Hegel’s Theory of Phenomenology of Spirit in Tragedy

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      G.W.F. Hegel, the German philosopher, in his seminal book The Phenomenology of Spirit argues for a complicated theory of tragedy, with two complementary branches which differentiate Greek tragedy from that which follows Shakespeare. According to A.C Bradley, Shakespeare’s tragedy is the ‘tragic collision’ which contrasts against the Aristotelian notions of tragic hero and hamartia. Of course, in his later lectures, Hegel formulates the theory of tragedy as a conflict of ethical forces represented by characters in ancient Greek tragedy, while in Shakespearean tragedy the conflict is rendered as one of subject and object, of individual personality and capricious external world. The classical tragic characters encounter situations mostly governed by supernatural power beyond human power and range. But in modern tragedy, the tragic situation is mostly grounded upon the character itself, which could have been avoided by performing an otherwise action. So, where former is a result of fate, the latter is that of an accidental miss-happening. Greek heroes also act in accordance with individuality, which is necessarily a self-contained ethical pathos. In modern tragedy, however, the character in its peculiarity decides in accordance with subjective desires, which brings about a change in fortune and thereby an intolerable situation leading to destruction or the likes. Hegel’s comments on a particular play may better elucidate his theory: “Viewed externally, Hamlet’s death may be seen to have been brought about accidentally... but in Hamlet’s soul, we understand that death has lurked from the beginning: the sandbank of finitude cannot suffice his sorrow and tenderness, such grief and nausea at all conditions of life... we feel he is a man whom inner disgust has almost consumed well before death comes upon him from outside.”

      Through the action of the tragic hero the main institutions of ethical life, the family and the state, come into conflict. In Hegel’s view, the essence of tragedy is conflict, not a moral conflict between right and wrong, but a conflict between legitimate rights and institutions. Such conflict moves the unmovable, i.e. the norms and institutions of ethical life, threatening them with destruction. Such conflict arises out of the false consciousness of the tragic hero, who, convinced of his own rectitude, embodies a stubborn fixity of will that issues in one-sided action that both violates another legitimate right and plunges the hero into self-contradiction. She refuses to recognize what, if she were true to her/ himself, she should honor. Like Aristotle Hegel believes in tragic resolution. In Hegel’s view the tragic resolution demands that the hero yield, give a little, recognize what she refuses, and enlarge his/her perspective. If she yields, the drama does not have to end tragically; but if she refuses to yield, then the hero is destroyed by the very powers she refuses to recognize. The tragic resolution is constituted by a fundamental contrast: on the one hand, we are shattered by the destruction of one who is noble and excellent, but on the other, we are fundamentally reconciled to this destruction because a conflict and loss of essential institutions that hold everything together would be even more unbearable. Hegel agrees with- Nietzsche that the destruction of the hero, whose one-sided action threatens to destroy ethical life, is necessary and is a healing, not as fusion with primal being but rather the upholding of the essential rights and institutions of ethical life, the one as counterbalanced by the other.

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