Here are some questions to ask if you want to decide whether a text can be identified as a tragedy in classical, Aristotelian terms:

  • Is there is success before failure: i.e. does the protagonist (hero/or heroine nowadays) experience a reversal of fortune?
  • Does the hero/heroine have a Fatal Flaw?  And is there a connection between the protagonist’s behaviour and his/her downfall?
  • Is there is a process of self discovery?  Perhaps a reflection on the truth of the matter or an awareness of circumstances (e.g. King Lear)?
  • Does the text provoke feelings of pity and/or terror in the audience or reader?
  • Do ‘The Unities’ of Time, Place and Action apply?  The condensing of time into 24 hours (or a short period at least), maintaining one location (maybe in a village or island) and having all the action inter-related (i.e. with nothing that could be deemed entirely irrelevant) all heighten the drama.

Also see Aristotle’s Tragic Terms.

Not all tragedy is “Aristotelian” in structure, nor is Aristotle’s analysis totally descriptive of all later tragedies. Every age has redefined and refashioned tragedy to its own ends and images. In England during the Renaissance, for example, Shakespeare and his contemporaries wrote tragedies with reference to history rather than to myth.

In his essay “Archetypal Criticism: The Theory of Myths”, Northrop Frye makes the following statement: “The tragic hero has normally had an extraordinary, often nearly divine, destiny almost within his grasp, and the glory of that original vision never quite fades out of tragedy…. The act which sets the tragic process going must be primarily a violation of moral law, whether human or divine; in short, that Artistole’s hamartia or flaw must have an essential connection with sin or wrongdoing. Again it is true that the great majority of tragic heroes do possess hybris [hubris], a proud, passionate, obsessed or soaring mind which brings about a moral intelligible downfall.”  The irony in tragedy lies in the contrast between the vision which the tragic hero has of his future and the shocking disaster that befalls him.  In this respect, he is so completely the universal human being.
This notion of ‘universality’ of the tragic hero is partly responsible for bringing about the eighteenth century’s growth of the middle-class tragic protagonist, who suffers a commonplace disaster in “domestic tragedy”.

In A Definition of Tragedy, Oscar Mandel proposes this definition: “A work of art is tragic if it substantiates the following situation: A protagonist who commands our earnest good will is impelled in a given world by a purpose, or undertakes an action, of a certain seriousness and magnitude; and by that very purpose or action, subject to that same given world, necessarily and inevitably meets with a grave spiritual or physical suffering.”

Schlegel considers the subject of tragedy to be the struggle between the outward finite existence and the inward infinite aspirations. Tragedy in his view arises when human aspirations urge us to go beyond the limitations placed upon us by our own human nature and by the forces of nature that surround us.

Hegel states that tragedy “shows the powers that rule man in collision. Their nature is divine, and in religion they appear as gods; but as seen in the world of tragic action, they have left the repose of Olympus, have entered into human wills, and now meet as foes…. The essentially tragic fact is the self-division and intestinal warfare of the ethical substance, not so much the war of good with evil as the war of good with good.” In Antigone, for example, there is a clash of two goods, the decrees of the gods against the well-being of the state.

Suzanne Langer in Feeling and Form states that tragedy is “the big unfolding of feeling in the organic, personal pattern of a human life, rising, growing, accomplishing destiny and meeting doom.”

Walter Kerr in Tragedy and Comedy has this to say about tragedy: “Tragedy seems to me to be an investigation of the possibilities of human freedom. Whatever is free about man is examined, given work to do, invited to assert itself and to assert itself utterly.” The tragic hero is impelled to “follow this thing to the end…. Man does not yet know how far his thought and will may carry him, but because he knows he is free to declare himself independent, if he chooses…he is free to free himself of obeisance to any power.” — This is a subtle view, but it asserts the power of the human being despite the force of destiny or the domination of the gods.

In The Modern Temper Joseph Wood Krutch offers the following conception of tragedy: “…The idea of nobility is inseparable from the idea of tragedy, which cannot exist without it. If tragedy is not the imitation or even the modified representation of noble actions it is certainly a representation of actions considered as noble, and herein lies its essential nature, since no man can conceive it unless he is capable of believing in the greatness and importance of man. Its action is usually, if not always, calamitous, because it is only in calamity that the human spirit has the opportunity to reveal itself triumphant over the outward universe which fails to conquer it; …. Tragedy arises when…apeople fully aware of the calamities of life is nevertheless serenely confident of the greatness of man, whose mighty passions and supreme fortitude are revealed when one of these calamities overtakes him.

Tragedy has been reformulated to include both working-class protagonists and antiheroes—a person who, instead of manifesting largeness, dignity, power, and heroism in the face of fate, is petty, ignominious, ineffectual, or passive. Thus, in Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller names his hero “Loman” (that is, “low man”), as if to emphasize the gulf between modern human beings and kings and princes.  With this in mind, you may find it interesting to read Arthur Miller’s views on modern tragedy.  Modern tragedians have loosened the structure of tragic plots, lowered the level of language, and also have stressed the mechanistic nature of the universe and the hopelessness and inevitability of misfortune.


An extinct webpage of Calverton School


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