Since its birth thousands of years ago, tragedy has evolved. From the classic Greek tragedies to the contemporary American tragedies, tragedy has mutated with the changing issues and questions of the periods and locations. The dimensions and components of Aristotle’s tragedy differ greatly from those of Arthur Miller’s tragedy. Classic and modern tragedies, according to the definitions of Aristotle and Miller respectively, are exemplified in the Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Miller’s The Crucible. In “The Poetics,” Aristotle states that in order for a work to be a tragedy, it must follow a very specific and structured format.
His definition names the necessary ingredients of a tragedy:Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions. (2)Aristotle considers Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex to be the perfect tragedy, meeting all the qualifications of the definition (McAvoy x). It is drama in the form of action, addressing such serious subjects as famine, murder, incest, and fate.
The episodes of action and dialogue are ornamented with the poetry and song of the chorus’ stasima. Aristotle praises the complex plot of Oedipus Rex and its simultaneous occurrence of Recognition and Reversal of Situation, their combination causing the catharsis of emotions in the audience (5). The purgation of pity and fear also arises from the audience’s sympathy for the characters, namely the tragic hero. The tragic heroes of the Greeks are valiant, superhuman men in pursuit of renown and honor through courageous actions and sacrifices (McAvoy ix-x).
Aristotle adds that besides being “highly renowned and prosperous” (6), a tragic hero is of good purpose, true to life, and has propriety and consistency (7). Oedipus, then, is a perfect example of the tragic hero of Sophocles’ era. Not only is he the noble king of Thebes, but he frees his people from the curse of the Sphinx with his superior intelligence. Upon learning that his abominable actions are the cause of the present plague on Thebes, he begs to be exiled or executed, the ultimate sacrifice for his people. The actions which bring about his downfall and exile are not entirely his fault, however.
For the Greek tragic hero, his source of misfortune is the gods’ interference in the lives of humans (McAvoy x). Oedipus’ fate to kill his father and marry his mother, although he tries to escape it, is inevitable, demonstrating the power of the gods over humans. Yet Oedipus helps to bring about his misfortune through the ignorance of his actions, his resolution to reveal the truth, and his temper. These are his tragic flaws, according to Aristotle, bringing about his downfall “not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty” (6).
Somehow, despite his flaws and incredible misfortune, Oedipus gains stature as a character. He retains his dignity in his decision to keep on living and to accept his fate and his inferiority to the gods. The valiant and melodramatic actions of Oedipus would not be practiced by the modern tragic hero. In fact, today’s tragic hero is far from superhuman. With the introduction of realism (McAvoy xiv) and the adoption of purely psychiatric or sociological views of life in literature, the calamities of the Greek tragic heroes have become extinct (Miller 70).
In “Tragedy and the Common Man,” Miller states that “the common man is as apt a subject for tragedy in its highest sense as kings were” (69). He reasons that the mental processes and emotional situations of the high-bred and the lowly are the same, otherwise tragedies would not be cherished by all audiences if they were incomprehensible to the common human. To him, tragedy is experienced by one ready to lay down his life to secure his personal dignity (69). Thus, Miller’s definition of tragedy is simply “the consequence of a man’s total compulsion to evaluate himself justly” (69).
His belief in the heroic qualities of common humans is exemplified in The Crucible. The hero, John Proctor, is a poor farmer, but his social status does not prevent him from performing heroic actions. When his wife is sentenced to hang, he boldly challenges the bloodthirsty court, which results in his own sentencing. To the audience, he is one of the only rational people amidst the hysteria of the Salem witch trials. To Miller, he is the individual in question of what has been unquestioned, what he has had to accept out of fear, insensitivity, or ignorance (69).
He has the chance to save his life if he only signs a confession of witchcraft, but he cannot degrade himself and his name. And this is his tragic flaw, according to Miller, not a vice or an error, but just his “inherent unwillingness to remain passive in the face of what he conceives to be a threat to his dignity” (69). This struggle of a person against the “‘unchangeable’ environment” (69) causes a production of emotion in the audience much like Aristotle’s catharsis. According to Miller, a man’s revolutionary questioning of his seemingly stable environment terrifies, while his “thrust for freedom” exalts (70).
John Proctor is one man against insanity. His attempt to reveal the truth is a risk that claims his life, yet his unwillingness to surrender to lies increases his size. The audience is also able to experience the terror of revolution and the joy of seeing the hero in the common person and to learn that the individual is worth the struggle against his environment. Modern tragedy is, ironically, optimistic; it promotes man’s need to recognize himself as the only “fixed star,” and his duty to question anything that threatens his dignity (70).
Thus, classic and modern tragedy, according to the definitions of Aristotle and Miller respectively, are exemplified in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Miller’s The Crucible. They are very different in their ingredients, yet they both present the struggle of the tragic hero against his environment. Although the heroes fall, they becomes larger, more admirable characters. Audiences of all both periods can recognize and learn from the struggle and the exalting of the individual.