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Sunday, June 14, 2015

Tragedy and Greek Tragedy

The most cited definition of tragedy is that by Aristotle in his "Poetics". "Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete and of certain magnitude;in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornamnent, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions."  []

Drama in the Greek is 'action' - generally surrounding men. Aristotle describes these men as imitation of real men as is applied to any writing or art (mimesis). These imitations of men, Aristotle points out is either better than reality, the same as in reality, or much worse. Depending on the imitation, the drama becomes a tragedy (men perceived/ represented as better) or a comedy (men perceived/represented as worse).

The six elements of tragedy include: Plot (mythos), Character (ethos), Thought (dianoia), Diction (lexis), Melody (melos) and Spectacle (ohsis).

However, the modern understanding of tragedy has invariably changed. With a diversified timespan and setting, tragedy since before Shakespeare didn't necessarily have to have one timespan, one setting, one story, etc. as it did during the times of Aristotle. Greek tragedy also accepted that drama can only surround, great men (exaggerated if they had to be), however modern tragedy takes this as characteristic and not necessarily personality - that the men need not be great or powerful, but could have great ambition - separate from their character.

The modern tragedy defies unities of space and time, but maintains the fatal fall, with or without the "tragic flaw" - hamartia. The element of tragedy that has survived since Greek tragedies then is the tragic end as opposed to comedy or other forms of mimesis.


Oedipus Rex is a Greek tragedy by Sophocles. This play arouses feelings of pity and fear towards the protagonist's life. Oedipus' tragic flaw has multiple theories about it. Certain critics go on to argue, that there was no real hamartia present in Oedipus and that Aristotle's hamartia in light of this tragedy implied a flaw in judgement rather than character. Other critics claim that Oedipus' hamartia was the 'hubris' which translates to excessive pride. His denial of his fate led him to do what he feared and that was to fulfill the predictions made, that he would kill his father and marry his mother. Along with him, his entire kingdom suffered.

Personally I find Oedipus' hamartia to be his ignorance. His ignorance of a prophecy (even if not consciously), his ignorance of his fate and his ignorance of checking who he ended up marrying. Eventually, Oedipus blinding himself works as a metaphor for his ignorance, voluntary and otherwise. 

Medea is another Greek tragedy by Euripides the Greek playwright. Medea was a woman who only cared for her feelings and would destroy everything around her even her sons because of the wrong choices she made in anger. Lack of good judgement and growing anger within them when things would not go their way led to their downfall.

The reason Aristotle considered Oedipus Rex as the perfect tragedy over Medea is perhaps the tragic hero being male in Oedipus Rex as opposed to the female (and primarily flawed) being that was Medea. 

Kalansh Gala

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