It’s A Tragedy
There was a time when genre in fiction writing wasn’t quite the crowded mishmash of categories and sub-categories, and sub-sub-categories that we’re faced with now, which in any case double in number with the use of the prefix “YA.” There are so many that sometimes it gets difficult to decide which one you’re writing – or reading for that matter.
But there does seem to be a traditional genre that really doesn’t exist anymore: the tragedy. We’ve got most of the others, comedy, satire, the epic, we even have pastoral in the form of the popular song. It’s tragedy that we’re missing.
And I don’t think tragedy has disappeared because it’s really a dramatic genre. We not only still have drama in the traditional sense, but we also have modern versions of same in films and TV. Playwriting is really just an ancient form of scriptwriting.
Is it the definition?
Critical writing on what constitutes a tragedy goes all the way back to Aristotle and his Poetics, but what we learned in high school sums it up: a protagonist suffers a “fall” (loss of status up to and including death) because of a “flaw” (usually hubris). The climax of the tragedy (the point at which the whole story is crystal clear for protagonist and audience alike) results in catharsis (the release of emotion, often pity and/or terror). Aristotle discusses form as well as content, but we don’t need to go into that here.
The bigger the fall, the bigger the tragedy, which is why, up until the modern era, the tragic hero was usually a king, prince, etc. Not usually a queen, princess, etc. In order to fall from a high place, you’ve got to be in a high place, and there just wasn’t much of that going around for women.
[Aside, there were a number of Greek tragedies that had women as central characters, but I maintain that there’s a difference between a tragic fall and unpleasant punishment. Check the Amazon synopsis of Medea; it’s all about Jason.]
For those of us who went to school in North America, the tragedies we’re most familiar with are Shakespeare’s (King Lear, Hamlet, Macbeth, etc.) and Sophocles’ (The Theban Plays). All of which fall in with Aristotle. So why nothing more recent? What happened to classical tragedy? Was it a victim of the guillotine? With democracy making the social playing field a bit more level, is the traditional tragic fall simply a thing of the past?
Consider Tom Stoppard’s definition of tragedy: “the bad end unhappily, the good unluckily.”
Violette Malan is the author of the Dhulyn and Parno series of sword and sorcery adventures (now available in omnibus editions), as well as the Mirror Lands series of primary world fantasies. As VM Escalada, she writes the Faraman Prophecy series. Book One, Halls of Law, is available now. Find her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @VioletteMalan.
I think its the fact that people are less likely to read a depressing book.
Also if its classified as a Tragedy ahead of time, you’re fairly certain the protagonist(s) are going to die.
I’m also less likely to reread anything that has a sad ending. We only have so much time for entertainment, why spend it on something thats going to leave you feeling down.
My wife couldn’t believe i let her watch Amazing Spider-Man 2 knowing how it was going to end and not telling her.
Glenn: I agree in general. I don’t mind a certain amount of sadness, or even the death of the protagonist, if the work ends with hope – which rules out anything depressing, I think.
What makes me wonder, though, is why people enjoyed these things so much back in the day. Was it the commoners in the audience secretly rejoicing when the noble bastards got theirs?
My favorite tragedy is Othello. Every time I read it, or watch it on stage or screen, I’m prompted to ask myself the question, “Why in the world do I – or anyone – enjoy watching this?” And enjoy is truly the word, but in this case it needs to be closely and carefully defined.
I think it has something to do with witnessing the working out of something that goes far beyond the everyday and the ordinary, in being able to perceive (through the genius of the artist) a pattern of deepest consequence. It’s why even the bleakest tragedy can finally be affirming.
Why no tragedy now? I think the simplest answer is probably the true one – we’re not fitted for tragedy anymore. A trivial, shallow people living in a trivial, shallow culture are going to generate a lot of tweets and selfies, but very little tragedy.
