The First Aristotelian Tragedy: Oedipus Rex
Aristotle’s passage Poetics (350 BC) was written the century after the composition of Sophocles Oedipus the King (428 BC). Despite their chronological separation, the two texts relate in incisive ways. In particular, Aristotle used Oedipus as the foundation for his explanation theory. For Aristotle, a tragedy must have certain characteristics that Oedipus the King contains to differ from other written genres. His definition of tragedy has influenced tragic literature since. He declares that “Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and possessing magnitude; in embellished language, each kind of which is used separately in different parts; in the mode of action, and not narrated; and effecting through pity and fear (what we call) the katharsis of such emotions…” (Aristotle 521). Oedipus exemplifies these features by encompassing a certain magnitude, illustrating a complete flow, presenting a tragic complex plot, and having a protagonist with a tragic flaw, or “hamartia,” that leads to “katharsis”. Oedipus’ plot, for example, is the “end for which a tragedy exists” (Aristotle 522). The plot of Oedipus possess certain magnitude or “seriousness” because of the violation of two general taboos. It possesses universal significance through the application of myths, the instability of one’s identity, the recognition of human condition and the role of fate. The taboos Oedipus violates are the cardinal sins of patricide and incest, and this play is the first to incorporate both as committed by the same person. In addition, Sophocles uses myths in his play, in particular with the inclusion of the Sphinx and the Oracle’s Prophet Apollo. Oedipus also deals with the subject of contingent identity, asking the audience if a person should be guilty for reasons beyond one’s own actions. This, in turn, raises questions about the relation of human condition and fate, the idea that the actions people make, even if they are freely chosen, are just components of an end that is determined by the beginning.According to Aristotle, furthermore, the plot of a tragedy arranges incidents or combinations of events that are narrated by the poet. The plot ought to have unity of action, or a “completeness,” in which all incidents happen similar to a chain of cause and effect. In Oedipus’ play, all incidents happen together in a single episode by internal necessity, one after the other, each action leading inevitably to the next with no outside intervention. Unsurprisingly, Aristotle disliked the scene in Medea of her escape from Corinth in her magic chariot because the use of machine. He argued, “Within the events of the plot itself…there should be nothing unreasonable, or if there is, it should be kept outside the play proper, as done in the Oedipus of Sophocles.” In Oedipus, there are various parts of the plot that might be identified as unreasonable or mechanic, but they are kept outside the play, presented as if all the irrational things have already been done and were unalterable. Sophocles does not explicitly address any questions that might lead the reader to realize that some irrational actions still occur within the plot. For example, he does not emphasize questions of why Oedipus accepted marrying a woman old enough to be his mother, how they did not see that they resembled one another, or why Oedipus kills people, despite knowing his curse. The sense of inevitability, alone, drives the plot. The complete flow also necessitates having a beginning, middle and end of equal importance to the plot in which “…the sequence of events, according to the law of probability or necessity, will admit of a change from from good fortune to bad” (Aristotle 523). There should be a sequence of piteous events to the end that are not episodic, but continuous. The beginning starts the chain of events that all together will lead to the climax and, therefore, to the resolution and closure of the play. A tragedy must start with the incentive moment; in Oedipus it is the plague in Thebes. As the priest pleads to Oedipus, “Thebes is dying. A blight on the fresh crops and rich pastures, cattle sicken and die, and the women die in labor, children stillborn and the plague, the fiery god of fever hurls down on the city…”( Sophocles 393). When Oedipus became aware of his city’s alarming state, he sends Creon to consult the Oracle of Delphi. The Oracle replies that the murderer of Laius must be banished from Thebes: “Murder sets the plague-storm on the city” (Sophocles 395). The Oracle’s response is the second incident of the chain. Oedipus curses the murderer of Laius and commits himself to the mission of finding the assassin and banish him of the land, saying, “I’ll bring it all to light myself” (Sophocles 396). The fourth incident is the arrival of the blind prophet Tireseas to accuse Oedipus. This helps build the irony in the play, particularly because of its relation to the blindness that Oedipus both suffers now and will physically suffer later. It also leads to a quarrel between Creon and Oedipus, in which Oedipus’ flaws are revealed to the audience. When Jocasta intervenes and tells the story of Laius’ murder, she makes Oedipus suspicious by saying, “My god, my god-what have you planned to do to me?” (Sophocles, 412). The peripeteia, another important element of the plot according