The Greeks were highly civilized and could see with ease the unidentified simplicity in the baffling variety of human emotions and suffering in relation to an established set of principals. They could present in their dramas all the terrors of living, and their clear vision of life and world order helped them to put things in their proper place.
Their world order was basically religious. It was not a narrow religion, but one which provided not only a broad base but also spiritual adequacy and moral sufficiency to a civilized race of men. It was a religion devoid of dogma, martyrs and sacred books. It was a religion very fleetingly concerned with sin, and one which treated sex as normal human function. It had its concept of “aidos” or punishment and “hamartia” or purification thrust on them by fate or their own destiny beyond the Gods. They had an abundance of tolerance towards Gods of other religions. This made them healthy and profoundly spiritual. Within such a framework there was naturally a greater scope for independent human action and suffering and also for a more wiling sense of reverence. The Greeks were not optimistic of their world but through the freedom to perform the Dionsian act, they thought they could hope to falter their way to the Appolonian grace by way of self realization.
Purification or expiation is the one which brings the full realization of the tragic density of the individual life as well as that of life viewed as a whole. It also vindicates the Gods who allowed things to take its own course and merely watched as spectators. Aristotle understood this concept and proposed of tragedy, and if he led so much emphasis on the catharsis of pity and fear, it was because he wanted the spectators to rise above pity and fear, to be able to see this grand design in tragic drama of life.
The main concern of tragedy is with truth and the pleasure it gives is the pleasure of knoeledge. Plato had used the word catharsis to mean purification or sublimation. Accepting this meaning, Aristotle seems to confirm that tragdye, first by arousing pity and fear, ultimately sublimates and raises the spectator to a state of understanding. Pity and fear in that nakedness distort our vision of truth. Tragedy takes us to various rational responses, culminating in intellectual purification. Plato’s approach to tragedy was emotional. Aristotle sought an intellectual response to tragedy, and that response applied consistently to Shakespeare.
Greek tragedy was myth, ritual and drama, all in one. Their view of tragedy was all encompassingly tragic and gloomy, mainly because their dramas justified the ways of the Gods not in the ethical sense, but in terms of cosmic law and order that their Gods stood for. Shakespeare felt the need for questioning their believes of God as a cosmic, divine power, because he found the existing world more definitely theological than mysteriously cosmic. He, however, did gradually see a design in the suffering of the world and the law of tragedy justifying it. This design he brought out in his tragedies. Shakespeare was always concerned with justice. It varied with his characters and situations though there was a distinct moral purpose in his kind of justice. His justice was sometimes poetic, sometimes tragic, sometimes wild, but it always gave an impression of being just sufficient to serve his tragic cause of rousing pity and fear in audience and finally bringing about both sublimation and nemesis. Shakespeare established a moral order, as his suffering characters grew in stature, and acquired wisdom. Shakespeare’s tragic vision was thus almost similar to that of Aristotle. His approach to tragedy was intellectual and not physical as that of Plato, and catharsis to him was the culmination of the intellectual response to the tragedy.
Samuel Johnson once said Shakespeare’s plays are not “in the rigorous sense either tragedies or comedies, but compositions of distinct kind.” His plays express the course of the world where the malignity of one is sometimes defeated by the frolic of another. Shakespeare united the powers of exciting laughter and sorrow and all his plays are divided between the ludicrous and serious characters, producing sometimes sorrow but on other times joy and laughter.
Yet Shakespearean plays have been divided into comedies, histories and tragedies. Shakespearean tragedy may, in the simplest terms, be stated as a story of exceptional calamity and sorrow, leading mostly to the death of the hero, in high estate. Thus it is prominently the story of one person, the hero, or at most of two, the hero and the heroine, the latter coming into prominence mainly in love tragedies like Romeo and Juliet.
Shakespearean tragedies, however, cannot be typified into any particular slot as has been often stated of late. Each tragedy is a new beginning, a fresh “raid on the inarticulate,” for although there is development there is no repetition. There are even marked differences of manner, approach and intention in each of his tragedies. Thus Othello is a revelation of character and its focus is own individual and domestic qualities. Lear is universal allegory and its dramatic technic is determined by the need to present certain human situations. Macbeth defines a particular kind of evil that results from a lust for power. Antony and Cleopatra brings out a conflict in our moral bearings, in sharp contrast to Macbeth where we are never in any such doubt.
It is too that there are certain similarities. Tragedy, in simple terms, means that the protagonist dies. In Shakespearean tragedy too a hero of high standing dies in the end. Throughout the play he opposes some conflicting force, either external or internal. The tragic hero should be dominated by “hamartia” or a so called tragic flaw, but really an excess of some character outrage, that is “hubris” or pride. It is this “hamartia” that leads to his downfall, and because of his status, to the downfall of others. The action in the tragedy must appear real to the audience, so that its passion or emotion is heightened, and the conclusion of the action thus brings release from the passion.
Tragedy thus purifies the mind by means of pity and terror, which purges the mind of these emotions themselves, and is termed as catharsis. Shakespeare, like Aristotle believed that his hero of a tragedy must never be commonplace and, his faults notwithstanding, must never be inherently bad. The hero must not be depicted in such a manner that when he comes to his fated end we are only to be pleased and think there has been a good riddance. The disaster should arouse feelings of pity and terror in the minds of the audience; terror because of the terrible consequence of our weakness and the formidable authority which prohibits even a person of hero’s standing to trespass against its decrees; pity at his downfall despise his nobility and grandeur. Since the hero is a man of exceptional intelligence and sensibilities, his sufferings due to his tragic flaw and due to the forces of nature that are trust on him owing to that tragic flaw are also more acute than what may be suffered by ordinary man.
The elements of tragedy have often been split up into three aspects from the point of view of individual action and solution. The three aspects are:
a) The tragic individual must be the champion of a great purpose into which he devotes his whole existence.
b) The tragic action must be such that in the story there must be threads which connect the different characters with one another, although each of them must have some special purpose in view.
c) The tragic solution is usually held to be the triumph of the principal of the ethical world.
Shakespearean tragedy, however, does not follow the above characteristics in their entirety. We do not admit that his tragedy is the work of an arbitrary fate or chance since it proceeds from the activity of the hero. The hero has a fatal flaw despite his noble and honourable existence. It is the combination of these two diverse characteristics that brings out the emotions of pity and fear, as nemesis catches up with him.
Dowden has said that tragedy as convinced by Shakespeare is concerned with the ruin or the restoration of the soul and of the life of man. Its subject is the subject of good and evil in the world. In his tragedies there are certain problems which Shakespeare pronounces as insoluble. He does not say anything about the origin of evil, nor, as her pursues the soul of man, through the unending torture of inferno or through the spheres made happy and radiant by the perennial presence of a benevolent God. According to Shakespeare, evil exists and it exists with an emphasis. In the same way, pure love also exists. Shakespeare presents a man groping from among these myriad pull and pushes of the moral world. He gives us no easy solution to our problems through religion. If anything he conveys moral values based on an inviolate thought process. He also understands that the despite his flaws man will ultimately assert himself.