Tragedy after Aristotle

by Larry A. Brown
Professor of Theater
Nashville, Tennessee

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 the constraints of theology (just imperatives) to seek diabolic knowledge and power (evil impulse), whereas the Duchess of Malfi disobeys her brothers' command (unjust imperative) to marry a person of lower status (innocent impulse). Both Hegel's and Nietzsche's views are helpful in describing aspects of tragedy not addressed by Aristotle.

Rather than starting from an abstract formula, we must arrive at a comprehensive definition of tragedy from a thorough examination of the literary works themselves in order to see what qualities they have in common. Throughout history various authors have shared a similar perspective of the world, what might be called a tragic vision, asking the same questions although coming to different conclusions. Shakespeare expressed his vision in a different form of drama from Sophocles, but each depicted characters struggling within the limitations of their mortality to find meaning and purpose to human activity. 

What qualities make up this tragic vision?

First, tragedy begins by asking ultimate questions: why are we here? Does life have meaning or purpose? More to the point, can life have meaning in the face of so much suffering and evil in the world? Does death negate the significance of the protagonist's life and the goals he/she was seeking?

Philosophers and theologians through the ages have debated the question of the origin of suffering, but tragedy offers no single solution. Some people suffer because of their own actions: miscalculations which turn out to be fatal (Lear's abdication of the throne), mistakes based on ignorance (Oedipus) or deceit (Othello's misguided trust in Iago), or evil deeds which return to haunt the doer (Macbeth, Dr. Faustus). Some fall victim to the malevolent will of others (the women of Troy) or are caught in a moral dilemma not of their making (Orestes, Hamlet). At times the tragic hero appears to suffer simply because he or she lives in a cruel and unjust universe where the gods are unkind, unfeeling, or nonexistent.

Whereas the causes of suffering are diverse, the purpose of suffering in tragedy appears almost universally acknowledged: only through suffering does a person attain wisdom. The chorus in Agamemnon by Aeschylus recites: "Zeus, whose will has marked for man the sole way where wisdom lies, ordered one eternal plan: Man must suffer to be wise." In Antigone, the chorus counsels Creon that suffering is wisdom's schoolteacher. According to Francis Fergusson (adapting an idea from Kenneth Burke), these plays follow a tragic pattern of purpose, passion, and perception: the protagonist, seeking a goal, confronts opposition and suffers a trial by fire, but through this painful process gains insight about himself and the world he inhabits. From the tragic perspective, wisdom based on truth is of supreme value, even though it must often be purchased with the hero's death.

Second, tragedy pushes the individual to the outer limits of existence where one must live or die by one's convictions. Facing the end of life, a person quickly recognizes life's ultimate values. All the trivial matters which occupy our daily routine suddenly vanish. At this decisive point there is no turning back and no room for compromise. Ibsen's Brand lives by the motto, "All or Nothing!" This stern Norwegian minister gives up everything -- home, family, parish -- in his quest for perfect obedience to a harsh, merciless God. He finally reaches his goal, the Ice Church high in the mountains, symbol of perfection, only to be buried alive by an avalanche of snow.

Aristotle saw the extremism of the tragic hero as a failure to find the moderate way, leading to his downfall. In contrast, Nietzsche felt that this extremism was the sole justification for the hero's existence,  as one who possesses the courage to live dangerously, to risk all in order to gain all. Testing the boundaries of his finite nature, the tragic protagonist seeks to surpass his limitations and reach the unattainable. The energy which propels him towards his goal is often so intense that it eventually consumes him as well. We admire the daring, uncompromising spirit of the tragic hero while recognizing that what he gains in intensity of life, he often pays for with its brevity.

Third, tragedy depicts men and women who, dissatisfied with the hand destiny has dealt them, challenge the rules of the game. Sometimes they win, sometimes they lose, but always they demonstrate the power of free will to stand against fate or the gods. Contrary to popular belief, tragedy does not depict man as a helpless puppet dancing to the strings of destiny. As in the case of Orestes, the end of tragedy is not always defeat.

