Archive for May 4th, 2013

What makes characters tragic?

Imagine, in the final chapter of a novel, the protagonist taking a walk in the park on a windy day; and that the wind very suddenly becomes a violent storm; and that the protagonist, before she can head home, is killed by a tree falling upon her. I think we can agree that this would be a deeply unsatisfactory ending, and few would describe it as “tragic”. But why? People in real life have indeed been killed by trees falling on them is high winds, and when it happens, it is most certainly tragic. However, we reply, the rules that govern art are not quite the rules that govern real life; and in art, one simply can’t kill off a protagonist by dropping a tree on her head.

Of course, the idea of “rules governing art” is problematic, to say the least. Who formulated these rules? we may well ask. And why should we be expected to conform to them? The answers to these questions seem to me to be, respectively, “No-one”, and “You needn’t”. The idea of prescriptive rules in art is nonsense: what we sometimes think of as “rules” are really no more than observations on what tends to work, and what doesn’t. So if there exists a “rule” that a narrative should not be resolved by some arbitrary event unconnected with the protagonist’s character or actions, then that is not because some pedantic busybody has made it up; rather, it is because we observe that arbitrary endings tend to leave the reader unsatisfied. We may allow chance to play its part in narrative, but when it plays a decisive part, then, irrespective of how true-to-life it may be, the narrative seems unresolved and incomplete.

This consideration, together with a misreading of the concept of “hamartia” in Aristotle’s Poetics, has led to the much cited principle of the “tragic flaw” – the idea that tragic protagonists must have some shortcoming in their character, and that, because of this shortcoming, they come to a sticky end. This has always seemed to me disastrously reductive: far from helping us understand profound and difficult works, it diminishes their richness and complexity to a mere barren formula. So Hamlet is indecisive, Othello jealous, Macbeth ambitious, and so on; and once the boxes are all routinely ticked, the plays can be marked as “solved” and folded away, like completed crossword puzzles. But I remain unconvinced that this takes us any closer to understanding the work. Even if the idea of the tragic flaw were but a “tool”, I cannot see what aspect of our understanding this this tool has helped enhance.

Of course I agree that Hamlet, Othello et al all play their part in their own tragedies: were that not so, their stories would be of no more than that of the tree falling on the head. But to obtain even a basic understanding of these complex characters, we must delve deeper, far deeper, than merely sticking simple labels on them. And what labels we observe others sticking on them, we must question. For instance, is Hamlet really indecisive? He is certainly not indecisive when he plunges his sword through the arras and kills Polonius; neither is he indecisive when he jumps onto the pirates’ ship; or when he confronts Laertes at Ophelia’s funeral. Yes, he is indeed unable to act in carrying out his father’s commandment, but to ascribe this merely to “indecision” seems to me not merely an over-simplification, but worse, a distortion.

Nor can Hamlet’s “flaw” be described, as it sometimes is, as that of “thinking too much”. Hamlet himself, admittedly, speaks of “thinking too precisely on the event”, but should we see this as a flaw? Since when has depth of thought been a flaw? Would Hamlet have been free of his tragic flaw had he thought too little? Or maybe he should have thought just enough – neither too much, nor too little? Maybe his tragic flaw lies in his not finding that precise level beyond which intellectual activity becomes tragic?

This sort of thing quickly becomes a bit silly, and does not, I think, lead to any greater understanding of the work. And worse, in presenting works of moral complexity and of psychological depth as essentially moral fables, it distorts. For in seeing tragedy as essentially a consequence of shortcomings in the protagonist’s character, there seems to me to be an implication that were it not for those shortcomings, were it but possible for the protagonist to be at some ideal level free of flaws, then there need have been no tragedy at all. And this strikes me as deeply wrong-headed.

Let us stick with Hamlet. Let us imagine a Hamlet free from the supposed flaws of indecision, or of “thinking too much”. This Hamlet wastes no time mobilising his forces, killing Claudius, and establishing himself as king. But would such a Hamlet be free of flaws? Such a Hamlet would, after all, fail to think about, and, indeed, be insensitive to, the various complex moral issues in which he is enmeshed. And in killing the man his mother loves, he must either be insensitive to the distress he causes his mother, or he must bear the guilt for it. For, as the Greek tragedians knew too well, even a killing that is committed in the name of justice carries with it an intolerable burden of guilt.

In short, whatever sort of person Hamlet is, whatever he does, his fate is tragic. This is because the world itself is tragic, and we cannot escape it. We must beware of reducing works of complexity to a “message”, but if the great masterpieces of tragic literature were to have a lesson at all, it is not that we may avoid tragedy to the extent that we are successful in minimising the effects of our flaws, but rather that whatever we do, however we act, the tragic world, the essence of which we have witnessed on stage, is our world also.

Whether perfect happiness would be procured by perfect goodness … this world will never afford an opportunity of deciding. But this, at least, may be maintained, that we do not always find visible happiness in proportion to visible virtue. All natural and almost all political evils, are incident alike to the bad and good: they are confounded in the misery of a famine, and not much distinguished in the fury of a faction; they sink together in a tempest, and are driven together from their country by invaders. All that virtue can afford is quietness of conscience, a steady prospect of a happier state; this may enable us to endure calamity with patience; but remember that patience must suppose pain.

– from “Rasselas” by Samuel Johnson, Chapter 27


There is one undisputed masterpiece of tragic drama in which the concept of a “tragic flaw” breaks down completely, and this is the very work that Aristotle focussed on in his Poetics: King Oedipus by Sophocles. In Aristotle’s formulation, Oedipus’ “hamartia” was killing his father, and marrying his mother: these aren’t “tragic flaws” because he did all this unknowingly, but it is, nonetheless, “hamartia” in the sense that Aristotle had intended it – i.e. it is an “error”. However, commentators have frequently tried to interpret Oedipus’ tragic fate in terms of some character flaw of his, and, in the process, have tied themselves in all sorts of absurd knots.

We are sometimes told, for instance, that Oedipus’ tragic flaw is that he is arrogant and hot-tempered. Indeed he is: Sophocles was too fine a dramatist to present us with major characters who are morally perfect. But neither his arrogance nor his hot temper is the cause of his downfall.

Or we are sometimes told that his downfall came about because he was too inquisitive – because he continued searching for the truth even when told to stop. But is searching for the truth not a noble activity? And, as king responsible for his subjects, is he not duty-bound to search for the truth that, according to Apollo’s oracle, will free his people from the plague that is devastating them?

I suppose when all else fails, we could see it as a grave moral warning not to kill our fathers and then marry our mothers! Absurd as it may seem, some have seen the play in such terms also.

But once we move away from the “tragic flaw” theory of tragedy, we may, I think, approach a better understanding of this elusive and difficult play. For if Oedipus’ fate is not a consequence of any conscious action of his, we are seeing on stage a vision of humans but as playthings of the gods. Sophocles depicts , in effect, the tree falling on the protagonist’s head, deemed to do so by gods who, but for the oracular edicts from Delphi, remain absent and silent. That Sophocles could create from this drama that grips as no other, drama that thousands of years later is regarded as the very epitome of tragic action, is a testament to his genius, and a reminder that the literature at this level is not subject to any of our “rules”.