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The Influence of Greek Tragedy

A discussion of philosophical and theatrical responses to Greek tragedy

Tragedy is not only a literary and theatrical practice, but also constitutes an object of contemplation, which has served as an intellectual touchstone for many philosophers and artists. Among the most influential theorists are Plato, Aristotle, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Brecht.

Almost all define tragedy in terms of their own perspectives, which are often quite polemical. They may reduce 'good' tragedy to the work of one preferred poet. Euripides is generally a problem for them.

There are perhaps two major dimensions to the consideration of what Plato (in Republic 607b) called palaia tis diaphora or 'a long-standing quarrel' between philosophy and poetry: the ethical and the formal. Tragic plots normally describe some aspect of the relationships between human suffering and right or wrong action, and they describe it in the form of a fictional story. This puts the relationship between art and morals under scrutiny. The nature (and the extent) of the ethical content of poetry is open to question, as is the suitability of drama to address moral issues. The texts cited below include both highly philosophical and technically theatrical writings, which address both these aspects.

One strategy for navigating this complex area might be through a linguistic approach, charting theory in terms of differences in the way each critic describes and evaluates dialogue and song. Drama is central to most discussions of poietike, reflecting its origins in performance, and writing on tragedy usually emphasises its effect as an experience, as well as an aesthetic object.

A related approach could be through the notion of psychological distance (between art and audience), exploring the nature of the audience's involvement in the artistic experience. These two themes are evident from the earliest writings on tragedy by Plato and Aristotle, and are central to most subsequent discussions.

Tragedy may be said to highlight the interaction between speech and writing in a literate society, and to question the link between truth and fact. Plato's objection to tragedy as not depicting the truth was countered by Aristotle's argument that facts are only particulars, and poetry could show general truths. Coleridge implies a similar power, through 'that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith' (Biographia Literaria, chapter 14).

A historical overview

Plato, Republic (mid 4thC BC), categorised poetic language in terms of the form of discourse: simple narrative in epic, or dramatic representation, 'giving a speech as if being someone else, so .... the diction is as far a possible the same as that one whom he announces as about to speak' (393b10-c3). 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' (598c4). Plato was the first to point out that there is something philosophically and linguistically puzzling about dramatic speech.

Mimesis may equally be translated 'representation', and although Plato introduced the term to discuss dramatic diction and style, he came to mean the total act of poetic representation. He characterised it as over-emotional and morally harmful, which is why poetry is banned from his proposed republic (except for 'poetry which celebrates the praises of the gods and of good men'). In Republic Book 10, 601a, he denied that poets possessed knowlede (episteme) of reality. However, his interest in dialogue as a form of argument has many points of contact with drama, and he wrote his philosophy in dramatic form and highly poetic style, so his attitude seems quite ironic. He rarely quotes from tragic texts: his interests are more in an internalised 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). The notion that dialogue may be not only a dramatic form, but a general method of argument, dialectic, was developed as a system of logic by Aristotle, and as a historical principle by Hegel.

The Poetics of Aristotle (late 4thC BC) is the first systematic analysis of dramatic form. Plot (muthos) is defined as the organisation of the events (1450a), and is distinguished by its thematic organisation (also the criterion of narrative in modern literary theory). Types of plot are discussed at some length. Among the definitions which are introduced are the notion of plot form, as a whole, with beginning, middle and end (1450b), a desis (complication) and lusis (dénouement - 1455b), and the division of plots into simple or complex by the criterion of peripeteia (reversal of fortune - 1452a).

Aristotle is often taken as having a formal and taxonomic approach, but he also held something like a process model of mental apprehension. The value of tragic poetry lies in its evocation of feelings (of eleos, pity, and phobos, fear) which have the effect of an emotional purge, katharsis (1449b27-8). Aristotle implicitly accepted the Platonic view that the performance of tragedy stimulated extreme emotion in the spectator, but drew a more positive conclusion from it. The contrast between the philosopher-poet Plato arguing against poetry as irrational, and the logician Aristotle developing an emotion-based model, illustrates a paradox endemic to writing about tragedy.

Aristotle (Poetics 1451b) disagreed with the Platonic view that mimesis is a mere imitation of reality, arguing that poetry is superior to history because it addresses the possible (hoia an genoito) and the necessary, rather than the actual (ta genomena), and so general truths (ta katholou) rather than particular facts (ta kath' hekaston).