The tragic vision does not assume the hero's ultimate downfall. Instead, it explores possible ways in which free will exerts itself in the world. For this reason Walter Kerr defines tragedy as "an investigation into the possibilities of human freedom" (121). Human beings are creatures set loose in the universe with the power to change it irrevocably. The will decides and then acts on its decision, carving out its own destiny. Even when the gods appears to have a hand in the hero's destruction, he remains his own master: despite the tricks of fate, Oedipus never denies his responsibility in sinning against his parents. Confronting insurmountable odds, the protagonist's determination to act rather than submit often leads to disastrous results, but at the same time it tests the basic substance of humanity, proving its worth.

Fourth, this tremendous strength of will to scale the heights and accomplish the impossible sets the hero apart from ordinary humanity, but at the same time it inspires us with a vision of human potential. Thus, tragedy, far from being a pessimistic view of life, is ultimately optimistic about the value of human achievement and the unconquerable strength of the human spirit. Sophocles has the chorus of Antigone sing, "Numberless are the world's wonders, but none more wonderful than man." Hamlet remarks, "What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!" Both these sentiments echo the words of David in Psalm 8: "What is man that you are mindful of him? . . . You have made him a little lower than divinity and crowned him with glory and honor. You made him ruler over the works of your hands, and put everything under his feet."

The tragic vision encompasses the paradox of human freedom, admitting the possibility of great goodness and great evil. As Eric Bentley states, "Tragedy cannot entail extreme optimism, for that would be to underestimate the problem; it cannot entail extreme pessimism for that would be to lose faith in man" (33). In like fashion, the American playwright Maxwell Anderson called theater "a religious institution dedicated to the exaltation of the spirit of man" (32), and said, "The theme of tragedy has always been victory in defeat, a man's conquest of himself in the face of annihilation. . . . The message of tragedy is that men are better than they think they are. This message needs to be said over and over lest the race lose faith in itself entirely" (51).

The Death of Tragedy?

This affirmation of human worth and potential, an essential element of the tragic vision, points to one reason why the modern age has produced so few authentic tragedies. During the last 300 years humanity's self-esteem has been dealt several devastating blows.  Copernicus removed the earth from the center of God's universe, Darwin stripped man of his divine origin, and Freud left him the victim of his subconscious desires. Given these premises, modern philosophy has little ground on which to build a noble portrait of man to replace Michelangelo's fallen David.

Joseph Wood Krutch remarks, "Tragic writers believed easily in greatness just as we believe easily in meanness. To Shakespeare, robes and crowns and jewels are the garments most appropriate to man because they are the fitting outward manifestation of his inward majesty, but to us they seem absurd because the man who bears them has, in our estimation, so pitifully shrunk. We do not write about kings because we do not believe that any man is worthy to be one" (233).

In The Death of Tragedy, George Steiner argues that the triumph of rationalism and a secular worldview has removed the metaphysical grounds for tragedy in the modern world. The ancients saw themselves as a small but significant part of a much larger Reality. "In Greek tragedy as in Shakespeare, mortal actions are encompassed by forces which transcend man. The reality of Orestes entails that of the Furies; the Weird Sisters wait for the soul of Macbeth. We cannot conceive of Oedipus without a Sphinx, nor of Hamlet without a Ghost." Depicting life as a great mystery beyond human understanding, these tragedies "instruct us how little of the world belongs to man" (193-4). Modern man will have no such overlords, and with his sciences and skeptical reason he has conquered his superstitious belief in the unseen realm. It is ironic, however, that by banishing divinity from the universe, humanity has diminished rather than increased in significance.

While correct in his analysis of this crucial point, Steiner is mistaken in his assertion that Christian hope in redemption and the afterlife was another reason for the genre's demise: "where there is compensation, there is justice, not tragedy" (4). This view fails to acknowledge that Christianity's high view of humanity (biblically defined as a being made in God's image) provides, when coupled with the Christian doctrine of sin, the metaphysical grounds on which tragedy can exist.

