Thursday, December 22, 2005

Definition of Tragedy

A Definition of Tragedy

The term ‘Tragedy’ is used in a common parlance, and yet it cannot be reduced to a formula, for it has so many shades that it actually defies a logical analysis. An American critic has admirable summed up Tragedy in a few words: “Courage and inevitable defeat.” Now-a-days we can never think of a Tragedy without an unhappy ending. But the Greeks did. Philoctetes by Sophocles, for example, has no unhappy ending. There is a similarity between the ancient Greek Tragedy and a modern Tragedy. The hero and certain other characters are caught in a difficult situation.

The character and plot in most of Tragedies are linked up. In Greek Tragedies fate played a very important part, but after the Renaissance character became more and more prominent. In some of Shakespearian Tragedies, despite the importance of character, the motivation of action comes from the supernatural forces or even external circumstances. In modern Tragedies, the hero is often the victim of social forces.

Aristotle defined Tragedy as “a representation of an action, which is serious; complete in itself, and of a certain length; it is expressed in speech made beautiful in different ways in different parts of the play; it is acted, not narrated; and by exciting pity and fear it gives a healthy relief to such emotions.”

Tragedy must be spoudaious i.e. noble, serious, and elevated. The Greek root for Tragedy is tragoidia, which means something serious, but not necessarily a drama with an unhappy ending. Plato has called Homer’s Odyssey a Tragedy, though it is not drama. Seriousness of subject is what really matters.

Tragedy, F. L. Lucas maintains, had three different meanings in the three periods of literary history. In ancient times, a Tragedy meant a serious drama; in medieval times, a Tragedy meant a story with an unhappy ending; and a modern Tragedy is a drama with an unhappy ending.

“Tragedy is an imitation of an action.” And ‘action’ again gives rise to a lot of troubles. A novel or an Epic is narrated, while a drama, be it a Tragedy or a Comedy, is acted. Can there be action without narration? The answer is obvious. The Greek Dramaturgy did not allowed any act of violence on the stage. Even a romantic playwright like Shakespeare had some of the murders reported by messengers. Lucas rightly points out, “Not everything permits itself to be acted. ‘Let not Medea slay her sons before the audience’: things like that, at least, on the Greek stage were relegated to a Messenger’s speech.”

With regard to “an action which is complete in itself,” the controversy has been raging for a long time. What is actually meant by completeness? An action having a beginning, a middle, and an end is said to be complete. T. R. Henn defines ‘completeness’ as totality which Matthew Arnold later called ‘architectonice’. Aristotle himself, in different chapter of the Poetics, has saught to define ‘completeness’. If the play begins abruptly, the reader or the audience may not understand what it is about. Let not the reader ask “What happens then?” The work of art should be rounded off. The Greek art, whether plastic or non-plastic, always insisted on symmetry. Along with symmetry there is frugality. The details are not extraneous. On the contrary, it is an organic unity. If there are details, they are not ornamental, but functional, Aristotle means by ‘completeness’ the organic unity.

The organic unity is linked up with the size of the work of art. If the art has no appropriate limit or size, it loses its symmetry. “Whatever is beautiful, whether it be a living creature or an object made up of various parts, must necessarily not only have its parts properly ordered, but also be of an appropriate size for beauty is banned up with size and order.” If a thing is a thousand miles long, that will also not be beautiful, for the whole thing cannot be taken in all at once, and the unity of the art will be lost sight of Aristotle while speaking of the Plot, again emphasis that the plot of a play, being but representation of an action, must present it as an organic whole. Aristotle says that the Tragedies “should center upon a single action, whole and complete, and having a beginning, a middle and an end, so that like a single complete organism the poem may produce a special kind of pleasure.”

Aristotle emphasizes that the Tragedy should be “expressed in speech made beautiful.” But in the modern age, Tragedies have become realistic, and therefore, the language has become drab and colourless. Another part of Aristotle’s definition of Tragedy is that it should be “acted, not narrated.” This also is a bone of contention.

Scholarship Blog


At 5:10 PM, Blogger Chika Blanca de Guate said...

I really appreciate this article. I am trying to write my own set of little tragedies- this is my favorite line- Tragedy must be spoudaious i.e. noble, serious, and elevated.

You should check it out my - and give me your honest response. Read my TRAGEDY tab. I could use an articulate criticism.


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