to Aristotle, is the sixth incident. This is the Messenger’s reversal of intention when he says, “Wonderful news-for the house, my lady and for your husband too” (Sophocles 417). He helps reveal that Polybus and Merope were not Oedipus’ birth parents, saying “Polybus was nothing to you, that’s why, not in blood” (Sophocles 419). With this, he provides the crucial piece of information that will reveal that Oedipus is Jocasta’s son. As Aristotle suggests, “The best form of recognition is that which is accompanied by a reversal, as in example from Oedipus”(Aristotle 523). In the Oedipus plot, the Peripeteia is intrinsically connected to the Anagnorisis, for the Messenger’s reversal of intention and the Herdsman revelation build together the whole story of Oedipus, leading him to the recognition of his real identity. These two elements cause combined Oedipus’ climax, or change of fortune from good to bad: from being an honoured king, a good husband, to be an incestuous murderer of his own father. As the Chorus says, “You are my great example, you, your life, Oedipus man of misery” (Sophocles 424). These incidents, leading to the climax, are brought together to finally unveil the final catastrophe: Jocasta’s suicide, Oedipus self–blinding, and, finally the closure and resolution in which Creon pities Oedipus’ downfall. He says to him, with irony and anger: “Still the king, the master of all things? No more: here your power ends. None of your power follows you through life” (Sophocles 433). Thus, the play does not revolve around Oedipus; instead, it pivots on the development of events that happens to him in the play. Character takes second place to plot. Nonetheless, Oedipus possesses the qualities of the perfect tragic hero, according to Aristotle’s view. He says of the protagonist, “First, and most important, it must be good” (Aristotle 523). The character must not be too wicked, but not too good, either. Thus, Oedipus, with his qualities of leadership (shown by the people turning to him in time of plague) and wisdom (his ability to solve the Sphinx’s riddle), follows Sophocles’ prescription. The audience must sympathize with him, but also notice that the he possesses a tragic flaw, “hamartia”: his ego. He thinks he is superior to others, and wants to equal the gods. He says, “I am the land’s avenger by all rights. And Apollo’s champion too” (Sophocles 396) and “You pray to the gods? Let me grant your prayers” (Sophocles 398). This hubris, or exaggerated pride, results in his fatal retribution. The proof that he directs his own disgrace comes from his own words, as he exclaims, “But the hand that struck my eyes was mine- no one else-I did it all myself!” (Sophocles 428). However, what the audience feels throughout the play is that he falls from his high position not because of any fault or flaw, but because he could not escape his destiny. The inevitability of Oedipus’ fate evokes pity and fear among the audience. Although he may have flaws, the amount of suffering he faces seems undeserved. This remorse guides the audience to their “katharsis.”Thus, Oedipus possess all the qualities of the perfect Aristotelian tragedy. It exemplifies magnitude and seriousness through the inclusion of significant affairs, illustrates a complete flow, and displays a complex plot, with all the necessary components therein. Most importantly, it touches the audience, making them feel not only misery, but the katharsis that follows.
Aristotle’s Poetics in Shakespeare’s King Lear
According to Aristotle in his book Poetics, the cathartic effects of a tragedy are its purpose, which is mediated through its form. An examination of Shakespeare’s King Lear in relation to the Aristotelian elements of tragedy – focusing on his compliance with Plot and inversion of Thought – will demonstrate how the playwright preserves the cathartic outcome despite the dramatically altered balance between pity and fear. Of the three Unities of Time, Place and Action, only the last can be directly attributed to Aristotle, who referred to it as the “principal of organic unity of literature.” In King Lear, Shakespeare abides by this principal, which states that the plot should have a beginning, middle and end, it should be the appropriate length for the believable unfolding of events, and the main character (since referred to as the tragic hero) should follow a specific dramatic process. He should be a man greater than ourselves who goes from fortune to misfortune (peripeteia) due to a flaw in his character (harmatia). This is followed by anagnorisis, enlightenment of his responsibility for the fall, yet the punishment still exceeds the crime. The prologue to King Lear combines exposition and action, giving the audience the necessary background information to contextualize the events about to unfold. It depicts King Lear as a virtuous man – above the average citizen – making a terrible error of judgment and displaying his extreme pride, thereby instigating the grotesque yet necessary downfall which follows. In the opening lines 1 – 30 Gloucester and Kent discuss Lear’s intention to divide his kingdom among his three daughters, and Gloucester’s son Edmund’s origins are explained. King Lear’s pride can be seen to motivate his first error of judgment; “Here I disclaim all my paternal care,” (1, 1,108) he tells the court, as he disowns his only