English IV

Greek Tragedy

by Robert Sewall
from *The Vision of Tragedy: Tragic Themes in Literature from The Book of Job to O'Neill and Miller. Paragon House, 1990.

-This is an edited version of the article found on the pages of
Douglas Johnston and Brian Grandy

The Early History of Tragedy: The first "tragedies" were myths which were danced and sung by a "chorus" at festivals in honour of Dionysius (God of Wine). At first these festivals were of a "satyric" nature (gaiety, drinking, burlesque, etc). The earliest presentations probably consisted a chorus of men dancing in a ring, reciting or chanting some Greek myth while individual performers would stand on a rough wooden platform or cart. Spectators squatted on a hillside to view these early "plays". As time passed the sung and danced myths developed a more serious form. Instead of gaiety and burlesque the "plays" now dealt with the relationship of man and the "Gods", and tried to illustrate some particular lesson of life. The chorus dressed in goat skins because the goat was sacred to Dionysius and goats were "prizes" which were awarded for the best plays. Therefore, the word tragedy is believed to be derived from the Greek word "tragoidia" which means "goat-song". In the open-air, day-lit Greek theatre, the chorus was a practical necessity. It made the transitions between scenes, giving actors the chance to enter and leave the playing area, and even announced what characters those actors portrayed. But the function of the chorus goes beyond this. The choral odes, accompanied by dancing and music, were part of the entertainment itself. The chorus both commented on the events and participated in them, so that it was both involved in the action and detached from it. It was in 534 B.C. that perhaps the most important stage in the creation of drama was reached with Thespis, who invented an actor who conversed with the leader of the chorus, and by his reports of events occurring off the stage could provide the chorus with materials for fresh songs in new scenes. Through the addition of a second actor (by Aeschylus) and a third (by Sophocles), the representation was made possible of a drama which could show and develop a human situation in all its aspects. This drama's purpose?

There were three great masters of Greek tragedy in the Fifth Century B.C. whose work has survived in part: Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. All three wrote plays for the Dionysian festivals, but they differed markedly from each other.

The Tragic Situation In Greek tragedy: the tragic situation, in which the characters find themselves, is always a situation in which man seems to be deprived of all outward help and is forced to rely entirely on himself. It is a situation of extraordinary tension, of utmost conflict. Studying the plots of a number of Greek tragedies, one can find variations of two basic tragic situations:
  1. First there is the case of man's miscalculation of reality which brings about the fatal situation.
  2. The second kind of tragic situation is that of man between two conflicting principles. The protagonist is suddenly put at the crossing point of two duties, both of which claim fulfilment. This is the most compelling tragic situation and is at the game time the one that has most often been chosen by the Greek dramatists. Every tragic situation results in severest suffering for the protagonist. This suffering -- though not necessarily leading to destruction -- and death , always carries with it the serious danger of impending ruin. In most cases the protagonist's suffering is so severe that he is destroyed by it, and very often the protagonist's entire destruction is made explicit in his death (Antigone, for example). In other cases the hero stands the pain, but his personality is broken; he is left as a ruin, inwardly destroyed and devastated. Characteristic of the tragic catastrophe is the fact that not only the protagonist comes to be destroyed, but very often innocent people are also involved in the tragic happenings and lose their lives (for example, Creon's son and wife in "Antigone".)
  3. The Catastrophe. Sealing the tragic situation, comes as an avalanche that overrolls both the bad and the good, the guilty and the innocent. This indicates that the individual is responsible not only for his own fortunes, but also for the fortunes of society. If he stumbles, or takes a "false stop", it is possible that his guilt may become the guilt of the society he lives in, so that his fate may throw a dark shadow over theirs as well. Everybody's fate is connected in some way with the other's and if at one point the harmony is disturbed, disaster is lurking everywhere. It is common to all characters in a tragic situation that they are confronted with a choice. "Choice is at the heart of tragedy". This choice may be taken without much consideration, it may be taken deliberately but in ignorance of the whole truth (Oedipus) and it may also be taken because it is imperative (Antigone). The point is that in all tragic circumstances a decision has either been made, or has to be made, by the character, and that the results of this decision -- whatever the choice may be -- are fatal. Act he must, but his action rests on a perilous freedom. This is what makes a Greek tragedy so awe-inspiring to watch; the inevitability with which the tragic character has to make a choice, which -- whatever it is like -- can never be the "right" choice and brings great suffering for him.

