The Tragic

An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory - Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle 2016

The Tragic

Tragedy tears us apart, it shatters our sense of ourselves and the world. The terrifying power of tragedy is suggested by Sir Philip Sidney when he speaks, in An Apology for Poetry (1595), of

high and excellent Tragedy, that openeth the greatest wounds, and showeth forth the ulcers that are covered with tissue; that maketh kings fear to be tyrants, and tyrants manifest their tyrannical humours; that, with stirring the affects of admiration and commiseration, teacheth the uncertainty of this world, and upon how weak foundations gilden roofs are builded… (98)

Tragedy has to do with strangeness. It involves an overwhelming sense of what Sidney calls ’the uncertainty of this world’. It involves — as Aristotle suggested, more than 2,300 years ago — a paradoxical combination of emotions, at once pity and fear or (as Sidney says) ’admiration and commiseration’. Tragedy involves an encounter not only with the death of a character on stage (or in the pages of a book) but also with the idea of our own deaths. Tragedy resists simple explanations. As A.C. Bradley observed, in 1904: ’[T]ragedy would not be tragedy if it were not a painful mystery’ (38). In this chapter we propose to elucidate this sense of ’painful mystery’ and to consider some examples of tragic literature, ranging from Shakespeare to the present.

When we think of tragedy in the context of literature in English, no doubt we think first of Shakespeare and especially of the ’great tragedies’, Hamlet (1600—1), Othello (1604), King Lear (1605) and Macbeth (1606). With such plays in mind, and adapting Aristotle’s definition in the Poetics, we could suggest that tragedy comprises four basic elements. The first is that there is a central character (the protagonist), someone who is ’noble’ and with whom we are able to sympathize or identify. The second is that this character should suffer and (preferably) die, and that his or her downfall or death should roughly coincide with the end of the play. The third is that the downfall or death of the central character should be felt by the spectator or reader to be both inevitable and ’right’ but at the same time in some sense unjustifiable and unacceptable. The fourth element can be referred to as apocalypticism. As we have already indicated, it is not just the death of the protagonist with which we are presented in a tragedy: in identifying with the protagonist who dies, we are also drawn into thinking about our own death. And because the protagonist’s death is invariably shattering to other characters, tragedy always engages with a broader sense of death and destruction, a shattering of society or the world as a whole.

Without these four elements there cannot be a tragedy. From an Aristotelian perspective we might want to propose additional elements, in particular the notions of peripeteia (’reversal’), anagnorisis (’revelation’ or ’coming to self-knowledge’) and hamartia (’tragic flaw’ or ’error’). Peripeteia is a useful term for referring to the reversals or sudden changes in fortune that a character or characters may experience — Lear being made homeless, for instance, or Othello being transformed by ’the green-ey’d monster’ (3.3.170) of jealousy. Aristotle introduced the term in the context of tragedy, but it is also apposite in other contexts, including comedy (where a character may experience a reversal or sudden change for the good). Anagnorisis refers to the idea of a moment of revelation or recognition, especially the moment when a protagonist experiences a sudden awakening to the truth or to self-knowledge. A tragic work may contain more than one such moment: Hamlet’s life, for instance, might be described as a sort of anagnorisis ’block’, a ghostly series of apparent but ineffective anagnorises starting with his exclamation ’O my prophetic soul!’ (1.5.41) on discovering the murderous truth about his father’s death and realizing that this is what he had imagined, deep in his ’prophetic soul’. Classically, however, a tragedy tends to be construed as having one crucial or climactic moment of anagnorisis. In Sophocles’s Oedipus the King, for example, this can be very specifically located in lines 1306—8, as Oedipus finally realizes that he is himself the criminal he has been seeking:

O god—

all come true, all burst to light!

O light—now let me look my last on you!

I stand revealed at last.

