the ideas are borrowed from the following sources:
The World of Tragedy, John Kimmey and Ashley Brown
Perrine’s Literature, Thomas Arp
Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama, X.J. Kenney and Dana Gioia
Tragedy, Clifford Leech
Poetics, Aristotle