In a range of dramatic works from Agamemnon to Hamlet, one sees the range of development of the tragic form, from the earliest Greek to the later Shakespearean tragedies. There are two basic concepts of tragedy: the concept introduced by Aristotle in his Poetics, and the concept developed by Frederick Nietzsche in his \”The Birth of Tragedy. \” Many dramas can be reviewed to reveal the contrast between these two concepts of tragedy, and demonstrate the development of the tragic form over time. The idea of Greek tragedy stems from Aristotles definition of a tragic hero.
In Aristotles definition, the tragic hero must be a person of high standing so their fall from glory will be all the more horrible. The heros story must evoke pity for the hero and fear of his fall, so the hero cannot be completely evil. Also, the hero must have a tragic flaw, a characteristic that, in excess, causes him to bring some disaster upon himself, and because of this, he cannot be completely good either. It is important to note that the root of the term tragic flaw is the Greek word hamartia, which is actually better translated as an error in judgement.
Often this flaw or error has to do with fate a character tempts fate, thinks he can change fate or doesn’t realize what fate has in store for him. In Agamemnon, the classic Greek drama, Aeschylus demonstrates the concept of the tragic flaw in the character of Agamemnon. While on his journey to the battle at Troy, Agamemnon has to make the choice to sacrifice his daughter for the sake of his fleet. It is this choice that begins the cycle of tragedy. Agamemnons wife, Clytemnestra, sees her husbands act as unforgivable, and upon his return from battle, she murders him in an act of vengeance. However, this is not the only revenge taking place.
Clytemnestras lover, whose father Thyestes was tricked by Agamemnon into devouring his own children, also justifies Agamemnons murder as revenge for the acts committed against his family. So while Agamemnon is heralded as a hero in the battle of Troy, his less admirable side is also revealed. In keeping with the Aristotelian concept of tragedy, Agamemnon is seen as neither entirely good nor entirely bad, thus invoking pity. But his decision to sacrifice his daughter for the good of his fleet and his acts against Thyestes demonstrates the fatal error in judgement that would lead to his fall.
Oedipus Rex is considered by most as the source for Aristotles ideas about tragedy, as it is a classic example of a hero with a tragic flaw that brings about his downfall. Again, we have a person of high standing in Oedipus, who is neither entirely good nor entirely bad. However, it is Oedipus pride that pervades as his tragic flaw throughout the play. It is pride that causes Oedipus to believe the rumor of his questionable parentage and further, to go to the oracle. It is again pride that causes him to leave Corinth in attempt to defy the prophecy of the oracle.
And pride arguably causes Oedipus to murder the man he quarrels with on the road, who is actually his father, thus fulfilling the very prophesy he had tried to defy. Oedipus Rex demonstrates the belief in fate, that what is ordained shall be, regardless of mans attempt to resist his fate. Oedipus falls victim to having poor judgement and letting his pride make his decisions for him, and this ends up becoming his demise. Another of the Greek tragedies is Medea, which is one of the few with a female as the title hero character. Medea demonstrates the changing attitude in Greek drama, and introduces a more human aspect to the heros behavior.
In the earlier dramas, the heroes were influenced heavily by fate, and the tragic flaw and eventual downfall often had something to do with fate. However, in the case of Medea, we see the hero as falling outside the realm of divine intervention. Though Medea is wronged by Jason, there is no sense of support from the gods in exacting her revenge. If the central theme of Agamemnon is one of divine revenge, and Oedipus Rex has a theme of life being fated by the gods, Medea surely has a theme of the ill result of passion and scorn.
These are, however, uniquely human emotions, showing just how different this tragedy is from those that preceded it. As Nietzsche contends, tragedy is often not solely based on the actions of the hero, but on the response of the community to those actions. In Medea, we clearly understand that Jasons intention to abandon Medea and their children to marry another woman is outside of normally accepted social behaviors. But, in contrast to the other tragic works, Medea is neither fated nor compelled by the gods to plan the murder of her husbands lover, the lovers father, and her own children.