Both the Christian worldview and the tragic perspective focus on the paradox of human freedom, admitting the possibility of great goodness and great evil. In Paradise Lost John Milton portrays Adam as the archetypal tragic hero, "sufficient to have stood, though free to fall." Adam's predicament is the human predicament: he has enough freedom to recognize that he is not totally free, but with what freedom he has, he rebels against his finitude, desiring to be like God. As Reinhold Niebuhr says, "Man is mortal; that is his fate. Man pretends not to be mortal; that is his sin" (28). The Greeks acknowledged a similar tendency in man and shuddered at the tragic hero's hubris (pride), knowing that the gods' wrath would follow. Both Christian and Greek thought agree, however, that man's dignity and value are ultimately affirmed by the fact that his behavior attracts the attention of heaven.

Shakespearean Tragedy

William Shakespeare (1564-1616) hardly needs an introduction. Considered the greatest playwright in the English language and arguably the world, Shakespeare enriched the stage with some of its most fascinating and enduring characters. In his plays tragedy falls on someone of high status, larger than life, not an ordinary person slowly worn to death by disease, poverty, or petty problems. The suffering and calamity are exceptional, contrasting with previous happiness or glory. Renaissance critics thought tragedy should serve as an example of the fall of great princes; plays acted as warnings to present rulers not to give themselves over to vice, injustice, or ambition, or else they might meet the same fate. In addition, critics defined tragedy in terms of protagonist’s moral flaw. Although Aristotle, properly understood, did not discuss the concept of tragic flaw, by Shakespeare’s time this idea was commonplace in dramatic criticism. Shakespearean tragedy derives mostly from the protagonist’s own actions, not performed in ignorance or as casual mistakes, but deeds characteristic to his or her nature. The main interest lies more with the character’s internal conflict than any external opposition.

The tragedies follow a basic pattern of complication, crisis, and conclusion but with multiple variations. In the first act Shakespeare often introduces a new twist into the existing situation to complicate matters: Macbeth’s temptation to usurp the throne is kindled by the prophecies of the witches; Hamlet’s melancholy over his mother’s “o’erhasty marriage” increases with the Ghost’s revelation; the family feud between the Montagues and Capulets becomes more entangled when Romeo falls in love with Juliet. The plot eventually reaches the crisis when the protagonist makes a decision that changes the course of the action, at which point his fate is sealed. The location of the crisis varies from play to play: Lear’s foolish decision to divide the kingdom occurs in the first act; Macbeth kills Duncan in Act II; Hamlet passes up the opportunity to kill Claudius at prayer but then mistakenly stabs Polonius in Act III; Romeo kills Tybalt in Act III; Othello does not reach the point of no return until the final act when he smothers Desdemona. In the end Shakespeare often shows a return to order after the chaos. Most films of Hamlet cut the part of Fortinbras as his part seems superfluous to the main action, but Fortinbras appears in the final scene to restore order to the kingdom, as Malcolm does in Macbeth, Albany in King Lear, and Octavian in Julius Caesar.

French Tragedy

Seventeenth-century France produced two significant writers of tragedy. Pierre Corneille (1606-1684) and Jean Racine (1639-1699) offer an interesting contrast of tragic visions. In Corneille’s plays he explores the possibilities of human free will as characters forge their destiny by their own choices. Racine presents a much bleaker view of human nature; his characters’ uncontrollable passions drive them unavoidably to destruction. Corneille’s Polyeucte concerns a Christian martyr during the time of the Roman empire, when faith in Christ was a capital offense. Knowing the risk to his life, Polyeucte demonstrates his freedom to submit to the will of God, which he sees as achieving the glory of martyrdom and the reward of heaven. His friend counsels him that God does not demand his death, but Polyeucte answers, “The more voluntary, the more the deed is worth” (2.6). Polyeucte does not succumb to a harsh religious duty by compulsion but instead chooses between his passion for Pauline or for God. Because he has chosen his own fate, he claims death as victory, turning potential tragedy into personal triumph.

