Aristotelian Notions of Tragedy

The chorus in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon clearly elucidates the Aristotelian principle of tragedy: ‘Zeus, whose will has marked for man the sole way where wisdom lies, ordered one eternal plan: Man must suffer to be wise.’ Elizabethan tragedy is derived from this moralised model of tragedy as depicted by Aristotle in his Poetics. As a genre, Elizabethan tragedy is distinguished from that of Shakespeare, although Shakespeare’s tragedies are often held as the epitome of the tragic form. Indeed, the Oxford English Dictionary cites only two quotations from the Renaissance under the entry for ‘tragedy’, both of which are from Shakespeare. There appears to be a deliberate judgment in including Shakespeare in the dramatic cannon to the exclusion of such influential playwrights as Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Heywood and John Webster. Although it is clear that Shakespeare made an important contribution to the development of modern tragedy, derived from classical models, contemporary dramatists were much more formative in negotiating Aristotelian models of tragedy with the new philosophical, social and political climate of the Renaissance.

Philips Sidney’s defence of the tragic form in An Apologie for Poetrie (1595) articulates the moral and didactic purpose of poetry.

So that the right vse of Comedy will (I thinke) by no body be blamed, and much lesse of the high and excellent Tragedy; that openeth the greatest wounds, and sheweth forth the Vlcers, that are couered with Tissues: that maketh Kinges feare to be Tyrants, and Tyrants manifest their tirannicall humors: that with stirring the affects of admiration and commiseration, teacheth, the vncertainety of this world, and vpon howe weake foundations guilden roofes are built (Sidney F3v-F4)

The emphasis on moral instruction is clear, and informed the tragic form in the both Shakespearean and non-Shakespearean dramas. Tragedy, according to Aristotle, is noble and concerned with lofty matters, as opposed to the flippant and crude nature of comedy. Sidney defines the function of tragedy as uncovering the ‘greatest wounds’ of the inherently ‘weake foundations’ of the world. Tragedy, therefore, produces an emotional response in the audience by exposing human flaws, which allows them to participate in a form of moral regeneration. Thomas Heywood’s An Apology for Actors (1612) also cites the classical model of tragedy in order to elevate English drama in general by accentuating the morally instructive nature of tragedy, as well as to tie his own works to the legitimate tradition of tragedy. ‘If we present a Tragedy, we include the fatal and abortive ends of such as commit notorious murders, which is aggravated and acted with all the Art that may be, to terrify men from the like abhorred practises’ (Heywood F3v). Heywood thus believes that the tragic downfall of the moral, but flawed, hero is a terrifying lesson to the audience through the pity and fear evoked by watching the play itself, a notion described by Aristotle and termed by modern scholars as ‘catharsis’. Despite Heywood’s belief in the moral power of tragedy, Renaissance tragedy, for the most part, does not live up to the Aristotelean model.

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For Stephen Greenblatt (1980), Renaissance theatre, named after a queen ‘whose power is constituted in theatrical celebrations of royal glory and theatrical violence visited upon the enemies of that glory’, replays the process of provoking subversion central to the state’s authorization of its own power: ‘the form itself, as a primary expression of Renaissance power, contains the radical doubts it continually produces’ (297). Thus, any echo of Aristotelian notions of tragedy in the works of playwrights such as Heywood, Marlowe, Webster, and even Shakespeare, can be seen not as an insistence upon the dramatic perfection of classical forms, but as a means of lending legitimacy to the challenge to political and cultural structures. As Moretti (1982) observed in respect of English Renaissance tragedy ‘one of the decisive influences in the creation of a “public” that for the first time in history assumed the right to bring a king to justice. Tragedy disentitled the absolute monarch to all ethical and rational legitimation. Having deconsecrated the king, it thus made it possible to decapitate him’ (7-8). Rather than reinforcing the social order and legitimizing divine ordination, tragedy opened up the political elite to the possibility of human frailty.

Renaissance tragedy can be defined as a violent series of events that is built upon the murder and revenge, concerning characters primarily motivated by jealousy, greed, and anger. According to Aristotle, the tragic hero must be of noble stature, and while his greatness is readily apparent, he is not perfect. Tragedies often concern the aristocratic elite and thus personal tragedies extend to tragedies of state. The tone of the play is sombre, clearly relating the grief and sorrow of the characters themselves. This “language of lamentation” serves as a warning against the destructive potential of vice and depravity, and can be linked to the Medieval morality plays. Although the presence of other non-dramatic sources conceives a national tradition of tragedy which was established on the English stage as early as 1587, with the performance of Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy.

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Both The Spanish Tragedy and Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, performed in the late 1580s, exhibit the beginnings of true Renaissance tragedy. Derived from the revenge plays of Seneca, The Spanish Tragedy is a play which satisfied the Aristotelian need for a binary model of moral order, which is complicated by the relations of individual justice to the social and divine order. Tamburlaine, however, moves away from the reductive moralising of earlier poetry and reflects the influence of the Reformation on the dramatic arts, as the theatre established a new place where human possibilities could be envisioned with new freedom. Marlowe is fully aware that he is making the stage the vehicle of a new consciousness:

Onely this (Gentlemen) we must performe, The form of Faustus fortunes good or bad. To patient Iudgements, we appeale our plaude. (Marlowe, Faustus, 7-9)

This appeal to the moral purpose of the play is misleading, for neither Faustus nor Tamburlaine are characters directed by their moral choices. Tamburlaine, it is arguable, is an agent of God while at the same time exercising his free will with no apparent consequence.

Marlowe appears to be addressing familiar issues of blasphemous defiance, tyranny, cruelty and arrogance in Tamburlaine, but ironically he presents these issues as the glory of the tragic hero. Unlike traditional tragedies, there is no stable moral framework, with the result that the audience is left feeling uneasy with the divine implications of the hero’s downfall. Tamburlaine, rather than submit to his pre-ordained fate, boasts of his own dynamic power:

I hold the Fates bound fast in yron chaines, And with my hand turne Fortunes wheel about (369-70)

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Fate and Fortune, two of the most conventional symbols of human limitation, are here manipulated by the hero not as a sign of his hubris, but rather as a heroic achievement. Marlowe uses this gross inversion as a reflection of the changing values in Renaissance society. As Stephen Greenblatt (1980) says, ‘Marlowe writes in the period in which European man embarked on his extraordinary career of consumption, his eager pursuit of knowledge, with one intellectual model after another seized, squeezed dry, and discarded, and his frenzied exhaustion of the world’s resources’ (199). The Enlightenment saw the questioning of fundamental assumptions about man’s place in the world, an uncertainty reflected in the ambiguous relation between the tragic hero and his divinely ordained fate.

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