Because these horrific acts are driven by human emotion, they are less characteristic of the Aristotelian tragedy, and more indicative of the tragic form as explained by Nietzsche. As drama moved through medieval times, we saw the introduction of morality plays, such as Noahs Flood and Everyman. While these plays are not considered comedies or tragedies, they do speak of the development of the dramatic form. Both dramas rely heavily on the idea of community values and religious ideals. These plays represent what could happen to an individual who strayed from the things that were considered acceptable by society.
Much like Greek tragedy, the characters were cleverly designed to allow people to relate to their plight, and to fear the fate that would befall them should they make an improper choice. This parallels the Greek hero, whose eventual demise was intended as a lesson of sorts. The morality plays underscore the Nietzschean concept of tragedy as falling somewhere between the highly thoughtful, associated with Apollo, and the highly spirited, associated with Dionysus. Moving through the Renaissance, there was a change in social attitudes and behaviors.
These changes are underscored by the changes to the classic tragedy made by William Shakespeare. In both Julius Caesar and Hamlet, Shakespeare combines the ideas of Aristotle and Nietzsche into complex tragedies with many facets. In some senses, the plays exhibit elements of classic Greek tragedies. Both Hamlet and Caesar are important men who stand to lose much if they fall. Both have a history of tragedy: Caesars power is attained by the bloody overthrow of Pompey, the former king. Hamlets father took over power by overthrowing the sitting king Fortinbras, only to be murdered himself and have the crown taken from him.
These scenarios alone set the stage for tragic events to continue to unfold. Both Caesar and Hamlet prove to have those tragic flaws, or errors of judgement, essential to Aristotelian tragedy. Caesars flaw could well be his turning a deaf ear on those who repeatedly try to warn him of the plot against him. Hamlet has several flaws, but the fatal one may be in not being able to follow through with his intentions. When observed on the surface, these works parallel the Greek tragedies, even down to the inclusion of the concept of otherworldly knowledge about events that are to unfold.
Underneath the surface, however, the center of the tragedy lies in action issuing from character, of flawed perceptions, and human frailty for which the hero is ultimately responsible. In Shakespeare, the hero recognizes his own responsibility for the catastrophe that befalls him, but too late to prevent his death. This is seen in Julius Caesar in Brutus character. One could argue that Brutus also represents a tragic hero, for he is a great man who eventually falls. Brutus is so convinced that Caesar has become corrupt with power that he feels it his duty to the people to take part in Caesars murder.
However, Brutus realizes that he had been pulled into the plot under false pretenses, but it is too late. He does what he thinks is best, and kills himself. In Hamlet, the realization comes at some point in the second half of the play. Hamlet reveals his realization just before the duel with Laertes, when Horatio cautions Hamlet that he will lose, and Hamlet replies that what will be, will be. Both characters accept that they cannot change what they have done, or not done, and accept their due consequences. In both Shakespearean plays, the hero errs, by action or omission, and his error, joining with other causes, brings about his ruin.
This fatal imperfection or error is of differing kinds and degrees. But, Shakespeare takes the idea of tragedy one step further by introducing additional characters that rival the hero in their tragic nature. Julius Caesar includes the character Brutus, one of the conspirators that kill Caesar. However, Brutus is presented as a character with a conscience, who truly believes that his actions are for the good of all people. This idea goes along with Nietzsche’s theory on the community having influence over the events of the tragedy.
Similarly, in Hamlet, the other characters are much more complex than in Greek tragedies, and the interactions of the characters, which may represent their communities as a whole, greatly impact the eventual outcome. From Agamemnon to Hamlet, we have discovered the progression of the form of dramatic tragedy. We can see the evolution from the earlier Greek tragedies, that focus on divine intervention and vindication for acts that displeased the gods, to the very humanly emotional Hamlet, whose eventual realization of his own responsibilities introduce an entirely new concept to the tragic form.
This dramatic range demonstrates the differences between the concepts of tragedy as defined by Aristotle, who believed all tragedy stemmed from some fatal flaw in the character of the hero and that of Nietzsche, who believed the concept of tragedy focused more on the community than on the character of the hero alone. These dramas also represent the evolution of the art of dramatic writing from the earliest Greek authors through Shakespeare, who virtually reinvented tragedy and elevated the art of dramatic writing to the form we know it as today.