The Nature of Tragedy We must now draw conclusions as to the true nature of Greek tragedy. As has been seen, the dramas time and again show "a mortal will, engaged in an unequal struggle with destiny, whether that destiny be represented by the forces within or without the mind. The conflict reaches its tragic issue when the individual perishes." The tragic issue, the defeat of the individual, leads to the realization that human presumption to determine one's destiny is necessarily ruinous. Greek tragedy, then, deals with the most fundamental issue that exists at all: man's relationship to the gods. The underlying question of all these dramas concerns the laws and standards by which the gods let man live. It is the paradox of tragedy that it will never yield any definite answers. The only result in each drama is one's awareness of the unreliability and deceptiveness of human reason, the realization that the true shape of things cannot always be judged by their surface appearance, the experience that man's view and insight can be clouded over by daemonic forces: in short, the experience of the nothingness of man. Greek tragedy, then, is an expression of man realizing that his human standards have become questionable. Although Greek tragedies, at first glance, seem to represent the case of individuals, what happens to these individuals could happen to other human beings just as well. The suffering protagonist is closely connected with the species Man, and shows with special distinctness what it means to be human. These Greek dramas transcend all individuality and become dramas about humanity. The real hero of Greek tragedy is humanity itself, Humanity torn between appearance and reality, pride and humility, and always at a loss when in contact with superhuman forces. And in depicting Man's destiny, the possibilities of disaster which can unexpectedly fall upon him, the tragic writer can at the same time show the greatness of man who has to suffer such a tragic lot, representative of mankind. But this is just one side of it. Essential is the revelation of truth through man's suffering, the insight that gains in and through his catastrophe. Greek tragic drama -- with a few exceptions -- always results in a catastrophe, yet the way in which the hero fails, often evokes our admiration for him. In his suffering, in the entire destruction of his outer and inner self, the tragic hero attains a certain greatness. Sooner or later we have to ask ourselves why the spectacle of a man or of a woman destroying themselves or being destroyed should give the spectator any kind of emotional, intellectual or aesthetic pleasure. In attempting to answer this question there is space here only for a few gross simplifications and suggestions. Othello's terrifying jealousy is something to which perhaps almost any person can "relate", for sexual jealousy must be very nearly a universal experience, and overpowering passion is also something to which almost any person can "relate". Such ungovernable feelings, which bring about the destruction of this character, may not be within the compass of an ordinary mortal, but he or she can imagine them, understand them, sympathize with them, identify with them and be moved by them. Tragedy is the disaster which comes to those who represent and who symbolize, in a peculiarly intense form, those flaws and short-comings which are universal in a lesser form.

Tragedy is a disaster that happens to other people; and the greater the person, so it seems, the more acute is their tragedy. Put at its crudest -- the bigger they are, the harder they fall. In a way, also, tragedy is a kind of protest; it is a cry of terror or complaint or rage or anguish to and against whoever or whatever is responsible for "this harsh rack", for suffering, for death, be it God, Nature, Fate, circumstance, chance or just something nameless. It is a about the tragic situation in which the tragic hero or heroine find themselves. By participating vicariously in the grief, pain and fear of the tragic hero or heroine, the spectator, in Aristotle's words, experiences pity and fear and is purged. One final word about tragedy; the word "tragedy" implies something intensely sad and terrible, but tragedies do not usually end upon a blackly pessimistic note. If they did, the effect upon the audience would be one of almost intolerable depression. The evil forces in a tragedy most frequently destroy the tragic hero, but the tragedy rarely ends with evil triumphant. As tragedy is probably the most revealing comment upon humanity, it seems to show us that the downfall of the human individual is perhaps inescapable. The individual inevitably has some flaw or makes some error in judgement.

The hero, like any man, is human. He deviates from morality or from a full knowledge of his situation, and his deviation destroys him. Yet perhaps you remember the story of Pandora's box which contained all the evil qualities that have since bedeviled mankind and which Pandora let loose upon the world. In the box remained one more quality to be let loose -- hope. Or, to take another example, the story of Adam and Eve who sinned in the garden of Eden and were fiercely punished. Yet before they were sent out into the world to work out their punishment, they were also given hope. The quality of hope is affirmative. It is necessary to morality and to a striving for a reasoned understanding of life and, therefore, necessary to tragedy. If there were no hope, there would be no consciousness of the moral and intellectual life; and if there were no such consciousness, a tragic downfall would not only be not tragic, it would also be meaningless. After every tragic action must come, at the end of the play, a reaffirmation of morality and a hope that tomorrow the world will be better. And, of course, perhaps it will.

THE TRAGIC FORM: On Job and Oedipus
by Robert Sewall

from *The Vision of Tragedy: Tragic Themes in Literature from The Book of Job to O'Neill and Miller. Paragon House, 1990.

