The Tragic Vision and its Discontents

Endure what life God gives and ask no longer span;
Cease to remember the delights of youth, travel-wearied aged man;
Delight becomes death-longing if all longing else be vain.

Even from that delight memory treasures so,
Death, despair, division of families, all entanglements of mankind grow,
As that old wandering beggar and these God-hated children know.

In the long echoing street the laughing dancers throng,
The bride is carried to the bridegroom’s chamber through torchlight and tumultuous song;
I celebrate the silent kiss that ends short life or long.

Never to have lived is best, ancient writers say;
Never to have drawn the breath of life, never to have looked into the eye of day;
The second best’s a gay goodnight and quickly turn away.

– W. B. Yeats’ magnificent creative rendering (hardly a translation, if all the other translations I’ve encountered of this are anything to go by) of a chorus from Sophocles “Oedipus at Colonus”

In a recent post, I was rash enough to refer to something called a “tragic vision”, without bothering to define the term, or even, for that matter, to indicate what, if anything, I might have meant by it. And, quite rightly, I was challenged: what do I mean by it? My immediate reaction to the challenge was, I admit, to do what is normally done on the net on such occasions – claim that the meaning of the term is obvious in the context, and tell the questioner in no uncertain terms that he was simply being obtuse and awkward in pretending not to understand. But having learnt over the years to think a bit before hitting the “post” button – at least, in most cases – I did think for a bit, and the question after a while seemed entirely valid. If my principal criticism of John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore is that it lacks this mysterious quality “tragic vision”, then it is surely up to me at least to give at least some indication of what I mean by the term. The question isn’t however an easy one to address, if only because before one can define “tragic vision”, one must first of all define “tragedy”; and even some rather profound thinkers have come a cropper on that one.

There are, broadly speaking, two approaches to this – the prescriptive, and the descriptive: one may set out rules of what does or doesn’t constitute “tragic”, and, using those rules, determine which works are tragic and which aren’t; or one may examine all those works we – or, more precisely in this case, I – instinctively recognise as “tragic”, and then try to identify some common features of these works that lead to this recognition. The latter approach seems more reasonable to me, if only because the former seems remarkably pointless.

So, I started considering various tragic works, and identifying what features they possess that render them tragic, and I soon found that many of the popular conceptions of what constitutes “tragic” are simply wrong. For instance, the idea that tragedy ends with the death of the protagonist: there are any number of tragedies in which the protagonist is very much alive at the end – Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, Sophocles’ Oedipus, Euripides’ Medea, and so on, right down to Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Sometimes, the tragedy may actually lie in the fact that the protagonist doesn’t die – that he has to go on living even when there is nothing left worth living for: Verdi’s Rigoletto, for instance. Sometimes – as in, say, The Bacchae of Euripides – there appears not even to be a tragic protagonist.

And even in cases where there is a protagonist, and the protagonist dies at the end, the death need not be a disaster, or even a defeat. Take, for instance, Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus: Oedipus, at the point of death, is cleansed of pollution and accepted by the gods: his demise is not so much a defeat as a transfiguration. This brings us to another myth about tragedy – that a tragedy must end sadly: once again, that is not always the case. Oedipus at Colonus ends in a state of luminous wonder; Philoctetes, by the same dramatist, ends with harmony and reconciliation; the Oresteia trilogy of Aeschylus ends in triumph. Any definition of tragedy that excludes works such as these is obviously absurd.

We need, I think, to shift our gaze from how the work ends, and look at the work in totality. If I were to offer a definition of tragedy, I think I can do worse than to suggest that a tragedy is a work of art that focuses on and emphasises all those things that may lead us to believe, rightly or wrongly, that life is a Bad Thing, and not worth living; that, as the Ancient Writers say in Yeats’ verse, “never to have lived is best”. This could be because life is cruel and short and nasty and brutish, and full of unmerited suffering; it could be because life is dreary and pointless; or because we are powerless in the face of evil; or because whatever we may gain from life is nullified by the inevitability of death, leaving us with nothing, and robbing us of all our joy; or even because, as with Rigoletto, we have to go on living when there is nothing worth living for. It could be any of these things, or any combination of these things: if comedy is a celebration of life, tragedy questions whether there really is anything worth celebrating.

