Modification on Tragedy in Poetics

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      Aristotle's Poetics has been regarded with such reverence that it had become almost criminal to try and point out possible limitations in his theory of tragedy. The neo-classicals, for instance, instead of suitably modifying Aristotle's theory, judged later drama in the light of the views put forward in the Poetics. They failed to realize that Aristotle's opinions were based on the Greek drama he knew. His views were of a deductive kind; they were not dogmatic laws. Dryden, however, had the good sense to point out: "It is not enough that Aristotle said so, for Aristotle drew his models of tragedy from Sophocles and Euripides; and if he had seen ours, might have changed his mind." The views of even the greatest critics inevitably have to be modified with the march of time. Values change with time, attitudes and demands change, and with this literature also changes. Critical tenets also change.

Aristotle's Concept of Tragedy

      Aristotle's definition of tragedy is too famous and important to ignore or change completely. Any discussion of tragedy would inevitably have to take into account Aristotle's definition:

A tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious and also, having magnitude, complete, in itself; in language embellished with pleasurable accessories, each kind brought in separately in the parts of the work; in a dramatic point a narrative form; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions.

      Tragedy is an imitation of an action. The essence of tragedy was that it handled serious actions. Tragedy, as F.L. Lucas remarks, has had three meanings. In the ancient time, it meant 'serious drama'. In the Middle Ages, it came to be associated with 'a story with an unhappy close'. In the modern sense (beginning with the Renaissance), it became a "drama with an unhappy close, disastrous enough for us to feel it tragic'. There is also an implied insistence that tragedy is concerned with the cosmic sense of the problem of evil, the mystery and cruelty of things.

      What is action? How much of it should there be? Aristotle does not give us a rigid answer. He merely states that it should have a beginning, middle and end. Again, this depends on which writer is treating the same story.

The Intense Concentration of the Greek Plays

      Critics have time and against noted that Greek plays, almost without exception, begin at a very late stage in the 'story', or near the catastrophe. This led to an intense concentration of attention. It presented a vision of single focus; external existence often had no meaning in it. Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannous is superb example of this kind of concentration.

      The same story, if taken up by Shakespeare, would have been made into a different plot. The plot most probably would have begun at the very beginning, i.e., with the coming of the oracle to King Laius, warning him that if he begets a son he will die by that son's hand. This shows the difference between the classical and romantic approaches. Elizabethan drama has a shifting focus, and a multiplicity of effects. But the detail does not affect the totality of vision.

      The modern dramatist has once again developed a fascination for form; he has come to feel that in tragedy a terrible inevitability is gained by beginning, not at the very beginning, but just before the catastrophe, when the tragic mistakes have been made and are beyond recall.

Action and Character in Greek and Modern Tragedy

      The very fact that Greek tragedy began at a late point led to a certain limitation, which compensated for the effect gained in concentration. 'There was not enough space for character development. This is not to say that all Greek drama lacked good characterization. Furthermore, the facts of the great legends on which Greek tragedy was based could not be set aside. This, too, restricted the freedom of the Greek poet from delineating character. The themes usually handled were simple in outline; the main issues were clear and free from the disturbing accidents of individuality. Personal passion seldom animated the Greek tragic hero.

      Modern drama introduces us into another world of poetic emotion. A richer and more varied inner life is opened up. "Action has passed from outside the characters to within them, from the boards of the theatre to the theatre of the soul, so that the distinction between action and passion tends to become vague. The sense of personality is deepened. The idiosyncrasies of human nature have become material for drama. The character portrayal in Shakespeare assumes immense variety. The discovery of "unsuspected depth in human nature has brought into prominence the subjective modes of viewing life. Love, honor, ambition, and jealousy are the prevailing motives of modern tragedy" Yet one might say that Shakespeare, while deepening the subjective personality of man, does not lose sight of the objective ends of the corresponding phases of character. Between these two sides of human experience, he maintains a just balance.

      With Ibsen, we move to a naturalistic world. The mystery of the human personality is of supreme interest to the modern dramatist. In Ibsen, there is the contrast between what man dreams of and what he is really. Strindberg's heroes are possessed of an obsessive ego. Chekov celebrates the frustrated and inarticulate hero. But one has to admit that a certain balance between character delineation and plot has to be kept if tragedy is to be considered as a drama. Too much of introspection and analysis of character and motive has marred the dramatic effect of many modern productions.