Corneille’s characters have an uncommon control over their emotions. They are not swept away by the stormy tides of passion, although they continue to feel deeply. Polyeucte’s pagan wife, Pauline, fears for his life but refuses to leave him even though his death means she would be free to marry her true love, the Roman soldier Severe. Her father arranged for Pauline’s marriage to Polyeucte before his conversion, but Pauline freely chose to give her devotion to her new husband while denying her passion for Severe. When Severe accuses her of never loving him, Pauline responds, “If in my soul I could extinguish the remains of my love, gods, how I would avoid such awful torture! My reason subdues my emotions, it’s true; but whatever authority it has taken, it does not reign, it tyrannizes; and though the surface may appear perfectly calm, there’s nothing but turmoil and revolt within” (2.2). This victory of the human spirit over cruel fate sets Corneille’s tragedies apart from the usual, more pessimistic view of tragedy in which the hero is a noble but helpless pawn in a cosmic game of uncontrollable forces. Corneille wrote with a different understanding of the genre that allowed the hero ultimately to succeed as long as the series of perils he faced were of sufficient gravity to provoke our concern and admiration. His plays express confidence in human potential to overcome both the inner and outer struggles of this life.

In Racine’s adaptation of a Euripidean play, Andromache, the characters live and die in a much harsher reality. They lack the willpower to combat the passions that seek to consume them. Love comes upon them as an irresistible force. The action of Andromache takes place following the Trojan war. Pyrrhus, the son of Achilles, falls for his beautiful captive Andromache, widow of the Trojan hero Hector. When she spurns his advances out of loyalty to her dead husband, Pyrrhus threatens to kill her son; as he says, “My love has been too violent to end in mere indifference. From now on, my heart, if it cannot love with rapture, must hate with fury” (1.4). Wildly out of control, emotions swing from one extreme to the other. Pyrrhus’ passion for Andromache blinds him to his duty to wed Hermione, daughter of Helen, in a politically arranged marriage. If the situation were not complicated enough, Orestes arrives, claiming to be bound by chains of love for Hermione, whom he had tried to forget. However, the Greeks sent Orestes to Pyrrhus to insist on the consummation of the marriage. “How quickly persecuting fate snared me in the very trap I wanted to avoid!” Orestes complains. “Soon enough I found my lovely persecutor taking her old place in my heart; the old fires burned, I felt my hatred melt away – or rather knew I had always loved her” (1.1). When his friend offers advice, he shouts, “I’m sick to death of your reasons!” (3.1) He resents the intervention of reason because it thwarts his personal desires but also because reason stands for a mode of existence antipathetic to the hero’s nature. Racine’s characters have a psychological need to live at a certain pitch of intensity. Love quickly turns to hate: Hermione would rather see Pyrrhus die before surrendering him to another. However, once Orestes returns from arranging Pyrrhus’ death, expecting Hermione’s gratitude, she turns on him, calling him a murderous barbarian for fulfilling her earlier wish.

In some ways the characters’ disastrous fortunes derive from forces beyond their control. The war made Andromache a widow, a captive of her husband’s killer, and now threatens to take her son; it gave Hermione to Pyrrhus as reward for his valor. The situation establishes the impossible rules by which the characters must play, but it is their passionate, uncompromising natures that drive them rapidly toward destruction. These people act as they do, rashly, impulsively, without thinking, because of who they are; character is destiny. They cannot escape the emotions that motivate them, nor do they have the freedom of will to control them. In comparing the dramatic worlds of these two writers, Racine’s pessimistic vision of characters driven by inner desires foreshadows the theories of Sigmund Freud and may seem more convincing to modern cynical minds, but Corneille’s plays also have something to say about humanity’s faith in ourselves.