Of course, defined in such broad (and no doubt crude) terms, comedy and tragedy are not mutually exclusive. Shakespeare frequently blended the two together, so that a tragic drama such as Romeo and Juliet may be seen as essentially a comedy (Tony Tanner classifies it as such in his book Prefaces to Shakespeare), while a play such as Measure for Measure, often classed as a comedy, can appear as dark and as disturbing as the most intense of tragedies. And Shakespeare was by no means the only one to straddle the two: taxonomy becomes very difficult indeed with works as diverse as, say, The Trial, Waiting for Godot, Catch 22. But taxonomy is not, perhaps, the point: simply to label works such as The Trial, Waiting for Godot, or Catch 22 doesn’t, after all, help us come to any enhanced appreciation. The point is more to understand what we mean by “tragic” or by “comic”, and allow that the two may at times occupy the same space – that it may be possible to celebrate life even while questioning whether there is anything worth celebrating: unlike a mathematical theory, a work of art can accommodate many different and seemingly contradictory things at the same time.

But even if we do characterise tragedy in this manner, what do I mean by “tragic vision”? Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore is undoubtedly tragic, as it depicts life as short, violent, and brutish, and the world as a stage on which the horrors of existence outweigh any joy that may be found in it; and yet I complained of a lack of “tragic vision”. I know I’d meant something by that, but it’s worth my considering just what it was I’d meant, as it’s far from obvious – even, frankly, to me. Perhaps the best way to approach it is to examine all those various and often disparate works that I recognize as possessing a “tragic vision” – we needn’t go through the entire litany of titles – and try to identify what features they possess that strike me as visionary. In what respect, in short, is King Lear a greater work than Titus Andronicus?

It is difficult to speak of such matters in general terms, as all ordinary tragedies are alike, but each visionary tragedy is visionary in its own way. All ordinary tragedies are alike because they show us life as nasty and violent and brutish; but generally, they don’t go much further. However, tragedies that I would term “visionary” peer deeper: they try to understand what, if anything can be salvaged from the wreckage. Titus Andronicus shows us a picture of humans as irredeemably cruel and wicked and barbarous, and whenever characters are visited by cruelty and wickedness and barbarity, their response is but to return it all in kind: humans here are, essentially, machines programmed merely to inflict grievous hurt on one another. King Lear also shows us a world that is cruel and wicked and barbarous: even the gods, should they exist, are questioned; but the humans in this world emerge as so much more than machines: they are capable of tenderness, of empathy, of love, of self-sacrifice; they are capable of learning the world anew, and taking upon themselves the mystery of things, as if they were God’s spies.

Of course, one may say that none of this lessens the pain, that despite everything, all remains dark and comfortless. Perhaps. We certainly tend to see the play in our post-Beckettian days as essentially nihilistic. But there have been intelligent commentators – Kenneth Muir, for instance – who have gone so far as to see King Lear as a Christian play of redemption, and I don’t know that this perspective, though not perhaps in keeping with modern sensibilities, should necessarily be dismissed. For even the most nihilist-minded of spectators will concede that there is much human goodness in this play, and that this human goodness is as extreme and as unaccountable as is human evil. Of course, this goodness is utterly ineffective, and while this may lead us towards interpreting the work as essentially nihilist, it may also appear to certain temperaments that the good, by the very fact that it exists at all when there is no conceivable reason for it do so, is a redemptive force. Such matters are best left to the individual temperaments: there is no single way of interpreting works such as this. But however one interprets this, there is more here, far more, than the mere unrelieved brutality of Titus Andronicus. We do not leave a performance of King Lear asking ourselves “Is man no more than this?” We have been given a glimpse into the Mystery of Things that tells us there is far more than we could ever hope to fathom.

