Thursday 27 June 2019

Tragic! But is it tragedy?

At some point in my education (possibly reading John Holloway on tragedy)I learned to view classical tragedy as (crudely) hubris or corruption in the entity of the King/hero causing chaos in the 'polis' - the city, the society or amongst the public.

One of the enjoyments of Shakespeare is listening out for laments and complaints by people (often walk-on good guys) saying how the 'polis' is falling apart - you hear it in e.g. 'King Lear' 'Hamlet'  and 'Macbeth'. The good/natural order is giving way to bad disorder.

It's then curious for me to open a school edition of e.g. 'Macbet'h and see no mention of this. Isn't one of the interesting things about Shakspeare that he took the Graeco-Roman view of 'tragedy' and made it work for a modern audience by putting modern (then) anxieties in?

So, in 'Macbeth' - aside from getting the view of the 'good' monarch (anything about or said by Duncan and Malcolm) we hear about the *effect* of the bad/evil ruler on the rest of society. That's the 'tragedy' not just that the evil ruler killed his mates.

So, one of the great advantages for us watching this sort of thing now is that we can (totally anachronistically) map this 'corruption at the top spreading downwards' on to rulers and societies in the world today.

So tragedy isn't just 'sad stuff that happened'. Tragedy in classical drama is social. It's what affects the whole 'polis' caused by errors/evil/hubris/corruption/pride at the top. The cause of this hubris may be e.g. greed, ambition etc but the effects are everywhere.

'Alas, poor country, 
Almost afraid to know itself!
...sighs and groans and shrieks, that rent the air
Are made, not mark'd
....good men's lives
Expire before the flowers in their caps,
Dying or ere they sicken.' 
(from 'Macbeth')

"Love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide. In cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond crack'd 'twixt son and father...the King falls from bias of nature; ... there's father against child...Machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all ruinous disorders follow us disquietly to our graves."
(from 'King Lear')

In 'Romeo and Juliet', the 'hubris' is mapped on to the two families: it's their feud: 
"In fair Verona, where we lay our scene, 
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, 
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean." 

A warning that the whole 'polis' gets drawn into the feud.

All tragedies end with a new order - which, in my subversive way, I always read as future disaster. I start to imagine how the new order could or will go wrong...!