The Poetics discusses ethos (character) only briefly. Aristotle defines this in plot terms as 'that which reveals choice' (1450b). His notion of hamartia (tragic flaw - 1453a) has been interpreted by later commentators as either a moral fault or an error of judgment. The brevity of the discussion makes it open to over-interpretation. It is particularly easy in a Christian and post-Kantian society to have a wholly internalised view of tragic morality, and to neglect the emphasis on the external which Aristotle makes central to his definition of tragedy as mimesis praxeos spoudaias kai teleias megethos echouses (the representation of an action that is serious, complete, and has a certain magnitude - 1449b).

The Poetics became known in England through the Italian translation by Ludovico Castelvetro in 1570. Philip Sidney, in Defence of Poesie (c1583, lines 300-303) cites Aristotle's definition of mimesis. Castelvetro's commentary is notorious for his invention of the three dramatic unities, of action, time and place. Although a simplistic elaboration of Aristotle's view of plot unity, it became the neo-classical orthodoxy. George Puttenham (Arte of Poesie, 1589) criticised his favourite tragedy, Norton and Sackville's Gorboduc, as 'verie defectious in the circumstaunces...For it is faultie both in place and time, the two necessarie Companions of all corporall actions.' Ben Jonson (in Timber) mentions the unity of action. Nicolas Boileau's Art Poétique of 1674 established the unities in French neo-classical theory. OT, The Tempest and Ibsen's Ghosts famously observe them.

Longinus On the Sublime (first or second century AD). The identification of sublimity, ta hupse, as an attribute of art, and the effect of great writing to be ecstasy rather than persuasion, peitho. The objective or telos of poetry is astonishment, ekplexis, as well as vividness, enargeia (which is also an aim of prose writing). The work praises the sublime style of Plato, yet mentions criticism that he was 'often carried away by the Bacchic frenzy of his language into violent and rough metaphors'. The French translation by Boileau in 1674 had great influence on Dryden, Pope, Goldsmith, and Romantic theorists of the picturesque.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca (first century AD) adapted a number of Greek tragedies as recitatio or 'closet drama'. Translations of his works, from the 1550's, were very influential in the resurgence of tragic writing in the 16th century in England (including Shakespeare), and the 17th in France (Corneille and Racine). The influence lay both in the rhetorical and narrrative devices (set speeches, extended stichomythic dialogue, and stock character types), and in the intensity with which evil is shown as overcoming good: 'Seneca cannot be too heavy not Plautus too light' (Hamlet 2.2. 395).

David Hume, 'Of Tragedy' (1757). Tragic pleasure is not simply emotional stimulation, but the evocation of one emotion by another. Our pleasure in the artistry of tragedy interacts with the underlying represented unease or pain, and raises that subordinate feeling to become the predominant one, converting it into a pleasurable emotion. A subtle reinterpretation of Aristotle, based on the transformation rather than the exhaustion of emotion.

Though Immanuel Kant did not write on tragedy, his ethical theories have greatly influenced subsequent thinking on it. In Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), he argued that ethics must be based on rationality, and moral choices should be guided by the categorial imperative: 'choose as a principle of action, one which can become a general law, because you will it to be.' Self-interest cannot guide choice, because rational rules must be universally applicable. Kant's model gives ethics a new basis, of internalised principles of reason, rather than social or religious sanctions. This changes the perspective in which we view the ethical world depicted in tragedy. Kant's belief that only the world of appearances (phenomena) is knowable, but not the world of reality (noumena), put the subject or ego at the centre of intellectual enquiry. This influenced the Romantic view of art as self-expression (developed by Schelling and Schiller).

August Wilhelm von Schlegel, Comparison between the Phaedre of Racine and that of Euripides (1807). The unity of ancient tragedy consists not in a single action, but a single idea, the heroism of the impossible struggle of man against fate. In Renaissance tragedy this may become a meditation on destiny, as in Hamlet. In A Course of Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature, volume 1, 1809, Schlegel stated 'the spirit of ancient art and poetry is plastic, and that of the moderns is picturesque', a contrast also adopted by Coleridge (Lectures on Shakespeare 1849). The dichotomy is between the Greek arts as demonstrating sculptural beauty, 'a refined and ennobled sensuality', enjoyment of the present and celebration of the human will; while northern European art expresses the desire for the sublime, the infinite, and the annihilation of the self. A Romantic approach is also evident in Schlegel's view of the function of the chorus as 'a personified reflection on the action ... the incorporation into the representation itself of the sentiments of the poet ... In a word, the ideal spectator' (Course 69-70).