Such a view may lead us towards Orwell’s famous formulation in his essay “Tolstoy, Lear and the Fool”, in which he characterises tragedy as a drama in which Man is defeated, but where we are left nonetheless with a sense that Man is nobler than the forces that defeat him. This seems an attractive formulation, but like all such formulations, it breaks down after a while. Where, for instance, is the nobility in Euripides’ Medea?

This is always the problem with trying to formulate definitions in literary criticism: just when you think you have the whole damn thing covered, out pops one that simply won’t be tied down by your piddly wee definition. We may spend some time and effort refining our definition to cover Medea as well, but you can be sure there will be something else popping out that doesn’t give a fig for whatever classification you may come up with. Literature is too vast to be tied down by definitions, and doesn’tcare for rules. And yet, if we do not even try to define or to classify, we cannot even begin to analyse, and the very concept of dialogue becomes meaningless. So, bearing that in mind, I will stick, at least for the moment, with my definitions: “tragedy” focuses on the darker aspects of life, and depicts the wreckage; and works possessing “tragic vision” are those tragedies that attempt to discover what, if anything, may be salvaged from the wreck. These latter works may conclude that there is indeed nothing that can be salvaged, but the very fact that the attempt is made indicates that the attempt is at least worth making. Give or take the odd Medea, this classification tends, I think, to hold good, though rarely have I felt so open to being persuaded otherwise.

20 responses to this post.

  1. Nice treatise. This post reminds me of the old chestnut: “There are two kinds of people in the world, those who divide people into two kinds of people and those who don’t.” I wonder how “fixed” the Greeks sense of comedy and tragedy were in their. It’s quite possible that, like so many other literary movements, the dichotomy arose after much of the body had been established, and that those trying to put parameters around it must have struggled as wranglers do with wild horses.


    • Hello, and thanks for your comments.

      I am no expert on classical culture, but, as I understand it, the Athenians held festivals of tragic drama, so presumably “tragedy” was accepted as a definite “genre”, although I am not aware of anyone before Aristotle attempting to formulate what is meant by “tragic”. But even within the genre, dramatists seemed quite happy to experiment, and expand the boundaries. Curiously, Sanskritic culture in India, which had a considerable dramatic tradition, seemed unaware of the aesthetics of tragedy.

      Definitions are always awkward, as literature is too varied to be fitted into boxes. But we are forced into them anyway, as we need terms of reference in order to discuss anything. If we recognise, say, both Philoctetes and King Lear as tragedies – and surely we do – then there must be some common ground between those two works that enable this recognition. And similarly with any work we recognise as a “Tragedy”. It’s trying to identify what that common ground can be that defeats us!

      Cheers, Himadri


  2. Hamadri, I was taught as a young grasshopper that tragedy was defined by an unraveling of the protagonist’s fate generated by a “flaw,” which might be anything, in his or her own character. It might be bloody or weepy or even funny, and it needn’t necessarily end in destruction; a comedy might or might not be funny, but the end is always a happy one–as in Dante’s comedy, which has boatloads of tragic action, but an optimistic trajectory.