Finally, hamartia refers to the idea of tragic characters having a particular flaw or weakness, or making an error of judgement that leads to their downfall or death. Thus, for example, each of the male protagonists of Shakespeare’s ’great tragedies’ could be considered in terms of a fundamental moral or psychological weakness. Hamlet’s irresolution, Othello’s jealousy, Lear’s pride and Macbeth’s ambition might then be seen as a key element in each of these works. A primary aim in this chapter, however, is to stress the ways in which the tragic entails a fundamental sense of what remains painful, mysterious or uncertain. That is to say, to focus on a character’s ’tragic flaw’ or ’error’ tends to suggest something straightforwardly causal: Hamlet’s irresoluteness is the cause of his tragedy and so on. This is not to say that Hamlet’s irresolution or Othello’s jealousy are unimportant. These ’flaws’ or ’weaknesses’ are crucial — they are integral to what we think and feel about Hamlet and Othello as characters and therefore to what we think and feel about their tragic fates. But what constitutes the tragic is always stranger and more painful than is suggested by the inevitably moralistic and reductive claim that, for instance, Othello should not have allowed himself to get so jealous and worked up. His jealousy has a crucial but partial and perhaps finally uncertain significance in terms of the tragic power of the play. About to murder his beloved wife, Othello begins what is one of the most anguished and intolerable soliloquies in Shakespeare’s work: ’It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul; / Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars, / It is the cause’ (5.2.1—3). ’Cause’ here may mean ’crime’, ’legal or other case’ or ’reason’. What is conveyed in these lines is a sense of what cannot be named, a profound strangeness and uncertainty regarding the very sense of this repeated and equivocal word ’cause’. Tragedy, we want to suggest, and as Othello pointedly demonstrates, is not only about the sense of particular causes or explanations but also, and more importantly, about a painful absence or uncertainty of cause.

Tragedy (and here we use the word to embrace both Shakespearean and more recent forms) is not only inimical to the pleasure-button-pushing mentality of Hollywood or Broadway, but also at odds with the very idea of identity and meaning. As Howard Barker puts it, in a series of aphoristic statements entitled ’Asides for a Tragic Theatre’ (originally dating from1986):

In tragedy, the audience is disunited … Tragedy is not about reconciliation … Tragedy offends the sensibilities. It drags the unconscious into the public place … After the carnival, after the removal of the masks, you are precisely who you were before. After the tragedy, you are not certain who you are. (Barker 1989, 13)

Tragedy is offensive, it generates disunity and exposes disharmony. Like psychoanalytic theory (itself of course crucially indebted to Sophocles’s Oedipus the King), tragedy makes the unconscious public. It leaves us uncertain about our very identities, uncertain about how we feel, about what has happened to us.

Finally, there is something apocalyptic about the tragic, not only in the sense that it consistently entails an experience of unmanageable disorder but also in that this experience of disorder is linked to a more general kind of revelation (the meaning of the original Greek word ’apocalypsis’). The apocalyptic revelation at the heart of the tragic has to do with a sense that no God or gods are looking down on the world to see that justice is done, or that, if there are gods, they are profoundly careless, indifferent, even sadistic. The heavens may be occupied or vacant, but the world is terrible and makes no sense. To illustrate this idea in relation to King Lear, for example, we could look to a few lines spoken by Albany — addressed to his wife Goneril and concerned with the ’vile’ behaviour of herself and her sister Regan towards their father, the King:

If that the heavens do not their visible spirits

Send quickly down to tame these vile offences,

It will come,

Humanity must perforce prey on itself,

Like monsters of the deep. (4.2.46—50)