loving daughter Cordelia for refusing to falsely flatter him in a bid for the largest third of his kingdom. He bestows the “sway, revenue, execution of the rest” (1,1,132) to his other two deceitful daughters and their husbands whilst expecting to retain “the name and all the additions to a king” (1,1,131). Here again, pride has led him to unrealistic expectations of retaining kingly status without kingly duties. Lastly, Lear banishes the trustworthy Kent for warning him of the danger of bowing to the power of “flattery” (1,1,143). Having surrounded himself with dishonest people and ill-treated those who genuinely love him, Lear has set the Peripeteia in motion. Lear’s anagnorisis is a gradual process that begins in Act 3 scene 2 as his “wits begin to turn” (3,2,66). He first considers the feelings of the fool and the nature of “necessities…That can make vile things precious”(3,2,69-70). Lear perceives the worth of this insight and the need for suffering to attain it. This is followed by recognition of his blind arrogance and its effect on the people of his kingdom:O, I have ta’en / Too little care of this!Take physic, pomp;Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,That thou mayst shake the superflux to them (3,4,32-35). Lear equates his experience of suffering on the heath with medicine, inferring the awakening it has evoked. He also prescribes this to all other pompous people in a plea for a more just world. He admits negligence and shows remorse. He has become drastically more aware, considering others’ suffering for the first time amid his own anguish and the onset of madness. Because the suffering coincides with enlightenment, the audience’s admiration for Lear’s endurance is abundant and coupled with growing pity for his situation. He refers to his suffering as “Judicious punishment!” (3,4,71) as it was he that fathered the two daughters that have badly mistreated him. Yet there is still no reference to his cruel misjudgment of Cordelia or Kent. In Act 4, scene 6 Lear finally understands and accepts that he is a mere mortal “They told me I was everything; ’tis a lie, I am not ague-proof” (4,6,103-104), and attributes this self- awareness to the stripping he experienced during the storm. It isn’t until Act 4 scene7 that Lear’s anagnorisis is complete. He awakens to see Cordelia, humbly kneels before her, cannot associate with the Kingly robes he has been put in and refers to himself as a “very foolish fond old man” (4,7,61). At last, he accepts responsibility for the final instigating element of his downfall: If you have poison for me, I will drink it.I know you do not love me; for your sistersHave, as I do remember, done me wrong.You have some cause, they do not. (4,7,73-76) If the play ended here, it could be said to have conformed exactly to the Aristotelian idea of a tragic plot concluding on a note of hope and restoration for the future. However, it does not end here; although Aristotle did not stipulate that a good tragic plot should have a happy ending, he did say that the moral message must be implicit and evil must never be seen to triumph. This takes the discussion into the realm of what Aristotle called “Thought” and is the element of the tragic form with which Shakespeare takes the most liberties. Those who prosper on the world’s terms – which often include neglect or cruelty – will become hardened and blinded and are therefore the true fools. This moral message is embedded in King Lear. Cordelia demonstrates an understanding of this concept as she holds to her honesty despite Lear’s threat that “Nothing will come of nothing” (1.1.86). France reiterates the notion when he describes Cordelia as “most rich, being poor…” (1,1,246). Lear and Gloucester both discover that ironically, everything comes from nothing, truth and enlightenment are attained only when one is stripped of everything, for Lear that includes his sanity, for Gloucester, his sight. “I stumbled when I saw” (4,1,20). And just as Lear did in Act Three, Scene Two, Gloucester calls for the arrogant to be humbled and for wealth to be redistributed: “And each man have enough” (4,2,72). A central paradox to the play is that Lear and Gloucester could not have learned this moral message any other way. Lear’s Fool is crucial in highlighting this paradox. Beneath his seemingly innocent taunting, the Fool provides clarity of the character’s feelings and the events on stage. When Kent claims that the Fool’s words are entirely foolish, the Fool replies; No, faith, lords and great men will not let me; if I had a monopoly out, they would have part on’t. And ladies too, they will not let me have all the fool to myself; they’ll be snatching. Give me an egg, nuncle, and I’ll give thee two crowns (1,4,137-141). The fool’s speech here encapsulates the moral message with reference to all lords being foolish, and provides direct comment on Lear’s foolishness in trying to divide up his kingdom between deceitful women. In this way, Shakespeare has taken the classical device of a chorus and ironically embodied it within the court jester. If the cruel and prosperous are the real fools, then Justice is an essential factor in the portrayal of good versus evil. Here is where Shakespeare injects ambiguity into his drama. Justice, like wisdom, family loyalty, and obedience, are inverted throughout the play. In Act Three, justice