The vision of tragedy as it is revealed through the fully developed form should now be clear. Job and Oedipus do not exhaust the possibilities, of course; many distinctions should be made on Greek tragedy alone. But in the search for essences these two works are central. Values have been incremental, but each new tragic protagonist (for instance) is in some degree a lesser Job or Oedipus, and each new work owes an indispensable element to the Counselors and to the Greek idea of the chorus. I wish, in this brief interchapter, to restate in summary form the constants of tragedy we have so far established. But first a word about some of the
relevance of these differences to the subsequent tradition. The Book of Job, especially the Poet's treatment of the suffering and searching Job, is behind Shakespeare and Milton, Melville, Dostoevski,
and Kafka. Its mark is on all tragedy of alienation, from Marlowe's Faustus to Camus' Stranger, in which there is a sense of separation from a once known, normative, and loved deity or cosmic order or principle of conduct. In emphasizing dilemma, choice, wretchedness of soul, and guilt, it spiritualized the Promethean theme of Aeschylus and made it more acceptable to the Christianized imagination. In working into one dramatic context so great a range of mood---from pessimism and despair to bitterness, defiance, and exalted insight---it is father to all tragedy where the stress is on the inner dynamics of man's response to destiny.
Oedipus stresses not so much man's guilt or forsakeness as his ineluctable lot, the stark realities which are and always will be. The Greek tradition is less nostalgic and less visionary---the difference
being in emphasis, not in kind. There is little pining for a lost Golden Age, or yearning for utopia, redemption, or heavenly restitution. But if it stresses man's fate, it does not deny him freedom. Dramatic action, of course, posits freedom; without it no tragedy could be written. In Aeschylus' Prometheus Kratos (or Power) says, "None is free but Zeus," but the whole play proves him wrong. Even the Chorus of helpless Sea Nymphs, in siding with Prometheus in the end, defy the bidding of the
gods. Aeschylus' Orestes was told by Apollo to murder his mother, but he was not compelled to. The spirit with which he acquiesced in his destiny ( a theme which Greek tragedy stresses as Job does not) is of a free man who, though fated, could have withdrawn and not acted at all. Even Euripides, who of all the Greek Tragedians had the direst view of the gods' compulsiveness in man's affairs, shows his Medea and Hippolytus as proud and decisive human beings. And, as Cedric Whitman says about the
fate of Oedipus, the prophecy merely predicted Oedipus' future, it did not determine it. Had Oedipus wish to escape his prophesied future, he might have killed himself on first hearing of it or never killed a man or never`married. The fact that he acted at all, with such a curse hanging over him, explains why, perhaps, he is not entirely a stranger to guilt. But the fact remains that Oedipus presides over that mode of tragedy less concerned with judgement (eschatology) than with being (ontology), less with ultimate things than with things here and now; less with man and the gods as they should be than with man and the gods as they are.
In the Christian era, except for an occasional academic exercise or tour de force, there has been no tragedy identifiable as pure Hebraic or pure Greek. When the writers of the Renaissance found models and guides in Greek tragedy, in Aristotle, and in Seneca, they came to them with imaginations inevitably Christianized. What resulted from the amalgam of Hebraic, Greek, and Christian was still a third mode of
tragedy---"Christian tragedy"---which added to the traditional modes its own peculiar tensions and stresses. What remained constant and compelling was the ancient tragic treatment of evil; of suffering; and the suggestion of certain values that may mitigate if not redeem. Evil. The Greek tragedies, the imitations of them by Seneca, and the freer, more humanistic reading of the Old Testament, especially Job, brought to the men of the Renaissance not only the aesthetic delight and challenge of beautifully ordered structures and of richly poetic language but a sense of common cause in the face of insoluble mystery that centuries of Christian piety could not still. The Greek plays and Job, the products of long traditions and sophisticated cultures, spoke to latent anxieties and doubts which the Renaissance, itself a sophisticated culture and the product of a long tradition, was, in the general "freeing of the imagination" of that period, beginning to seek means of expressing more fully. The Greek plays and Job presented a view of the universe, of man's destiny and his relation with his fellows and
himself, in which evil, though not total, is real, ever threatening, and ineluctable. They explored the area of chaos in the human heart and its possibility in the heavens. They faced the facts of cruelty, failure,
frustration, and loss, and anatomized suffering with shocking thoroughness but with tonic honesty. The Greeks affirmed absolutes like justice and order, but revealed a universe which promised neither and
often dealt out the reverse. The poet of Job showed a universe suddenly gone and brought it back to an uneasy balance only by appeal to a religious revelation---and not before giving a full view of his great
protagonist, alone and embittered, forced unjustly into a boundary-situation" not of his own making, where his only real help was himself. In the thirty-two surviving Greek tragedies, in the length of
Job's complaints, and in the lesser examples of Hebraic literature of the same cast, this basic theme of the "dark problem" appears in many guises and in varying degrees of emphasis. The focus shifts, but the