    For Medea to make sense, you have to suspend your sympathy for the children long enough to grasp that any alternative to murdering them is capitulation and humiliation for their mother. Medea’s love for Jason (a flaw–not a fault) results in a string of actions beginning with her betrayal of her father and the killing of her brother. Medea does a heck of a lot for that Jason guy because she’s a heck of a gal–powerful sorceress, demigodess, mother of two. Yet because she is, in Jason’s reckoning, a disposable asset, she has no power to object to her abandonment except assassination and bloody revenge. Sure, she might have killed her self, but that would have accomplished nothing, or she might have packed up the kids and decamped, but like the first option, it would have merely made things convenient for Jason and his new bride–sons, in Greek plays, can always be recovered later. Taking down the bride, of course, was necessary because it removed from Jason’s grasp any reward for his abandonment of Medea, and besides, it felt good–as in a basic revenge tragedy. But, and here is where Euripedes added another turn of screw, the only way to inflict a proportionate retaliation was to kill Jason’s sons. This wouldn’t have been a problem had they not been Medea’s children as well. Now, you can dribble in a little sympathy for the wailing innocents, but only so that you can understand the greatness (that is the magnitude, not the virtue) of Medea’s revenge. Suicide would have been the easy way out–the death of her own children, by her own hand, was both the worst thing she could do and the worst thing that could happen to her. Selfish? From a humane point of view, yes. But Medea was not like us–she belonged to a different sphere, entitled to a greater portion of Jason’s love and gratitude and respect, or if nothing else, fear. Humiliation was not an option for her, though she must sacrifice everything she loved to shake it off. Medea “wins,” but she doesn’t get to look forward to a change of fortune. Her little domestic interlude with Jason and the boys is the closest she ever gets to happiness.

    The tragic vision, according to me, is what runs throughout a play in which things might have turned out differently had the protagonist had just one extra variable in his/her character–some insight that would have unlocked the whole problem and prevented the evil outcome. But like pharaoh whose heart is hardened by God, the tragic hero cannot act differently than he does, though he is still responsible for his failure to do so. It’s important that it isn’t a mere matter of punishment–the protagonist must have somehow walked into his (or her) nightmare on his own two feet. Medea is a tragic figure; Jason is a tragic figure (for reasons of his own); the murdered children are just victims with unnamed speaking parts. Finally, tragic vision depends on our having some empathic response to the hero–some part of us whispers There but for the grace of God go I.


    • Hello Janet, and thank you for your reply. There is much here to respond to!

      Generally, it is, I think, true that tragic protagonists has to take responsibility for their tragedy: if someone is killed because a tree falls on her head, that is certainly tragic in real life, but it doesn’t satisfy as drama as it is too random an incident. If the protagonist’s fate is not an outcome of the protagonist’s character – or, more specifically, the shortcomings in the protagonist’s character – the tragic denouement will appear too random – a mere tree falling on the head.

      But all this is only in general terms: when we consider specific examples, it doesn’t take us long to find works that are indubitably tragic, but where there is no discernible flaw or shortcoming in the protagonist that leads to the tragedy. Where, for instance, is the flaw in Juliet? Or in the Women of Troy, the protagonists of which are merely innocent victims of warfare? Or Heracles, who is driven mad purely on a divine whim? There are many other examples, but Heracles in particular is an interesting one, as Euripides’ very point appears to be the completely arbitrary nature of the protagonist’s suffering, of the very pointlessness even of searching for a reason. The idea of a “tragic flaw” (or whatever you may want to call it) surely falls down in the face of so many counter-examples, where there is no discernible flaw at all in the protagonist. Or, in certain cases, where there isn’t even a protagonist (is Pentheus really the protagonist of The Bacchae? Is the play really about him?)

      And even if it were true that the protagonist meets with tragedy because, as a consequence of shortcomings of character, she is unequal to the challenges of life, I am not sure that this feature is anywhere near sufficient to account for the spell that so many great tragic works have upon us. We may, for instance, recognise the terrible desire of the Macbeths to become king or queen; we may even (though I personally don’t) sympathise, or even empathise, with this desire. And we see the terrible outcome of this terrible desire. But does such a way of looking at the play account for its extraordinary power, and its sheer sense of terror? Isn’t seeing the drama in such terms reducing it to the level merely of a morality tale, a fable? I’m afraid that is how it appears to me. In an earlier post, I was a bit flippant about the concept of a “tragic flaw”: it seemed to me then, and seems still, a reductive formula. Even if a work is consistent with this “tragic flaw” formulation, the formulation cannot account for the effect the work has upon us.

