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Theories of Tragedy

The two main opposing or dialectical concepts on literature’s effect on the responder are: It should engage and evoke emotional empathy and identification, or it should:Detach, disassociate or distance the audience to make critical, objective and judgmental responses. 

There is a fine line between tragedy and comedy. In a tragedy an actor, on stage, trips and falls and we empathise, while in comedy the event causes laughter and we become distanced from the his plight. Aristotle maintained that “comedy tends to imitate persons below the level of our world, tragedy persons above it”.

Aristotle’s:“The impulse to imitate is inherent (inborn) in mankind from his childhood.... we take our first steps in learning through imitation.” Most primitive societies engaged in re-enactments. Tragedy is an imitation of characters above the level of the world; high action, sad and catastrophic. Comedy, the action of lower characters, light and flippant. The bare facts of alone should make us shudder so the dramatist must elevate the audience’s fear, terror and pity into a higher level creating Katharsis, transforming and cleansing us so that we feel emotionally purged. The hero’s suffering leads to Disclosure, (Anagnorisis) or self-recognition as they become aware of their true predicament, puncturing all their illusions of themselves. 

Sophocles - Oedipus Rex: Human activity is a quest for self knowledge, a search for identity, self discovery, and self recognition which can lead to confidence and empowerment or to sobering humility and disillusionment. We begin in ignorance; we do not know where we came from, who fathered us, where we are, but go blinded by life and hope towards a destiny we cannot comprehend. Heroism is defined as an anguished acceptance of our own identity and nature forged in action and in a world we never made.” born thus, I ask to be no other man than that I am and will know who I am” “speak of no man’s happiness, Till, without sorrow, he has passed the goal of life.” 

Shakespearean Tragedy - A.C. Bradley Heroes – exceptional beings, nobly born and of high degree and public importance. Their actions and sufferings are of an unusual kind, not eccentric or paragons, rather we in elevated or intensified scales. Their fate is public and exemplary.  Tragic traits or flaws on a grand scale, while great, it can also be fatal. The tragic hero errs by action or omission which leads to ruin. The tragic hero can be consciously villainous, such as Richard II or Macbeth or merely have a defect or imperfection, such as Hamlet or Lear. Some predilections: 1) irresolute, 2) precipitancy, 3) pride, 4) credulousness, 5) excessive simplicity, 6) susceptibility.

Post Renaissance - the great divide; the death of tragedy. The major change is one of scepticism and rationalism; human reason and order are limited and vulnerable to “occult and uncontrollable forces”, a loss of faith in the old gods, mythology and a loss of magic, awe and imagination, the shift from hierarchical societies to egalitarianism and the decline and death of verse tragedy. The modern writers have succumbed to the “void of meaning” as they feel language cannot no longer articulate the abyss and horror of the times. Heroes no longer exist and life is depicted in all its bizarreness and absurdities.

Hegel contends that a good drama aspires to be and a tragedy must be a depiction of a human interaction in which both antagonists are, arguably, in the right.


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