Skip to main content Skip to navigation


Lecture Three:  Tragedy



Recapitulation of the theme of these lectures:  Tragedy as a form of Sympathy

Aristotle on Tragedy, and Oedipus Rex

Imitation - mimesis


peripeteia (reversal)

anagnorisis (recognition)

catastrophe (change of fortune)

Character:  hamartia (error); hubris (pride arising from humiliating others)

Tragic emotions (pity and fear), catharsis (purgation)

The Problem of Pleasure: Aristotle, Schiller

The Problem of Shakespeare:  Choice and free will, Moral order

The Problem of the Modern, or Can Tragedy be Modern?

Beckett, Waiting for Godot

Flannery O’Connor, ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’


Further Reading

George Steiner, The Death of Tragedy (London: Faber and Faber, 1963)

----- ‘Tragedy Reconsidered’, New Literary History 35.1 (2004) 1-15.



1. Oedipus Rex, trans. F. Storr



What's done was well done.  Thou canst never shake

My firm belief.  A truce to argument.

For, had I sight, I know not with what eyes

I could have met my father in the shades,

Or my poor mother, since against the twain

I sinned, a sin no gallows could atone.

Aye, but, ye say, the sight of children joys

A parent's eyes.  What, born as mine were born?

No, such a sight could never bring me joy;

Nor this fair city with its battlements,

Its temples and the statues of its gods,

Sights from which I, now wretchedst of all,

Once ranked the foremost Theban in all Thebes,

By my own sentence am cut off, condemned

By my own proclamation 'gainst the wretch,

The miscreant by heaven itself declared

Unclean?and of the race of Laius.

Thus branded as a felon by myself,

How had I dared to look you in the face?

Nay, had I known a way to choke the springs

Of hearing, I had never shrunk to make

A dungeon of this miserable frame,

Cut off from sight and hearing; for 'tis bliss

to bide in regions sorrow cannot reach.

Why didst thou harbor me, Cithaeron, why

Didst thou not take and slay me?  Then I never

Had shown to men the secret of my birth.

O Polybus, O Corinth, O my home,

Home of my ancestors (so wast thou called)

How fair a nursling then I seemed, how foul

The canker that lay festering in the bud!

Now is the blight revealed of root and fruit.

Ye triple high-roads, and thou hidden glen,

Coppice, and pass where meet the three-branched ways,

Ye drank my blood, the life-blood these hands spilt,

My father's; do ye call to mind perchance

Those deeds of mine ye witnessed and the work

I wrought thereafter when I came to Thebes?

O fatal wedlock, thou didst give me birth,

And, having borne me, sowed again my seed,

Mingling the blood of fathers, brothers, children,

Brides, wives and mothers, an incestuous brood,

All horrors that are wrought beneath the sun,

Horrors so foul to name them were unmeet.

O, I adjure you, hide me anywhere

Far from this land, or slay me straight, or cast me

Down to the depths of ocean out of sight.

Come hither, deign to touch an abject wretch;

Draw near and fear not; I myself must bear

The load of guilt that none but I can share.




2. Oedipus Rex, trans. F. Storr




Methought I heard thee say that Laius

Was murdered at the meeting of three roads.



So ran the story that is current still.



Where did this happen?  Dost thou know the place?



Phocis the land is called; the spot is where

Branch roads from Delphi and from Daulis meet.



And how long is it since these things befell?



'Twas but a brief while were thou wast proclaimed

Our country's ruler that the news was brought.



O Zeus, what hast thou willed to do with me!



What is it, Oedipus, that moves thee so?



Ask me not yet; tell me the build and height

Of Laius?  Was he still in manhood's prime?



Tall was he, and his hair was lightly strewn

With silver; and not unlike thee in form.



O woe is me!  Mehtinks unwittingly

I laid but now a dread curse on myself.



What say'st thou?  When I look upon thee, my king,

I tremble.



          'Tis a dread presentiment

That in the end the seer will prove not blind.

One further question to resolve my doubt.



I quail; but ask, and I will answer all.



Had he but few attendants or a train

Of armed retainers with him, like a prince?



They were but five in all, and one of them

A herald; Laius in a mule-car rode.



Alas! 'tis clear as noonday now.  But say,

Lady, who carried this report to Thebes?



A serf, the sole survivor who returned.



Haply he is at hand or in the house?



No, for as soon as he returned and found

Thee reigning in the stead of Laius slain,

He clasped my hand and supplicated me

To send him to the alps and pastures, where

He might be farthest from the sight of Thebes.

And so I sent him.  'Twas an honest slave

And well deserved some better recompense.



3. Aristotle’s definition of hubris


to cause shame to the victim, not in order that anything may happen to you, nor because anything has happened to you, but merely for your own gratification. Hubris is not the requital of past injuries; this is revenge. As for the pleasure in hubris, its cause is this: men think that by ill-treating others they make their own superiority the greater.


4. Shakespeare, Hamlet


Ham. To be, or not to be,--that is the question:--

Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And by opposing end them?--To die,--to sleep,--

No more; and by a sleep to say we end

The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to,--'tis a consummation

Devoutly to be wish'd. To die,--to sleep;--

To sleep! perchance to dream:--ay, there's the rub;

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,

Must give us pause: there's the respect

That makes calamity of so long life;

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,

The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,

The pangs of despis'd love, the law's delay,

The insolence of office, and the spurns

That patient merit of the unworthy takes,

When he himself might his quietus make

With a bare bodkin? who would these fardels bear,

To grunt and sweat under a weary life,

But that the dread of something after death,--

The undiscover'd country, from whose bourn

No traveller returns,--puzzles the will,

And makes us rather bear those ills we have

Than fly to others that we know not of?

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;

And thus the native hue of resolution

Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought;

And enterprises of great pith and moment,

With this regard, their currents turn awry,

And lose the name of action.--Soft you now!

The fair Ophelia!--Nymph, in thy orisons

Be all my sins remember'd.



5. Shakespeare, Macbeth


  LADY MACBETH. Yet here's a spot.

  DOCTOR. Hark, she speaks! I will set down what comes from her, to satisfy my remembrance the more strongly.

  LADY MACBETH. Out, damned spot! Out, I say! One- two -why then 'tis time to do't. Hell is murky. Fie, my lord, fie! A soldier, and afeard? What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account? Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?

  DOCTOR. Do you mark that?

  LADY MACBETH. The Thane of Fife had a wife; where is she now? What, will these hands neer be clean? No more o' that, my lord, no more o' that. You mar all with this starting.

  DOCTOR. Go to, go to; you have known what you should not.

  GENTLEWOMAN. She has spoke what she should not, I am sure of that.  Heaven knows what she has known.

  LADY MACBETH. Here's the smell of the blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh, oh, oh!

  DOCTOR. What a sigh is there! The heart is sorely charged.

  GENTLEWOMAN. I would not have such a heart in my bosom for the dignity of the whole body.

  DOCTOR. Well, well, well-

  GENTLEWOMAN. Pray God it be, sir.

  DOCTOR. This disease is beyond my practice. Yet I have known those which have walked in their sleep who have died holily in their beds.

  LADY MACBETH. Wash your hands, put on your nightgown, look not so pale. I tell you yet again, Banquo's buried; he cannot come out on's grave.

  DOCTOR. Even so?

  LADY MACBETH. To bed, to bed; there's knocking at the gate.  Come, come, come, come, give me your hand. What's done cannot be undone.  To bed, to bed, to bed.