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Philosophy of Fine Art (c1820). Tragedy presents ethical conflicts, between state and family, intention and action, responsibility and necessity. Conflict may exist even where ethical principles are not the primary interest, because the tragic character may experience internal conflict, as Hamlet or Othello. Tragedy lies in the denial of absolute right on either side, or affirmation of equal right, and its spiritual value consists in presenting justice as reconciliation: order is achieved through disorder, in an aesthetic version of the dialectical principle. Hegel does not consider fate or evil as important factors in the tragic conflict.

Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation (1819). Fate is secular, no longer the dispensation of the gods, but exemplifies human nature, and the crime of existing. Horror is the normal state of affairs. The tragic catastrophe demonstrates the irrationality of the will to live, embodied in the hero. This shows us that the will is not the imperative we had thought. The consequential dissatisfaction with life and resignation to fate may be described as sublime, and this is the source of tragic pleasure. This interpretation of tragedy led Schopenhauer to the view that ancient tragedy, which does not generally demonstrate such resignation, is inferior to Shakespearean and Romantic work, which often does.

Richard Wagner, The Ring of the Nibelung (1848-76), may be seen as a re-working of the Oresteia. The Aeschylean influence is both thematic, in the construction of a mythic world where gods and men interrelate, and also structural: The Ring has the form of a trilogy with prologue (Das Rheingold). There are close parallels between Die Walküre and Agamemnon, Siegfried and Choephoroi, and Götterdämmerung and Eumenides. The organisation of events as focussed on individual significant moments, of imagery from the natural world, and even the 'leitmotif' technique, are all influenced by Aeschylus. Greek forms and themes are, however, used for new ends: Wagner is interested in the exploration of the inner world of feelings, especially the themes of hubris (arrogance) and rapacity.

Wagner's theoretical ideas which have had a great influence on modern theatre include his emphasis on an intimate connection between art and the community, his development of Schopenhauer's views on music as language, and his theories of the complete work of art, the gesamtkunstwerk, and the importance of the stage space to the total drama.

Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859). A thesis which potentially recontextualises all intellectual enquiry by substituting a mechanical process for the mind as the animating force in nature. It was initially understood as providing a (Lamarckian) link between heredity and moral behaviour, and has stimulated much debate of the relative importance of nature and nurture. It suggests a material explanation for the notion of ananke (necessity, central to the tragic examination of the possibility of moral choice, as at Agamemnon 218ff), and also for Schopenhauer's will to live.

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy: Out of the Spirit of Music (1872). A reinterpretation of the pain in Schopenhauer's vision as creative birth pangs. The tragic spirit is a dangerous one, and its power is in the chorus, who do not interpret the myth for the audience, as Schlegel thought, but, as the votaries of Dionysus, lead the audience into it, and in their enchanted state see its reality, rather than only the performance of the actors. True tragedy is a ritual of healing which can turn 'fits of nausea [at the meaninglessness of life] into imaginations with which it is possible to live.' The dialogue, the stage-world of the drama, represents the visual Apollonian dream world of the individual. As it becomes dominant, the Dionysian power is lost. Euripidean dialogue leads to Socratic dialectic, optimistic and logical, and novelistic rather than tragic.

Henrik Ibsen, Brand (1866) to Hedda Gabler (1890): a movement from poetry to prose, and the development of metaphoric realism, in which plot is driven by character and situation. This enabled Ibsen to set tragic themes in contemporary social contexts, rather than the historical settings of his early plays. The plots may have a chronicle or epic structure, with discontinuous narrative (foreshadowed by the drama of Büchner), and with the scene rather than the act as the dramatic unit. The focus on an individual in conflict with their society is expressed with an intensity reminiscent of Sophocles.

August Strindberg, Preface to Miss Julie (1888): an essay considering how dramatic writing might recover the power of classical tragedy. Tragedy cannot be revitalized by reworking traditional forms: the theatrical context must be redefined. The Preface sets out ideas on tragic fate, the complexity of dramatic character, and dramatic technique. Strindberg focuses more on the inner nature of man than the interaction between individual and society.

Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams (1900). The dream interpreted not as picture, but as internalised narrative, 'the dream-work' (Die Traumarbeit), achieved by condensation or compression of conscious narrative, and the displacement of the thematic elements. Freud's reading of Oedipus is central to his interpretation of the repression of desire. In considering how far such an interpretation can be justified in the externalised world of drama, one might consider Jocasta's remark (Oedipus Tyrannus 981-2) that: 'many men have before now slept with their mothers in dreams.' Freud acknowledged links between his theories and Nietzsche's treatment of the irrational.