vision is constant. The range and power of its manifestation in the Hebraic poem and the Greek plays established it as the informing element of tragedy. A way had been found of giving the fullest account of all the forces, within and without, that make for man's destruction, all that afflicts, mystifies, and bears him down, all that he knows as Evil. Aristotle is singularly silent about it, but it is the essence and core of tragedy. Suffering. But the tragic poets of antiquity had made another great
discovery. They had found a way of presenting and rendering credible in a single, unified work of art, and hence at one and the same time, not only all that harasses man and bears him down but much that ennobles and exalts him. They found in dramatic action the clue to the rendering of paradox---the paradox of man, the "riddle of the world." Only man in action, man "one the way," begins to reveal the possibilities of his
nature for good and bad and for both at once. And only in the most pressing kinds of action, action that involves the ultimate risk and pushes him to the very limits, are the fullest possibilities revealed.
It is action entered into by choice and thus one which affirms man's freedom. And it leads to suffering---but choice of a certain kind and suffering of a certain kind. The choice is not that of a clear good or clear evil; it involves both, in unclear mixture, and presents a dilemma. The suffering is not so much that of physical ordeal (although this can be part of it) but of mental or spiritual anguish as the
protagonist acts in the knowledge that what he feels he must do is in some sense wrong---as he sees himself at once both good and bad, justified yet unjustified. This kind of suffering presupposes man's ability to understand the full context and implications of his action, and thus it is suffering beyond the reach of the immature or brutish, the confirmed optimist or pessimist, or the merely indifferent. To the
Greek tragedians, as to the Poet of Job, only the strongest natures could endure this kind of suffering---persisting in their purpose in spite of doubts, fears, advice of friends, and sense of guilt---and hence to the Greeks it became the mark of the hero. Only the hero suffers in this peculiar, ultimate way. The others remain passive, make their escape, or belatedly or impulsively rally to the hero's side, like the Sea Nymphs in Prometheus. Even murderesses like Clytemnestra and Euripides' Medea, whose monstrous crimes make them anything but heroic in the romantic and moral sense, are dignified by their capacity for this kind of suffering. Values. Suffering of this kind does more than prove man's capacity to endure and to perceive the ambiguity in his own nature and in the world
about him. The Greeks and the Poet of Job saw the suffering endured by these men of heroic mold to be positive and creative and to lead to a reordering of old values and the establishing of new. This is not to say that they recommended it, as in St. Paul's exhortation to "glory in tribulation"; Job never glories in his tribulations, and no Greek hero embraces his destiny gladly. He is characteristically stubborn and
resentful. Nor did the tragic writers see these new values as ultimately redemptive. But suffering under their treatment lost its incoherence and meaninglessness. It became something more of a sign of the chaos or malignity at the center of being. They showed that, for all its
inevitable, dark, and destructive side, it could lead under certain circumstances not only to growth in the standard virtues of courage, loyalty, and love as they operate on the traditional level, but also to the discovery of a higher level of being undreamt of by the standard (or choric) mentality. Thus Job's challenge to Jehovah, for which the Counselors rebuke him, opened up realms of knowledge---even truth, beauty, and goodness---of which the Counselors were ignorant. And Oedipus' pride, which makes the Chorus fearful, led to discoveries, human and divine, which make their moralizings seem petty indeed.
Tragedy, as the Greek plays defined it and The Book of Job did not, stresses irretrievable loss, often signified by death. But suffering has been given a structure and set in a viable relationship: a structure
which shows progression toward value, rather than denial of it, and a relationship between the inner life of the sufferer and the world of values about him. Thus the suffering of Job and Oedipus, of Orestes and Antigone and Medea, makes a difference. If nothing else, those about them see more clearly the evil of evil and the goodness of good. The issues are sharpened as never before. Some of the tragedies end more luminously than others. There is nothing like the note of reconciliation at the end of Medea, for instance, that there is in the final scenes of the ;Oresteia and Oedipus. But Medea, by the end of the play, has (like Clytemnestra) displayed qualities of "a great nature gone wrong," and
the play as a whole asserts values that transcend her enormities. The emphasis is on "greatness," and because of her action the dark ways are both more and less benighted than they were before. Though nothing fully compensates (the plays say) there is some compensation. There has been
suffering and disaster, and there is more to come. But the shock has to some degree un-shocked us. We are more "ready." Such is the approach to the question of existence, and such the
appraisal of the stuff of experience, that constitute the form of tragedy as the artists of antiquity achieved it. They did not make permanent laws of tragedy, nor did Aristotle, whose distinction lay in
seeing that a form was there and in cutting beneath theatricality to give it statement. The Poetics was a powerful influence in directing the writers of the Renaissance to the plays. They found them to have
well-ordered structures, which, when the time was ripe, they turned to for suggestive models. And , informing these structures, giving them their shape and body, was that characteristic vision of evil, suffering, and value which we have learned to call tragic.

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