No Marshmallows, Just Term Papers
Tragedy after Aristotle
by Larry A. Brown
Professor of Theater
For centuries the Poetics offered the only definition of tragedy available to dramatic critics. Aristotle's ideas concerning dramatic structure established the terms of the debate and were never seriously challenged. Based on his unquestioned authority, critics who discussed tragedy assumed his categories to be valid for all time. A closer look, however, reveals that Aristotle's formal definition excludes many plays which are commonly thought of as tragedies. Not all tragic heroes suffer because of a tragic error, nor does recognition always occur within the tragic plot. Numerous types of drama have developed over the centuries which Aristotle never envisioned.
Other renowned thinkers besides Aristotle have offered alternative definitions of tragedy. The 19th century philosopher Hegel described the tragic situation as the collision of mutually exclusive but equally legitimate causes: both Antigone and Creon stand for principles – loyalty to family and obedience to the state – which are morally justifiable if taken by themselves, but when these ethical positions conflict, tragedy results for both sides. As Heilman explains, the tragic hero is sometimes caught between "two imperatives, different injunctions, each with its own validity but apparently irreconcilable." To avenge their fathers' deaths, both Orestes and Hamlet must in turn murder another relative, placing them in a moral dilemma with no guiltless options.
Friedrich Nietzsche found the origins of tragedy symbolically represented in the confrontation of Apollo and Dionysos, the Greek gods of order, restraint, and form on the one hand and impulse, instinct, and ecstatic frenzy on the other. The tragic hero is divided "between imperative and impulse, between moral ordinance and unruly passion . . . between law and lust" (Heilman 207). Dr. Faustus rejects the limits of science and...