Roots of Tragedy Aristotle’s Poetics (350 B.C.) laid the groundwork for the study of Greek tragedy. The Poetics drew from Greek tragedians such as Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles, and poets such as Homer. Roman statesman, philosopher, and dramatist Seneca (4 B.C.-65 A.D.) developed the five-act form that became standard during the Renaissance. He also popularized the use of asides and soliloquies. In the Middle Ages, tragedy was associated with the downfall of eminent people through the turning of Fortune's wheel; their fall shows the caprice of Fortune and the folly of placing trust in worldly goods rather than God's will.
Renaissance tragedy, such as Marlowe's Tamburlaine, drew on Seneca. These in turn gave rise to Marlowe's Dr. Faustus; Shakespeare’s Othello, Macbeth, Hamlet and King Lear. All of these plays dramatize the conflicts of kings, conquerors, and geniuses. Renaissance tragedy in England was much more flexible than Greek tragedy, often adding comic elements, and in the attributes of the tragic hero. English dramatists and their audiences were fascinated by sympathetic or admirable villains (contrary to Aristotelian principles of tragedy). Renaissance tragedy, such as Marlowe's Tamburlaine, drew on Seneca. These in turn gave rise to Marlowe's Dr. Faustus; Shakespeare’s Othello, Macbeth, Hamlet and King Lear. All of these plays dramatize the conflicts of kings, conquerors, and geniuses. Renaissance tragedy in England was much more flexible than Greek tragedy, often adding comic elements, and in the attributes of the tragic hero. English dramatists and their audiences were fascinated by sympathetic or admirable villains (contrary to Aristotelian principles of tragedy).
What Defines Shakespearean Tragedy? A Tragic Hero The Tragic Flaw-Hamartia Reversal of Fortune Catharsis Restoration of Social Order- Denouement
The Tragic Hero A tragic hero meets his or her downfall through a combination of hubris, tragic flaw, fate, and the will of the gods. Hubris, in modern terms, is exaggerated self pride or self-confidence, often resulting in fatal retribution. Tragic flaw (“hamartia“) includes accidents and mistakes, wrongdoing, error, or sin. The tragic hero should be of noble birth—a ranking politician, military figure, prince, king, etc. This produces the feeling of fear; if it can happen to someone of noble birth, it can happen to us. The hero should not be morally better than an average person. This produces "fear" because the hero is imperfect like us, and we can identify with him. It also produces "pity" because if the hero were perfect or totally good, we would be outraged by his fate. If he were completely evil, we would feel like he had gotten what he deserved
This model of a hero may not always be a “good guy”. The tragic hero has made its way into more contemporary literature because audiences can relate to them. A tragic hero follows a twelve step pattern.
Tragic Hero Pattern Step 1 – A protagonist of high estate Step 2 – A tragic flaw in character Step 3 – Intrusion of time, sense or urgency Step 4 – Misreading/Rationalizations Step 5 – Murder, exile, alienation of enemies and allies Step 6 – Gradual isolation of Tragic Hero
Step 7 – Mobilization of opposition Step 8 – Recognition of tragic flaw, too late Step 9 – Last courageous attempt to restore greatness. Step 10 – Audience recognizes potential for greatness. Step 11 – Death of tragic hero. Step 12 – Restoration of order.
Reversal of Fortune Reversal of Fortune The ‘fatal flaw’ brings the hero down from his/her elevated state. Renaissance audiences were familiar with the ‘wheel of fortune’ or ‘fickle fate’. What goes up, must come down.
Catharsis We get the word ‘catharsis’ from Aristotle’s katharsis. ‘Catharsis’ is the audience’s purging of emotions through pity and fear. The spectator is purged as a result of watching the hero fall. This is why we cry during movies!
Restoration of Social Order Tragedies include a private and a public element The play cannot end until society is, once again, at peace. This is why the Tragic Hero often dies
Shakespearean Tragedy Shakespearean Tragedy Whether or not he was aware of Aristotle, Shakespeare’s tragedies generally adhere to the philosopher’s mold for good tragedy. Free will is important in Shakespearean tragedy. Characters have the ability to choose their path but make errors in choices due to their flawed nature. They are usually more directly responsible for the downfall than an Aristotelian hero would be.
Critical Views on Shakespearean Tragedy In Shakespearean Tragedy (1904), the Victorian critic A. C. Bradley divided tragedy into; 1) Exposition of the situation 2) Beginning and growth of the conflict 3) Catastrophe or tragic outcome The hero’s tragic flaw is a mistake in action or omission. This error, along with other causes, brings the hero’s ruin. Shakespeare's characters bring their fates upon themselves and, in a sense, deserve what they get. Some of Shakespeare's plays (e.g. King Lear) are tragic simply because the hero suffers more than he or she should due to his or her actions.
In The Anatomy of Criticism (1957) Northrop Frye noted five stages of action in tragedy: 1) Encroachment. 2) Complication 3) Reversal 4) Catastrophe 5) Recognition
1) Encroachment. 1) Encroachment. Protagonist takes on too much, makes a mistake that causes his/her "fall." This mistake is often unconscious (an act blindly done, through over-confidence in one's ability to regulate the world or through insensitivity to others) but still violates the norms of human conduct.
Complication. Complication. The building up of events aligning opposing forces that will lead inexorably to the tragic conclusion. "Just as comedy often sets up an arbitrary law and then organizes the action to break or evade it, so tragedy presents the reverse theme of narrowing a comparatively free life into a process of causation."
3) Reversal. The point at which it becomes clear that the hero's expectations are mistaken, that his fate will be the reverse of what he had hoped. At this moment, the vision of the dramatist and the audience are the same. The classic example is Oedipus, who seeks the knowledge that proves him guilty of murdering his father and marrying his mother; when he accomplishes his objective, he realizes he has destroyed himself in the process.
4) Catastrophe. The catastrophe exposes the limits of the hero's power and dramatizes the waste of his life. Piles of dead bodies remind us that the forces unleashed are not easily contained; there are also elaborate subplots (e.g. Gloucester in King Lear) which reinforce the impression of a world inundated with evil.
5) Recognition. 5) Recognition. The audience (sometimes the hero as well) recognizes the larger pattern. If the hero does experience recognition, he assumes the vision of his life held by the dramatist and the audience. From this new perspective he can see the irony of his actions, adding to the poignancy of the tragic events.
Shakespearean Tragedy Like Aristotle, Shakespeare felt that men of rank (“higher” individuals) held the potential for the greatest tragedies. Abnormal conditions—war, mutiny, feuds, etc. Supernatural elements—ghosts, omens, witches, soothsayers, prophecies, etc. Chance—often linked to the character’s tragic flaw (i.e., allows the flaw to affect the situation and cause the downfall).
What Defines Shakespearean Tragedy? What Defines Shakespearean Tragedy? A Tragic Hero The Tragic Flaw-Hamartia Reversal of Fortune Catharsis Restoration of Social Order – Denouement