There has been a long-standing debate over the true definition of tragedy in dramatic literature. There is, of course, Aristotle’s definition of tragedy spelled out in the Poetics. Today, many critics still hold fast to Aristotle’s definition as the true definition of tragedy. However, as Arthur Miller said in his essay, ‘The Tragedy of the Common Man,’ “It is now many centuries since Aristotle lived… Things do change, and even a genius is limited by his time and the nature of his society: (Miller 164-165). So just as “Euclid’s geometry…has been amended numerous times by men with new insights,” Aristotle’s definition of tragedy can be amended for the times (164). Rosmersholm, by Henrik Ibsen, A View from the Bridge, by Arthur Miller, and Macbeth, by William Shakespeare, are three plays written in three different centuries, the nineteenth, twentieth, and seventeenth, respectively, and long after Aristotle defined tragedy in the Poetics. Looking at each play and keeping Aristotle’s thoughts in mind, all three can be placed in the genre of tragedy.
Aristotle’s definition of tragedy in the Poetics is quite long and detailed. In summary, it states that a tragedy is an imitation of action and life that must evoke pity and fear in the audience. There are six main elements present in every tragedy. They are, in order of importance, plot, character, thought, diction, spectacle, and song. Also in every tragedy there is a tragic hero, an essential character whom the action surrounds. Often this tragic hero goes through a point of recognition where he, or she, changes from a state of ignorance to a state of knowledge which sparks a reversal, or shift in the action of the play.
The plot of the tragedy is the “soul of the tragedy” (Aristotle 42). Plot is the most important element of tragedy because tragedy is an imitation of actions, not individuals. The plot must surround one action of life, and it must be limited to a length that can be wholly grasped by the memory of the audience. F.B. Leavis agrees with Aristotle’s definition in his essay entitled “Tragedy and the “Medium,” where he states that “the tragic… establishes … a kind of profound impersonality in which experience matters, not because it is more… but because it is what it is.” In other words, the experience, or action, of the plot is the most important element of a true tragedy.
The experience that a playwright chooses to write about may change with the times. For example, the plots of Macbeth, A View from the Bridge, and Rosmersholm reflect the important actions or experiences of life at the times that they were written. In Macbeth, the plot surrounds the killing of the king. In the unstable times of the Middle Ages, in which Macbeth takes place, the life of the king and his court and the stability of the crown were most important. Shakespeare couldn’t put the life of the common peasant man on stage because the lives of peasants were insignificant. So the plot of Macbeth follows the action of the royal court. Macbeth, a general in the king’s army and the Thane of Glamis, murders the king to fulfill his desire for power. This quest for power ends in destruction for Macbeth and order is finally restored to the kingdom. In Miller’s A View from the Bridge, the plot surrounds a common man, Eddie Carbone. This is acceptable because the action takes place in New York City in the twentieth century when the lives of ordinary men are the most significant and where royal courts don’t exist. The experience related in this tragedy is the downfall of a man who allows jealousy and desire for unforbidden love to destroy him. In Rosmersholm, the plot also comes out of the experience of ordinary people. Romer is a man who allows his love for a woman to blind him while she destroys his ailing wife. This desire for a woman also destroys him in the end, because he can’t live with the knowledge that his love and desire for another woman ended another human life.
All three plots reflect important aspects of the times that they were written. However, all three also show that the experience of the plot is the most significant element of tragedy. Each plot shows how the quest for desire can lead to the downfall of a man. The man in not necessarily as essential to the tragedy as the experience that he goes through. Another man could easily have gone through the same experience, and the tragedy would be the same.
Diction, which Aristotle placed fourth in order of importance, is the “expression of the meaning in words; and its essence is the same both in verse and prose” (Aristotle 43). The use of language is important in relaying the actions. According to Leavis, “the attainment in literature of this level… would seem to involve the poetic use of language, or of processes that amount to that.” Leavis seems to be disagreeing with Aristotle when it comes to the use of language. Leavis believes that the language must be poetic. Does that mean that it needs to be written in verse in order for the drama to be considered tragedy? The plays being discussed here would demonstrate that this is definitely not the case.