Tragedy in Non-Western Cultures

The tradition-laden Grand Kabuki remains the most popular form of theater in Japan. Kabuki plays are classified more by subject matter and setting than in terms of tragedy or comedy, but Kumagai Jinya (1751) bears a strong resemblance to western tragedy. General Kumagai returns heavy-hearted from battle, having faced Atsumori, the young son of his enemy, in single combat. Without joy, he tells his wife that he killed the boy. Overhearing the news, the boy’s mother bursts into the room and attacks Kumagai, demanding revenge. She reminds him of his sworn loyalty to her for helping him and his wife to elope years ago, and berates him for his cruel treason. She demands that Kumagai’s wife help her to kill him, but the couple bow down before her asking forgiveness. Kumagai withdraws from the scene, explaining he must prepare his victim’s head to give to his commander. As his mother plays mournfully on a flute, the shadow of her son in his armor passes through the room. When Kumagai returns in full ceremonial dress bearing the head casket, the mother begs to see her son one last time, but the commander interrupts them. Kumagai questions the commander about a symbolic order he had received: a cherry tree with a cryptic message saying, “One branch, one finger.” A simple reading of the message seems to indicate that if someone broke a branch off the tree, he would lose a finger, but Kumagai, in a play on similar Japanese words, believes it meant “a child for a child.” Opening the casket, he reveals the head of his own son, whom he sacrificed instead of the son of his enemy. The commander agrees to go along with the ruse and formally announces that this is the head of Atsumori. Kumagai then requests that he be allowed to retire as a warrior and become a monk.

Historical plays in Kabuki which depict a character in conflict, struggling with a duty towards two opposed individuals are called matatabimono, “plays of divided loyalty.” Characters in these dramas are bound by a strict code of ethics. Based on the teachings of Confucius, social duty – not religion, individual rights, or abstract notions of good and evil – determine ethical behavior. A good deed, even by a stranger, incurs a debt of obligation that must be repaid no matter what the sacrifice. “The external world of the Kabuki hero is dominated by the social code which demands its due, laying its implacable mechanical force upon human sympathies, imposing an ultimate defeat upon all who seek to oppose it.” Under this code, Kumagai owes more to the mother of Atsumori than to his own son. Unlike Macbeth or Brutus, Kumagai experiences no inner struggle to discriminate between right and wrong; his society has determined the right path for him. In western tragedies the hero often acts in opposition to social values, but the Kabuki hero “does not question the hierarchy, his station in it, or his precisely defined relation to others.” These plays do not challenge this inexorable code, accepted as necessary to the social order and eternal as part of the grand design or way (dao), but rather they display its cruel impact on human beings (Ernst 229, 238).

World-famous director Peter Brook and writer Jean-Claude Carriere adapted the Hindu epic Mahabharata as a nine-hour stage production in the 1980s, using an international cast. This enormous work, the longest epic in world literature, depicts the growing enmity and eventual war between cousins, the Pandavas and Kauravas. Pandu, earthly father of the Pandavas (who actually descend from the gods) sacrifices his life for love, handing the kingdom to his blind brother. The new king’s sons resent the Pandavas’ claim to the throne and try to kill them many times. One day the Kauravas challenge Yudhishthira, eldest of the Pandavas, to a game of dice. Foolishly, he wagers and loses all that he owns, including his brothers, himself, and Draupadi, wife of all five Pandavas. After living in exile for thirteen years, the Pandavas recognize that war with their cousins is inevitable if they are to claim their rightful place in the kingdom. Because of loyalty to the family, the beloved teachers of the Pandavas must fight on the other side against them. Millions of men join both sides and prepare for battle.

