Historical Overview on Tragedy

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      In Aristotle’s (384-322 BCE) Poetics (335 BCE) tragedy has been studied to be a leading genre in the forms of poetry (epic and lyric) or drama (tragedy as opposed to comedy). In modern literary text, tragedy is employed in drama, melodrama, tragicomedy, and epic theatre. Long after the age of the 5th century Athenian tragedy, Aristotle in his Poetics, while analyzing the origin of dramatic art, argues that tragedy has developed from the improvisations of the leader of choral dithyrambs, which is a program of hymns and dance in praise of Dionysus. In his work, Aristotle provides a scholastic definition of tragedy as—

“Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornaments, the several kinds of being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of an action, not of narrative; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its katharsis of such emotions. . . . Every tragedy, therefore, must have six parts, which parts determine its quality — namely Plot, Characters, Diction, Thought, Spectacle, and Melody.” - Poetics, (translation by S. H. Butcher)

      Nietzsche discussed the origins of Greek tragedy in his early book The Birth of Tragedy in 1872. He suggests that the term tragedy originates in the use of a chorus of goat-like satyrs in the original dithyrambs from which the tragic genre developed. According to Scott Scullion, “There is abundant evidence for tragoidia understood as ‘song for the prize goat”. The best known evidence is in Horace’s Ars Poetica 220-24 (“he who with a tragic song competed for a mere goat”). Parian Marble, in his chronicle inscribed about 264/63 BCE, records the statement that “Thespis is the poet ... first produced ... and as prize was established the billy goat”.

      Plato, in his the Republic (mid 4th BCE), furnished an exploration of the poetic language in terms of the form of discourse. This imitation or mimesis posed a problem for Plato because of his interest in linguistic meaning: language which is an indirect imitation of reality is like a visual projection, ‘showing at a distance’. Plato was the first to point out that there is something philosophically and linguistically puzzling about dramatic speech. Mimesis, which is actually a ‘representation’ of something, is also treated as a poetic representation by Plato in his attempt of inspection of dramatic diction and style. Mimesis, to Plato, is over-emotional and morally harmful, and so poetry is banned from his the Republic excepting the poetry celebrating the praise of the gods and the good men. Notwithstanding, Plato’s demonstration of dialogues has a great contact with drama and he has enriched his philosophy in dramatic form and highly poetic style. He rarely quotes from tragic texts: his interests are more in an internalized theatre of the mind. His theory of language is overwhelmingly visual, in its model of the separation of the knower and the known (through rational thought rather than emotional identification).

      In his theory of mimesis, Plato says that all art is mimetic by nature; art is an imitation of life. He believed that ‘idea’ is the ultimate reality. Art imitates idea and so it is imitation of reality. He gives an example of a carpenter and a chair. The idea of ‘chair’ first came in the mind of carpenter. He gave physical shape to his idea out of wood and created a chair. The painter imitated the chair of the carpenter in his picture of chair. Thus, painter’s chair is twice removed from reality. Hence, he believed that art is twice removed from reality. He gives first importance to philosophy as philosophy deals with the ideas whereas poetry deals with illusions - things which are twice removed from reality. So to Plato, philosophy is superior to poetry. Plato rejected poetry as it is mimetic in nature on the moral and philosophical grounds. On the contrary, Aristotle advocated poetry as it is mimetic in nature. According to him, poetry is an imitation of an action and his tool of inquiry is neither philosophical 
nor moral. He examines poetry as a piece of art and not as a book of preaching or teaching.

      However, Aristotle’s Poetics (late 4th century BCE) is the first systematic analysis of dramatic form. According to Aristotle, the value of a tragic poetry lies in its evocation of feelings like pity and fear, which have effect on the audience through the proper purgation of these emotions. It is technically called catharsis. Aristotle disagreed with the Platonic view that mimesis is a mere imitation of reality. To him, poetry is superior to history because it addresses the possible and the necessary, rather than the actual, and so general truths rather than particular facts. He defines plot as the organization of the events and such organization is not identical with the thematic organization. Aristotle agrees with the Platonic view of extreme emotion in the spectators of tragedy, but he draws a more optimistic conclusion from it. The contrast between the philosopher-poet Plato (arguing against poetry as irrational and morally harmful) and the logician Aristotle (developing an emotion-based model) illustrates a paradox endemic in writings about tragedy.

      Aristotle agrees with Plato in calling the poet an imitator and creative art, imitation. He imitates one of the three objects - things as they were / are, things as they are said or thought to be or things as they ought to be. In other words, he imitates what is past or present, what is commonly believed and what is ideal. Aristotle believes that there is natural pleasure in imitation which is an in-born instinct in men. It is this pleasure in imitation that enables the child to learn his earliest lessons in speech and conduct from those around him, because there is a pleasure in doing so. In a grown-up child - a poet, there is another instinct, helping him to make him a poet — the instinct for harmony and rhythm.

      Aristotle does not agree with his teacher in — ‘poet’s imitation is twice removed from reality and hence unreal/illusion of truth’, to prove his point he compares poetry with history. The poet and the historian differ not by their medium, but the true difference is that the historian relates ‘what has happened’, the poet, ‘what may/ought to have happened’ -the ideal. Poetry, therefore, is more philosophical, and a higher thing than history because history expresses the particular while poetry tends to express the universal. Therefore, the picture of poetry pleases all and at all times. Aristotle does not agree with Plato in the function of poetry making people weaker and emotional or too sentimental. For him, catharsis is ennobling and it humbles a human being. So far as the moral nature of poetry is concerned, Aristotle believes that the end of poetry is to please; however, teaching may be the byproduct of it. Such pleasing is superior to the other pleasures because it teaches civic morality. So all good literature gives pleasure, which is not divorced from moral lessons.

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