After my first reading of Rosmersholm, I didn’t consider it a tragedy at all. However in my first reading of Macbeth, there was no doubt in my mind that it was a tragedy. Rosmersholm is written in prose while Macbeth is written in verse. Traditional Greek tragedy, from which Aristotle formed his definition of tragedy, is written in verse, therefore it is easier to see Macbeth as a tragedy because it conforms to the poetic tradition of tragedy.
My first experience with A View from the Bridge was a Broadway production of the tragedy. I believe thought that I would have still considered it a tragedy upon a first reading, even if I had not seen it staged. This drama is a special case however. Miller wrote A View from the Bridge in verse before changing it to prose. Does this make a difference? Upon first examination of a piece of drama, maybe. However, if one is to consider whether or not a work is a tragedy or not, a first reading, or examination is not enough. One must get beyond the language to see the meaning that lies behind it. In doing this, a reader may see the poetry of the language, whether it is verse or prose. This examination of the drama may be the ‘process’ that Leavis was referring to.
Aristotle placed character second in order of importance for the six elements of tragedy, because the action, or plot, of the tragedy surrounds a central character. This central character is called the tragic hero. Aristotle states that “there may be [tragedy] without character” because in his opinion “most of our modern poets fail in the rendering of character” (42). Those modern poets were the poets of Greek tragedy whom Aristotle studied in forming his definition of tragedy. In Greek tragedy, the tragedy probably could have been performed without a central character, because the use of the chorus was so prevalent. As tragedy has changed some over the centuries, the use of the chorus is now less common. The importance of character has increased in the absence of a chorus.
The tragic hero is “a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by a vice or depravity, but by some error of frailty” most commonly known as the tragic flaw (Aristotle 46). Rosmer in Rosmersholm, Eddie in A View from the Bridge, and Macbeth in Macbeth, is the tragic hero central to his tragedy. Each man has a similar tragic flaw in that none can see beyond his personal desire.
Rosmer is an ordinary man. He was formerly a parish clergyman. His wife has recently committed suicide by jumping into the mill-race after a long illness. He is in love with Rebekka, a woman who came to live at Rosmersholm to help take care of Rosmer’s ailing wife. Rosmer found that he had many things in common with Rebekka and fell in love with her. He is a good man though and attempted to stay loyal to his wife in appearance by hiding his affair with Rebekka. He fits the mold for a tragic hero by being a man who is not totally good, but at the same time not totally evil. There are many qualities in Rosmer that the audience can identify with. His flaw is that he could not see beyond his love and desire for Rebekka that Rebekka was pushing Beate towards despair.
Eddie Carbone is also an ordinary man. He is an illiterate longshoreman working on the docks in Brooklyn, New York. He is a very good, hardworking man. He has sacrificed his time and energy to raise his niece, Catherine. Eddie is a very likeable character. This is why it is so shocking when the audience discovers his tragic flaw. Like many other tragedies, Eddie is caught up in an incestuous desire. He is in love with his niece who he has been so close to for many years. He seems to enjoy her company more than his wife’s, and he doesn’t want to let her go. When she attempts to gain some independence by taking a job that Eddie doesn’t see as fit for a young lady, and by dating Rudolpho, Beatrice’s illegal alien cousin, Eddie’s true feelings come through to the audience. Like Rosmer, Eddie cannot see beyond his love and desire for Catherine that his love is forbidden by natural law and that he will destroy his family by loving this woman.
Eddie and Rosmer are ordinary men and tragic heroes. According to Aristotle’s theory, an ordinary man cannot be the hero. However, I believe that this is one of the aspects of the definition that has to be amended in the name of progress and change. This amendment is acceptable, because in looking at Macbeth’s tragic flaw, the audience cans see that it is very similar to the preceding characters’ flaws and acceptable in Aristotle’s view at the same time.
