Aristotle on Greek Tragedy by Larry A. Brown

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Aristotle on Greek Tragedy

by Larry A. Brown

Professor of Theater

Nashville, Tennessee

The word tragedy literally means "goat song," probably referring to the practice of giving a goat as a sacrifice or a prize at the religious festivals in honor of the god Dionysos. Whatever its origins, tragedy came to signify a dramatic presentation of high seriousness and noble character which examines the major questions of human existence: why are we here? how can we know the will of the gods? what meaning does life have in the face of death? In tragedy people are tested by great suffering and must face decisions of ultimate consequence. Some meet the challenge with deeds of despicable cruelty, while others demonstrate their ability to confront and surpass adversity, winning our admiration and proving the greatness of human potential. Aristotle first defined tragedy in his
around 330 BC, and all subsequent discussions of tragic form have been influenced by his concepts.

According to Aristotle, "Tragedy, then, is an imitation of a noble and complete action, having the proper magnitude; it employs language that has been artistically enhanced . . . ; it is presented in dramatic, not narrative form, and achieves, through the representation of pitiable and fearful incidents, the catharsis of such incidents" (Golden 11). A few of these terms need clarification. "Noble" does not mean that the characters are necessarily of high moral standing or that they must always be kings, heroes, or gods: the title character of Euripides' Medea is a wicked sorceress who kills her own children. According to Hardison, the term could be translated as larger than life, majestic, or serious (Golden 84). "Magnitude" refers not to the greatness of the subject matter, as some have suggested, but to the appropriate length of a production. Earlier in the
, Aristotle contrasts the shorter action of a play with that of an epic poem such as the Iliad. Dramatic action naturally is limited to what can be presented within two or three hours. "Enhanced language" refers to the fact that all plays at that time were written in poetic verse rather than the language of everyday speech. As Steiner explains, "There is nothing democratic in the vision of tragedy. The royal and heroic characters whom the gods honor with their vengeance are set higher than we are in the chain of being, and their style of utterance must reflect this elevation" (241).