The tragic revelation of King Lear concerns the sense that humanity is indeed monstrous and that there are no ’visible spirits’ or any other sort of spirits that might properly or profitably be called down from the heavens. One of the shortest, yet perhaps most powerful lines in Shakespeare — ’It will come’ — is apocalyptic both in terms of the dark revelation of the idea that there are no gods or divine justice and in terms of the sense of an impending or accumulating cataclysm of general destruction and death. The word ’come’ is crucial here — as indeed it is in the final passages of several of Shakespeare’s tragedies — in part because it resonates with the apocalypticism of the end of the Bible: ’He which testifieth these things saith, Surely I come quickly. Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus’ (Revelation 22:20). Tragedy says ’come’ in a double sense: it summons us, it engages our feelings of sympathy and identification, it demands that our emotions be involved in what is happening. But at the same time tragedy says: we have to suffer, we are going to die, there is no justice and there is no afterlife. It — death and cataclysm — will come. In this way, tragedy engages with the limits of sense, verges on the senseless. Because what tragedy is about is senseless, meaningless — the unjust and yet unavoidable shattering of life. This would be another way of trying to highlight the mysterious and paradoxical nature of the tragic. When Ludovico says, of the bed displaying the corpses of Othello and Desdemona, ’Let it be hid’ (Othello, 5.2.375), Shakespeare’s play paradoxically conceals or encrypts this intolerable sight that tragedy calls us to witness. Correspondingly, in King Lear, the death of Cordelia and Lear’s madness of grief are figured in apocalyptic terms — Kent asks, ’Is this the promised end?’ and Edgar retorts, ’Or image of that horror?’ (5.3.238—9) — but what the tragedy finally and paradoxically reveals is perhaps rather the ethical and spiritual horror of a world in which violence, torture and terror recur unendingly. What is revealed in King Lear, in other words, is the sense that there is no image of the end except as this unendingness.

With these rather dark thoughts in mind, let us try to say a little more about the first three elements of a tragedy. First of all, there is the idea of the central character with whom one strongly sympathizes or identifies. ’Sympathy’ here entails primarily the idea of ’entering into another’s feelings or mind’ (Chambers). It carries clear connotations of the original Greek terms ’syn’, with, and ’pathos’, suffering — that is to say, ’sympathy’ as ’suffering with’. It is important to distinguish this from ’feeling sorry for’. In tragedy, sympathy with a character is indistinguishable from a logic of identification, of identifying with that character and experiencing and suffering with her or him. The tragic has to do with a sense of loss of identity — the sense that (in Barker’s words) ’you are not certain who you are’. We might try to clarify this a little more by remarking on the paradoxical nature of sympathy specifically in relation to drama. Sympathy involves going out of ourselves, and sharing or identifying with the position of another. Phrased slightly differently, it involves a sense of going out of ourselves but, at the same time, putting ourselves on stage. In this respect we have an intriguing example of chiasmus, which can be formulated as follows: there is no drama without sympathy, but there is no sympathy without drama. This proposition may also help us to appreciate why, in historical terms, tragedy has so consistently been associated with the dramatic. More than any other genre, tragedy explores the limits of the experience of sympathy, as it broaches self-obliteration and death. In a manner especially suited to the stage, tragedy is exposure to death — to that extreme of sympathy or identification where, putting oneself on stage, one loses a sense of oneself in the scene, in the figure of the one who dies.

It is only on the basis of this first element (sympathy) that the second (the suffering and death of a character) can be described as tragic. This may seem logical enough, but the third element of a tragedy is distinctly paradoxical: the death that occurs at the end of a tragedy is experienced as being at once unavoidable and unjust. This is sometimes talked about as tragic inevitability. Every tragic work will generate a sense of the inevitable or (to use a term that is perhaps too easily loaded with religious connotations) the fated. The tragic invariably concerns a sense of what is foreseeable but unavoidable. But what is unavoidable (Desdemona in Othello must die, Tess in Hardy’s novel must die, Ikem and Chris in Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah must die) is also unacceptable: the tragic seems to involve a peculiar contradiction whereby death is inevitable and therefore (however painfully) appropriate but at the same time unjust, unacceptable and therefore inappropriate. Consider, for example, the moment in the final scene of Hamlet when Hamlet confides to Horatio: ’If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all’ (5.2.166—8). At this moment we, like Horatio, may not want Hamlet to die, but at the same time it is hard to imagine that there could be any other outcome to this dark ’coming’ to ’readiness’ about which Hamlet is speaking here.

