Within the field of composition and literary studies, classification and definition of tragedy are subject to ongoing debates. One particular perspective stems from Aristotelian theory, which directly connects these concepts to the definition of the tragic hero. Aristotle’s understanding of tragedy and its various aspects is highly respected and widely acknowledged, both in the past and present.
The text states that the interpretation of the definition of tragedy by the author is open to different meanings, but generally suggests that tragedy should arouse feelings of pity and fear in the viewer for the purpose of purging emotions, known as catharsis. It also introduces the concept of the tragic hero, who is a character of high stature that is brought low due to a character flaw or deviation from the moral path, referred to as hamartia. However, the tragic hero cannot be completely virtuous as this would make him distant and unrelatable. The text also mentions that the character must realize their hamartia at some point, known as anagnorisis, and notes the ironic relationship between these elements. Additionally, irony is discussed as a tool that allows the audience to understand the situation on a deeper level than the characters themselves.Oedipus Rex, Othello, and Death of a Salesman are three noteworthy plays, each written in a different era. These plays can be compared in terms of Aristotle’s concept of the tragic hero and their use of dramatic irony. Oedipus Rex, dating back to around 428 B.C., serves as a prime example of Aristotle’s explanation of the tragic hero.
According to Aristotle, Oedipus is often mentioned as an example in his discussions about tragedy. In essence, Oedipus is a virtuous and ethical character who faces misfortune due to his tragic flaw (hamartia). As king, he holds an important position in society. It is believed that Oedipus’s hamartia arises from his pride and inability to control destructive tendencies. If we view hamartia as a moral flaw, then it can be attributed to his act of killing his father. According to Aristotle, if Oedipus’s downfall occurs because of anger and excessive self-reliance, then it qualifies as a moral hamartia. However, if Oedipus is not accountable for his own fate, then Aristotle’s concept of hamartia does not involve morality. In this scenario, it appears that Oedipus’s awareness of impending misfortune leads to his downfall. Ironically, he would not have initially escaped if he had not feared the outcome he was attempting to evade.
However, it can be argued that the theory of character flaw as the cause of tragedy oversimplifies complex tragic situations. According to Aristotle’s Poetics, a tragic character is not purely virtuous or entirely evil, but rather falls due to a miscalculation. Thus, hamartia could be more accurately described as a “tragic error.” The story progresses and catastrophe ensues as a consequence of misjudgment or action.
The story contains various instances where pride is not portrayed as a driving force. These include Oedipus fleeing Corinth to safeguard his perceived parents, his triumph in deciphering the riddle, and the altercation resulting in his father’s death. Nonetheless, it can be contended that this was not necessarily a flaw in his character (Brown). It is crucial to recognize that during that era, murder was perceived differently than it is presently.
In line 1118 of the play, Oedipus realizes that his prophesy has come true. This realization leads him to discover his hamartia, which could be mistaken identity and failed recognition. This revelation evokes pity from the viewers and portrays him as a “victim of ironic fate”. Oedipus gained the throne by solving a riddle with exceptional logical-reasoning abilities, which is ironic considering his hamartia.
Oedipus’ belief in his power of reason led him to think he could escape fate, but it ultimately caused his downfall. When he realizes the truth, Oedipus exclaims, “Ah God! It was true! All the prophesies! -Now, O Light, may I look on you for the last time! I, Oedipus, damned in his birth, in his marriage damned, damned in the blood he shed with his own hand!” (4. 1118-1123). His rise to power solidifies the rest of the prophecy and he becomes aware that he is responsible for the devastating plague in his kingdom. He confesses,”Apollo- He brought my sick, sick fate upon me. But the blinding hand was my own!” (3. 1286-288). Ultimately, Oedipus is accountable for his own downfall. Throughout this play there are multiple layers of irony that enhance our understanding and emotional connection with the speaker. Sophoclean irony is utilized to emphasize certain points; however, it is the irony of fate that dominates as it seems like the gods are playing with Oedipus and ultimately causing him to be blinded by fate.
The concept of blindness in the story is both ironic and figurative, and it reaches its peak when the protagonist actually gouges out his own eyes. This physical blindness mirrors his mental impairment. The audience is already aware of a tragic prophecy that he has unknowingly fulfilled, creating dramatic irony even before the play begins. The story starts with Oedipus leaving his palace and encountering a large number of citizens seeking help with a deadly plague that is threatening their city.
