The Set of Rules as a Foundation of the Tragedy Genre

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Since the beginning of human life, storytelling has developed and progressed though time, however many ancient techniques, styles and genres have remained popular and used ever since their creation, despite that changes it has experienced. One of the most famous of these ancient genres being the genre of tragedy, in which in the 5th century BC, the Greek philosopher Aristotle defined tragedy as a drama in which there is a tragic hero with a flaw who follows a tragic arc and an epiphany hits them. In ‘Oedipus The King’, many structural elements of tragedy are clear and apparent in Oedipus, most important there being a tragic hero, his weakness being hubris, too prideful and proud and consequently cant admit to weakness and can’t listen to Teiresias who can read the future, clearly a defining flaw for a ‘hero’, all followed by the descent of the tragic arc in the end of the play.

Aristotle has influenced countless writers and playwrights, most famously including William Shakespeare, who wrote various tragedies including Macbeth, Hamlet and Othello. Some people may say that tragedy is defined by only structural and literal elements and an adherence to particular rules, however in contrast others argue that tragedy is solely defined by the way it makes the audience feel.

On one hand, many people believe that the definition of a tragedy is largely based in adherence to a set of rules, strikingly similar to Aristotle’s definition of a tragedy. When Oedipus exclaims ‘Apollo the god, His power determined my agony!’, this clearly shows that the tragic hero, in this case Oedipus, has a tragic flaw and that other people are more powerful and important than him, and that is why he is having all of his problems. The word ‘determined’ is quite interesting as it suggests that one overwhelming action has taken a disastrous toll on Oedipus, instead of lots of little ‘nudges’ that have eventually pushed him to the point where he is at now. Furthermore, the word ‘agony’ is interesting as this signifies extreme physical distress and pain, however as we know it’s the mental pain and strain that is causing Oedipus this. When Oedipus says, ‘But he loved me like a son, no father could have done more!’, this signifies again one of Oedipus’ underlying flaws, this time being that fact that his very child believes that he as a father has not done enough. The phrase ‘no father’ generalises all fathers as Oedipus suggests he is the pinnacle of parenting and that his parenting skills should not be questioned and that he is not flawed in this area of life.

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Furthermore, critic Ewan Bleiman, in an article titled ‘Fear and Pity’ published in the English and Media magazine states that ‘The plots of horror, like those of tragedy, often depend upon revenge for a past wrong, resulting in great bloodshed’, implying that he believes a tragedy must follow a plot or a set of rules, as tragedies normally always follow a relatively broad but still specific set of ‘rules’. The adverb ‘often’ suggests that most tragedies, whether written by the ancient playwright Sophocles in the 5th century BC, or a relatively recent playwright like Shakespeare, who wrote in the 16th century AD, they mostly tend to follow a rough set of rules, further backing up this argument. Moreover, a key aspect to a set of rules of a tragedy is the birth and life of a protagonist and to-be tragic hero.

In Oedipus The King, a messenger tells the Queen of Thebes; ‘the Corinthians will make Oedipus king of the whole isthmus’, which clearly shows Oedipus’ importance right from the very beginning of his life. The aspect of this that makes it tragic is the fact that this event takes place shortly after the apparent death of his father. The word ‘isthmus’ originates from Ancient Greece, literally translating as ‘neck’. This is a narrow piece of land that connects two larger areas across an expanse of water by which they are otherwise separated, and we can conclude from this that he is definitely a grand figure of importance and therefore a hero, as he will soon own a massive area of land and own many civilians. Finally, we get an ever more strengthening point to this argument which states that tragedies follow a clear and defined set of rules, as we see hubris present in Oedipus, where, talking about the sphinx, he states that ‘someone special was required’, once again hinting at his sense of excessive pride or self-confidence, which once again falls as a rule under Aristotle’s set of rules in which in a tragedy there must be a main character that shows signs of hubris, which then leads to his downfall. The word ‘special’ is interesting as it again shows clear signs of Oedipus thinking highly of himself and as a hero.

In contrast, others argue that tragedy is defined by the way it makes us feel, and therefore not based on a clear set of rules as Aristotle would have argued that tragedy is set on. A feeling that tragedy or horror could make the audience feel is catharsis. When Oedipus says ‘Though I cannot behold you, I must weep in thinking of the evil days to come’ we get a sense of catharsis as this shocks the audience, leading them into a feeling with strong and repressive emotions as what Oedipus has just muttered at his daughters would be very controversial. The phrase ‘thinking of… days to come’ is interesting as this makes the audience wonder what will happen to Oedipus in the following days, introducing once again a feeling of catharsis and mystery as the people observing will have different emotions, expectations and hopes.

Literature critic Ewan Bleiman, in his article published in the English and Media magazine, states that ‘the most problematic questions regarding tragedy are those concerning our emotions when watching these plays and films’, which therefore suggests that the audience’s emotions and feelings have a lot (if not totally) everything to do whether a play is classified as a tragedy or not. The phrase ‘most problematic questions’ implies that this is a very hot and controversial topic and that people have mixed opinions on it, but that the majority of people believe that it is how it makes them feel that how a play is decided whether it is a tragedy or not. Moreover, once again writing about catharsis, Ewan Bleiman writes ‘The term is borrowed from medicine, where it can be used to describe the purgation of bodily fluids’, then stating that ‘the imprecise nature of its application can mean we ignore subtleties in its operation’. Both of these phrases combined suggest that the actual definition of catharsis is hidden and widely misunderstood as the subtle minor meanings make it more complicated. The word ‘imprecise’ is interesting as it implies that people’s understanding of this word may not be accurate and therefore may reflect on their feelings and opinions on this matter.

In conclusion, I believe that tragedy is defined by a set of rules, likewise to what Aristotle suggested, rather than how it makes the audience feel. I believe this because there are bold and untouchable variables in a set of rules that all ‘tragedies’ must follow, however when leaving something subject to peoples opinion, the final answer and outcome may be skewed by the fact that the people may not know exactly what it meant in the umbrella term of ‘catharsis’ which, as Ewan Bleiman stated above, is widely misunderstood.

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