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Tragedies

Aristotle asserted that tragedy represented the highest form of art. In its capacity to help audience members purge unwanted emotions like fear and anger, it most fully accomplishes the cathartic aims of art in general and theater in particular. A good tragedy is able to maintain balance within society by providing an outlet for feelings (and therefore behaviors) which are pernicious or harmful.

The fact that tragedies incite feelings of pleasure in their viewers has perplexed critics and philosophers for centuries. How is it that, watching our deepest anguish or terror enacted on a stage (or, nowadways, on a screen), we can leave the theater feeling better than when we went in? Are we all a bunch of sadists, as some have suggested? Or is this the way we ought to feel?

Traditionally, a tragedy is any dramatic plot structure in which the hero'shappiness is abruptly interrupted by a reversal of fortune brought on by somemisdeed (either purposeful or accidental) on his part. This wrongdoing is almost exclusively the result of hubris—overweening pride. Pride, for the Greeks, was a two-edged sword; it was necessary for any manto acheive greatness, but it was also the universal source of his undoing.

Theseus' hubris led him toconfront the Minotaur....and to abandon the girl who helped him get out of the Labyrinth alive. Oedipus' hubris helped him become king....and to kill his own father and marry his own mother. The hubris of Jason provided the impetus for finding the Golden Fleece....and the basis for his betrayal of Medea.

Some see the tragedies of Shakespeare as a radical departure from the Greek examples, that his device involved a hero's fall as the direct result of some sin he had committed. If Shakespeare hadn't stolen his plots directly from the Classical authors, this theory would be more plausible; it would also make more sense if hubris wasn't so closely linked to the Greek concept of evil. Sure, the heroes often came to do wrong unintentionally, but their hubris was never unintentional, and was always the ultimate source of their wrongdoing.

That's not to say Shakespeare didn't reshape the Classical plot structures to better reflect his own Christian-dominated cultural context. Whether ol' William was a Protestant or a closet Catholic is still undemonstrated (it's likely he was a hodge-podge, much like Queen Elizabeth during whose reign he wrote and acted), but he did grasp the worldview at work within the English society of his day. His tragedies, as a result, show evil punished and good (while not explicitly blessed) privileged.

Modern playwrites have largely abandoned the traditional tragic form. For most of them, either everything is a tragedy, or nothing is, and anything more ambiguous is seen as passe, old-fashioned. Which is ironic, given the current mood of relativism. Holding to Aristotle's rigid rules for a successful tragedy (outlined at length in his Poetics) is certainly unnecessary, but the new ultra-realistic plays rarely capture the cathartic element of tragedy and serve only as set-pieces for academic reflection and cultural snobbery.

A real tragedy gets at the heart of the human condition. It shows us, sometimes even rubs our faces in the lows to which each of us is capable of falling, and while it may offer a ray of hope, there's no magical resolved ending where everyone learns a lesson and becomes a better person. That's the audience's job—to learn from the mistakes of the characters on stage and try to avoid the same mistakes themselves.

Resolved endings aren't really cathartic, anyway; unless everyone dies, or the world ends, or Oedipus gouges out his own eyes, on what will we be able to project our own negative emotions and feelings? We need to witness horror and pain to get rid of our own. A good tragedy makes the audience work for any reward it receives, not just sit back and relax. The times we're able to emerge with a better sense of the world and ourselves are the times we can be sure we've witnessed a good tragedy.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur.Read more of his reviews here.