The city is plagued because of the unjust death of King Laios. Oedipus claims to suffer more for the people than for himself, which is ironic as they suffer because of him. He unknowingly adds to the irony by supporting the murdered king and praying for a life filled with evil and misery, not realizing he killed the king. He even vows to fight for the king as if he were his own son, which he is. Later, when prophet Teiresias speaks to him about being the culprit, Oedipus accuses Teiresias instead. This paradox persists throughout the play; Oedipus is blind.
Oedipus denies his treachery and blames Kreon and Teiresias for his downfall, demonstrating man’s failure to recognize his own weaknesses. He believes it is a scheme to remove him from his deceitful throne and continues to deceive himself above all others, thus posing the biggest threat to himself. When Oedipus mocks Teiresias’ blindness, Teiresias points out that Oedipus is blind to the wretchedness of his own life, reinforcing Oedipus’ distorted self-perception and inability to see the truth. Iocaste also denies her genuine apprehensions due to shame. Ultimately, after discovering the truth about his origin and reality, Oedipus’ wife (who is also his mother) commits suicide.
Oedipus demonstrates his ultimate blindness by gouging out his eyes, symbolizing his true blindness throughout his life. This self-inflicted blindness adds to the irony of the situation. Furthermore, the riddle he solved before the play begins embodies his life’s journey: starting as a crawling baby, walking on two legs as an adult, and eventually relying on a cane in old age.
He starts as an infant (although his legs were bound), becomes an adult during the story, and ultimately needs a cane because he is physically blind. Othello, written in 1603, is one of Shakespeare’s most renowned tragedies and can be compared to Aristotle’s definition of this genre. Othello, the main character of the play, is a noble, dependable, polite, and trustworthy general from Venice who later becomes Governor.
In the opening acts, Othello is consistently portrayed as a commendable figure, evident in his recognition as “Valiant Othello” by the Duke of Venice. However, he is not portrayed as flawless or unique; rather, he represents the common human condition and exhibits traditional human imperfections. This aligns him with Aristotle’s definition of a tragic hero, exemplified by his tragic flaw or “hamartia,” which can be seen in his trustworthiness and nobility.
If viewed differently, it could be seen as the error of perceiving Iago’s false persona and succumbing to his cruel manipulation. There is a debate about whether Othello truly undergoes his moment of self-recognition due to his final words potentially reflecting self-pity and an explanation of his actions rather than a true realization of a deeper truth within himself (Andrews). Personally, I disagree with this theory and firmly believe that he does experience anagnorisis. His moment of self-discovery occurs in Act 5, when his intense jealousy reaches its climax.
In this tragedy, Othello kills his beloved wife, Desdemona, thinking she cheated on him. Later, he discovers that he was deceived by Iago, as it was Iago who dropped the handkerchief. It is at this moment that Othello gives his final speech and commits suicide. Irony is a prominent theme in Othello. It is ironic that Othello and most characters in the play often refer to Iago as “honest Iago” when he is actually deceitful.
The play revolves around the instigation of jealousy, which drives Iago’s scheme when Cassio is promoted instead of him. Othello, known for his honesty, gradually succumbs to Iago’s deception and becomes consumed by jealousy. It is ironic that Cassio, one of the few characters who survives Iago’s plot, also experiences jealousy. Furthermore, Iago warns Othello about the destructive nature of this emotion, adding to the irony of the play. Meanwhile, Death of a Salesman holds a significant place in American drama as a subject of debate on whether it should be considered a tragedy. This discussion will address whether or not it meets the criteria of an Aristotelian tragedy.
In line with Aristotle’s criteria, the tragic demise of Willy in the play evokes pity due to his distorted psyche and perceptions. This element aligns with Arthur Miller’s definition of the tragic hero, as it encompasses the entirety of Miller’s interpretation. However, Willy does not conform to the traditional archetype of a tragic hero, as he represents an ordinary individual rather than a noble or elevated figure. Thus, he cannot be considered a hero in the conventional sense.
