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About this book

Tragedy is one of the oldest and most revered forms of literature in the western world. Over the centuries, tragedy has shown a tremendous capacity to reinvent itself, often emerging at crucial moments in the evolution of cultural, political and intellectual history.

Not only is tragedy marked by its diversity, the critical literature surrounding the genre is equally diverse. This Reader's Guide offers a comprehensive introduction to the key criticism and debates on tragedy, from Aristotle through to the present day. Sarah Dewar-Watson presents the work of canonical theorists and lesser-known but, nonetheless, influential critics, bringing together a strong sense of the critical tradition and an awareness of current scholarly trends.

Stimulating and engaging, this essential resource helps students to navigate their way around the subject of tragedy and its rich critical terrain.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Abstract
Tragedy is one of the oldest and most revered forms of literature in the Western world. The earliest extant tragedies date from Athens in the fifth century BC, and over the centuries tragedy has shown a tremendous capacity to reinvent itself for audiences at different times and in different places, often emerging at critical moments in the evolution of cultural, political and intellectual history. Critics in their numbers have recognised that tragedy is the form to which writers and their audiences turn again and again to explore the most important questions about human suffering in the most urgent and compelling way.
Sarah Dewar-Watson

Chapter One. The Gods

Abstract
The precise origins of Attic tragedy — and thereby Western tragedy as a whole — have been heavily contested. The term ‘tragedy’ is etymologically derived from the Greek words tragos (‘goat’) and oidia (‘song’), and this etymology has led to speculation that the performance of tragedy may originally have been associated with the sacrifice of a goat.1 In the Poetics, Aristotle refers to the origins of tragedy ‘in the improvisations of the leaders of the dithyramb’, a hymn which was sung in honour of Dionysus.2
Sarah Dewar-Watson

Chapter Two. The Chorus

Abstract
In the Poetics, Aristotle discusses the chorus in only the most cursory terms, in his reference to the origins of tragedy in the singing of the dithyramb (discussed previously in Chapter 1). Aristotle thus appears to recognise that tragedy begins with a collective voice, against which an individual performer was differentiated. He goes on to note that Aeschylus added a second actor, and made the role of the chorus less important. It might seem surprising to us that Aristotle does not have more to say about the role of the chorus, given its importance as a feature of Greek tragedy. The most likely explanation for this is that Aristotle is not predominantly concerned with character in the Poetics: his main focus is the structural elements of the plot. For further discussion of Aristotle’s prioritisation of plot over character, see Chapter 3, ‘The Tragic Hero’.
Sarah Dewar-Watson

Chapter Three. The Tragic Hero

Abstract
We noted in the previous chapter on the chorus that Aristotle has relatively little to say on the subject of dramatic character and that he understands character primarily as a vehicle for the plot. In the Poetics, Aristotle claims that, ‘A tragedy is … a mimesis not of people but of their actions and life … [By definition] a work could not be a tragedy if there were no action. But there could be a tragedy without mimesis of character …’1
Sarah Dewar-Watson

Chapter Four. Tragic Women

Abstract
In her book The Subject of Tragedy, Catherine Belsey devotes separate sections to her discussion of ‘Man’ and her discussion of ‘Woman’. Her aim in this, she says, is to demonstrate that:
■ at the moment when the modern subject was in the process of construction, the ‘common-gender noun’ largely failed to include women in the range of its meanings. Man is the subject of liberal humanism. Woman has meaning in relation to man. And yet the instability which is the result of this asymmetry is the ground of protest, resistance, feminism.1
Sarah Dewar-Watson

Chapter Five. Tragic Dualities

Abstract
According to Goethe, ‘All tragedy depends on an insoluble conflict. As soon as harmony is obtained, or becomes a possibility, tragedy vanishes.’1 In his analysis of modern tragedy, Raymond Williams argues that conflict in the modern age is serving to renew and revitalise tragedy as a form: ‘Man can achieve his full life only after violent conflict; man is essentially frustrated and divided against himself; while he lives in society; man is torn by intolerable contradictions, in a condition of essential absurdity.’2 Charles Segal is among critics who have drawn attention to the dualities of Greek tragedy, an important theme in our previous discussion of Sophocles’ Antigone:
■ Throughout Greek tragedy systems of linked polarity — mortal and divine, male and female, man and beast, city and wild — operate within the dense fabric of the language and the plot to include not just the emotional, interior world of the character or spectator but the whole of society in its multiple relationships to the natural and supernatural order.3
Sarah Dewar-Watson