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39 Items found Print
Aeschylus I: The Oresteia (old)
The Complete Greek Tragedies
by Aeschylus (translation by Richmond Lattimore)
from University of Chicago
Ancient Greek Tragedy for 10th-Adult
in Ancient Literature (Location: CLT-ANC)
Aeschylus II: The Oresteia
The Complete Greek Tragedies
by Aeschylus (translation by Richmond Lattimore)
3rd edition from University of Chicago
Ancient Greek Tragedy for 10th-Adult
in Ancient Literature (Location: CLT-ANC)
Antigone
Dover Thrift Editions
by Sophocles
from Dover Publications
Ancient Tragedy for 9th-Adult
in Ancient Literature (Location: CLT-ANC)
Bacchae and Other Plays
Penguin Classics
by Euripides (translation by John Davies)
from Penguin Classics
Ancient Tragedy for 11th-Adult
in Ancient Literature (Location: CLT-ANC)
Bacchae and Other Plays
Penguin Classics
by Euripides (translation by Phillip Vellacott)
from Penguin Classics
Ancient Tragedy for 11th-Adult
in Ancient Literature (Location: CLT-ANC)
Euripides I
by Euripides
from University of Chicago
for 10th-Adult
in Ancient Literature (Location: CLT-ANC)
Euripides: The Trojan Women and Hippolytus
by Euripides
from Dover Publications
for 10th-Adult
in Ancient Literature (Location: CLT-ANC)
Goethe's Faust
by Goethe, Walter Kaufmann (translator)
from Anchor Books
for 10th-Adult
in 18th Century Literature (Location: CLT-18C)
Hamlet
Dover Thrift Editions
from Dover Publications
for 10th-Adult
in Renaissance & Reformation Literature (Location: CLT-REN)
Hamlet
by William Shakespeare
from Oxford University
for 10th-Adult
in Renaissance & Reformation Literature (Location: CLT-REN)
Hamlet
Folger Shakespeare Library
by William Shakespeare
from Washington Square Press
for 10th grade-adult
in Renaissance & Reformation Literature (Location: CLT-REN)
Hamlet
by William Shakespeare
from Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
for 10th-Adult
in Renaissance & Reformation Literature (Location: CLT-REN)
Jew of Malta
by Christopher Marlowe
from Dover Publications
for 10th-Adult
in Renaissance & Reformation Literature (Location: CLT-REN)
King Lear
Shakespeare Made Easy
by William Shakespeare
1st edition from Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
in Renaissance & Reformation Literature (Location: CLT-REN)
Macbeth
Folger Shakespeare Library
by William Shakespeare
from Simon and Schuster
for 9th-12th grade
in Renaissance & Reformation Literature (Location: CLT-REN)
Macbeth
Dover Thrift Editions
by William Shakespeare
from Dover Publications
for 10th-adult
in Renaissance & Reformation Literature (Location: CLT-REN)
Macbeth
Oxford School Shakespeare
by William Shakespeare & Roma Gill, editor
from Oxford University
Historical Tragedy for 7th-10th grade
in Renaissance & Reformation Literature (Location: CLT-REN)
Medea and Other Plays
by Euripides
from Penguin Putnam
Drama for 9th-Adult
in Ancient Literature (Location: CLT-ANC)
Merchant of Venice
Folger Shakespeare Library
by William Shakespeare
from Simon and Schuster
for 9th-Adult
in Renaissance & Reformation Literature (Location: CLT-REN)
Merchant of Venice
by William Shakespeare
from Dover Publications
for 9th-Adult
in Renaissance & Reformation Literature (Location: CLT-REN)
Oedipus at Colonus
Dover Thrift Editions
by Sophocles
from Dover Publications
Ancient Tragedy for 9th-Adult
in Ancient Literature (Location: CLT-ANC)
Oedipus Rex
Dover Thrift Editions
by Sophocles
from Dover Publications
Ancient Tragedy for 9th-Adult
in Ancient Literature (Location: CLT-ANC)
Oresteia Trilogy
Dover Thrift Editions
by Aeschylus
from Dover Publications
Ancient Greek Tragedy for 9th-Adult
in Ancient Literature (Location: CLT-ANC)
Othello
Dover Thrift Editions
by William Shakespeare
from Dover Publications
for 10th-Adult
in Renaissance & Reformation Literature (Location: CLT-REN)
Othello
Folger Shakespeare Library
by William Shakespeare
from Washington Square Press
for 10th-Adult
in Renaissance & Reformation Literature (Location: CLT-REN)
Othello
by William Shakespeare
from Oxford University
for 10th-Adult
in Renaissance & Reformation Literature (Location: CLT-REN)
Prometheus Bound
Dover Thrift Editions
by Aeschylus
from Dover Publications
Ancient Greek Tragedy for 9th-Adult
in Ancient Literature (Location: CLT-ANC)
Romeo and Juliet
Dover Thrift Editions
by William Shakespeare
from Dover Publications
for 10th-Adult
in Renaissance & Reformation Literature (Location: CLT-REN)
Romeo and Juliet
Folger Shakespeare Library
by William Shakespeare
from Washington Square Press
for 10th-Adult
in Renaissance & Reformation Literature (Location: CLT-REN)
Romeo and Juliet
Shakespeare Made Easy
by William Shakespeare
from Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
for 10th-Adult
in Renaissance & Reformation Literature (Location: CLT-REN)
Romeo and Juliet
by William Shakespeare
from Oxford University
Tragedy for 10th-Adult
in Renaissance & Reformation Literature (Location: CLT-REN)
Sophocles I
The Complete Greek Tragedies
by Sophocles (translation/editing by David Grene & Richmond Lattimore)
2nd edition from University of Chicago
Ancient Tragedy for 9th-Adult
in Ancient Literature (Location: CLT-ANC)
Story of Kullervo
by J.R.R. Tolkien
1st edition from Houghton Mifflin
for 9th-Adult
in 20th & 21st Century Literature (Location: CLT-20C)
Streetcar Named Desire
by Tennessee Williams
New edition from New Directions
for 10th-Adult
in 20th & 21st Century Literature (Location: CLT-20C)
Tamburlaine
by Christopher Marlowe
from Dover Publications
for 10th-Adult
in Renaissance & Reformation Literature (Location: CLT-REN)
Thelma English Shakespeare Book List
by William Shakespeare
for 10th-Adult
in Shakespeare Materials (Location: A06-00E)
Three Theban Plays
by Sophocles (translation by Robert Fagles)
from Penguin Putnam
for 10th-Adult
in Ancient Literature (Location: CLT-ANC)
Titus Andronicus
by William Shakespeare
from Washington Square Press
for 11th-Adult
in Renaissance & Reformation Literature (Location: CLT-REN)
Troilus and Cressida
The Pelican Shakespeare
by William Shakespeare
from Penguin Putnam
for 10th-Adult
in Renaissance & Reformation Literature (Location: CLT-REN)