Tragedy: Shakespeare and the Greek Example

by Adrian Poole

Everyone assumes that they know what tragedy means; the problem comes in trying to define it. One thing is certain: it is a uniquely Western phenomenon. None of the drama produced by the great cultures of India, China, or Japan has ever been remotely "tragic" in the most commonly accepted (if simplistic) sense of "sad stories of the death of kings." There is even a 15th-century No drama that presents the precise dilemma of Shakespeare's Hamlet—except that all ends well for the avenger, and he never has pangs of conscience or self-doubt.

Even the origin of the word "tragedy" is enigmatic. The Greek literally means "goat song." There have been three major theories as to what this originally meant. The first argues that in the dramatic (or pre-dramatic bardic) competition the animal itself, of no small value in ancient Greece, was the prize. The second explanation (endorsed by Aristotle) was that the genre evolved from the dithyrambic poets whose choruses were dressed in goat skins, an indication of its ultimate ancestry in fertility rites. (We know of a seventh-century poet named Arion, he of the dolphin's back, whose chorus sang "in the tragic mode.")

More recently, scholars such as Walter Burkert have argued that "tragedy" emerged from a tradition of goat sacrifices, which had an even earlier precedent with human victims. Though he has been able to distinguish the vestiges of the ritual in the dramas themselves, Burkert warns against seeking too literal an evolution: "The greatest poets only provide sublime expression for what already existed at the most primitive stages of human development. Human existence face-to-face with death—that is the kernel of tragoidia."

Thus we accept that the Greeks were the first to produce something called tragoidia, but we have no real idea what the term signified for Aeschylus, Sophocles, or Euripides. Indeed, it seems to have meant something different to each of them. For in the Golden Age of Athens, there were countless dramatists, but they were too busy writing plays to concern themselves with theory, mercifully.

To be sure, many of the extant plays present heroic agony and death, but there is strong evidence that this was not an obligatory criterion. In fact some of their most famous works—Philodeks and Alcestis to name but two—end on harmonious (or at least optimistic) notes. Indeed, one scholar has likened the triumphal parade that concludes Aeschylus's Oresteia to the joyous finales of Aristophanic comedy. Moreover, there is the famous example of the tragedian Phrynicus, who, in 494 B.C., produced The Fall of Miletus. Its horrific ending evoked such sorrow in the audience that the author was fined and forbidden ever to produce the play again.

There is another popular misconception that "tragedies" end on a note of horrific calamity. A careful examination of some of the masterpieces shows that more often the catastrophe is followed by a sense of calm. The messenger in Oedipus at Colonus describes how the suffering king is translated into heaven: "No more sobs were heard, then there was silence." At the end of King Lear yet another suffering king is mercifully released from "the rack of this tough world." And we should also recall the epilogue to Samson Agonistes, which assures us that "nothing is here for tears."

A little more than a century later, Aristotle bestowed on the world the mixed blessing of explicit definition: the purpose of Tragedy was to provide a catharsis for the pity and the fear that it evoked. Centuries of subsequent critics have taken up, or taken issue with, various aspects of his formulation, but almost all agree with Aristotle's description of the tragic hero as one who endures nearly superhuman inner torment. Aristotle implied that Euripides killed tragedy.

There is a certain validity to all these arguments; rather than canceling one another out, they merely demonstrate the various and protean nature of tragedy. Happily, Adrian Poole is not concerned with the genre's state of health. He takes the more rewarding way of examining Shakespeare and Greek tragedy side by side, as what Matthew Arnold would call literary "touchstones." He argues that "the example of Shakespearean tragedy may help a modem reader to recognize, by analogy, the peril and originality at the heart of Greek tragedy, of all tragedy."

There is no direct link between these tragedians, of course, except in their greatness. Shakespeare, with his "small Latine," had read Seneca, but Greek was all but unknown in early Elizabethan England. (North's Plutarch, for example, is translated not from the original, but from the Erench of Amyot.) Still, even if there were nothing to be gained by a comparison that ignores the question of direct influence, Poole's study is a salutary welcome for scholars of English to extend their literary horizons.