      Medea, I confess, is not a work I know particularly well. I have read it a few times (in translation), but I find it too terrible, too horrific, to spend much time with. This may seem strange, as I have read King Lear countless times over the last 40 years and more, and frequently go to see it in performance, and Lear is no less horrific a work: indeed, Samuel Johnson confessed that he could barely bring himself to read the final scene, so searing an impression did it make on him. But, for some mysterious reason, while I can and do revisit Lear frequently, I find Medea too much for me. This is, of course, a tribute rather than otherwise to the art of Euripdes, but there it is. From Medea’s point of view, her action is, as you say, the only proportionate revenge she can carry out, but I don’t think one can (or should) forget even for a moment what this revenge entails. Medea is no ordinary criminal, I agree, but we should, I think, be as terror-stricken as Jason is by her act. As I say, this is a work that I find a bit too much to take.

      I find particularly interesting your comment that “the tragic hero cannot act differently than he does, though he is still responsible for his failure to do so”. This seems to me so often (though not always) at the root of tragedy. In my last reading of Anna Karenina (many posts on this blog on this novel), this terrible conundrum seemed to be at the centre: people are driven by internal forces that they cannot understand or even begin to control, and yet have to assume moral responsibility for what they cannot help doing. It is possibly this that is at the root of so much that is tragic – in Anna Karenina, in Othello, in Rebecca West, in Electra … in us all. Possibly it is this that makes us feel that the tragic is so universal a state: even when we know that we personally are not and never can be like Macbeth or like Hedda Gabler, we are left with a sense of the universality of it all.

      However, I have to qualify the above statement with the adverb “possibly”: there is still so much that is unclear and mysterious!

      Cheers for now, Himadri


      • Thanks for the reply, Hamadri. A flaw isn’t necessarily a fault–as in a moral shortcoming or character defect, especially to the Greeks. Oedipus somehow managed not to be “guilty” of his own sin twice and while *we* can’t hold him morally culpable for the floods of tragedy that followed, the Greeks had a different idea of divine justice.

        The Elizabethans’ moral universe is more familiar to us, and it’s easier to see the tragic outcome as punishment or at least as consequence rather than as just randomly awful. Where tragedies from any era or moral philosophy meet and mingle is in the sense that what happened shouldn’t have happened but couldn’t be helped, which I think is deep in the human dna.

        What imbues a drama with tragic vision is a great question, but I think Medea is a perfect way to explore it. A mother’s deliberate murder of her own children is tragic in Medea (at least to me), but not in Beloved (in which the mother tries to prevent her children from being returned to slavery, a fate worse than death in the mother’s judgment). In Beloved, we easily sympathize with the mother, even if we don’t agree with her, and it is all very horrible and heartbreaking and she pays and pays for it–the things we expect in tragedy, BUT she does succeed in preventing not only her children’s return to slavery but also her own, most of her children survive and grow up or come back as ghosts, and it all turns out okay in the end. So it’s not a tragedy after all.

        Now take the real life crimes of two women: one who drowns her children by locking them in her car and pushing it into a lake, and the other who drowns her children one by one in the bathtub with her own bare hands. In real life, of course, these are horrifying tragedies, but dramatically speaking? The second woman was mentally ill and living with a man who unwittingly cultivated her madness, and her reasoning, like in Beloved, was that she was protecting her children–in this case, by ensuring that they went to Heaven before they could be corrupted by sin. I see tragic vision there. The first woman had a boyfriend who didn’t want children. I don’t see any tragic vision there–I only see a monster. Of course, a genius dramatist could take the less sympathetic of the two stories and make it the greater tragedy of the two, simply because mental illness mitigates. Restoring humanity to a criminal makes great drama, and the more monstrous the criminal (or crime), the greater the tragedy–but only as long as the criminal remains essentially, recognizably, identifiably like us. We don’t have to like or forgive Macbeth or Medea, but only *know* them.

