General Introduction: Eight Great Tragedies

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General Introduction: Eight Great Tragedies

In Greek the word “tragedy” means “goat song”, but the connection between tragedy and goat song is obscure. Perhaps a goat was the prize at some sort of early singing contest in Greece, or perhaps the dancers wore goat skins. One medieval writer ingeniously suggested that tragedy is called goat song because it begins prosperously, as a goat is abundantly hairy in front, and ends wretchedly, as a goat is bare in the rear. Dante Alighieri, whose Divine Comedy proves him to be the greatest poet of the Middle Ages, offered the engaging idea that tragedy is so called because its story is unpleasant and smelly as a goat.

The American public does not greatly approve of goat songs. We are an independent, optimistic people and like to feel that we can do anything we please. Our movies, for example, specialize in success stories with happy endings, and Hollywood has almost banished death from the screen. If there is a death in a film, it is likely to be that of either a villain or a minor character. Deaths of villains comfort us, and the death of a minor character, such as the hero’s friend (a so-called “secondary tragedy”), allows us to indulge in sentiment and yet come through smiling. Ogden Nash has summarized the dominant American view:

To tragedy I have no addiction;
What I always say is there’s enough trouble in real
life without reading about it in fiction.
However, I don’t mind tears and smiles in a judicious
blending,
And I enjoy a stormy beginning if it leads to a hal-
cyon ending.

Most people would agree with Mr. Nash that tragedy depicts man’s troubles. But this is only half the story, for tragic drama does not stop with troubles, but goes on to achieve some sort of affirmation, and thus it is optimistic rather than (as commonly thought) pessimistic.

The words “optimism” and “pessimism” are, of course, too simple to summarize anything so complex as tragic drama, but however imprecise, they are relevant because they correctly imply that tragedy makes statements about mankind and the universe in which he finds himself. Tragic drama, then, is related to philosophy, and it is not an accident that the great Greek tragedies were produced during the age of Socrates and Plato, in the middle of the fifth century BCE. Philosophers however, tend to distrust the insights of dramatists, for philosophers usually like well-defined terms and consistent rational arguments. For example, although Plato was a literary master, he scorned the poets (including dramatists) and in the Laws banished them from his ideal city. Plato and Socrates believed that man is capable of rational choice and that a bad choice is the result of faulty or insufficient thinking. But according to poets (notably Homer), the gods may sometimes madden or blind a man so that his action is not the result of thought at all. The tragedian is an especially dangerous poet because he depicts not rational but emotional men, and in addition to imitating or depicting emotion rather than reason he seeks to induce is his audience sympathy, an emotional rather than a rational response. Furthermore, Plato charges the poet not only appeals to emotion but by showing excessive and unjustified suffering suggests that the gods are partly responsible for evil and that a morally good life is not always a happy life. Plato here is not so far, then, from the man in the street who wants to see the good man amply rewarded.

Nor is Plato the only philosopher critical of the moral effect of tragedy. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for example, in the late eighteenth century, restated Plato’s idea that dramatists play on the spectators’ emotions and induce pointless and unthinking tears. An ardent reformer, Rousseau further objected that at a drama the audience is urged by catchy speeches to weep but not to do anything to set the world’s affairs in order. Now, such criticisms as those of Plato and...
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