Krishna, an earthly prince but in reality an incarnation of the god Vishnu, agrees to serve as charioteer for Arjuna, the mightiest warrior of the brothers. Before the battle, Arjuna falters at the sight of his relatives and teachers, now his sworn enemies. He breaks down and refuses to fight, asking how any good can come from killing one’s friends. Would this not be an offense against dharma, a person’s righteous duty? Krishna advises him not to worry about death itself, which is only one small step in the great and endless cycle of life. Death is only illusion. The soul merely casts off old bodies and enters new ones, just as a person changes garments. Next he explains how a warrior can perform his duty without doing wrong, polluting himself with the blood of his enemies. The secret is detachment: do one’s duty without concern for the personal consequences. “Victory and defeat, pleasure and pain are all the same. Act, but don't reflect on the fruits of the act. Forget desire, seek detachment.” Not striving for victory or fearing defeat, Arjuna must devote his actions to the god. Krishna then reveals his divine, universal nature to Arjuna in a magnificent vision of a multitude of deities, stretching out to infinity. Resolved now to perform his duty to his lord, Arjuna leads his troops into battle. Millions are slaughtered in the carnage, leaving only the Pandavas alive in the end. Yudhishthira has a crisis of confidence, doubting that victory was worth such a cost. Krishna tells him that as long as one fulfills dharma, his acts are righteous.

The Mahabharata examines the tragic dilemma of how to defeat evil without resorting to evil oneself. It does not simplify the conflict to a battle between right and wrong. The Pandavas are not perfect, breaking the agreed-upon rules of war and resorting to deceit; several who fight for the Kauravas are truly noble such as their mentors Bhishma and Drona. Krishna teaches that there are limits to individual morality in an immoral society. Sometimes one protects dharma by forgetting it. The events of the Mahabharata occur at the beginning of the age of Kali, a dark time when dharma will decline. When this fourth age ends, the world will be destroyed for a time, before recreation in the endless cycle.

Nigerian author and Nobel prize winner Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman (1975) merits consideration as a modern tragedy. The king of a Yoruba tribe has died, and in the custom of his people, the king’s horseman prepares for his own death, following his master to serve him in the other world. The British Colonial Administration finds the practice of ritual suicide offensive and puts the man in jail for his protection. His son now returns from studying in England. Having heard of the king’s death, he comes to bury his father, but seeing him alive, he rebukes him for dishonoring his family and the tribe. The son takes his father’s place and kills himself to join his ancestors and save his family’s reputation. Soyinka’s play, based on a true incident, resembles Polyeucte. Outside forces determine a man’s fate, in this case religious duty toward the dead and the interference of the ruling white culture. His son, however, freely chooses death to fulfill his father’s obligation, bringing peace back to the tribe.

Modern Tragedy

As mentioned above, critics like Krutch and Steiner argue that the pessimism of the modern age has prevented the creation of great tragedies in our time. Despite their reservations, playwrights have occasionally set their sights on writing serious plays set in modern times that reach for the heights of classical tragedy. Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953) was the first American playwright considered in the ranks of the great European dramatists such as Ibsen and Shaw; during his long career his plays won four Pulitzer prizes and the Nobel prize for literature. O’Neill greatly admired the Greeks and wanted to emulate their tragic vision which he thought exulted in human potential, raising spiritual understanding of themselves above the pettiness of everyday life. However, he acknowledged the challenge of writing tragedy today: “The playwright today must dig at the roots of the sickness of today – the death of the Old God and the failure of science and materialism to give any satisfying new One for the surviving primitive religious instinct to find a meaning of life, and to comfort his fears of death.” Critic Robert Brustein adds: “O’Neill’s problem is the problem of modern drama as a whole: how to bring a religious vision to bear on a totally secular world” (329, 331). O’Neill claimed that his objective as a playwright was to depict the “transfiguring nobility … in seemingly the most ignoble, debased lives. … I’m always acutely conscious of the Force Behind – Fate, God, our biological past creating our present, whatever one calls it – Mystery, certainly – and of the one eternal tragedy of Man in his glorious, self-destructive struggle” which endows his suffering or defeat with significance, “the only subject worth writing about.” The challenge was to find a contemporary counterpart to this Force, a modern psychological approximation of the Greek sense of fate (Bigsby 45).