can be identified in two contrasting scenes. In scene six, Lear tries Goneril and Regan for filial ingratitude in an imagined trial. The outward appearance of justice is absurd and pathetic. Earthly justice is determined and ministered by a madman, a disguised madman and a fool. Yet true justice is presented here. In stark contrast to this is scene seven, whereby Cornwall goes through the motions of trying Gloucester for treason. Outwardly this trial appears correct, as Cornwall possesses the power to try subjects and he goes through the motions of interrogation. However, the outcome was predetermined and there is no trace of real justice in the horrific punishment. The appearance and the reality of justice have exchanged places (as do wisdom and folly, blindness and sight, and poverty and riches), and evil is undoubtedly prospering. All of Shakespeare’s value inversions in this play are encapsulated within the term ‘natural.’ Edmund is the ‘natural’ son of Gloucester and represents a violation of traditional moral order. His concept of Nature and what is natural is Darwinian and animalistic rejecting religion, astrology social order and morality “Thou, nature, art my goddess…Wherefore should I Stand in the plague of custom” (1,2,1-3). To him, ‘unnatural’ means exactly what ‘natural’ means to Lear and Gloucester – the orderly structure and cycles of the natural world and man on earth are intrinsically linked and astrology is a clear indication of the events on earth, e.g. “These late eclipses…” (1,2,96). Thus the moral question permeating the drama is: ‘Which concept of Natural is true? If the heavens exist and manipulate human lives than will Edmund, Goneril and Reagan get away with their evil or will there be divine retribution? The answer to this question is far from implicit, and it certainly defies Aristotle’s notion that evil should never be seen to triumph. Evil triumphs throughout most of King Lear, and the acts of goodness are single acts of human decency that are often too late to yield any real improvement to the situation. Consider Cornwall’s servant, who avenges Gloucester’s cruelty in Act Three scene seven. His intervention fails to improve Gloucester’s condition. Likewise, Kent and Edgar taking up disguises enable them to guide the old men through their suffering and deliver a letter to Cordelia, but none of this prevents the death or anguish of Gloucester, Lear and his virtuous daughter. Albany resolves to restore Lear to King and Kent to his honorable position, but this occurs far too late as Lear dies and Kent passes away. Lastly, Edmund’s dying wish to save Cordelia from death is a spark of human decency in a predominantly evil character which raises hope in the audience, but this gesture is also too little, too late, and the audience’s hopes are quickly dashed. If the gods are responsible for ministering punishment and justice, then Cordelia’s death is unexplainable. If human decency, on the other hand, is credited with the administration of justice, then it can be argued that human decency was overcome by negative human emotions such as greed, pride and selfishness, which led to acts of cruelty. Those few characters with integrity and courage to act upon it were far too fragmented and delayed to triumph over evil. The perspective one takes on the ending of King Lear is entirely her own. Shakespeare has the Fool exit the play in Act Three, scene four, line 80, and the audience members are left to infer what meanings they will from the rest of the play. This conclusion is in direct opposition to Aristotle’s conception of “Character” as well as “Thought.” Homogeny is necessary to contribute to the plausibility of the play. The thought should be implicit, and the characters should be consistent, appropriate to their type, and reveal a moral purpose. The characters in King Lear do tend to be appropriately matched to their type – e.g. the old men with old world values seeming foolish to youth and arrogant about their status. Loyal servants, greedy spoiled women and power hungry young men all conform to stereotypes. Through the device of disguise, however, Shakespeare adds irony and intrigue that defies the conventional matching of character to type. It is also significant in relation to Shakespeare’s manipulation of the ‘thought’ that many of the characters in King Lear reveal an immoral rather than a moral purpose. It is evident then, by looking closely at Shakespeare’s treatment of Aristotle’s elements of Plot and Thought, that Shakespeare achieves catharsis in King Lear by conforming to the element which Aristotle deemed most important: plot. Specifically, the dramatic process of the ‘tragic hero’ unfolds according to Aristotle’s perception, yielding immense pity and fear, yet extends beyond it to add ambiguity and thereby affect the notion of Thought. Thought and Character are clearly adapted from the Classical idea but transformed to suit Shakespeare’s purpose, leaving the audience with the privilege of deciding for themselves what they think and how they feel. BIBLIOGRAPHYCraig, H. & Bevington, D. (ed) (1973) “The Complete Works of Shakespeare” Brighton; Scott, Foresman and Company. Patterson, M. (1996) Studying Drama, in Bradford, R. (ed) “Introducing Literary Studies”. London; Pearson Education Ltd. Shakespeare, W. (1974) “King Lear” Essex; Longman Group Ltd.
