In nine extraordinary explications -- from Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida to Ionesco's Dance of Death -- Miss Oates investigates tragedy as literary form. She takes account of the criticism of Steiner, Abel and others who suggest tragedy can only exist within a fixed historical context; but she believes that the true content of a great work of tragedy is not history but "dreams, ahistorical dreams." The God of the past, bearing on human limitations, is redefined as "the furthest reaches of man's hallucinations." Within domestic order there is the wilderness; within the possible, the unthinkable. Miss Oates then turns to her models: the melancholy commentary on the pretensions of tragedy itself in Troilus and Cressida; the conquest of reality by "nature's own imaginings" in Anthony and Cleopatra; Chekov's wavering symbolism; Yeats' meld of human and inhuman in death and consummation; Mann's "hero," a role self-created; the shifting multiplicity of the absurdists; and the "terror of the white whale" dissolving good and evil and life itself. Miss Oates pays tribute to Dostoevski as one "who can leave nothing left unsaid," an echo perhaps of her own compulsion to (as Kazin has mentioned) exorcize her characters and ideas rather than invent. Here, however, she moves with brilliance and agility along the edge of impossibilities where "sometimes we see a cloud that's dragonish," and endure Hamlet's bad dreams bounded in a nutshell.