A moral focus characterises the theatrical practice and theory of Bertolt Brecht. His earliest dramas, adaptions of Gay, Farquhar, Marlowe and Shakespeare, move away from illusion to a self-consciously 'theatrical' reality. He also wrote a number of explicitly didactic plays, in which he expounds Marxist theory. 'Notes on the Opera Mahagonny' (1930) is his first statement of the theory of epic theatre, and introduces the notion of 'gest', a portmanteau word signifying both meaning or 'gist', and attitude or 'gesture', which can be a word or action. Gests are the means by which information is presented in a moral perspective. Aristotle's reasons for preferring the dramatic to the epic form are countered by Brecht's argument that 20th century production techniques enable epic elements to be applied to drama, so creating a theatre which aims at instruction rather than catharsis.

In 'A Short Organum for the Theatre' (1948), Brecht argues that drama must be presented in historical context. His response to Shakespeare is to rework the texts in the interests contemporary to the time of performance. His 'Study of Shakespeare's Coriolanus' (1953) shows the method.

In 'A Short Description of a New Technique of Acting which Produces an Alienation Effect' (1951), he proposes that acting should be showing, not evoking empathy, and this can be achieved by using the techniques mentioned above: distancing by gests, and placing the drama in historical context. For Brecht, dramatic language combines dialogue and narrative. Gests have similarities with semiotic signs, though Brecht makes no references to structuralist theory. In opposing what he saw as 'Aristotelian theatre', Brecht in effect accepts the Platonic view (Republic ch 36) of mimesis as illusion.

Walter Benjamin wrote on Brechtian theory and practice, and aesthetic theory more generally, from a Marxist perspective. In 'Theses on the Philosophy of History' (1950), Benjamin notes the uncomfortable relation between the arts and the society they reflect: 'There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.' In The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936), he points out how the technology of mass production makes mimesis reproducable, so art becomes a product, subject to the commercial laws of supply and demand. The aura and authenticity of the original, ritualistic, work are lost in the distance created between art and audience, yet a new intimacy emerges between the art and the world it represents: reproduction is a close-up technique. Benjamin's argument gives a useful framework in which to consider differences between theatrical and cinematic representation.

Antonin Artaud, The Theatre and its Double (1938). Theatre as experience, rather than argument. A replacement of Aristotle's notion of theatrical catharsis as a healthy purging of the individual, by the more radical image of theatre as a collective plague, a delirium which liquefies all social order, a cruel yet necessary abnormality which transforms its audience alchemically. Theatre is not just verbal, but a physical or 'metaphysical' language moving in space, and leading to an understanding of 'true culture'. Theatre is 'valid only when there is a magical and agonising relationship with reality and with danger' (Manifesto for the Theatre of Cruelty, 1932).

Artaud considered Senecan tragedy a written example of such a theatre. The cruelty in his manifesto is not an assault on the audience, but a description of the pain we experience in the madness of initiation. His emphasis on the physicality of theatre has been wildly influential on subsequent drama practice and theatre design.

Augusto Boal, Theater of the Oppressed (1974), redefines Aristotle to argue that all theatre is political, yet generally a medium of repression, because in delegating power to the characters, spectators become totally passive, and thereby cathartically purge themselves of their tragic flaw. For Boal, hamartia is a positive potential for social change, and should be activated rather than purged, by destroying the barriers between actors and audience, and between actors and the chorus.

Boal's theatre is participatory, and explanatory as well as dramatic. The theatrical element Aristotle categorised as dianoia, thought, is expressed through the redefinition rather than abolition of the emotional content. Techniques like the Joker principle, when an actor represents a function rather than a character (something like a narrator's function), and Invisible theatre, where the drama is performed in public without being defined as theatre, demonstrate a more radical alternative to Brechtian alienation, for quite similar ends.

Wole Soyinka, Myth, Literature, and the African World (1976). Tragedy brings the divine on stage. Soyinka sees the past, present and future as the worlds of the dead, the living, and the unborn. Transition between them is the paradigm for all action. The theatre represents the 'fourth stage', the space between worlds, and the tragic hero moves through this abyss, re-performing the passage-rites of the Yoruba god of creativity (Ogun), the first road-builder, who created the paths between the worlds. Soyinka draws an explicit parallel between Ogun and Dionysus. This use of one cultural frame to comment on another may itself be considered a tragic technique.

Recent critical writings on tragedy

Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (1957). A genre analysis, which argues that tragic plots can be interpreted in terms of archetypal figures from Greek 'New' (late 4thC BC) Comedy, of the alazon (the bombastic fool or impostor, the precursor of Falstaff) and the eiron (the deceiver, forerunner of Iago, and the source of the indignation - nemesis - which brings destruction). Tragic writing is a historical phase which precedes an ironic one (where the hero becomes a pharmakos or scapegoat). An attempt to define tragedy taxonomically, now unfashionable.

