Drama, in prose or verse



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Tragedy according to Aristotle’s Poetics
From A Handbook To Literature by William Flint Thrall and Addison Hibbard and

C. Hugh Holman


“Tragedy [is] a drama, in prose or verse, which recounts an important and causally related series of events in the life of a person of significance, such events culminating in an unhappy catastrophe, the whole treated with great dignity and seriousness. According to Aristotle, whose definition in the Poetics is an inductive description of the Greek tragedies, the purpose of a tragedy is to arouse the emotions of pity and fear and thus to produce in the audience a catharsis of these emotions.”
“The question of the nature of the significance of the tragic hero is answered in each age by the concept that is held by that age. In a period of monarchy, Shakespeare’s protagonists were kings and rulers; in other ages they have been and will be other kinds of men. In a democratic nation, founded on an egalitarian concept of man, a tragic hero can be the archetypal common man---a shoe salesman, a policeman, a gangster, a New England farmer, a servant.”
“In its own way Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is fully as serious and as dignified for our world as Hamlet was for Elizabethan England, although it is a lesser play.”
Tragedy has traditionally included the tragic flaw of the hero and the reliance on the unities of action, time and place. Aristotle said that tragedy was “an imitation of an action that is complete, and whole, and of a certain magnitude”; a whole should have beginning, middle, and end, with a causal relationship in the different parts of the play. Inevitability and concentration result from adherence to the unity of action.
Unity of action, Aristotle warned is not “necessarily obtained simply by making one man the subject.” Later critics declared that a subplot tends to destroy the unity of any serious play and that tragic and comic elements should not be mixed. Other critics defended what came to be called tragic-comedy. Unity of time defined the action to take place in one rotation of the sun. Unity of place, limiting the action to one place, was the last to emerge and was not mentioned by Aristotle. It seemed to arise naturally from unity of time.
Many plays violate all three unities. Modern dramatists seem to be more interested in the unity of impression, that is the singleness of emotional effect (reminiscent of Poe’s theory of the short story).
“…To me the tragedy of Willy Loman is that he gave his life, or sold it, in order to justify the waste of it. It is the tragedy of a man who did believe that he alone was not meeting the qualifications laid down for mankind by those clean-shaven frontiersmen who inhabit the peaks of broadcasting and advertising offices. From those forests of canned goods high up near the sky, he heard the thundering command to succeed as it ricocheted down the newspaper-lined canyons of his city, heard not a human voice, but a wind of a voice to which no human can reply in kind, except to stare into the mirror at a failure.”

--Arthur Miller, “The ‘Salesman’ Has a Birthday,” The New York Times, February 5, 1950


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