        Juliet is easier. As with Medea’s children, it is the sins of the fathers that is being visited upon their heads. There’s plenty of blame to go around if you want to hold bad behavior accountable–and Juliet, technically, is strong-willed, disobedient, and deceitful, though I think we (and Shakespeare) are inclined to not mind that under the circumstances. The tragedy belongs to the families, and the children are merely titular victims.

      • Hello Janet, I’m sorry I haven’t got back to you on this yet, but you raise a great many points that deserve more than a cursory answer. I haven’t been around much this weekend, but this is just to let you know that ihaven’t forgotten, and that I’ll certainly get round to answering you within the next few days.

        Cheers for now, Himadri

      • Hello Janet, my apologies for having taken so long to get back to you.
        The Greeks’ idea of divine justice is indeed one that strikes the modern mind as “odd”. I think it may well have struck the Greeks as odd as well – that the discrepancy between the human and the divine concepts of justice is precisely where the tragedy lies.

        In The Oresteia, for instance, Agamemnon is commanded by the gods to avenge the outrage committed by Paris; but in carrying out this divinely ordained act of retribution, he must inevitably commit crimes; and even for these crimes, he must assume responsibility. Throughout these Greek tragedies, the justice of the gods is something that can make little sense to mere mortals; and even in this lies the tragedy. We are bound to a system of justice that can make no sense to us.

        I don’t know that we should judge the tragic content of a work by how it turns out at the end. There are many dark works that end in peace, or in reconciliation; but no matter how bright the closing may be, what has been suffered cannot be unsuffered. The ending of Medea too is happy in a superficial sense insofar as Medea is vindicated by the gods, who take her away at the end; thus, she does not in any way face punishment for her acts. It’s a deeply disquieting ending: some may argue that the gods’ refusal even to condemn so grotesque an act as cold-blooded child-murder is a denial of all human concepts of justice, and that human concepts of justice can men so little in the face of inscrutable divine will is itself tragic.

        In short, the great tragedies take us into insolubly complex realms of morality and of psychology; to see tragedy as a sort of payback for some “flaw” – however one may define “flaw” – seems to me very reductive; it is applying a formula to works that demand not to be regarded as formulaic, and it seems to me invariably to lead to simplistic interpretations of very intricate works.
        Cheers for now, Himadri

    • Hamadri, I can’t think of it as payback, which sounds retributive, and justice isn’t always about retribution. I would argue that tragedy is a way of wrestling with a complex, unwieldy, and terrifying “truth.” Medea is not reductive at all but opens all sorts of cans of worms, and must have for the Greeks too.

      Anyway, if Hitchcock had been an ancient Greek, the flaw would have been a Macguffin, and maybe that’s a good way to look at it. I think tragedy, as a genre, requires a flaw, however dubious, and some concept of unbending justice. But (and more to your original point, I think) then you get to Hardy and the whole genre goes into an identity crisis. Where there is no divine justice, and suffering is simply suffering, does the tragic vision survive the wreckage of tragedy as a genre? Jude Fawley does seem to have trees falling on his head left and right, or worse, it may be that God is amusing himself by bopping Jude’s noggin in a horrifying game of divine whack-a-mole. Is Gregor Samsa a tragic hero?

      Going back to Beloved, I would say that if the story had ended with Sethe’s attempted butchery of her children–that would have been tragedy, because of the relentless external forces driving her to the ultimate action. But the story continues toward a redemptive conclusion–a worldview that places responsibility and the power to act in the individual. So I’m ready to accept society or genetics or family or a police state or the Circumlocution Department as a source of inscrutable and inescapable “justice,” which places the hilarious Gravity’s Rainbow under an expanded definition of tragedy.

      Despite variety and changes over time in people’s notions of fate, fortune, and divine justice, there is always that awful question, Why did this have to happen? The Greeks were a little bit off (she said with hubris) about catharsis–the “cleansing” that comes as a reaction to tragedy. It’s true, there is a great rush that comes with watching or reading a tragedy that leaves one both drained and (ironically) elevated, but a ripe tragedy does not leave one’s soul clean. Neither does it leave one empty or despondent. Rather, it stimulates the mind, whispering resistance. The tragic vision is subversive of the overt message that what must be, must be.


