B.A ENGLISH HONOURS
TUTE GROUP- C
ROLL NO. 1433
EUROPEAN CLASSICAL LITERATURE ASSIGNMENT
Discuss the principles of tragedy as defined in Aristotle’s ‘Poetics’. Illustrate these principles by examining Sophocles’ play ‘Oedipus the king’
Tragedy as a genre of writing induces in the mind of the reader’s feelings of remorse, loss, grief and sadness with a poignant memory of the protagonist. With Greek literature being one of the oldest written texts known to us, Greek philosopher Aristotle was one of the first to define tragedy and describe the necessary elements for it to be successful in his work ‘Poetics’ dating back to 335 BCE.
In this essay, I intend to discuss the main principles of tragedy as described by the Greek philosopher Aristotle in ‘Poetics’. These elements are vital in the making of a perfect tragedy which are that the protagonist should be of a socially and morally elevated stature but also the one who possesses a tragic flaw Hamartia which causes ‘reversal of fortune’ Peripetia that is due to a ‘moment of discovery’ Anagnorisis which instills pity and fear in the minds of reader and audience by purging of these emotions Catharsis.
Next, I will examine a link between theory and practice of tragedy and its elements by citing various instances from Sophocles’ play, ‘Oedipus The King’ like the elevated social and moral persona of the protagonist with arrogance and ego being his tragic flaw that leads to his downfall from killing his own father and the sudden discovery of this truth about himself.
I am also going to analyze the complex nature of tragedy as a genre which puts the audience in a dilemma, leaving their minds in a perplexed state as to whether adjudge the protagonist as a good person who became a victim of Fate and Destiny or the one who disrupted the social environment and polluted the moral conduct through his deeds. It does not provide an easy moral closure to the audience as it ends in ambiguity and there’s no easy resolution in the genre of tragedy.
In a descriptive nature, Aristotle in ‘Poetics’ lays out various properties, characteristics and principles that a tragedy should possess to be effective and successful. It also traces the origin, development and construction of Tragedy. Aristotle defined Tragedy as representation of action having some amplitude that makes it worth of some serious action as a whole and instills the feeling of pity and fear in the minds of readers. Representation of action refers to the plot or the story line of the tragedy should be such that if any incident or information is removed, the plot loses the effect of wholeness. The protagonist of a tragedy must be a figure with whom the audience can identify and whose fate can trigger the emotions of pity and fear. Aristotle says that “pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a man like ourselves.” The hero’s frailty (hamartia) is explained as his “tragic flaw,” in the sense of that personal quality which inevitably causes his downfall or subjects him to retribution. Due to the tragic flaw in the character of the protagonist he will experience ‘reversal of fortune’ peripetia from a sudden discovery or realization i.e. gaining of knowledge about himself or someone else anagnorisis and this leads him to his ultimately destined ill-luck or doom. In most cases, it’s the ‘hubristic’ actions of the protagonist cause his downfall. An element of cosmic collusion among the hero’s flaw and chance make way for the tragic events to unfold. Aristotle states that, if all the above said principles are present regarding the character, its presentation and the plot of the story accompanied with feelings of pity and fear then the tragedy is deemed successful.
‘Oedipus the King’ is a tragic play written by Sophocles and is identified as the principle work of
Tragedy by Aristotle and hence a perfect example to link a bridge between theory and practice
of tragedy. The play has one of the most captivating plots consisting of all the characteristics
of a tragic play -order, amplitude and unity. The story of the play is the Oedipus unknowingly
Kills his father (Laius, King of Thebes) and marries his own mother (Jocasta) hence commits
The cardinal sins of fratricide and incest. The protagonist of the play, Oedipus, has all the
Essential character traits a tragic hero should posses. He is good and has a lifelike, noble and
Elevated person .It reflects in the way he speaks to his countrymen.
For example- he says “My spirit grieves for the city, for myself and all of you” or “You pray to gods? Let me grant your prayers.” To the citizens of Thebes who had come to him to save them from the dreaded deathly plague that had struck their city. Also, he has a consistent personality throughout the play as in the end of the tragedy he could have excused himself of the punishment as he himself was the king but knowing that if he does so his city would keep on suffering, therefore to save his city he took all the sufferings upon himself and goes into exile. But since solving the riddle of Sphinx by himself, he had become short tempered, ignorant and arrogant. He fails to see any truths and refuses to believe that he killed his father and bedded his mother when said so by Tiresias and goes on to blame Creon, his brother-in-law, for plotting a scheme against him coming out as vulnerable and insecure. His arrogance, insecurity and blindness towards the truth became his tragic flaw, the error for his downfall. The lack of knowledge of where he was truly born and knowledge of his true parents also played a part in his doom. Later in the play, a messenger comes from Corinth with the news that the King of Corinth is dead who was Oedipus’ supposed father and in the next moment also reveals that the king wasn’t his real father. As the play progresses, the mystery about the killer of Laius is solved and ironically it turns out that the detective himself is the criminal and when Oedipus finally realizes this, his wheel of fortune turns, causing his run of good luck to come to an end. This play does very well in arousing pity and fear in the minds of the readers when they read about the story of such a good man and the end that he met with. Therefore, the play very well plays as a link between theory and practice of tragedy as it is in consonance with all the principles mentioned by Aristotle and is hence considered as an epitome of tragedy.
Tragedy as a genre provides the reader in abundance the paradoxes, ironies and dilemmas and this is what makes it so complex. At the end of every tragedy, a dilemma is induced in the minds of the readers that leaves them puzzled and conflicted as to how to feel towards the protagonist because the story in general as it does not provide them with an easily acceptable closure and the readers are forced to accept this leaving them a little helpless. The puzzling factor comes into play when the readers are forced to accept the end of how the protagonist, a good man, has to suffer serious consequences for his actions, over which he actually has no real control of, for the greater good of the society. Therefore tragedy surely does not provide an easy moral closure and creates a situation of being stuck between a rock and a hard place when the readers try to reason out whether or not they should feel pity and sympathy towards the tragic hero thus, making them suffer from a dilemma. ‘Oedipus the King’ provides a brilliant example of dilemma induced though a tragedy as his actions only provide credibility to the prophecy predicted at the time of his birth but still those action were such that they couldn’t be ignored. This makes readers unable to decide what they should be feeling for Oedipus. Paradox in a tragedy on the other hand is about the inevitability of destiny. The tragic hero is destined for a downfall and this cannot be prevented. When a person who is so good and lifelike in nature meets with a terrible end is paradoxical because it goes against the common reasoning that says that good people deserve all the happiness in the world. Another conflict a tragedy possesses is that even though the protagonist has no real control over his actions his is made to own them and is punished for them. For example, Oedipus puts all his efforts to escape the prophecy and they lead him right into it. Hence, paradoxical tragedy of Oedipus was his encounter with the truth which held serious consequences for him. Therefore, dilemma accompanied with ironies and paradoxes makes this genre of writing one that is intricate to accept but at the same time very intriguing.
Tragedy is, hence, a complex genre of writing with an ambiguous nature along with all the paradoxes and dilemmas it presents us with often leaving us indecisive with a feeling of discord. To be able to incorporate all these feelings successfully certain necessary characteristics were first laid out by Aristotle and were adequately followed by Sophocles in his play “Oedipus the King’. But still, this outlook about tragedy has changed in the contemporary world where the tragic hero is reduced to size of an ordinary man and the tragic end is not necessary but somehow, it still manages to leave its spectators with mixed feelings about the whole situation.