The Tragedies of Kings and Men

English / April 23, 2015 / No Comments /
This paper studies the main works of Aristotle and Arthur Miller and their depiction of tragedy.

This paper studies the term “tragedy” and defines it using the thoughts of Plato and Aristotle and plays written in ancient Greece and by Arthur Miller’s works. In order to do so the paper proceeds to examine each of these thinkers and writers and their works. It details Aristotle’s notes that defined tragedy and his play ‘Antigone’ and ‘Oedipus Rex’, Arthur Miller’s ‘On Tragedy’, ‘The Crucible’ and ‘Death of a Salesman’.
The simplest, most reasonable definition of tragedy is that found in dictionaries and the definitions of laymen and theater -goers everywhere: a story with a sad ending. However, literary theorists and critics would quickly be out their jobs if they simply left the common law of art alone. Thus for centuries there have been disagreements as to what constituted true tragedy. In ancient Greece, both the merits and ideal qualifications of tragedy were under debate. Plato suggested that tragedy might be best defined as people pretending to be villainous or sad for no good reason, and thus corrupting society. Aristotle, on the other hand, said that tragedy was a form of social good, for it allowed the rational soul to vent its emotions in a process he referred to as a catharsis. He went on to define the trademarks of a tragedy it in some detail, including such plot elements as the noble birth of the protagonist, and the inevitability of the ending. Works that followed his model, such as Oedipus cycle, set the standard for centuries to come. Aristotle’s conventions became a measuring stick for literary critics, though they were not always followed by poets and playwrights. In the modern era, many of these conventions were challenged, and this was particularly noticed in the case of Arthur Miller. After his play, Death of a Salesman, was lambasted by critics for not being a real tragedy, he responded with a seminal work on the modern adaptation of tragic conventions. The ideas put forth in his On Tragedy were deeply important to parts of his later play The Crucible. It is fascinating to see that despite the fact that many critics saw Miller’s works as antithetical to ancient ideas of tragedy, and assumed that ancient tragedies would not be based around the ideals embraced by Miller, in many ways there are distinct parallels in thought between such works as The Crucible and older masterpieces such as Antigone. The inevitability of each play is iron-wrought, and each is driven by the inseparable division between the straight edge of power and the personal freedom of choice and self-definition.


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