The Characteristics of Tragedy
In the brief but richly enlightening prolegomenon by which John Milton’s final masterpiece, his Samson Agonistes, is preceded, the great English author—ever attentive to his readers’ edification—takes the moment to describe for us that “sort of dramatic poem called tragedy”, that genre to which we, as human beings, have always and inescapably been drawn.
Indeed, the vitality of the tragic drama—of which, it hardly need be stated, Milton was himself an indisputable master—has been forever and indissolubly mixed in our species’ blood. This was a fundamental truth of which Milton was not only aware, but quite proud. Tragedy has, from time unknowable to that before us of which we take no knowledge, formed us in its image. It has, with or without our knowing or feeling it, mingled among our sinew, delved into the marrow of our bone, tautened and loosened our muscles, dilated our fields of vision, and inspired the most vivifying and deepest of our breaths. It forms the part of our constitution upon which the intricacy and the variety of our life is built. It has succeeded in giving, throughout the passage of all ages and without hesitancy in the long and daunting shadow of time, a certain solemnity of soul by which our species is so admirably distinguished from all others.
From the earliest age of our story-telling past, when mere movements of the hand and grunts of the tongue conveyed, however crudely and however wanting in articulation, the dramatic, fireside pronouncements by which we wished to have our sentiments and our narratives received, to the modern era in which we presently exist, in whose technological splendor and sybaritic wealth the dulcet waters of eloquence and refinement overflow our still thirsty cups, tragedy has been with us the entirety of the way. More than that, it might be said that tragedy, more than comedy, history, mythology, or any other art form with which we have, through the course of the millennia, come into contact, has sustained and nourished us as no other work or pursuit of leisure could.
Milton—poet, scholar, statesman, yet, above all things else, lofty tragedian to whose eminence few contemporaries could ever hope to ascend—knew only too well this fundamental and abiding truth. We might picture him as he lived at the time of its articulation and inclusion into his rightly famous prologue of which I made earlier mention: a sightless, yet still prescient Cromwellian government official of the old and thoroughly vanquished cloth over whom, in the coming years of his premature dotage, a second literary deluge had begun to flow and, upon whom, for having allowed himself to bathe in its revitalizing waters, we gaze in thanks for setting before our eyes an endless and immortal joy. He was assured of the supremacy of tragedy, as he was assured of his own unparalleled skill. The former, we now know, was elevated to the towering heights of a literary summit for whose transport the latter was needed.
But Milton, however much a tragic partisan he might’ve been, was an exacting and specific man, and not at all inclined to include in his embrace every self-identifying tragedian with whom he might, on occasion, come into contact. As an aside, those so-called tragedians into whose acquaintance he might’ve come would’ve been, as a result of his own doing, meagerly few; at this point in his life, he was not only as pious, but nearly as solitary as an eremite to whose cloistered taste the charms of society could offer no enticement. The only people by whom he wanted himself surrounded, and the only people in whom he would confide, were his dedicated amanuenses—who seconded as his daughters. No, a tragedy—if we’re to take the erudition of Milton as our preceptor and guide—was only properly a tragedy if, before inheriting that solemn title, a very specific set of criteria, upon whose vaunted legitimacy all scholars could agree, would be met. Failing to meet these criteria, most men of letters, of whose existence our literary history barely takes note, excluded themselves from Milton’s constrictive domain.
Classically defined and anciently employed, tragedy was, at least so far as Milton’s unblemished opinion was concerned, the “gravest, moralest, and most profitable” of all the other poems to which, at times, a discouragingly blithe audience might have access and by which, on the back of his efforts, the serious author might edify his viewers and make his talent known. Therefore, quoting Milton quoting Aristotle—the voluble Stagirite by whom the former was so deeply inspired—he said in his famous work entitled, Poetics that tragedy came to its literary and psychological power by “raising pity, fear, and terror” in the heart of man—if only ultimately to purge from his mind “those and such-like passions”. This, and this alone, is and was the final goal toward which all tragedy ought to have tended. This was the aim, properly understood, toward which the tragic work, if rightly constructed, ought to have aspired.
This final kenosis of the emotions (to borrow, from the Christological handbook, an originally Greek term), this ultimate purgation of the soul, was, as Aristotle called it, a display of catharsis. This, when impressed upon the viewer, was responsible for the drama’s salutary effect and that component by which we, as viewers, would be most improved. The term, usually misapplied today, referred to something that was productive of a purgative effect, by whose administration the viewer would be cleansed and made to feel all the better.
The tragedy would, if our doctor Aristotle is to be taken at his word, and if his prescriptions are to be considered seriously, arouse pity and fear “wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions”—a prognostication and an assessment echoed by Milton. The goal, then, was not the retention of so many potentially noxious feelings, to which, if left untreated and permitted to grow in force and in number, the increasingly septic patient might succumb, but their swift and dramatic release.