Written in three parts requiring a performance of over five hours, O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra (1931) sets the family tragedy of Aeschylus' Oresteia during the American Civil War. For the supernatural Furies that haunt Orestes in the original, O’Neill substitutes subconscious psychological forces, in particular hidden incestuous desires. Lavinia (parallel to Electra) loves her father with more than childlike affection. When he dies mysteriously in the presence of her mother Christine, she suspects foul play. Christine poisoned her husband because of her affair with a distant cousin, who resembles her son. When Orin (Orestes) returns from the war, Lavinia informs him of recent events and, despite hints of unnatural love for his mother, the two murder Christine’s lover; in a fit of grief she kills herself. In a major change from the original, Orin’s motivation is not to avenge his father (whom he doesn’t like) but jealousy over his mother’s betrayal with another man. The children’s latter days are haunted by guilt and their suppressed desire for each other. Only in the end do the characters face the reality of their longings, and Orin kills himself in despair. O’Neill’s attempt to substitute Freudian theories for the influence of fate and the gods appears forced and artificial to many critics today, but few would fault his ambitious goal of following the Greek example.

Shortly after the successful opening of Death of a Salesman (1949), Arthur Miller published an article in the New York Times entitled “Tragedy and the Common Man.” In this essay Miller admits that few tragedies are written today, some argue “due to a paucity of heroes among us, or else that modern man has had the blood drawn out of his organs of belief by the skepticism of science.” However, Miller states, “I believe that the common man is as apt a subject for tragedy in its highest sense as kings were.” He then gives his definition of a modern tragic hero: “The tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character, who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing – his sense of personal dignity.” Miller suggests that we need to rethink the idea of “tragic flaw,” which is “not necessarily a weakness. The flaw, or crack in the character, is really nothing – and need be nothing – but his inherent unwillingness to remain passive in the face of what he conceives to be a challenge to his dignity, his image of his rightful status.” Like O’Neill, Miller sees the tragic vision as optimistic, demonstrating “the indestructible will of man to achieve his humanity.”

The Crucible opened in 1953, winning the Tony award for best play but running less than a year, due in part to overt resemblance to the anti-communist hearings of Joseph McCarthy in Washington. With increasing distance from that political climate, the play has gained popularity in revivals, and is now performed worldwide. Since his college years, Miller had been fascinated with the story of the Salem witch trials, struck by the “terrible marvel” of people who “could have such a belief in themselves and in the rightness of their consciences that they would give up their lives rather than say what they thought was false” (Carson 16). The citizens of Salem stress the importance of protecting one’s “name” in society. In the beginning, name refers primarily to reputation: Rev. Parris is concerned about how Abigail’s behavior may cause his loss of respect: “Your name in the town – it is entirely white, is it not?” Abigail responds, “There be no blush about my name.” John Proctor hides his adultery with Abigail from the court for the sake of reputation, until he must confess: “I have made a bell of my honor! I have rung the doom of my good name.” However, as he is pressured to swear falsely that he dealt in witchcraft, Proctor realizes it is his name in the sense of personal integrity, being true to himself, not his reputation among others that matters most of all. He won’t have his signature put up in public, “Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! … How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!” Absent from the historical record, Miller created the affair between Proctor and Abigail as a key motivational factor in Proctor’s character. Burdened with guilt, he projects his feelings onto his wife, accusing her of coldness, but as she points out, “The magistrate sits in your heart that judges you.” Proctor must stand up not only to the accusations of society but to his own inner demons, and in the end find the strength to forgive himself. His wife urges, “Let none be your judge. There be no higher judge under Heaven than Proctor is!” This struggle between external authority and personal integrity resembles Antigone’s insistence that, in burying her brother against the law of the state, she is dedicated to a higher law of the gods. Can the common man or woman be the subject of tragedy? Miller says yes, as long as the person is not ordinary in spirit.


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Steiner, George. The Death of Tragedy. 1961. New York: Oxford UP, 1980.

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