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Shakespeare Never Read Aristotle?
Or, the dynamic forms of catharsis and tragic flaws in Shakespeare's plays
Shakespeare's most beloved plays are his tragedies. If one were to list his best and most popular plays: Othello, Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet, King Lear, and so forth, one would find the list comprised almost entirely of tragedies. So it would not be amiss to say that much of the modern literary conception of theatrical tragedy is shaped and influenced by Shakespeare. At the same time, the definitions of the tragic form as understood at the roots of theatrical history (in Greco-Roman times) continue to be part and parcel of the official comprehension of tragedy. Many critics have sought to fore Shakespeare into the mold of tragedy defined in Aristotle's Poetica, and many others have rightfully protested that he was not cast from that mold, and that in fact he owes little to it. Speaking for the traditionalists, Robert Di Yanni claims that Shakespeare follows the Aristotelian forms entirely. According to Dieter Mehl, many critics feel that Shakespeare follows no strict form whatsoever. He quotes Brantley as saying, "There is no such thing as Shakespearian Tragedy: there are only Shakespearian tragedies," (2) and personally suggests that the bard cannot be entirely predicted or codified. Alfred Harbage goes one farther, pointing out that not only did Shakespeare not follow the forms of Aristotle, but that all similarities are somewhat coincidental, as the historical playwright would not have been familiar with Aristotle's demands! It seems that the truth is to be found in a balance between these positions. One must comprehend the degree to which Aristotle was voicing not an arbitrary way of creating art but the natural and universal expression of what Plato might call a tragic Form, and in recognizing that the written script is only one half of the completed work - so that both meanings and adherence to the form may be altered both by the critical and the creative eye. Shakespeare's meanings are sufficiently universal as to be simultaneously capable of fulfilling and denying Aristotle's generalizations, and as Hamlet has said, when it comes to interpretation: "Thinking makes it so."
According to Yanni and to the general conception of the critical public, there are three basic demands made by Aristotle regarding tragedy. It must be the story of an exalted figure with some tragic flaw. The play must progress logically and cleanly step-by-step to the hero's doom, as his own tragic flaw creates a situation of sudden discovery and reversal culminating in his death. Finally, it must provide catharsis - a cleansing experience by which the audience's sympathies with the hero allow them to experience and overcome their own pity and fear. Yanni points out that Shakespearian tragedies often follow this pattern. All the heroes and heroines are exceptional characters. A reversal of fortune is generally associated with a fatal flaw and a discovery of some sort (though Yanni does not point out that the order of discovery and reversal are not always the same; for example Hamlet's discoveries regarding his father's death lead to a reversal of his fortune while in Othello his discovery of Iago's treachery only comes after all his fortune's have been destroyed). Catharsis is assumed.
However, some of these links are somewhat tenuous, and may be criticized. Reversal of fortune is standard, of course, because the transition from life to death is part of the very definition of tragedy. However, that tragic flaw is occasionally a little uncertain, as in Romeo & Juliet, or too easily confused with virtue (as in Hamlet, where his 'flaw' is a hesitance to kill his uncle!). Additionally, as Mehl and Harbage point out, Shakespeare frequently deviates from a clear and logical step-by-step progression, dragging in elements of comedy and so forth that may make his works episodic at times.
On the other hand, there is a startling number of criteria discusses by Aristotle that Yanni never mentions, and which Shakespeare either fulfills or denies to some degree. For example, Aristotle suggests that the proper metre for drama is "The iambic... The proof is that in talking to each other we most often use iambic lines." (Aristotle) The majority of Shakespeare's tragedies, of course, use iambic lines. Likewise, Aristotle claims that "Necessarily then every tragedy has six constituent parts, and on these its quality depends. These are plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle, and song." Shakespeare is well-known for his focus on diction, spectacle, and even song. In these categories one could make any number of parallels between Aristotle's dramatic suggestions and the original staged forms of Shakespeare's work. At the same time, Aristotle suggests that plot is more important to tragedy than is character. "They do not therefore act to represent character, but character-study is included for the sake of the action. It follows that the incidents and the plot are the end at which tragedy aims, and in everything the end aimed at is of prime importance. Moreover, you could not have a tragedy without action, but you can have one with out character-study." (Aristotle) In Shakespeare's tragedies, on the other hand, the exact opposite dynamic is seen. Meanwhile in Shakespeare it is the foilables of the characters, whether the madness of Hamlet and King Lear or the animal passions of Othello and cruel conning of Iago, which serve as the primary driving forces behind the plot. Character becomes more important than events.
Terrible chance and fate seem to Aristotle the highest sorts of plot devices, the best sort of element to drive the story forward, as seen in the tale of Oedipus Rex. "For in that way the incidents will cause more amazement than if they happened mechanically and accidentally, since the most amazing accidental occurrences are those which seem to have been providential." But for Shakespeare, that amazement is best reflected in the sort of terrifying incident that arises from human consciousness - character - which has gone awry. These two areas may partly explain why the sorts of tragic flaws seen in Shakespeare vary so much from the tragic flaws of Aristotelian theater. For the role of the tragic yet impersonal flaw, and the role of anonymous fortune, are both of primary value to Aristotle. To Shakespeare, they may either become subordinated in most cases to the deeply personal flaw (the inner madness) or to some external flaw (warring families), and fate itself plays a much reduced role.
Dieter Mehl, who also concerns himself with the traits of Shakespearian tragedy, is less concerned with how well it lines up with Aristotle's ideas and more about the actual innate messages of the plays. He speaks of the balance inherent in the works between an orderly sort of morality play with sinful tragic flaws and reasonable punishments, and a more ambiguous and dreadful meaningless and even fateless sort of doom. He writes that the best interpretations are: "aware of the intensity of doubt and bewilderment as well as the presence of moral order wanting to be realized..." (8)
Ignoring entirely issues of structural form, Mehl deals more with searching for themes that run through-out Shakespeare's tragedies. He concludes that "The only thing that seems to be, at first sight, really indispensable is a marked turn of fate, ending in the hero's destruction." (4) This is of course related to Aristotle's ideas of discovery and reversal, though many of the supporting elements may be changed. He also points out that "tragic guilt, catharsis and Christian redemption...are all aspects" (2) of Shakespeare's work. The Christianization of the tragic hero's downfall, tying it in to sin (as opposed to some less moral flaw) and creating a sort of morality play out of the tragedy is a common process in criticism. However, Mehl also explains that much of Shakespeare can only be understood by moving past this sort of religiousity and seeing that it "could not have been written in the ages of faith, but neither...in an age of unbelief or an age of reason." (5) Many plays, including Romeo and Juliet, seem to deal not with a superbly moral lesson, but with a frightening look at the arbitrary nature of the world. Others, such as Hamlet, which might appear to have a strong moral element dealing with a tragic flaw can also be seen in a sort of ambiguous light by which "we remain confronted with the inexplicable fact, or the no less inexplicable appearance, of a world travailing for perfection, but bringing to birth together with glorious good, an evil which is able to overcome." (8) Of course, Mehl also passingly points out that Romeo and Juliet's structure is such that it continually balances between tragedy and comedy until a great ways into the play, with many miscellaneous comic characters and so forth. One expects that this, too, would have irritated Aristotle's eye for a clean-cut tragedy. In essence, Mehl sees Shakespeare both as fulfilling traditional elements of the Aristotelian tragic models, and as moving beyond them into realms…[continue]
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