We’re faced, then, with such “incidents arousing pity and fear”—two uncomfortable yet unavoidable feelings of which, in any other circumstance, we’d rather shutter to take note. But, if tragedy is to succeeded in effectuating its salubrious effect, arouse them we must. Without this essential arousal of the dual emotions of pity and fear, of distress and terror, of fellow-feeling and of pain, the tragic work falls apart into a state of disrepair—and no longer persists in being one to which the ascription of “tragedy” can defensibly apply. Continuing the thought of Aristotle and, through him, the position of Milton, such incidents by which pity and fear are aroused “have the very greatest effect on the mind”, especially when they “occur unexpectedly and at the same time in consequence of one another”.
Of the plot, we fear, and for the character, our sense of pity is excited. Of the former, there are namely two parts out of which a few components emerge—all three serving as important factors in the tragic mosaic upon which we must remark: Anagnorisis (the recognition or discovery of one’s identity) being the first, Peripeteia (the reversal of one’s fortune) being the second, and suffering, the final and third. In consideration of the first two, they need not occur sequentially in that particular order, but, when best implemented in a tragic work, they often do. Such is the occasion in Euripides’ Iphigenia in Tauris, when the titular character and, as it happens, maltreated daughter of Agamemnon—now a court functionary dropped, thanks to the helping hand of a deus ex machina from a similarly-named play, into the speciously safe harbor of Tauris across the Black Sea—recognizes the identities of the young men of whose executions she’s been given oversight.
Having navigated the sandy beaches of the eponymous character’s adopted city’s shores, Orestes and Pylades find themselves in the presence of Iphigenia—to whom, as it so happens, the former has an uncanny familial resemblance. So uncanny and, in fact, incontrovertible is this resemblance that Iphigenia is filled almost immediately with a sense of unease and a desire more satisfactorily to know his true identity. Such is the sororal, perhaps even preternatural wavelength to which only big sisters have a sensitivity. A sister, in my opinion, is the most perceptive and solicitous of all beings.
Once a princess, now something of a prisoner and an executioner bundled up into one (with the former role, lamentably, being the motivation for the latter), the task by which Iphigenia is now burdened is to kill these two Hellenistic interlopers. At the highest pitch of emotional distress by which this wonderful play is remembered, Anagnorisis takes place. The recognition of Iphigenia by her venturesome brother, Orestes, occurs at long last and siblings, enjoying this shared moment of reunion, turn on their heels and escape. This marks the play’s example of Peripeteia, or its happy reversal of fortune.
And yet, more commonly, Peripeteia augurs ill rather than good. Such was the case in the Sophoclean masterpiece, Oedipus Rex—the singular and inviolable work to which, if in search for the fount of tragic genius, we must inevitably turn. Without recounting all of the sinuosity of its plotline and the brilliance of its celebrated text, Oedipus Rex exemplifies just how powerful Peripeteia can be, especially when joined, for a compound and simultaneous impact, with Anagnorisis.
Oedipus, entering upon the decrescendo of his incestuous reign, discovers his true identity, as revealed to him by the weary messanger with whom he’s now engaged in a desperate and painful conversation. As the members of the audience already know, and as Oedipus is soon to learn, it was in fact he who was responsible for the murder of his own father—a parricidal act of whose gravity the perpetrator was, at the time it was committed, entirely, if not forgivably, ignorant. Then, having exorcised the city of the enigmatic sphinx (to whose sophomoric riddle no man, excepting Oedipus, had a satisfactory answer), our tragic hero took to bed his own mother who, despite being inseminated by her own fruit, proved abundantly fertile. Oedipus’ children would inherit their own bevy of problems, but subsequent works would tell of their tales.
Their father, having undergone Anagnorisis, experiences with a cruel simultaneity against which no man can stand and, certainly, to which no one can offer a defense, the overwhelming force of Peripeteia. With the revelation of his identity (his Anagnorisis), like a linked chain, his Peripeteia is bound. There is no space between the two, and they arrive with a singular force. The Delphic exhortation to “know thyself” here applies, and—as soon as Oedipus comes into familiarity with himself—his reversal is complete. No longer king of Thebes and conqueror of the Sphinx, he’s become a reproachful and sullied animal—a beast more than a man, on whose sanguinary and incestuous instincts no refinement of civilization could have an effect.
Euripides’ Iphigenia at Tauris and Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex—neither is a work, we must concede, to which Milton’s Samson Agonistes is superior. That’s not to say, however, that it’s not still a venerable and, by the standards of a more modern era, a nearly unsurpassed tragic masterpiece. In the Englishman’s work, the pathos is set at a slightly higher pitch. It’s tuned to so tight a degree, that we fear—in the midst of its careful reading—it might snap before us and puncture our eye. Need we, though, another inducement to tears when we experience that third quality of the tragic work of which Aristotle makes mention—namely, suffering?
