Do you find Aristotle's notion of the tragic error or flaw helpful in understanding dramatic tragedy?
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Do you find Aristotle's notion of the tragic error or flaw helpful in understanding dramatic tragedy? To say that Aristotle's Poetics were influential in the genre of dramatic tragedy would be an understatement. As an account and definition of tragedy it could be described as quintessential. The notion of hamartia is useful in explaining the motivations and fates of many a tragic hero. It does not, however, always prove helpful. On the contrary it can sometimes present a problem when the tragic flaw is barely visible or unascertainable. It is necessary to remember that there have been other definitions of tragedy and that since Aristotle's time it has evolved, spread well beyond the boundaries of Greece and spawned sub-genres. Shakespeare introduces us to a problematic tragic hero in Hamlet who, it almost seems, escapes Aristotle's reach with his complexity of character. The hubris encountered in Sophocles's Oedipus Rex, however, adheres very well to the notion of tragic flaw. When studying the origins of dramatic tragedy, Aristotle's ideas always prove helpful. The word tragedy barely had a definition before he came along.
Throughout the play, Oedipus makes excessive use of the word 'I' and shows a lack of patience with those who deserve more respect: Theiresias for example. He should not have killed a stranger after receiving such a prophecy from the Oracle - this also demonstrates his characteristic recklessness - and he should not have married somebody old enough to be his mother. However, the preordained quality of Oedipus's life calls in to question the relevance of the tragic flaw. His fate was prophesied before his birth, therefore, how could his life have ended up otherwise? There is no point in asking the question 'what if Oedipus had acted differently?' because he could not have acted in any other way. His judgement, like his miserable end, is preordained. The wretched existence of Oedipus emphasises the hopelessness of the tragic hero. We have to come to terms with the fact that they are doomed from the beginning and they are doomed because they are flawed. Tragedy, as Aristotle put it, is a representation of a serious act. The notion of flaw helps us to understand that it is a representation.
The spring is wound up tight. It will uncoil of itself. That is what is so convenient in tragedy. The least little turn of the wrist will do the job. Anything will set it going. (Anouihl, p.34) It is the notion of tragic flaw or tragic error that makes tragedy convenient. Maybe it is better not to ask why Hamlet had to suffer but to analyse how he suffered. Oedipus was in a way 'set up' by the gods to perform his tragic error and demonstrate for the audience. Aristotle's concepts are helpful in unmasking tragedy and understanding its nature as far as we can. From studying Aristotle's observations on tragedy and looking at tragic drama as a whole, it is also possible to see how much it has grown as a genre and as a category. Though there will always be vestiges of what Aristotle described in dramatic tragedy, his rules have been bent and manipulated throughout the centuries as the world has changed and playwrights have redesigned the art form. Despite this fact, critics will always use Aristotle's notion of tragic error or tragic flaw as a starting point when attempting to understand a piece of tragic drama because it provides them with the questions they need to ask in order to identify its purpose.
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