There – that’s enough lemon juice to get the day started…
Interestingly, the only difference between tragedy and comedy (according to Aristotle) was the integrity of the main character. A noble person brought low is a tragedy. An eejit enjoying a similar run of bad luck is comedy. So maybe tragedy is still alive and well, albeit in comic form – at least in the UK and Ireland? Think of, say, Alan Partridge or Father Ted.
Thomas: Again, I’d have to agree in general. Part of the affirmation has to be the “restoration of order” that’s the true ending of any tragedy. We feel horror at the consequences, pity for the poor protagonist (especially, I think in Othello, Hamlet usually just makes me want to slap him) and finally relief that the world continues to turn.
I’d have to say that I agree with your analysis of why we don’t have tragedy any more, or at least new tragedy. The old ones are still being produced and enjoyed.
Aonghus: I was always under the impression that Aristotle’s commentary on comedy was lost. Of course, it’s been a few years since I had to have this information at my fingertips, so possibly I’m not up-to-date.
We don’t get a lot of UK programming in North America (at least not in rural Canada, where I am) though I know to whom you refer. You may be on to something, I’m thinking of Walpole’s remark (based on a similar line from a Frenchman whose name escapes me) that the world in a comedy to those who think and a tragedy to those who feel.
When a powerful man suffers the consequences of his moral corruption, we don’t consider it tragic anymore. It’s good riddence.
I guess the main audiences have changed. The Greek tragedies where written by patricians to be performed to patricians, and I’m not sure who made up the main audience of Shakespeare. But we can assume that the people who financed him were also patricians.
I admit I haven’t finished the entire series, but would Breaking Bad meet the criteria?
Joe: Shakespeare’s audience did include a fair number of “commoners” the people who stood in the middle of the theatre, and were referred to as “groundlings” for that reason. I always figured there might be a certain amount of satisfaction on the part of some of these at the sight of the hoity-toity getting their comeuppance.
You’re spot on with why we don’t consider this a tragedy anymore, in my opinion. Very occasionally the morally corrupt individual is shown to have some sort of redeeming quality, but to be honest, I can’t think of an example off the top of my head.
I think a lot of writers today think they are writing a tragedy but don’t really understand the form. See: TLJ
“When a powerful man suffers the consequences of his moral corruption, we don’t consider it tragic anymore. It’s good riddence.”
Interesting definition. I thought tragedy was when a character “falls from grace” in some sense. The character doesn’t necessarily have to be powerful and the fall isn’t necessarily from moral corruption. Wasn’t Oedipus ignorant of his “sin”?
James- I believe the Greeks didn’t need intent to gauge the sin, the action itself was enough.
To be honest, I always felt the greatest tragedies veered nearest to comedy. But for one action the result would be different. For example: Juliet waking up before Romeo takes the poison would result in more of a comedy.
As for tragedies featuring women: Duchess of Malfi (John Webster) springs to mind as does Antigone. Looking to more modern work you have The Glass Menagerie and Streetcar Named Desire, both of which I would argue could fall into the tragic camps, not to mention Death of a Salesman (see Arthur Miller’s “Tragedy and the Common Man”).
Joe, I think Breaking Bad is a true modern tragedy, not least because it seems aware of its great models. Walt has a speech in one episode (“Fly” I think) that echoes Macbeth’s “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech.
James: in the classical sense, yes it did have to be a powerful character. No one else was thought to have any real distant to fall from grace. They were considered to be morally corrupted regardless of awareness of their sin. In the case of Oedipus, of course, it’s also his parents who fall.
As I think about it, I’m also wondering where something like The Wire would fit in — by the end of the series, just about every (surviving) character has fallen from grace to one degree or another; admittedly, some of them had further to fall than others …
Yes! As soon as this post got me trying to think of modern examples, I immediately thought Breaking Bad.