Arthur Miller emphasizes the divide between modern human beings and kings and princes by naming his hero “Loman” (which means “low man”), as stated in an essay from the Calverton School. Modern tragedians have altered the structure and language of tragic plots, emphasizing the mechanistic nature of the universe and the inevitability of misfortune. Despite not fitting Aristotle’s definition of a tragic hero, Willy conveys many truths in a play that leaves room for interpretation.
The statement can be summarized as follows: B.S. Field Jr. argues that Willy has numerous tragic flaws that dominate his persona, including his inability to challenge societal norms, lack of self-awareness and understanding of his own identity, absence of spirituality and love, and the immoral upbringing of his children. However, it is debatable whether these qualities can be classified as hamartia since they do not possess the strength to contribute to his downfall significantly.
In this passage, the author emphasizes that the character in question is deemed a criminality, a hamartia, and the consequences of his actions – a miserable life, death, and funeral – are fitting. However, the character never acknowledges his anagnorisis and ultimately dies without recognizing that the pursuit of happiness is a paradoxical state of mind.
What adds to the irony in this play is that it is not just Willy who remains blind throughout this journey.
Both Willy’s wife Linda and his sons, Biff and Happy, are unaware that he has woven a web of lies and deceit. Biff recognizes his father’s true nature and is disturbed by it, but Linda is unable to see through Willy’s charade. She questions why Biff refers to Willy as a fake, not realizing the extent of his deception. She fails to recognize that Willy has been unfaithful to her and to himself. Ironically, it is becoming evident that Biff and Happy are following in their father’s footsteps.
Throughout the play, Happy exhibits the same qualities as his father and Biff is the only one who acknowledges this. Ironically, Happy commits suicide with the belief that his family will receive a $20,000 life insurance payout, but they are denied because suicide is not covered. At his funeral, which he confidently predicted would be attended by people from across the country, only his family and neighbor show up, further strengthening his illusion.
“Why did you do it? I search and search and search, and can’t understand it, Willy. I made the last payment on the house today. Today, dear. And there’ll be nobody home. We’re free and clear. We’re free…….. “(Act 2 pg. 1524)
Conclusively, it can be delineated that as time progresses adherence to Aristotle’s standard of what the tragic play should encompass is deviated from accordingly. The definition itself shall remain intact although the genre seems to become diversified.
The tragic plays Oedipus, Othello, and Death of a Salesman can all be categorized as tragic by both unified and separate standards. They all sustain greatness and maintain comparable levels of irony as well as contain recognizably similar elements. However, due to the length guidelines, I can only scratch the surface of this paper and its encompassing matters. I have separate plausible perspective but lack the space to expand on them. Additionally, there is much to discuss about the possibility of Iago being Othello’s alter ego.
This generates a whole new level of irony. I recognized quite a bit in this arena of perception, however I had already reached the maximum page limit. However, I felt it was quite important, recognized it, and felt that I should inform you of it. It was not excluded due to my ignorance of its existence. I had sources to support it as well.
Work Cited Andrews, Michael C. “Honest Othello: The Handkerchief Once More” Studies in English Literature 13 (1973): 273-284. JSTOR
Arp And Greg Johnson, Perrine’s Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense. 6th ed. Boston:Wadsworth, 2006.
Bradley, A. C.. “The Nature of Tragedy.” The Calverton School. http://www.calvertonschool.org
Brown, Dr.Larry A.. Aristotle on Greek Tragedy.Jan .2005. http:/ / example.com
Field,B.S.Jr.“Hamartia in Death of a Salesman.” Twentieth Century Literature18(1972):19-24.JSTOR
Golden,Leon,trans.Aristotle’s Poetics.With Commentary by O.B.Hardison,Jr.
New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1967. Rpt. Florida UP, 1981. Hutchens, Eleanor N. “The Identification of Irony.” ELH. 27 (1960) 352-363. Kirkwood, G. M. Rev. of “Hamartia. Tragic Error in the Poetics of Aristotle and in Greek Tragedy.” By J. M. Bremer The American Journal of Philology 92 (1971): 711-715. JSTOR. < http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0002> Mullens, H. G. “Oedipus and the Tragic Spirit.” Greece & Rome 7 (1938): 149-155. JSTOR. Myers, Henry Alonzo. “Aristotle’s Study of Tragedy.” Educational Theatre Journal. 1 (1949): 115-127.