The paradoxical nature of this third element of the tragic is analogous to the Aristotelian notion of cartharsis. ’Catharsis’ is generally understood to refer to the ’cleansing’ effect of watching (or reading) a tragedy and to involve the combination of two kinds of emotion (pity and fear). The cathartic effects of watching (or reading) are linked to the peculiar fact that tragedy can give pleasure. Likewise, as we noted earlier, the combination of pity and fear seems contradictory. After all, how can one feel pity and fear at the same time? If there were a simple answer to this question we would no longer be thinking within the terms of the tragic, since the tragic comprises precisely this kind of contradictoriness of feeling. Pity (pathos in ancient Greek) is understood by Aristotle in terms of a movement towards the spectacle of destruction and death on stage (or page), while fear or terror (phobos in ancient Greek) is a movement away from it. In this way, the spectator or reader is torn apart. And it is in this sense that we can say that the tragic is not rationalizable, rather it is an affront to our desires for meaning and coherence.

In thinking about a particular drama or other work in terms of the tragic, then, perhaps the most obvious thing to do in the first instance is to consider the question of sympathy and/or identification. One could for example think about such questions as the following: how does a tragic text generate sympathy? Which character or characters elicit our sympathy? What is it that happens in the text that produces a feeling of sympathy or identification on our part? It is not only a question of character (what is he or she like as an individual?) and plot (what happens to him or her, the poor sod?) but also, and more fundamentally, a matter of how character and plot are created in language. In short, it is worth trying to think about which particular passages, speeches, and even phrases or words help to generate sympathy in the spectator or reader. To get a clearer sense of this it may be useful to give an example in which one might reasonably suppose that sympathy is at work, and to offer a paraphrase. Take Lady Macbeth’s words of murderous guilt as overheard by the Doctor and Gentlewoman. (It is, of course, an illustration of the disturbing power of this tragedy that Shakespeare is able to make us sympathize or identify with a psychopathic murderer.) Lady Macbeth says: ’Here’s the smell of the blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. O, O, O!’ (5.1.48—50). Lady Macbeth does not say: ’Oh what a bore, this smelly blood. Not even industrial cleansing fluid will get this off my hands. Hell, what am I supposed to do?’ There are numerous observations one might make regarding the extraordinary pathos of Lady Macbeth’s language — in its Shakespearean form, that is. The first word she says, ’Here’, is significant precisely because it draws us into absolute proximity with her. ’There’ would have a quite different effect. The deictic ’Here’ suggests how a play such as Macbeth establishes and maintains sympathy or identification through the presentation or indication of psychological interiority, in other words the inside perspective of a given character’s thoughts and feelings. The ’smell of the blood’ and the felt persistency of the word ’still’ may be mere somnambulistic hallucination, but the spectator or reader is here being presented with intimate, indeed appalling, knowledge of Lady Macbeth’s thoughts and sense-impressions. Through the strangeness of soliloquy (the theatrical device that most explicitly facilitates our access to the interior world of a character’s thoughts and feelings), we feel in turn the pouring out of guilt in ’All the perfumes of Arabia…’ and the stammering nullity of ’O, O, O!’ We cannot claim to truly understand or identify with Lady Macbeth (that would be sleepwalking madness), but her language, pitifully overheard by other characters and by spectators or readers alike, generates sympathy. Sympathy, in short, is something that calls to be described and analysed not only at the macro-level of character and plot but also, and more importantly, at the micro-level of individual words, phrases, sentences.