Endless debates have centered on the term "catharsis" which Aristotle unfortunately does not define. Some critics interpret catharsis as the purging or cleansing of pity and fear from the spectators as they observe the action on stage; in this way tragedy relieves them of harmful emotions, leaving them better people for their experience. According to this interpretation, Aristotle may have been offering an alternative to Plato's charge that the dramatic poets were dangerous to society because they incited the passions. However, it is uncharacteristic of Aristotle to define tragedy in terms of audience psychology; throughout the Poetics he focuses on dramatic structure, not its effects.
Therefore, commentators such as Else and Hardison prefer to think of catharsis not as the effect of tragedy on the spectator but as the resolution of dramatic tension within the plot. The dramatist depicts incidents which arouse pity and fear for the protagonist, then during the course of the action, he resolves the major conflicts, bringing the plot to a logical and foreseeable conclusion. This explanation of catharsis helps to explain how an audience experiences satisfaction even from an unhappy ending. Human nature may cause us to hope that things work out for Antigone, but, because of the insurmountable obstacles in the situation and the ironies of fate, we come to expect the worst and would feel cheated if Haemon arrived at the last minute to rescue her, providing a happy but contrived conclusion. In tragedy things may not turn out as we wish, but we recognize the probable or necessary relation between the hero's actions and the results of those actions, and appreciate the playwright's honest depiction of life's harsher realities.
Notice that Aristotle's definition does not include an unfortunate or fatal conclusion as a necessary component of tragedy. Usually we think of tragedy resulting in the death of the hero along with perhaps many others. While this is true of most tragedies (especially Shakespeare), there are some examples which conclude otherwise. Aristotle acknowledges that several Greek tragedies end happily. In Aeschylus' trilogy the Oresteia, Orestes must avenge the death of his father by killing his murderer, who happens to be Orestes' mother. The conflict is successfully resolved when Athena appoints a court of law to uphold justice in such cases, and Orestes is acquitted of any guilt. In Oedipus the King the hero inflicts his own punishment by blinding himself, but he goes into exile instead of dying. Sophocles wrote a sequel to this play called Oedipus at Colonus in which the hero finds a peaceful death after years of suffering to atone for his misdeeds, but his demise is seen as a happy ending to an unhappy life. In tragedy people must make difficult choices and face serious consequences, but they do not always meet with death.
The Tragic Hero
Aristotle distinguishes between tragedy which depicts people of high or noble character, and comedy which imitates those of low or base character. Renaissance critics read this passage to mean tragic characters must always be kings or princes, while comedy is peopled with the working or servant classes, but Aristotle was not talking about social or political distinctions. For him character is determined not by birth but by moral choice. A noble person is one who chooses to act nobly. Tragic characters are those who take life seriously and seek worthwhile goals, while comic characters are "good-for-nothings" who waste their lives in trivial pursuits (Else 77). While it may be true that, as Arthur Miller argued, the common man is a potential subject for tragedy (in the sense that one need not be a king or a demigod to act nobly), the one thing a tragic protagonist cannot be is common. Ordinary humanity belongs on the sidelines in tragedy, represented by the Greek chorus. The tragic protagonist is always larger than life, a person of action whose decisions determine the fate of others and seem to shake the world itself.
The hero of tragedy is not perfect, however. To witness a completely virtuous person fall from fortune to disaster would provoke moral outrage at such an injustice. Likewise, the downfall of a villainous person is seen as appropriate punishment and does not arouse pity or fear. The best type of tragic hero, according to Aristotle, exists "between these extremes . . . a person who is neither perfect in virtue and justice, nor one who falls into misfortune through vice and depravity, but rather, one who succumbs through some miscalculation." The term hamartia, which Golden translates as "miscalculation," literally means "missing the mark," taken from the practice of archery.
Much confusion exists over this crucial term. Critics of previous centuries once understood hamartia to mean that the hero must have a "tragic flaw," a moral weakness in character which inevitably leads to disaster. This interpretation comes from a long tradition of dramatic criticism which seeks to place blame for disaster on someone or something: "Bad things don't just happen to good people, so it must be someone's fault." This was the "comforting" response Job's friends in the Old Testament story gave him to explain his suffering: "God is punishing you for your wrongdoing." For centuries tragedies were held up as moral illustrations of the consequences of sin.
Given the nature of most tragedies, however, it is best not to think of hamartia as tragic flaw. While the concept of a moral character flaw may apply to certain tragic figures, it seems inappropriate for many others. There is a definite causal connection between Creon's pride which precipitates his destruction, but can Antigone's desire to see her brother decently buried be called a flaw in her character which leads to her death? Her stubborn insistence on following a moral law higher than that of the state is the very quality for which we admire her.
Searching for the tragic flaw in a character often oversimplifies the complex issues of tragedy. For example, the critic predisposed to looking for the flaw in Oedipus' character points to his stubborn pride, and concludes that this trait leads directly to his downfall. However, several crucial events in the plot are not motivated by pride at all: (1) Oedipus leaves Corinth to protect the two people he believes to be his parents; (2) his choice of Thebes as a destination is merely coincidental and/or fated, but certainly not his fault; (3) his defeat of the Sphinx demonstrates wisdom rather than blind stubbornness. True, he kills Laius on the road, refusing to give way on a narrow pass, but the fact that this happens to be his father cannot be attributed to a flaw in his character. (A modern reader might criticize him for killing anyone, but the play never indicts Oedipus simply for murder.) Furthermore, these actions occur prior to the action of the play itself. The central plot concerns Oedipus' desire as a responsible ruler to rid his city of the gods' curse and his unyielding search for the truth, actions which deserve our admiration rather than contempt as a moral flaw. Oedipus falls because of a complex set of factors, not from any single character trait.
This misunderstanding can be corrected if we realize that Aristotle discusses hamartia in the Poetics not as an aspect of character (ch. 15) but rather as an incident in the plot (ch. 13). What Aristotle means by hamartia might better be translated as "tragic error." Caught in a crisis situation, the protagonist makes an error in judgment or action, "missing the mark," and disaster results. The mistake may be an immoral choice, such as Clytemnestra's decision to murder her husband Agamemnon, or it may occur unconsciously through ignorance or misinformation, as in the case of Oedipus.
Most of Aristotle's examples show that he thought of hamartia primarily as a failure to recognize someone, often a blood relative. In his commentary Gerald Else sees a close connection between the concepts of hamartia, recognition, and catharsis. For Aristotle the most tragic situation possible was the unwitting murder of one family member by another. Mistaken identity allows Oedipus to kill his father Laius on the road to Thebes and subsequently to marry Jocasta, his mother; only later does he recognize his tragic error. However, because he commits the crime in ignorance and pays for it with remorse, self-mutilation, and exile, the plot reaches resolution or catharsis, and we pity him as a victim of ironic fate instead of accusing him of blood guilt.
While Aristotle's concept of tragic error fits the model example of Oedipus quite well, there are several tragedies in which the protagonists suffer due to circumstances totally beyond their control. In the Oresteia trilogy, Orestes must avenge his father's death by killing his mother. Aeschylus does not present Orestes as a man whose nature destines him to commit matricide, but as an unfortunate, innocent son thrown into a terrible dilemma not of his making. In The Trojan Women by Euripides, the title characters are helpless victims of the conquering Greeks; ironically, Helen, the only one who deserves blame for the war, escapes punishment by seducing her former husband Menelaus. Heracles, in Euripides' version of the story, goes insane and slaughters his wife and children, not for anything he has done but because Hera, queen of the gods, wishes to punish him for being the illegitimate son of Zeus and a mortal woman. Hamartia plays no part in these tragedies.
Given these examples, we should remember that Aristotle's theory of tragedy, while an important place to begin, should not be used to prescribe one definitive form which applies to all tragedies past and present.
Else, Gerald. Aristotle's Poetics: The Argument. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1957.
Golden, Leon, trans. Aristotle's Poetics. With Commentary by O. B. Hardison, Jr. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1967. Rpt. Florida UP, 1981.
Steiner, George. The Death of Tragedy. 1961. New York: Oxford UP, 1980.

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