      • Hello Janet, I agree, of course, that Medea isn’t reductive, although certain interpretations of it may be.

        I’d personally say Jude Fawley is tragic; and that Gregor Samsa too, is tragic (although I won’t go as far as to describe him as a “tragic hero”.) I confess I haven’t read Beloved, but the redemptive conclusion, as you eloquently describe it, can apply, it seems to me, equally well to Oedipus in Oedipus at Colonus. I’ll read Beloved – it’s foolish trying to argue on the basis of what I haven’t read! – but for the moment, at least, I find myself inclined to recognise tragedy from the totality of a work, rather than from what the conclusion tells us. For after all, even a redemptive conclusion must imply that there exists that from which redemption is required; and the very fact that such a thing exists may itself be regarded as “tragic”.

        In short, I am trying not to tie myself down with definitions that may prove restrictive: if a work makes me feel certain things that I recognise as tragic (often before I get to the stage of rational analysis), then, for me, it’s tragic! The problem now is to try to understand the nature of what it is I feel.

        And to this end, I find interesting your idea of inscrutability as an essential ingredient – that justice is indeed being dealt out (though not necessarily by the gods), and the nature of this justice frequently make no sense to mere humans: it is utterly inscrutable.
        But we must suffer this inscrutable justice because we are human, and we cannot do otherwise. This takes us back to possibly the earliest surviving work of Western literature – the Book of Job. (This originated in the Middle East, of course, but I refer to it as “Western” as it has had a far greater impact on Western culture than it has had on Eastern.) Job, throughout his sufferings, wants to debate with God: he wants to present his case, and demand to know the reason for his sufferings. But when he finally does hear the voice of God, the voice effectively says “I am God, you are but human, and I do not need to explain myself to you.”

        All this may present humans as essentially insignificant – and some tragedies do effectively present humans as such: Gregor Samsa is so insignificant that he becomes, quite literally, a verminous insect. But a great many tragedies, while presenting this picture of humans as essentially insignificant in the face of an inscrutable justice, simultaneously present us with pictures of human nobility – of features that shouldn’t, at any rate, be insignificant. It is perhaps the very unresolved nature of this opposition that creates the tragic.

        Thank you – you have given me much to think about.

  3. The Greeks sense of genre was fixed enough for Euripides to parody and travesty it, over and over again.

    The way you end, I would say that ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore does then have a tragic vision, the nihilistic one you acknowledge. But the “wreckage” is not of life but rather of stage tragedies. The tragic hero is not one of Ford’s characters, but Ford himself. His tragedy is that he was born too late.

    “each visionary tragedy is visionary in its own way” – to me, this is the key to the argument. This is the hard part that goes well beyond genre.


    • I generally try to steer clear of viewing works of literature as essentially commentary on other works of literature (it is too postmodern for stick-in-the-mud cultural conservatives like myself! 🙂 ) but yes, there is indeed something about the decadence of Ford’s play that bespeaks the end of a line. HAving now read The Spanish Tragedy and ‘Tis Pity She’s a whore – bookends, as it were, of the genre – I now have some bearings on the matter. Webster, I think, now beckons. I last read The White devil and The Duchess of Malfi over 30 years ago: I wonder what I’ll make of them now”


  4. Posted by India on March 19, 2015 at 12:18 pm

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post on the tragic vision. I just wanted to share a thought, and I’m not sure how it fits into your framework, but it seems valuable in my own world view: sometimes, or maybe usually, in a work of tragic vision, one gets a vision of the purely beautiful that is just out of reach. And it is heart-achingly beautiful. In this sense, a tragedy can provide a kind of North Star of the true, good, and beautiful, even though it does not present the physical victory of that ideal. (Examples: Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, King Lear, even Othello, but not Medea….)