Finally, we could consider the question of the tragic in some of its more contemporary forms. One can think of many sorts of literary works that are tragedies of one kind or another — and often showing obvious conformities with the model we have outlined. But it is also evident that tragedy has undergone certain changes in the past century or so. There are various reasons for this. One reason has to do with the notion of ’the death of God’. Tragedy, that is to say, is bound to be different if it is considered, at the outset, from a secular perspective. Shakespearean tragedy might be said to be modern to the extent that it seems to dramatize the terrible revelation of a secular and arbitrary world, a purposeless universe of suffering and death (countered only by the quasi-miraculous tenacity of notions of goodness, dignity and justice — with or without religion). Thomas Hardy’s novels — The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), The Woodlanders (1887), Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891) and Jude the Obscure (1895), for example — might be regarded as limit-texts in this respect: they are remarkably close to the sort of model of tragedy that we have outlined in this chapter but their tragic force consists less in a dramatic revelation that there is no God or ultimate justice and more in an ironic toying with the very grounds of such a revelation. If, as Paul Fussell has argued, irony is the ’dominating form of modern understanding’ (Fussell 1975, 35), this is especially clear in the sort of ironization of tragedy evident in Thomas Hardy’s work. The fact that these novels incorporate allusions to what Hardy calls the Immanent Will, the ’intangible Cause’ or ’Unfulfilled Intention’, as well as to more familiar classical deities, is simply part of this ironization. In terms of drama itself, there have been quite traditional examples of the tragic — one might think of Arthur Miller’s great allegorical work, The Crucible (1953), for example — but more characteristic of the past century or so have been the kind of secular tragicomedies of Chekhov or Beckett.

A second reason why tragedy is not what it used to be concerns the transformations that have taken place over the past two centuries regarding notions of the individual and society. If modern tragedies tend to be about ordinary people rather than kings or queens, they also show how far the lives of such ’ordinary people’ are bound up, determined and constrained by broader social, economic and political realities. One of the first modern tragedies in European drama, Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879), for example, is not simply about the break-up of the ’doll’ Nora’s marriage: it is about the ways in which the patriarchal institution and conventions of marriage effectively programme this tragic break-up. Particularly in the wake of Ibsen’s work, in other words, there is a fundamental shift from a classical idea of tragedy as inevitable and beyond human control to the modern idea of a tragedy as something humanly engineered and happening in a world in which something could and should be done, for instance about sexual inequality, racism and so on. In his autobiography, Bertrand Russell remarks that ’One of the things that makes literature so consoling, is that its tragedies are all in the past, and have the completeness and repose that comes of being beyond the reach of our endeavours’ (Russell 1968, 169). Russell’s observation may be appropriate for thinking about tragedy in its classical modes; but it is quite inadequate and misleading for thinking about modern tragedy. Feminist, new historicist, postcolonialist and poststructuralist critics have been concerned to underline what many of the more recent examples of tragic works of literature make clear, namely that what Russell comfortably refers to as ’the past’ is precisely what is in question. And if the past is in question, so is the present. Whose past are we talking about? From whose perspective? With whose interests at stake?

We could illustrate this by referring briefly to a couple of contemporary works of tragic literature. The first example is a novel about the United States. Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970) contains the basic elements of tragedy — even if this includes a modification of Shakespearean ’suffering and death’ into Morrisonian ’suffering and terrible abuse’. It is set in Ohio, and the narrative begins in 1941. It recounts the story of a young black girl called Pecola and how she comes to be sexually abused by her grimly named father, Cholly Breedlove. Morrison’s novel may be set in the past but its power as a tragic text consists partly in the fact that it is making an explicit political statement not only about racism in contemporary US society but also about the perception of history itself. The novel involves a lucid but terrible elaboration of why this man called Breedlove should have abused his daughter. By stressing the ways in which Breedlove himself had in the past been racially and physically abused in turn, Morrison’s novel provides a complex historical account of racism and violence. The Bluest Eye is tragic but the villain is paradoxically part of the tragedy. Morrison’s novel broaches a despairing realism quite foreign to Shakespearean tragedy. King Lear concludes with Edgar’s words:

The weight of this sad time we must obey,

Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.

The oldest hath borne most. We that are young

Shall never see so much, nor live so long. (5.3.318—21)

His words may sound like a hollow formality or formalism — even as they ironically refer to the importance of saying ’what we feel, not what we ought to say’ — but there is at least an implicit affirmation here of some kind of future. Toni Morrison’s novel concludes more blankly: ’It’s too late. At least on the edge of my town, among the garbage and the sunflowers of my town, it’s much, much, much too late’ (190).