Chapter Six. Tragic Pleasure

Abstract
‘“Why does tragedy give pleasure?” is among the hoariest of philosophical questions, akin to “Why is there anything at all?” or “Why is there evil in the world?” There has been no shortage of answers.’1 So remarks Terry Eagleton on the subject of tragic pleasure. This chapter will offer a survey of some of the most important accounts of tragic pleasure which philosophers and literary critics have proposed.
Sarah Dewar-Watson

Chapter Seven. Tragedy and Form

Abstract
The so-called dramatic unities of Time, Place and Action are commonly thought to derive from Aristotle’s Poetics. In fact, Aristotle does not formulate a highly developed theory of dramatic unity; rather, he makes brief references to unity, which subsequent critics have elaborated. The doctrine of the Unity of Time derives from Aristotle’s comment that tragedy ‘generally endeavours to fall within a single circuit of the sun or thereabouts’.1 We should note that Aristotle allows a full 24 hours for the action of the play, and even this is reckoned approximately. Thus, in the little Aristotle that does say about the Unity of Time, he is generous in his scope. He does not indicate any requirement for the action of the play to take place in ‘real time’ corresponding to the duration of the dramatic performance, although some of Aristotle’s later disciples — particularly in the French neoclassical school — argued that this is what true Unity of Time should entail. The doctrine of the Unity of Action, meanwhile, comes from Aristotle’s observation that, ‘The plot must be single rather than double …’2 Contrary to popular misconception, Aristotle does not mention the Unity of Place at all.
Sarah Dewar-Watson

Chapter Eight. Modern Tragedy

Abstract
In 1955, Albert Camus posed the question, ‘Is modern tragedy possible?’1 It is a question which has profoundly divided critics over the last few decades. Some critics such as George Steiner, whose work receives detailed consideration in this chapter, argue that the conditions of modernity are inhospitable to a tragic view of life; others, most notably Raymond Williams, contend that the experience of the modern and postmodern world is endowing tragedy with a new sense of relevance and urgency. This chapter considers this major area of critical debate from both sides, and looks at how the debate is developing in the twenty-first century.
Sarah Dewar-Watson

Chapter Nine. Postcolonial and Multiethnic Tragedy

Abstract
This chapter is concerned with postcolonial readings of tragedy, starting with Shakespeare and moving on to the large body of translations and adaptations of Greek tragedy in Irish, African, African American and diaspora across the world. In her introduction to an important collection of essays, Lorna Hardwick asks whether classical inheritance is a tool of Western colonising power, or whether it is a mechanism by which independent nations express their identity in the postcolonial world.1 Historically, processes of colonisation have involved not only acts of violence but the imposition of a cultural base on the colonised land. As Kevin Wetmore says, ‘The classics can and have been used as weapons of cultural imperialism, forced upon persons of African descent as the model of culture, and used to supplant indigenous literature ….’2 In the final part of the chapter, we turn to the subject of indigenous literature: through Wole Soyinka’s theoretical work on Yoruba drama, we explore interpretations of tragedy outside the European and Anglophone world.
Sarah Dewar-Watson

Conclusion: Recent and Future Directions

Abstract
This Guide has explored some of the most important and influential discussions of tragedy from Aristotle in the fourth century BC to the most exciting criticism of the present day. The critical field is dynamic and interdisciplinary. As we have seen, the task of theorising tragedy is the provenance not just of the literary critic, but of philosophers, historians and others too. And among literary scholars, tragic theory engages the Renaissance critic as much as the postcolonial theorist and is relevant to students of ancient Greek literature, English, French, German, Russian, Norwegian, to name but a few. It is doubtful that many other art forms can claim to have this kind of longevity and relevance across time and space. There is already an extensive critical tradition: now we must ask, where does tragic theory go from here?
Sarah Dewar-Watson
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