It’s a fascinating distinction you point out between ancient and modern perceptions of sin. I wonder how fully this has been explored in scholarship? With Oedipus, it was the simple fact that the “sinners” committed incest, which — then as now — is considered a sin. Never mind that no one involved KNEW that they were doing so, that fate basically tricked them into it. A modern judgment of the same scenario would almost universally be, “Yes, incest is wrong. But since he didn’t know she was his mother and she didn’t know he was her son, they’re not guilty of anything. They’d only be guilty if they continued the relationship after they knew their kinship.”
This reflects, to me, an evolution of ethics and morality. In our modern sentencing, we take into account intent. A far different sentence between, say, a person who robs a pharmacy to get high and a person who robs a pharmacy to get drugs he cannot afford to treat an ailing family member. The ancient view would simply be, “Stealing is stealing.” The modern view says “Context matters.”
My specialty in philosophy isn’t ancient ethics, but I know enough about Aristotle to tell you that context definitely does matter in his ethical assessment. The history of ethical thought doesn’t quite fit your evolutionary narrative.
@Violette – YES! Horace Walpole’s quote is why I’ve worn comedy/tragedy masks as my necklace for the last 30 years: “The world is a comedy to those that think; a tragedy to those that feel.”
It’s a great conversation starter, as folks first ask if I’m in drama, then think I’m a Mötley Crüe fan.
P.S. I’ve swung back and forth (Probably dependent upon the seasons of my life) on whether overall life is a comedic-tragedy or a tragic-comedy.
“The happy ending of the fairy tale, the myth, and the divine comedy of the soul, is to be read, not as a contradiction, but as a transcendence of the universal tragedy of man. The objective world remains what it was, but, because of a shift in emphasis within the subject, is beheld as though transformed. Where formerly life and death contended, now enduring being is made manifest–as indifferent to the accidents of time as water boiling in a pot is to the destiny of a bubble, or as to the cosmos to the appearance and disappearance of a galaxy of stars. Tragedy is the shattering of the forms and of our attachment to the forms; comedy, the wild and careless, inexhaustible joy of life invincible. Thus the two are the terms of a single mythological theme and experience which includes them both and which they bound: the down-going and the up-coming (kathodos and anodos), which together constitute the totality of the revelation that is life, and which the individual must know and love if he is to be purged (katharsis = purgatorio) of the contagion of sin (disobedience to the divine will) and death (identification with the mortal form).
“It is the business of mythology proper, and of the fairy tale, to reveal the specific dangers and techniques of the dark interior way from tragedy to comedy. Hence the incidents are fantastic and “unreal”: they represent psychological, not physical, triumphs. Even when the legend is of an actual historical personage, the deeds of victory are rendered, not in lifelike, but in dreamlike figurations; for the point is not that such-and-such could be done on earth; the point is that, before such-and-such could be done on earth, this other, more important, primary thing had to be brought to pass within the labyrinth that we all know and visit in our dreams. The passage of the mythological hero may be overground, incidentally; fundamentally it is inward–into depths where obscure resistances are overcome, and long lost, forgotten powers revivified, to be made available for the transfiguration of the world. This deed accomplished, life no longer suffers hopelessly under the terrible mutilations of ubiquitous disaster, battered by time, hideous throughout space; but with its horror visible still, its cries of anguish still tumultuous, it becomes penetrated by an all-suffusing, all-sustaining love, and a knowledge of its own unconquered power. Something of the light that blazes invisible within the abysses of its normally opaque materiality breaks forth with an increasing uproar. The dreadful mutilations are then seen as shadows, only, of an immanent, imperishable eternity…”
(Joseph Campbell, “Tragedy and Comedy,” The Hero with a Thousand Faces, pp 28-29, 1968, 2nd ed.)
Joseph Campbell illustrates the importance of myth, and in my opinion, this is the function that modern Fantasy literature should be fulfilling.
Martin makes a valid point re audience. A cautionary tale about what happens when some patrician character makes an error of judgement would have a resonance if your audience was at least partially comprised of patricians. If patricians cease to exist as a class or constitute only a tiny portion of your audience, well……