The Tragic Hero: Modification of Aristotle's Concept

      Perhaps the greatest modification in Aristotle's concept of tragedy has to be made in connection with the tragic hero. Aristotle's tragic Character had to be good, appropriate, consistent, true to life. Modern playwrights hold no quarrel with the last two aspects. But does the tragic character have to be good? Of course, one has to take into account the Greek sense of the term before one judges its validity As for the ideal tragic hero, Aristotle stipulates that he should be an intermediate sort of person. Whose misfortune arises from some error of judgment and not from depravity and vice. He precludes the blameless person and the villain from tragedy. Yet we mark Shakespeare's success with a villain as tragic hero. Webster's Vittoria, too, is no innocent baby.

      Modern tragedy has seen a democratization which goes against the Aristotelian opinion of the hero being someone prominent. Common man is the subject of modern tragedy-witness Miller's Death of a Salesman. Not has the perfectly good man been excluded from tragedy T.S. Eliot and Bernard Shaw have shown marked success with saints as tragic heroes or heroines in Murder in The Cathedral and Saint Joan respectively. The heroes of modern tragedies are 'pigmies' pitted against a ruthless, mercenary society. Their tragedy is a 'social' tragedy.

The Singleness of Action: Shakespearean Liberty

      Aristotle insisted on a single action being proper to tragedy. Yet we note that Shakespeare handles the 'double-plot' with remarkable mastery; it does not detract from the overall effect of his tragedies. The comic and the tragic stand side by side in Shakespeare's plays. Indeed, the comic aspect deepens our awareness of the tragic. Hamlet presents the garrulous Polonius, whose inadequate worldly wisdom stand in contrast to the deeper truths revealed by the play. Hamlet's own mordant wit epitomizes the use that can be made of comedy in tragedy. It will also be noted that most of Shakespeare's tragedies are not the tightly-knit structures demanded by Aristotle. The unity in Shakespeare's plays is not of the Aristotelian kind.

Concept of Discovery ad Development of Character

      Aristotle's views on the complex plot having discovery as an ingredient, is based on the usual 'Discovery' in Greek drama. It usually involved the clearing up of mistaken identity. In Shakespeare's tragedies, the Discovery involves the transformation of the hero - the realization by the hero of the truth of man's situation. Hamlet comes to the conclusion that 'Readiness is all'; Lear says with clam repose "ripeness is all." This maturity, this growth, has been possible because of the greater interest in character delineation, in its turn the Consequence of the Renaissance interest in Man.

      It is has been debated whether modern tragedy can be called tragedy at all. Modern man seems to have lost faith in the greatness of Man, and hence fails to give the exultation of spirit so essential to tragedy. This, however, is another matter. The concept of tragedy has undoubtedly changed. Tragedy is the domain of the common man, the victim of a ruthless society, trying to hold his own against its stringent and cruel laws. Aristotle's views thus have to be modified. That Aristotle himself realized the possibility of not having said the last word on tragedy, is apparent in his words: "Whether tragedy has yet perfected its proper types or not, and whether it is to be judged in itself or in relation also to the audience-raises another question." This sentence gives us freedom to reconsider tragic art since his time. After all, "if Aristotle had been familiar with Elizabethan tragedy, he would have considerably modified his views." The statement, I feel, is too hypothetical to be truly critical. But it suggests the need for making modifications in Aristotle's concept of tragedy, rather making the doubtful (and futile) attempt of fitting a tragedy like Macbeth or Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman within the Aristotelian concept.

University Questions

"Aristotle's views on tragedy require considerable modification in the light of later developments in the field of tragedy." Elucidate.
"If Aristotle had been familiar with Elizabethan tragedy, he would have considerably modified his views." Do you agree?
Compare and contrast Aristotle's conception of tragedy with the Elizabethan and modern conceptions.
The chief limitation of Aristotle's concept of tragedy is that his remarks have relevance only to the drama on which they are based. How far is this statement valid?

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