Tragedy (Plot #6)

Oct 25 2011

mask of Dionysus

The unfolding Greek tragedy

As events unfold in Europe this week, there is a sense of inevitably that they will end in further pain and suffering in Greece (and many other countries). I suspect they may only resolve themselves fully when there has been a full catharsis (literally a ‘dramatic cleansing’) for the main characters and countries involved.

As with many tragedies (especially those of ancient Greece), the more the characters push the final catharsis away, the worse it eventually becomes.  Hamlet’s fatal flaw is to procrastinate over facing up to the truth of the events surrounding his father’s death, and as he avoids the inevitable consequences which come from that event, he sets the scene for a cataclysmic final act where almost everyone in the play has to die in order to restore (cleanse, or more correctly purge) the story and bring things back to normal. As of today, the discussions in Europe only seem to be making the same mistake in avoiding the inevitable consequences of their own and other key players acts (and to some extent the acts of all of us). The catharsis can be delayed, but tragedy tells us that it cannot be avoided and a day of reckoning will come.

The birth of tragedy

Although Christopher Booker outlines Tragedy as one of seven basic plots, it is perhaps the oldest of all and is the one that is the focus of Aristotle’s Poetics (the second half which focused on Comedy has not survived in its original form). To the Greeks, tragedy was a form of drama which dealt with themes of human suffering in order to give pleasure to an audience (which sounds rather sadistic when described so directly). The word tragedy (traga-oidia) literally means ‘goat song’ (related to the concept of ‘scapegoat’), coming from a time when a goat was the (sacrificial) prize in choral singing contests. Such contests developed into more extended plays when the leaders of the dithyramb chorus improvised at greater and greater length during such festivities (although Nietzsche and others have argued for slightly different origins).

Aristotle’s definition of tragedy is:

Tragedy is an enactment of a deed that is important and complete, and of a certain magnitude, by means of enriched language …. it is enacted, not merely recited, and through pity and fear it effects relief [catharsis] to these and similar emotions.

Aristotle characterised tragedy by its seriousness and dignity which always involved a great person who experiences a reversal of fortune (most commonly from good to bad) inspiring pity and fear in watchers of the drama. These emotions are cleansed and healed in the audience in responses to the suffering of the characters in the play (catharsis). The reversal of fortune is caused by a mistake made by the great person (this is often misinterpreted as a character flaw, which is still the basis of many tragedies). The reversal is then an inevitable but unforeseen result of this mistake (for example, Oedipus mistakenly kills his father and takes his mother as his wife, King Lear divides his kingdom in three parts). The reversal is driven entirely by the consequences of these actions and not by fate or the actions of a higher power. Through this reversal the tragic hero may come to a revelation or understanding of human life and the will of the gods, moving from a state of ignorance to stare of awareness and recognition (just as Lear and Oedipus do).

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that Nietzsche thought tragedy was an art form almost in opposition to the development of Greek science and the Socratic method, showing the irrational side of Greek culture and a submission to the sensual and superstitious over the power of reason to reveal deeper truths of existence.

A Dionysian celebration of life (and death)?

We most often associate tragedy today with the plays of ancient Greece (Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides) and the Elizabethan plays of Shakespeare (Hamlet, Julius Caesar, King Lear, Macbeth, Othello, Romeo and Juliet and others), but many other writers have written in this form (although it is less common today). The Romans wrote tragedies, as did several contemporaries of Shakespeare, and Goethe’s Faust is one of the greatest pieces of European literature. In many Shakespeare tragedies, the central character is a hero and also a ‘monster’ and none more shockingly than in Richard III (playing in Singapore next month), who bitterly proclaims:

“Since I cannot prove a lover

To entertain these fair well-spoken days, -

I am determined to prove a villain

And hate the idle pleasure of these days.”

