Tragedy: the Basics

Above: Theatre at Epidaurus

Origins: Tragedy's origins are obscure, but it apparently started with the singing of a choral lyric (called the dithyramb) in honor of Dionysus. It was performed in a circular dancing-place (orchestra) by a group of men who may have impersonated satyrs by wearing masks and dressing in goat-skins. (The Greek word tragoedia means "goat-song.") Eventually, the content of the dithyramb was widened to any mythological or heroic story, and an actor was introduced to answer questions posed by the choral group. (The Greek word for actor is hypokrites, which literally means "answerer." It is the source for our English word "hypocrite.") Tragedy was recognized as an official state cult in Athens in 534 BC. According to tradition, the playwright Aeschylus added a second actor and Sophocles added a third.

Performance: Greek tragedies were performed in late March/early April at an annual state religious festival in honor of Dionysus. The presentation took the form of a contest between three playwrights, who presented their works on three successive days. Each playwright would prepare a trilogy of three tragedies, plus an unrelated concluding comic piece called a satyr play. Often, the three plays featured linked stories, but later writers like Euripides may have presented three unrelated plays. Only one complete trilogy has survived, the Oresteia of Aeschylus. The Greek theatre was in the open air, on the side of a hill, and performances of a trilogy and satyr play probably lasted most of the day. Performances were apparently open to all citizens, including women, but evidence is scanty. The theatre of Dionysus at Athens probably held around 12,000 people (Ley 33-34).

The presentation of the plays probably resembled modern opera more than what we think of as a "play." All of the choral parts were sung (to flute accompaniment) and some of the actors' answers to the chorus were sung as well. The play as a whole was composed in various verse meters. All actors were male and wore masks, which may have had some amplifying capabilities. A Greek chorus danced as well as sang. (The Greek word choros means "a dance in a ring.") No one knows exactly what sorts of steps the chorus performed as it sang. But choral songs in tragedy are often divided into three sections: strophe ("turning, circling"), antistrophe ("counter-turning, counter-circling") and epode ("after-song"). So perhaps the chorus would dance one way around the orchestra ("dancing-floor") while singing the strophe, turn another way during the antistrophe, and then stand still during the epode.

Definition: Tragedy depicts the downfall of a noble hero or heroine, usually through some combination of hubris, fate, and the will of the gods. The tragic hero's powerful wish to achieve some goal inevitably encounters limits, usually those of human frailty (flaws in reason, hubris, society), the gods (through oracles, prophets, fate), or nature. Aristotle says that the tragic hero should have a flaw and/or make some mistake (hamartia). The hero need not die at the end, but he / she must undergo a change in fortune. In addition, the tragic hero may achieve some revelation or recognition (anagnorisis--"knowing again" or "knowing back" or "knowing throughout" ) about human fate, destiny, and the will of the gods. Aristotle quite nicely terms this sort of recognition "a change from ignorance to awareness of a bond of love or hate."


Aristotle on Tragedy
(From the Poetics of Aristotle [384-322 BC])

I. Definition of Tragedy

"Tragedy, then, is a process of imitating an action which has serious implications, is complete, and possesses magnitude; by means of language which has been made sensuously attractive, with each of its varieties found separately in the parts; enacted by the persons themselves and not presented through narrative; through a course of pity and fear completing the purification (catharsis[*], sometimes translated "purgation") of such emotions."

a) "imitation" (mimesis)[*]: Contrary to Plato, Aristotle asserts that the artist does not just copy the shifting appearances of the world, but rather imitates or represents Reality itself, and gives form and meaning to that Reality. In so doing, the artist gives shape to the universal, not the accidental. Poetry, Aristotle says, is "a more philosophical and serious business than history; for poetry speaks more of universals, history of particulars."

b) "an action with serious implications": serious in the sense that it best raises and purifies pity and fear; serious in a moral, psychological, and social sense.

c) "complete and possesses magnitude": not just a series of episodes, but a whole with a beginning, a middle, and an end. The idea of imitation is important here; the artist does not just slavishly copy everything related to an action, but selects (represents) only those aspects which give form to universal truths.

d) "language sensuously the parts": language must be appropriate for each part of the play: choruses are in a different meter and rhythm and more melodious than spoken parts.

e) tragedy (as opposed to epic) relies on an enactment (dramatic performance) not on "narrative" (the author telling a story).

f) "purification" (catharsis)[*]: tragedy first raises (it does not create) the emotions of pity and fear, then purifies or purges them. Whether Aristotle means to say that this purification takes place only within the action of the play, or whether he thinks that the audience also undergoes a cathartic experience, is still hotly debated. One scholar, Gerald Else, says that tragedy purifies "whatever is 'filthy' or 'polluted' in the pathos, the tragic act" (98). Others say that the play arouses emotions of pity and fear in the spectator and then purifies them (reduces them to beneficent order and proportion) or purges them (expels them from his/her emotional system).

II. The Tragic Hero

The tragic hero is "a [great] man who is neither a paragon of virtue and justice nor undergoes the change to misfortune through any real badness or wickedness but because of some mistake."

a) a great man: "one of those who stand in great repute and prosperity, like Oedipus and Thyestes: conspicuous men from families of that kind." The hero is neither a villain nor a model of perfection but is basically good and decent.

b) "mistake" (hamartia)[*]: This Greek word, which Aristotle uses only once in the Poetics, has also been translated as "flaw" or as "error." The great man falls through--though not entirely because of--some weakness of character, some moral blindness, or error. We should note that the gods also are in some sense responsible for the hero's fall.

III. Plot

Aristotle distinguished six elements of tragedy: "plot, characters, verbal expression, thought, visual adornment, and song-composition." Of these, PLOT is the most important. The best tragic plot is single and complex, rather than double ("with opposite endings for good and bad"--a characteristic of comedy in which the good are rewarded and the wicked punished). All plots have some pathos [*] (suffering), but a complex plot includes reversal and recognition.

a) "reversal" (peripeteia)[*]: occurs when a situation seems to developing in one direction, then suddenly "reverses" to another. For example, when Oedipus first hears of the death of Polybus (his supposed father), the news at first seems good, but then is revealed to be disastrous.

b) "recognition" (anagnorisis or "knowing again" or "knowing back" or "knowing throughout" )[*]: a change from ignorance to awareness of a bond of love or hate. For example, Oedipus kills his father in ignorance and then learns of his true relationship to the King of Thebes. Recognition scenes in tragedy are of some horrible event or secret, while those in comedy usually reunite long-lost relatives or friends. A plot with tragic reversals and recognitions best arouses pity and fear.

c) "suffering" (pathos)[*]: Also translated as "a calamity," the third element of plot is "a destructive or painful act." The English words "sympathy," "empathy," and "apathy" (literally, absence of suffering) all stem from this Greek word.

*(You are responsible for these terms, both in English and in Greek.)

Works Cited

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