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06 Tragedy - Oedipus the King.pdf

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HUM 102W
David Mirhady

HUM102W (Summer 2013) Unit 6 Cherry Fan Tragedy: Oedipus the King But do not fear that you will wed your mother. Many men before now have slept with their mothers in dreams. But he to whom these things are as though nothing bears his life most easily. -Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannus 980-3 Tragedy With the story Oedipus and the tragedy about him by Sophocles, we approach the most famous tragedy in ancient Greek literature. But before we get directly into the myth and the play, we need to pause for a moment to consider just what a "tragedy" is. Nowadays people use the word "tragedy" for almost any unhappy event." For our course, a tragedy is a certain kind of play. Our guide in this process is Aristotle (381-322 BC), the philosopher and polymath who wrote about and analyzed just about everything in his culture. In his Poetics, he gives an analysis of both epic and tragedy, where his very famous dfinition of tragedy appears: "Tragedy is a representation (mimesis) of a serious, complete action that has magnitude, in embellished speech, with each of the speech's elements used separately in the various parts of the play, represented by people acting (drama) and not by narration, accomplishing by means of pity and fear the catharsis of such emotional states." Aristotle, Poetics 6 1449b Aristotle is in part reacting to his teacher, Plato (428-348 BC), who was very suspicious of poetry in general. Instead of discussing reality directly, poetry creates representations of reality. (Because Plato felt that the world around us is itself only a representation of a greater metaphysical reality, literature for him involved a representation of a representation of reality.) Aristotle, however, embraces the world around him and the attempts of people to come to terms with it, so he sees poetry and representation (mimesis) as good things in themselves. That a tragedy is "serious", "complete", and has "magnitude" means that it is not trivial, that is has a beginning, middle, and end, and that it has a certain grandeur that takes it above the everyday. It uses "embellished speech", that is , poetry. And unlike epic, which is all narrated by a single individual, tragedy is acted. It has up to three actors in speaking parts, and the Chorus, which consists of twelve singers/dancers, one or two of whom sometimes do solo work as if they too were actors. For Aristotle, the goal, or end (telos), of tragedy involves the arousal of pity and fear and their catharsis. What he means by "catharsis" is controversial. Often people speak as if emotions were bad things that humans should get rid of. With this understanding, catharsis would be a sort of "cleaning" out of the emotions. But Aristotle recognized that emotions are part of a healthy human response to the world. He just thought that they needed to be trained to react in a healthy way, not too much or too little, and to Page 1 of 6 HUM102W (Summer 2013) Unit 6 Cherry Fan the right things. Along these lines, catharsis, which literally means "cleansing", would refer to a process of making emotions themselves healthy. On the other hand, we should recall both that tragedies were performed as part of religious rites and that Aristotle is likely to have thought that the catharsis should be entirely achieved by the end of the performance of the play. So the catharsis would more properly be understood a religious cleansing through the arousal and completion of emotional states. Note these lines from a choral song in Prometheus Bound: "I see, Prometheus; and over my eyes a mist of tears and fear spread as I see your body, withering ignominiously upon this rock in these bonds of adamant." Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound 144-6 The Chorus, acting as a sort of intermediary between the actors and the audience, cues the audience about how they should react to the scene on stage. Their tears (pity) and fear are exactly the emotions Aristotle wants to see. Through empathy, the audience contracts the emotional states of the chorus. The actors performed before the skênê, a word that obviously gives us our word "scene", but which in Greek literally meant a "tent", testifying to the temporary nature of early theatres. Below the actors on a circular dancing floor, the orchestra, the chorus moved about in dance as it sang its choral odes, or songs. Each song consists of a number of repeated metrical units, called strophes (turns) and antistrophes (counter turns), sometimes with an additional unit, an epode, added on. The play generally opens with only a couple actors on stage in a part of the play called the prologos, or prologue. The Chorus then sings as it enters with an entrance song. Once on stage, each intermittent song it sings is called a stasimon. Sometimes it will also sing a song as it leaves the stage. It is important to recognize that tragedy is a product of a democratic culture. It was performed under political supervision for a huge audience of spectators, women as well as men. The two great dramatic festivals, both in honour of Dionysus, where the Great Dionysus in March and the Lennaea, which was smaller, in January. The Great Dionysia took five days, the tragedies being performed over the last three days. As a whole, the festival probably included one thousand active participants and as many as 15, 000 spectators. Each play was only performed once, as part of a series of three plays by the same playwright on each of the three days. The playwright also served as director, and a wealthy Athenian, who contributed as a public service, assumed the cost for the Chorus and actors. Ten judges chosen by lot from those nominated by their tribes cast votes for the best production. Five votes were randomly selected, to allow the god Dionysus to have his say. Let's go back to Aristotle. He thought that pity and fear were best aroused when the main figure in the play was made to suffer a reversal, a peripeteia: "A peripeteia is a change of the actions to their opposite... in accordance with probability and necessity. the Oedipus, the man who comes to bring delight to Oedipus and to rid him of his terror about his mother, does the opposite by revealing who Oedipus is." Aristotle, Poetics 1542a Page 2 of 6 HUM102W (Summer 2013) Unit 6 Cherry Fan Because Aristotle is very intellectually oriented, he also believes that the main figure must understand his reversal. This sudden understanding, recognition, or revelation, is called the anagnorisis: "An anagnorisis... is a change from ignorance to knowledge... among people with regard to people's good fortune or misfortune. A recognition is finest when it occurs at the same time as a peripeteia, as it does in the Oedipus." Aristotle, Poetics 1452a For Aristotle, the most important element in the tragedy, far more than the spectacle and performance, is the plot, the mythos. "The mythos should be constructed in such a way that, even without seeing it, someone who hears about the incidents will shudder and feel pity at the outcome, as someone may feel upon hearing the plot of the Oedipus." Aristotle, Poetics 1453b Nota bene: Aristotle considers tragedy from the point of view of the poet, the person who writes the script. So he does understand the importance of spectacle and performance; they're just not part of poetics. Because he lived in the fourth century BC, a century after the great tragedies were written and produced, Aristotle many only have read the tragedies and not seen them performed. What leads the main figure of a tragedy to suffer a peripeteia, have anagnorisis of it, as thus arouse the pity and fear of the audience? Aristotle thinks that the main figure must have made some mistake, so that he has incurred some "mistakeness" (hamartia). Some refer to this as "tragic flaw", but this is a very poor translation (and should never appear in anything you write for this course), since the hamartia is not a flaw of character at all. "This is the sort of man who is not pre-eminently virtuous and just, and yet it is through no badness or villainy of his own that he falls into the misfortune, but rather through some hamartia in him, he being one of those who are in high station and good fortune, like Oedipus... The change
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