In contemporary culture, tragedy has often proven too hard for us to swallow, with the consequence that stories often avoid the inevitable and real consequences of a tragic downfall preferring to indulge in ego fantasy instead. Very recently I saw the film Limitless, which initially followed the classic trajectory of a tragedy, as the hero Eddie Morra makes a Faustian pact in order to secure more supplies of the wonder drug NZT and succumbs to its side effects and the fear of withdrawal. He becomes fabulously rich and eventually runs for Presidency, even  though his life and health are gradually falling apart. I found the ending of the film curiously unsatisfying, as Eddie manages to avoid the consequences of his addiction to the drug, secure unlimited supplies with no (apparent) consequences and get everything he desires. Is he hero or a monster (or both)?

Catharsis is a useful way to teach ourselves the likely consequences of serious mistakes. There is a serious moral hazard when we believe that we can take whatever we want without consequence, and this is exactly what we see happening in the current banking crisis. I suspect that the story of Limitless, may have a second and less frivolous episode, just as all such stories inevitably do.

Perhaps we should be asking the questions: Who is the hero in the current banking crisis? What was their mistake? And are they also a monster?

A tragedy in five parts

Let’s follow the plot of tragedy using Carmen as an example (an opera that Nietzsche adored after he fell out with Wagner and his music!).

In the first stage (which Booker calls the ‘Dream stage’), the hero(ine) is in some way incomplete or unfulfilled (Eddie Morra is a frustrated writer in Limitless). Their thoughts turn towards the future and gratification of some desire, and they are presented with a course of action around which they can focus their energies. In Carmen, Don José, a corporal in the army, is in love with a shy young girl called Micaela and then meets the temptress Carmen. Carmen first tries to flirt with Don José in vain, throwing a blood-red flower at his feet in frustration. He waivers and picks up the flower, placing it next to his heart. Later, after seeing Micaela again and seemingly shaking off Carmen’s spell, he is sent to resolve a dispute in which Carmen is fighting with another girl and he has to arrest her. Carmen works her charms again and temptation wins over sense as he sings, ‘Carmen you have bewitched me’.

In the second (‘Dream’) stage, the hero(ine) becomes committed to the course of action (for example, Faust signs the pact with the devil), and things initially go well as they gain the gratification that they sought and seem to ‘get away with it’. Don José allows Carmen to escape and follows her to a tavern where they declare their love and he gets involved in a fight over her with one of his officers. To avoid punishment, he deserts the army and flees with Carmen, joining her and a gang of bandits in the mountains.

Immediately the third stage of ‘Frustration’ sets in, as things begin to go wrong as the fickle Carmen loses her interest in the hero and starts to shift her affections to a handsome bullfighter Escamillo. Don José feels increasingly trapped, but is unable to return back to his previous life, even though Micaela tries to persuade him to save himself. He remains infatuated with Carmen, even though it is clear that he has lost her.

This is where the ‘Nightmare’ fourth stage sets in and things begin to get out of control. He meets Escamillo, not recognising who he is, and tells him the story of how Carmen used to love a soldier but now everything is over. He lashes out when he recognises his rival in love, and the two have be pulled apart by the bandits. The triumphant Escamillo invites them all to a bullfight at which he will be the hero.

In the final (‘Destruction’) stage, a ‘pale and haggard’ Don José arrives at the bullfight with his eyes ‘hollow’ and ‘glowing with a dangerous light’. He confronts Carmen who rejects him, full of scorn, and declares that she now loves Escamillo. In his despair, Don José, stabs her to death as Escamillo enters the bullring to loud applause and fanfares, and the scene is set of his inevitable destruction with arrest and likely execution.

Is the Greek tragedy becoming a nightmare?

Having spent much of the first decade of this century in a ‘dream’, it seems that many of the world’s economies have been through much ‘frustration’ and are entering the ‘nightmare’. As things get out of control, let’s hope we can all face up to the inevitable destruction and use it creatively to recognise our mistakes. The revelation this will bring should also help us to design better ways to manage our economies if we want to avoid the same tragedy unfolding again.


The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories by Christopher Booker (2004)

The Birth of Tragedy by Friedrich Nietzsche (1872)

Classical Literary Criticism by D.A. Russell & Michael Winterbottom (2008)

Business of Tragedy or Tragedy of Business? at

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