    • Hello India, and thanks for your comment.

      I generally try to think of good titles for my posts, and the title for this one is not, I think, among my better efforts. I am wondering whether to retitle it “…but not Medea”. It seems to go against just about any definition one can come up with!

      That idea of a transcendent vision that one longs for, but which is beyond reach in our earthly lives, seems to me a very Romantic image. (That’s Romantic with a capital R, of course.) Not that it was necessarily a Romantic invention, though. It seems to me that Othello had thought he had found in Desdemona an incarnation of such a vision, but he knows also that should his belief in this earthly Heaven be tarnished, all he has to fall back on is Hell (“When I love thee not, Chaos is come again”). And that is indeed what we see. For Othello, there is no middle ground – when he can no longer believe in Heaven, he can believe only in Hell, and he damns his soul in the process.

      The idea of longing for this transcendent vision perhaps makes itself felt more in the Romantic and post-Romantic eras. We find it abundantly in Romantic operas – Tristan und Isolde, Aida, etc. It seems to me that we find it very prominently in Wuthering Heights (I wrote a post about it back in the early days of this blog).

      All the best for now, Himadri


    • I would suggest not just Romantic but Gnostic, and thus much, much older.


  5. Posted by alan on March 22, 2015 at 10:12 am

    Perhaps a lot of comedy and tragedy arises out the difference between what we aspire to be and what we in fact are, or perhaps what is possible given our circumstances. Perhaps tragedy can sometimes have a less sad quality when truth, awareness or reconciliation comes at the end – after all it may be too late for the protagonist, but perhaps we comfort ourselves with the idea that it is not necessarily too late for us, or perhaps our capacity for empathy sometimes has the strange effect of making our burden lighter rather than heavier.
    A lot of perhaps’s – I need to think about this.


  6. Posted by alan on March 22, 2015 at 10:19 am

    A view on tragedy from a popular drama: ‘Educating Rita’ , currently a UK A’ level text (a qualification for 17-18 year old students) .


    • Ah – so that’s where the “tree falling on man” bit comes from! I kne i had heard it somewhere, but couldn’t remember where, and used that image without attribution. I’d better go back and mention Educating Rita before I get accused of plagiarism.


  7. Posted by alan on March 22, 2015 at 10:21 am

    I only linked that because my son is having to study it…


  8. Reading minor, neglected, underrated 1890s poet John Davidson I found this:

    “Hieronimo announces the woe of the awakened intelligence trembling on the verge of madness in three lines, three crude lines that are not surpassed by any piercing utterance of Hamlet, Timon, or Lear:-

    This toils my body, this consumeth age,
    That only I to all men just must be,
    And neither gods nor men be just to me.

    It is a cry wring from the inmost heart. These words do not occur in the additional matter; they are Kyd’s, and they are the cognisance of Elizabethan tragedy.” (4 Feb 1899, on p. 161 of the 1995 Oxford Selected Poems and Prose).

    The “cognisance of Elizbethan tragedy”! Well, regardless, this is Davidson working on the issue of the post, what does a “tragic vision” look like.


    • Good heavens! – How did you find that?

      Those quoted lines are, I admit, rather good. I don’t know that I’d go so far as to compare them with the utterances of Hamlet or of Lear, but yes, they are fine lines. This does indeed indicate something of an inner life for Hieronimo, and is not directed explicitly towards advancing the plot. My complaint does remain, though, that too much of the play is taken up merely with advancing the plot; and even where some degree of reflection or of circumspection is required, Kyd prefers instead to bring in new strands of the plot that do not advance the central plot in any appreciable manner – e.g. the various plottings in the Portuguese court; or the entirely gratuitous madness and suicide of Hieronimo’s wife, who is introduced into the action specifically to give the audience an extra mad scene and a suicide scene. But yes, I do concede those quoted lines are rather fine.


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