Again, as mentioned, the tragic plot and, within its bounds, the tragic character, comprise three things: Anagnorisis, Peripeteia, and suffering. In those great Attic works to which I made previous reference, the first two of the three are strikingly evident: in Iphigenia at Tauris, Anagnorisis is the most powerful, and in Oedipus Rex, Peripeteia with its conjoined Anagnorisis is. Less readily to be found in Milton’s Samson Agonistes are Anagnorisis and Peripeteia, but filling in their void is the suffering by which the protagonist is consumed.
Samson, the burly, biblical character from whose trove of hair a divine strength is derived, spends this drama not in the puissance of his youth. He isn’t, as we find him, cudgeling lions with his bare hands or vanquishing armies of Philistines with mandibular bones of donkeys. These were the feats, tenuously reminiscent of those of the Heracles upon which he was based, for which he was so notably famous in the pantheon of Jewish lore. We find him in Milton’s work in the decrepitude of his early age. Enticed by the femme fatale, Delilah, whose Philistine sympathies ran deeper than her love, Samson made himself vulnerable in the lap of a woman and the hands of an enemy tribe.
Promptly, thanks to the infidelity of Delilah, said tribe discovered the source of Samson’s indomitable strength. To address it, the Philistines took swift, carnal, and tonsorial action. While resting his head upon Delilah’s inviting and capacious thighs, between whose Levantine pillars our Hebraic hero one day hoped to go, his great mass of hair was cut clean off his head. For good measure, when he awoke, his eyes were gouged out of his face. Deprived of strength and absent of sight, he was ordered, forevermore, to mill grain as if a pack animal in the tortuous heat of Gaza—home of the inveterate enemy against whom he so admirably fought.
Samson Agonistes is, as you can imagine, a work of incredible suffering. And, as it turns out, there’s only one alleviation and remedy for this woeful plight from which our hero can’t flee—a brutal and crushing death. The end of Samson’s story, and of that of the thousands of innocent Philistines by whom he was surrounded, is so well known, that it need not be cheapened with my retelling of it here. Above all, we must acknowledge that Milton, through his dialogue though perhaps less so through his action, advances and cultivates a feeling of suffering by which the reader is overwhelmed. Neither Iphigenia at Tauris nor Oedipus Rex has the same effect in this particular way—neither suffers so profoundly and exclusively.
Having covered Anagnorisis of Iphigenia, the Peripeteia of Oedipus, and the suffering of Samson, there is one other component of tragedy, rightly understood, upon which Milton expounds in his prologue. That last, and perhaps most important facet is unity.
Encompassing all the criteria heretofore mentioned is the concept of unity. Unity, in the estimation of Aristotle and every student of his since, is the fundamental bedrock, the nourishing soil out of which the tree of tragedy grows. The tragic work’s action, time, character, setting, and scene—all should be subservient to that grand deity of unity, to that grand master of oneness in whose comprehensive shadow we all genuflect and pray. “The circumscription of time”, therefore, according to Milton, “wherein the whole drama begins and ends, is, according to ancient rule and best example, within the space of twenty-four hours”.
Aristotle, as expected, agreed. The plot of the tragedy should be, in his infallible opinion, “based on a single action, one that is a complete whole in itself”. There ought not to be anything on which it should be dependent for its fulfilment. It should have, among its other attributes, “a beginning, middle, and end, so as to enable the work to produce its own proper pleasure with all the organic unity of a living creature”. The imitation of the living creature—be it through the media of sculpture, architecture, or, for our purposes, drama—was, as you’ll know, paramount to the aesthetic taste of Attic Greece. The colonnades of the buildings in which its people gathered, the lithe contortions of the statues by which their ideals of anatomy were shaped—each was informed by distinctly and beautifully human proportions. The same could be said for its drama. Above all, drama was imitation, and what better to imitate than ourselves?
Apropos of this sentiment, Milton—in the construction of his character of Samson—seems very adroitly to have imitated himself. Both he and the Hebraic brute to whom he lent his pen were blind men living in a seeing world, a vivacious realm of whose colorful splendor they had, in times since passed, intimate knowledge. Both endured discordant and inhospitable relationships with their wives, with Milton going so far as to beg the Parliament to legalize the institution of divorce (his efforts failed, but the zeal and eloquence with which he pursued them remain a triumph in English thought). Both were devoutly religious men, living in times of theological upheaval and change. Though, in small ways, their deities may have differed, the imitation between the two couldn’t be more direct.
Milton, it’s clear to see, was much more than merely an expositor of that “sort of dramatic poem called tragedy”; he was a master, as well. Perhaps slightly inferior in achievement to those Athenian greats, we must acknowledge his mastery and thank him for the wisdom to which, through his prologue and the totality of his work, we have an enduring access.