Shakespeare’s tragic hero fits Aristotle’s definition more closely. This goes back to the point though that in Shakespeare’s day, just as in Aristotle’s, drama was written about men who are “highly renowned and prosperous” (46). Macbeth is one of these men. When the audience meets Macbeth, he has just own an important battle for the King. He is highly renowned as a general in the King’s army and has been prosperous in battle. Macbeth seems to be quite content with his place in life until he meets the three wayward sisters. He is a fairly young man in love with his beautiful wife. He is the Thane of Glamis and becomes the Thane of Cawdor after winning the battle. Most importantly he is loyal to the King. The three wayward sisters present Macbeth with tempting prophesies. Macbeth’s tragic flaw is that he loses his will to fight the temptation for the power that will come when those prophecies are fulfilled.
The use of the tragic hero, and the three remaining elements, thought, spectacle, and song, are present in tragedy to help evoke pity and fear in the audience. The playwright attempts to place a normal scene before the audience so that when the downfall of the tragic hero occurs, the audience is shocked into fear and feels pity for the fallen man. The playwright does this by giving us a likeable, somewhat good central character, as discussed above. He also uses thought, spectacle, and song to evoke pity and fear, according to Aristotle. The use of current thought and language will add to the normality of the scene that the playwright is creating. If Arthur Miller had kept A View from the Bridge in verse, it probably wouldn’t have been as tragic. The use of prose is important in this play because it is preferred over verse by the twentieth century audience. Also, Miller added to the thought and language of the play by giving the characters an appropriate Brooklyn accent.
The playwright creates spectacle by creating characters for the tragic incident that are close to one another. In Greek tragedy the characters were usually related to one another, such as a mother and her son. This tradition of spectacle has been kept alive. In A View from the Bridge, the tragic incident occurs within the family between an uncle and his niece. In Rosmersholm, the incident occurs between two lovers, Rosmer and Rebekka. In Macbeth, the incident occurs between a man and his King.
The use of song is the last of the elements that is used by the playwright to evoke pity and fear. According to Aristotle, song “holds the chief place among the embellishments” in tragedy (43). Along with the change from verse to prose and the decreased use of the chorus, the use of song has lost popularity in tragedy.
The transformation of tragedy has not changed the importance of the evocation of pity and fear in the audience. According to Northrope Frye in his essay entitled “Tragic Modes,’ “in low mimetic tragedy, pity and fear are neither purged nor absorbed into pleasures, but are committed externally, as sensations” (160). In all three of the tragedies presented here the audience is not shocked and horrified by the action of the tragedy along as they were in Greek times. The increased importance of character use in tragedy has led to an increase in the personal relationship that the audience forms with that main character. The use of common language, or prose, also helps the audience feel closer to him. This closer relationship increases the sensation of shock when the hero falls.
The audience can identify with the hero and feels pity and fear within themselves, because they see the tragedy happening to a man just like themselves on stage rather than to a man who deserves the fate being handed to him. As stated above, the tragedy could happen to any character, and the audience will often mentally place themselves in that role.
In order to have a genre named tragedy, a definition of tragedy must exist to define the genre. Aristotle’s definition seems to be a good basis for defining tragedy, but I don’t believe that it is an absolute. A concrete definition is not really possible for an art that is continually changing. Therefore, every drama needs to be examined individually in being considered for the tragic genre. The change in language use and the importance of character are two of the most obvious changes in the tragedy. When looking at the tragedies written today, one must look beyond the prose and into the character and his experience to see the poetry and meaning of the tragic experience.
Written by Donna Hilbrandt.
Draper, R.P., editor. Tragedy: Developments in Criticism. London: Macmillan, 1980.
- Aristotle. “Extracts from the ‘Poetics” 41-50.
- Frye, Northrope. “Tragic Modes” 157-164.
- Miller, Arthur. “The Tragedy of the Common Man.” 164 – 168.
Leavis, F.B. “Tragedy and the ‘Medium.” The Common Pursuit. London: Penguin, 1993.
Works Referred To
Ibsen, Henrik. Rosmersholm. The Master Builder and other plays. Una Ellis-Fermor, translator. London: Penguin, 1958.
Miller, Arthur. A View from the Bridge. A View from the Bridge / All My Sons. London: Penguin, 1961.
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. John F. Andrews, editor. London: Everyman, 1993.