What is tragedy? (response to a query)

So what is tragedy?

“A work is a tragedy, Aristotle tells us, only if it arouses pity and fear. Why does he single out these two passions?” That seems wrong to me. For one thing, it is overly subjectivist. Why start with the passions of the audience? What do they know?

I think of a tragic story as embodying a few elements:

1. The downfall represents some kind of principle.

2. Some aspects of the downfall are, in advance, quite expected in the objective sense.

3. The actual story combines both inevitability and surprise in a somewhat contradictory manner. (I reintroduce the subjective ever so slightly here.)

4. The villain probably should have some sympathetic and/or charismatic qualities.

5. There should be a quite particular logic to how the actual events unfold, as they might be related to the above-mentioned principles in #1.

6. A confluence of aesthetic and metaphysical and personality-linked forces should “conspire” to bring about the final outcome. There should be a melding and a consilience to the evolution of the story.

Some near-perfect tragedies are Don Giovanni, The Empire Strikes Back, The Sopranos (evokes nostalgia in me rather than fear or pity), and King Lear, among other works of Shakespeare.  Don’t forget Homer, Melville, and the Bible.

Just stay away from Aristotle on this one.


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