Defining A Tragedy Essay, Research Paper
Defining a Tragedy
Greek philosopher Aristotle proposes components of an ideal tragedy in his work, Tragedy and the Emotions of Pity and Fear. According to Aristotle, there are six components of a great tragedy: plot, character, thought, verbal expression, song, and visual adornment. He dissects these components in great detail and provides standards for all of them. In his play Bacchae, Euripides resembles much of Aristotle?s components of an ideal tragedy. Euripides has only few deviations from the Aristotelian tragedy.
To Aristotle, a tragedy is defined as an imitation of action and life, not of an imitation of men. Therefore, he places higher emphasis the role of plot in a tragedy, rather than the role of character. He describes the species and components of a plot in great detail. For completeness, a plot must have a beginning, middle, and an end. A plot should be structured so that every part is necessary for completeness. The elements of a plot are peripety, recognition, and pathos. Peripety is a change in fortune, recognition is a change from ignorance to knowledge, and pathos is a destructive or painful act. Furthermore, Aristotle states that a tragedy is not merely an imitation of actions, but of events inspiring fear and pity. Such an effect is best produced when events are surprising yet at the same time, they logically follow one another. A well-constructed plot should, therefore, not have a change of fortune from bad to good, but, on the other hand, from good to bad. A good plot should leave an audience feeling pity and fear. To produce this effect, actions must happen between those who are near or dear to one another. For example, a brother killing a father leaves a more impressionable feeling than an enemy killing an enemy does. Although Aristotle feels that a good tragedy arouses solemn emotion, an audience should not be left in a state of depression. Both the characters and the audience should end with a purging of emotional catastrophe, known as a catharsis.
The aspects of Aristotle?s ideal plot are well represented in Euripides? Bacchae. The play begins with Dionysus? prologue describing his birth to mortal Semele and immortal Zeus and his journey from Asia to Greece. He reveals that he has come to Thebes to gain recognition and worship as the god of nature, ecstasy, creation, and destruction because his aunts deny him and what he stands for. To prove his immortality, he forces all Theban women to wander in madness under trees. Dionysus attempts to spread a cult of his followers in the city of Thebes. The king of Thebes, Pentheus, disapproves of the Bacchic rites and tries to suppress the cult. A change of fortune occurs when Pentheus cannot resist the spell of Dionysus and thus he succumbs to the god?s power. The play ends with Pentheus savagely destroyed in his failure to suppress the cult. The city of Thebes remains under the spell of Dionysus. The audience is left to feel pity and fear because Pentheus? own mother takes part in his killing. This play reflects Aristotle?s ideal tragedy in that the change in fortune went from good to bad. Euripides uses the literary device of a ?deus ex machine? in Dionysus? final appearance. The term deus ex machina refers to a divine intervention to resolve a dramatic dilemma. Dionysus reveals himself as a god and explains his punishment for his disbelievers. The audience experiences a catharsis by realizing that civilization should make room for natural human urges toward ecstasy and joy. If they do not, those urges will sicken and destroy us from within.
In respect to character, Aristotle defines a tragic hero as one who must have high status but must also be noble and virtuous. However, though the tragic hero is highly distinguished, he is not perfect. His imperfection is called the tragic flaw. The tragic hero suffers misfortune brought about by some error or frailty, not because of wickedness or cruelty. In the Bacchae, Pentheus fulfills Aristotle?s necessary qualities of a tragic hero. His demise is caused by his tragic flaws of excessive pride and overconfidence. He rejects the Bacchic rites because he is too proud to follow the cult and overly confident that he can defeat the powers of the gods. One aspect of Euripides? play that differs from Aristotle?s ideal tragedy is that the tragic hero in fails to gain self-knowledge at the moment of his downfall. Pentheus does not increase awareness of his actions before his downfall. Although the tragic hero does not experience recognition, the element of recognition is still present in the play. Agave, Pentheus? mother, realizes her action of killing her own son before her consequent downfall. However, Aristotle would not believe that this recognition was enough to fulfill the ideal tragedy.
Aristotle ranks thought as third in rank of importance to an ideal tragedy. By ?thought,? he means the ability to state the issues and appropriate points pertaining to a given topic. This ability comes from the arts of politic and rhetoric. Examples of thought are passages in which a character tries to prove some thesis, express opinion, or state a general rule. The element of thought is evident in Euripides? Bacchae when Pentheus returns home and sees his father and Tiresias. The two men, both under the spell of Dionysus, attempt to convert Pentheus. However, Pentheus says that he rejects the Bacchic rites and vows to capture the stranger who has put Thebes under a spell. On the one hand, the two men try to prove that it is right to follow Dionysus, and on the other hand, Pentheus tries to prove that it is wrong to do so. Another example of thought is when Dionysus expresses a general principle to Pentheus that those who defy the gods will suffer a calamity. Dionysus says to Pentheus, ?the vengeance for this outrage he will wreak whose being thou deniest.? (Euripides 19)
The element of verbal expression, Aristotle explains, is ?the conveyance of thought through language: a statement which has the same meaning whether one says verses or speeches.? (Aristotle 687) This is evident in the way in which Pentheus rejects the god Dionysus in his speech saying, ?the grape?s sweet poison mingles with the feast, nought holy may we augur of such worship.? (Euripides 10) His word poison evokes evil and the word feast connotes bestiality. In a scene with Pentheus, Dionysus’ words indicate the occurrence of various physical manifestations of his power: earthquake and partial collapse of the palace, lightning and a burst of flame from Semele?s grave. Dionysus, at the end of the play, acts as a ?deus ex machina.? This is a divine intervention at the end of a tragedy that provides a solution for the plot.
The fifth aspect of Aristotle?s ideal tragedy is song. He describes this aspect as being the greatest of the sensuous attractions. The chorus who performs the songs can have many roles. The chorus comments on the action, provide background material, serve as actor and narrator, stands between audience and actors, and provide a guide to our emotions. In Euripides? Bacchae, the chorus is made up of followers of Dionysus. The chorus provides commentary throughout Bacchae, but it is never directly involved in the madness. The first song they sing is of devotion and honor to the god Dionysus. Then they denounce Pentheus? rejection of Dionysus and his excessive pride. This song helps to foreshadow the play. Later the chorus sings of happiness of Pentheus? submission to the god as Dionysus dresses Pentheus. As Dionysus leads Pentheus to Mt. Cithaeron, the chorus criticizes Pentheus for spying on the women. The chorus then predicts the downfall of Pentheus. As Agave participates with the other women in tearing apart Pentheus, the chorus is horrified by the action. Agave, in her moment of madness is enthusiastic of her action. The chorus leader doesn?t share her feelings they realize before she does that she has slain her own son.
The final element of Aristotle?s model tragedy is visual adornment. He explains that this aspect can have strong emotional effect but is the least artistic element. Euripides? Bacchae had many examples of visual adornment: Dionysus disguises himself as a mortal, Cadmus and Tiresias dress as young women wearing long Bacchic costumes and ivy crowns, Theban women dress in white robes and fawn skins, and Pentheus disguises himself as one of these women. The ritual dresses provide a savage and fanatical mode throughout the play.
The influential Greek philosopher Aristotle provides history and rationale for the perfect Greek tragedy in his Tragedy and the Emotions of Pity and Fear. He discusses in great detail the requirements of a well-constructed tragedy. Based on Aristotle?s reasoning, Euripides? Bacchae greatly resembles a perfect Greek tragedy, with only minor flaws. An important belief that they share is that a great tragedy should leave an audience feeling emotions of pity and fear.