“A tragedy is the imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself; in appropriate and pleasurable language; in a dramatic rather than narrative form; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish a catharsis of these emotions.” — Aristotle
Tragedy has existed for as long as humans have known suffering. It’s a genre surpassing cultures, regions, and languages, but with more or less the same foundation. Further along the timeline, (est. 830 B.C.E) a man known as Aristotle wrote the earliest surviving work of literary theory, Poetics. In this, he examines “the poetic art,” and more specifically Tragedy in poetry. It was from this that 6 main elements of tragedy were discovered: plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle (setting), and song. These foundations, and more set by philosophers and critics of the times, is the beginning of modern tragedy and drama.
As we know, Greek mythology was passed verbally through music, poetry, and drama. This is how mythology from so long ago is still known today, but sometimes varied since it wasn’t written down until much later. This includes famous tragedies like Icarus and Daedalus, Ajax, Euripides, and many more. These myths continued to influence modern retellings in some way.
Even now, there is debate about the influence Greek Tragedy had over Shakespeare's plays. In a way, everything we know of dramatic theory and tragedy originates from Greek drama and Aristotle's thinking.
In my last article, I talked about Shakespearean tragedy and specifically his play The Tragedy of Julius Caesar. A concept I brought up was “Hamartia,” this was also a term coined by Aristotle in Poetics meaning a fatal flaw that leads to a protagonist’s downfall. The quote at the beginning of this article is Aristotle's definition of a tragedy. To put it in better wording, he believed tragedy was a fatal action, something done by a protagonist due to their flaw that uses the audience’s emotions against themself. At the end of the play, the audience is supposed to feel “a catharsis,” or purging of these intense emotions.
This stems from the nature of tragedies, of suffering. Sometimes the protagonists weren’t relatable on a socio-economic level, but they were made relatable through their fatal flaw. Take Daedalus for example, Icarus’ father. He was a renowned inventor who constantly tried to push past the barrier between mortals and gods. His flaw (though he had a few) was excessive pride in his inventions and his morals. He experiences a few conflicts, such as being banned from Athens, then imprisoned, all of which may have resonated through to an audience. But, the big moment is when Icarus famously flies too close to the sun and then drowns. Daedalus takes his son's body to bury it, mourning. But, he is a wanted fugitive so he continues on to Sicily, then Cumae. Fast forwarding, the story ends with a King killing King Minos (the guy tracking down Daedalus) and Daedalus then dying of old age.
While this wasn’t a full scale play, it was a tale told through poetry to anyone who stopped to listen. According to Aristotle, these intense emotions happen when the audience — relating in some way to Daedalus — experiences the loss of his son. It’s heartbreaking, but we know nobody has time to grieve because Daedalus is on the run. Catharsis happens when King Minos is eventually killed.
This burden on Daedalus’ back is lifted, and the audience experiences the same thing because we feel empathy towards him. We see him as a human being, instead of an epic hero who rarely goes through intense emotions like this (but that’s an article for another day). Tragedies leave lasting impressions on us, or lessons that deal with relatable themes. I mean, what is more human than loss?
And this brings me to a final point on the influence of Tragedy from Greek Tragedies. We know Aristotle laid the foundation of tragedy, and we know this foundation may have carried over into Shakespeare's works. In class we learned the influence Shakespeare’s work had over modern media, directly or indirectly. The next step is figuring out if modern media takes influence from ancient Greek Tragedy. Initially you may think, well, yeah? Didn’t I just say that? Not necessarily. Again, this is something that goes into theory and deep research and something I’m not qualified to write about. But, Imagine if nearly every modern form of storytelling we know was based from early Greek roots? Now, that’s probably an exaggeration, but definitely worth a thought. What I do know is that if it’s a tragedy, it’s — maybe — Greek.
is a high school sophomore with aspirations for digital storytelling. She always seemed to understand things better if she could read it, versus videos or lectures, so English and History quickly became her favorite subjects. She volunteers for both Juven and The Meraki Organization to tell stories.