Poole is a scholar whose literary explorations transcend barriers of time and place, and the provincialities of "national literature." Thus, in offering what he calls "exemplary partnerships," he examines the striking similarities in classical and Shakespearean drama in order to illuminate the nature of tragedy itself. Again and again we are startled by the uncanny coincidences of theme and language; and they are all the more startling since they are the results not of conscious emulation, but of similar leaps of imagination.

One chapter, for example, compares the Oresteia and Macbeth. For Poole, they are plays in which every action is motivated by what Wordsworth called the "anxiety of hope." At various stages in each drama, different characters pray that the murderous act just committed is the last in what has been a seemingly endless cycle of violence. And yet in both blood inevitably begets blood. The Oresteia and Macbeth both take place in an atmosphere best described by Aeschylus, in an adjective that he coined for his own trilogy: nyktiplangkton, "stricken with night." Both plays deal with the death of kings, not in the medieval sense, but as in the primal crime described by Freud in Totem and Taboo. In these works, the dread act is not so much regicide as patricide, and in the case of the Oresteia, matricide. (Poole argues, incidentally, that there are at least two important neologisms in Macbeth: the first recorded English use of the emotive words "assassination" and "multitudinous"— the latter in Lady Macbeth's fear that her tainted hand will make "the multitudinous seas incarnadine.")

Another of the many similarities between Shakespearean and Greek tragedy JULY 4, 1988 41 is the striking number of images of children and childbirth. Clytemnestra and Lady Macbeth both allude to their having "given suck" to babies. As Poole comments: "Not all tragedies are 'about' children and parents, but all tragedy draws on the models of belonging provided by our experience of family relations, the ones which tax most severely our powers of choice and reason."


In another example of his rewarding comparative approach, Poole contrasts Oedipus and Hamlet as "questioners." This notion has been articulated earlier, by Maynard Mack (who referred to Hamlet's world as being "pre-eminently in the interrogative mood"), by Harry Levin (who has devoted an entire book to The Question of Hamlet), and by Bernard Knox (who has discoursed on the intellectual inquiry that pervades Oedipus Rex). Still, Poole's discussion is replete with its own riches, such as his intriguing reformulation of Freud's famous theory that Oedipus dramatizes "the work of a psychoanalysis." Sophocles' Oedipus and Shakespeare's Hamlet are the two characters in tragic drama most actively engaged in analysis and interpretation.

Their importance for Freud, Poole argues, has more to do with a passion for knowledge than with an occult or repressed guilt. Or rather, it is with their exploration of the mysterious relations between knowledge and guilt, a mystery that Freud radically simplifies by attributing guilt solely to the object of interpretation.

A few of Poole's chapters deal only with the Greeks, though the method remains the same. For example, he compares Sophocles' and Euripides' portrayals of Heracles and their differing perceptions of "coherence." This was Ezra Pound's term for tragic discovery: the crucial instant when the hero (or the heroine, as it is surprisingly often in Greek tragedy) suddenly realizes how the pieces fit together, and must face his "tragic" destiny. At this awesome moment, the protagonist often proves more "godlike" than the cruel divinities that shape his end. Take the conclusion of Euripides' Heracles, where Amphityron, marveling at the unspeakable agonies his heroic son has endured, exclaims "even a god would weep." Poole might also have adduced the example of Lear, holding the body of his beloved daughter, murmuring, "Upon such sacrifices my Cordelia, / The gods themselves throw incense."

The appeal of this book is its confrontation of two great literatures, the manner in which the classics are refracted through the sensibilities of a scholar informed with all of English literature. Poole makes us all the more aware of how profound are the classical resonances in what he calls "great rereadings"— such as Milton's poem on Alcestis, Wordsworth's on Philoctetes, or Browning's "Artemis Prologizes." As he argues, Milton's 29th sonnet ("Methought I saw my late espoused saint/ brought to me like Alcestis from the grace") is, if anything, "more overtly tragic" than Euripides' play, because it emphasizes "the impossibility of possessing and retaining a perfect, ideal love in this world."

The discipline of comparative literature has yet to be fully legitimized by the mandarins of British letters. But when they next sit in judgment, they will have this splendid piece of scholarship as an argument for the defense.

Erich Segal is a fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford.