A book seeks to clarify Aristotle’s theory of tragedy, drawing from some of the archetypal tragic heroes of Western civilization.
After a sprint through Aristotle’s theory of tragedy in the Poetics and its famously ambiguous terms (mimesis, catharsis, hamartia), Golden (Achilles and Yossarian, 2009, etc.) leaps into applying it to canonical tragedies: Oedipus Rex, Othello, and Death of a Salesman. The author walks through summaries of each play, constantly analyzing their ethics and effects by comparing them to Aristotle’s original model. Death of a Salesman provides a unique challenge for Aristotle’s theory—Willy Loman, Arthur Miller’s “common man,” deviates from the noble heroes of Oedipus Rex and Othello. By the definition of tragedy as “the high brought low,” the jovial Loman doesn’t qualify. Golden dodges this difficulty by pointing out that Loman’s heroic flaw is bound up in his ignorance of his own missteps. Just like Othello and Oedipus, he is perfectly capable of preventing his own fall, but through fate and his own stubbornness, he can’t see why his family is in such a terrible state until it’s too late. A large portion of Golden’s examination revolves around the possible interpretations of Aristotle’s term for the emotional phenomenon that successful tragedy engenders in its audience: catharsis. He deftly describes his belief that catharsis is the creation of intellectual understanding, not an emotional purging or cleansing. The tragic hero’s mistakes serve as a warning for attentive audience members to beware of their own possible errors. And by those lights, tragedy is not a sentimental affair, but an existential reckoning. Golden pulls from three plays and a number of rich theories of tragedy in under a hundred pages, often presenting other authors’ rich analyses in large, blocky quote chunks. While brevity is certainly a virtue, condensing that sheer amount of material into such a short space makes it difficult for Golden to craft his own theories (and the quoted assessments that use other plays as their tragic models) into a cohesive shape. Still his work is an effective introduction to a broad swathe of tragic theory and the plays that stand at its base.
A pithy examination of dramatic theory that shows glimpses of its whole landscape without getting bogged down in minutiae.