The moral content of tragedy has been questioned in a trio of studies by Classical scholars, which examine the differences between ancient and modern society, rather than the continuities, and question the value of tragic writing as a moral paradigm. This more distanced view of the ancient world has links with Structuralist and Poststructuralist criticism, discussed in the Mini-Guide to Structuralism elsewhere on this server:

  • Eric Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational (1951) provides a counter-argument to the idealised view of Greek society as supremely rational. Dodds pointed to shamanism, Orphism, and the magical practices associated with medicine in the cult of Asklepios as evidence for a more 'primitive' world view, in which madness may be divine possession and transgression leads to miasma (pollution), which can be purified by ritual katharsis (purging). However, he considered there was a change from competitive Homeric value-system to a more cooperative one in Classical Greece: 'the movement from shame-culture to guilt-culture'. Tragic treatments of the Homeric myths could be seen in terms of this moral shift, which also accompanied the social change from a warrior society to an urban one.

  • Arthur Adkins, Merit and Responsibility (1960), argued that even the classical philosophers have a competitive value-system, totally at odds with the post-Kantian moral frame. We do not, then, share a common set of assumptions with the Greeks, and the only possible relation we can have with their system is an anthropological one: reconstructing values from the evidence of the writing, by a detailed philological analysis rather than a more holistic approach.

  • Hugh Lloyd-Jones, The Justice of Zeus (1971), emphasised continuity between archaic and Classical value-systems, rather than the change which Dodds suggested. He adopts a more integrated view of shame and guilt, by considering the functions of the gods, and showing that the attributes of Zeus even in the Iliad are those of a supreme king, and involve protecting the themistes (principles of justice). The gods' purpose is inscrutable, but not irrational, and Greek religion is compatable with empiricism. Lloyd-Jones attempts a holistic synthesis, by which we can engage morally with the values of epic and tragedy, while understanding our distance from them.

    George Steiner, The Death of Tragedy (1961). A critique of Romanticism by a modern Romantic. The nineteenth century belief in progress and human perfectibility is a fundamentally anti-tragic attitude: 'Rousseauism closes the doors of hell'. The possibility of remorse evades the tragic vision, which taps a deeper truth. 'The destiny of Lear cannot be resolved by the establishment of adequate homes for the aged.'

    Raymond Williams, Modern Tragedy (1966). A Marxist analysis. Events can be defined as tragic only in relation to a background of moral standards. If these are too stable, tragedy is avoided, and if too weak, it becomes deadlocked. Tragedy therefore tends to arise in historical conditions of changing standards, when there is a tension between belief and experience. Tragedy cannot be defined in advance: it is discoverable only retrospectively.

    Walter Kaufmann, Tragedy and Philosophy (1969), argues for the continuing relevance of tragedy, in the ethical value of contemplating suffering. 'Whoever seeks a moral holiday in art will not find it in Attic tragedy.'

    John Peter, Vladimir's Carrot: Modern Drama and the Modern Imagination (1987). A contrast between classical drama as 'open', having an external context of causality and morality, while modern drama is 'closed', a picture of the world, with no external meaning, rather than a dynamic argument. The theoretical base is Schopenhauer's view of the will to live as the ultimate reality: pure blind energy, outside space-time or causal laws. Only the vision of art can provide an escape from the meaninglessness of existence, through a renunciation of the will. Modern drama is like music in its self-contained artistry. Peter's argument provides a means of placing modern experimental drama in terms of the tragic tradition.

    Adrian Poole, Tragedy: Shakespeare and the Greek Example (1987), is a romantic evaluation of tragedy as 'a means of honouring the diversity of human beings', 'to ask questions to which there seem to be no answers', and to 'recognize both individually and collectively the diversities in ourselves'.

    Anthony Nuttall, Why Does Tragedy Give Pleasure? (1997) is a reinterpretation of Aristotelian catharsis, in its most homeopathic (and perhaps simplest) form. It skirts round the rather unpleasant Platonic question of whether tragedy may be a pathological rather than a positive art form.


    The enduring fascination of the extreme themes depicted in tragic art continues today in ethical debates on the effect of the portrayal of violence in the cinema, the possible requirement for censorship of the Internet, and many other aspects of the relations between individuals and society.

    In Prisms (1955), Theodor Adorno wrote that 'To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbarous.' The alternative, however, may be no less so. The 'long-standing quarrel between philosophy and poetry' continues.

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