The second example is Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah (1987). Achebe’s novel is at once more and less than a tragedy in a classical or Shakespearean sense. It is set in a semi-fictional present-day African state and recounts the process by which one of the protagonists, a newspaper editor called Ikem Osodi, is ’fatally wounded’ (169) by the military authorities, and the other male protagonist, the Commissioner for Information, Chris Oriko, gets shot by a policeman who is apparently about to rape a schoolgirl. The narrator adopts the perspective of Chris’s lover, the mourning Beatrice:

The explanation of the tragedy of Chris and Ikem in terms of petty human calculation or personal accident had begun to give way in her throbbing mind to an altogether more terrifying but more plausible theory of premeditation. The image of Chris as just another stranger who chanced upon death on the Great North Road or Ikem as an early victim of a waxing police state was no longer satisfactory. Were they not in fact trailed travellers whose journeys from start to finish had been carefully programmed in advance by an alienated history? If so, how many more doomed voyagers were already in transit or just setting out, faces fresh with illusions of duty-free travel and happy landings ahead of them? (220)

Though in many respects tragic, Anthills of the Savannah suggests a powerful circumscription and questioning of classical notions of tragedy — not least in the light of what Achebe calls ’an alienated history’. Like Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, it is an explicitly political novel, directly focusing on the contemporary while exploring ways of rethinking the past. Both novels suggest, in their different ways, the extent to which tragedy is — humanly and unacceptably — ’carefully programmed’. In its broadest implications, the ’alienated history’ to which Achebe’s novel refers is perhaps alien to the very forms of Western thought, prompting us to reflect on the ways in which ’history’ and ’tragedy’ are themselves Western concepts.

Further reading

Aristotle’s Poetics is the single most important account of tragedy in Western history. For a rich and stimulating elaboration of Aristotelian notions, see Elizabeth S. Belfiore’s Tragic Pleasures: Aristotle on Plot and Emotion (1992). Also on the peculiar relations between the tragic and pleasurable, see A.D. Nuttall’s Why Does Tragedy Give Pleasure? (1996) and Terry Eagleton’s Sweet Violence (2003). On the Aristotelian notion of anagnorisis, in particular, see Terence Cave’s remarkable study Recognitions (1990). John Drakakis and Naomi Liebler’s Tragedy (1998) has a very useful introduction and provides an excellent range of critical material, from Hegel to Derrida. For a psychoanalytic understanding of tragedy, see André Green’s now classic The Tragic Effect (1979). Of related interest, Heinz Politzer’s Freud and Tragedy (2006) explores Freud’s work on and in terms of the tragic, from Oedipus to Macbeth. For an influential account of how the sense of the tragic in the modern world has all but disappeared, see George Steiner’s The Death of Tragedy (1961). And by way of equally influential riposte, see Raymond Williams’s Modern Tragedy (1969), which vigorously demonstrates how tragedy has changed and will continue to do so. Miriam Leonard’s Tragic Modernities (2015) takes up the legacies of Steiner, Williams and others, exploring the tragic in relation to revolution, metaphysics, history, gender and subjectivity. Leonard is also co-editor, with Joshua Billings, of a fine collection of essays on Tragedy and the Idea of Modernity (2015). K.M. Newton’s Modern Literature and the Tragic (2008) focuses on tragic drama from Ibsen through to the Theatre of the Absurd and beyond. Rethinking Tragedy, ed. Rita Felski (2008) collects a range of essays on topics from Euripides to W.G. Sebald. Specifically on Shakespeare, Shakespearean Tragedy (1992), ed. John Drakakis, contains a good deal of valuable critical material, while Jonathan Dollimore’s Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries (3rd edn, 2004) is a fascinating, now classic study. Finally, Paul Hammond’s The Strangeness of Tragedy (2009) offers a powerful and thought-provoking account of the tragic as ’a mode of estrangement’ that entails ’a movement of translation and of decomposition’.