May 07, 2009

Tragic flaws and all that

This man had tragic flaws which led to his undoing.

It's kind of easy to tell one of Shakespeare's comedies from one of his tragedies. In the former most everyone gets married, while in the latter, most everyone is dead on the stage.

It's a little harder to define what makes a Greek tragedy what it is. It's easier to say what it's not. Good guy beats bad guy, gets girl would not be a tragic formula. Nor would bad guy wins after all. Nor would good guy gets blasted by the cosmos for no apparent reason.

Aristotle, who is not the last word on the subject but was one of the first, had several ideas about what made one. Good aristocrat the he was, he believed that the main characters should be people of high status and usually well known from myth and tradition. He blamed Euripides for bringing common people to the state. Second, he believed one should involve some change of fortune, usually for the worse. He especially liked it if there was a major reversal and if late in the game there came some major recognition.

Conflicts in a tragedy should not pit conventional enemies or indifferent people against each other; he thought it was more powerful if rather the conflicts occurred within the same family or between people who had some kind of connection, even if they protagonists didn't realize it until it was too late.

The tragic hero in his book should be neither a perfect person nor a complete jerk. Rather,

There remains, then the character between these two extremes--that of a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty. He must be one who is highly renowned and prosperous--a personage like Oedipus, Thyestes, or other illustrious men of such families.

To sum up his version of a good tragedy,

A well-constructed plot should, therefore, be single in its issue...The change of fortune should be not from bad to good, but, reversely, from good to bad. It should come about as the result not of vice, but of some great error or frailty, in a character such as we have described, or better rather than worse.

The tragic hero, in other words, should be like most of us, except on a grander scale. The subject of tragedy should not be a retelling of something that definitely happened but rather should show what could happen given certain circumstances; hence its power. Often it's not about good versus evil but rather competing and conflicting goods and ills in which people are caught up in a long chain of events.

As I've said before here, a Greek tragedy is a different kind of story than an action movie. But however mythological the themes may be, the tragic is often closer to real life.

GROSS NATIONAL HAPPINESS. Here's another look at the Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan, where they have another way of keeping score.

IT'S ON. The struggle for health care reform, that is. One critical piece of real reform is a public insurance option.

STILL TICKING. Pete Seeger turned 90 Sunday and is still singing, albeit not as loud.



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