Writing nearly two millennia ago, Aristotle conceived of tragedy as that great misfortune which unexpectedly afflicts a good person. Usually this good person must have done an inadvertent mistake to bring about this fate. The Greek term for this mistake is hamartia, which does not imply any character flaw on part of the person. In Oedipus, as the play begins, there is no inkling for the audience or the actors themselves that the protagonist has done anything wrong. His only “conscious act, his mistake, was to try to avert the foretold disaster of killing his father. It was this challenge to fate, rather than a desire for worldly power or revenge, that brought catastrophe to the city and his family.” (Diski 50) What also accentuates the sense of tragedy is the fact that Oedipus was a king. The high social stature of the protagonist makes the fall steeper and more poignant. This satisfies another of Aristotle’s rules of thumb – that tragedy befalls upon a person of worldly importance. This then makes an impression on the audience that even those powerful and the mighty as the King Oedipus are subject to the frailties and vagaries facing the rest of humanity. (Diski 50)
Finally, one of the main reasons why Aristotle endorsed tragedy is due to its cathartic effect. By sympathizing and empathizing with the protagonist’s pathos, we purge our own emotional baggage with it. In this sense, tragedies have a social role to play. They move people’s emotions and make them think about their own vulnerabilities and dependence on chance events. Tragedies in the form of theater makes the audience to identify with the actors on stage, however the characters’ time and setting are removed from their own. That is one of the reasons that Aristotle preferred tragedies to not have an overtly benign or villainous lead actor. Aristotle much rather preferred the protagonist to be someone whose “misfortune is brought upon him not by vice and depravity but by some error of judgment”. We might make that kind of error, if life were to test us as harshly as it has tests the characters. We, too, could stab the wrong people, or realize too late that we ruined what we cared about most, or overlooked the people who loved us. We are all in danger of doing a Hamlet or an Othello or an Oedipus.” (Botton 21)
- Botton, Alain De. “A Good Idea from … Aristotle.” The Independent (London, England)16 May 1999: 20.
- Diski, Jenny. “A Great Fall: How Tragedy Evolved from Oedipus to Kim Kardashian’s Cellulite and Amy Winehouse’s Struggles.” New Statesman (1996)28 Sept. 2012: 48+.
- Goretti, Giovanna Regazzoni. “The Legacy of Tragedy. the Tragic from Aristotle to Our Days.” International Journal of Psychoanalysis88 (2007): 1304+.
- Hoffman, Matthew. “Mea Culpa: It’s a Tragedy We Don’t Pay More Attention to Aristotle.”The Independent (London, England)14 Sept. 2002: 17.
- Jones, John. On Aristotle and Greek Tragedy. New York: Oxford UP, 1962.
- Segal, Charles. Oedipus Tyrannus: Tragic Heroism and the Limits of Knowledge. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2001.