Oedipus the King as Interpreted by Sophocles, Aristotle and Sigmund Freud
Considered by many as the greatest of classic Greek tragedies, Oedipus the King (“Oedipus Tyrannus”) by Sophocles (495?–406 B.C.E) is set in the remoteness of ancient Greece and has come down to us in the form of a tragic myth allegedly inspired by true events and actual characters. Yet to the people of ancient Athens, Oedipus the King represented “figures who fell into disaster from positions of power and prestige,” and as human beings “became susceptible to a lethal mixture of error, ignorance and violent arrogance” (Martin 134). The Greek philosopher Aristotle referred to this play continually in his Poetics, pointing out features of the ideal tragic poem, and in the later years of the 19th century, Sigmund Freud adapted this myth as the basis for one of his most controversial psychoanalytic interpretations, being the “Oedipal Complex.”The Sopholcean interpretation of the myth of King Oedipus of Thebes seems to lie within the horror and fascination of the unspeakable that rests at the heart of the play. When Oedipus emerges from his palace in the final scene of the play, he is blind; his mask is stained by the blood of his father King Laius; he has committed incest with his own mother, only to realize that his children are his true brothers and sisters. As Stephen Berg notes, at this point, Oedipus “is no longer a man. He is a thing, “this cursed, naked, holy thing” (15). With this, Oedipus has become the symbol of something both sacred and cursed and at the end of the play, Sophocles, the ultimate Greek tragedian, has extended this curse far beyond ordinary life and well into the natural world of the ancient Greeks who viewed Oedipus as the quintessential tragic hero/figure, yet at the same time the common everyman of society filled with piety, arrogance and tyranny which according to Sophocles is the “tyrannos (the tyrant king) who sleeps in the souls of all men” (Berg 17).In the case of Aristotle, Oedipus the King was interpreted not only as a powerful myth but also as a source of what defines true tragedy. For Aristotle, this connoted “an imitation of an action, not of narrative, that is serious and complete and through pity and fear, the proper purgation of these emotions is effected” (Martin 136). Thus, the central character of a tragedy like Oedipus the King must emote some sense of being virtuous despite having feelings of pity and fear for his eventual downfall which creates in the reader or the viewer a kind of outrage. Also, such a character cannot revel in evilness; he must be one “who is not outstanding in virtue nor full of righteousness but through a fatal flaw (hamartia) meets his end” (Woodard 178).In addition, as a myth based on Greek legend, Oedipus the King, as far as Aristotle was concerned, is a prime example of a conflict between the hero (protagonist) and a superior force, such as destiny or the fates of the Gods. In ancient Greek culture, this idea was paramount to how mortal man interacted with the Gods and helped to remind the citizens of Athens that the successes and failures of life engendered problems of a moral complexity far too formidable to be taken casually or arrogantly.With the advent of the twentieth century, the interpretation of Oedipus the King took on new meaning, especially through the formulation of Sigmund Freud’s “Oedipal Complex,” a result of his own efforts in self-analysis in the autumn of 1897. As Richard Webster points out, Freud had recognized “that his father was innocent” and through vivid memories recalled “sexual wishes about his mother on the occasion of seeing her naked” and had “discovered in himself the passion for his mother and the jealousy of his father” (253), a statement that fully reflects the problems and anxieties of Oedipus himself for his mother (his wife) and his father whom he had unknowingly murdered.In his own words, Freud’s psychoanalytical approach to children were confirmed “by a legend that has come down to us from classical antiquity,” being Oedipus the King. In his essay entitled Oedipus Rex, Freud, after a somewhat lengthy extrapolation of the play, maintains that Oedipus the King is “a tragedy of destiny.” As an interpretation, Freud continues with “the tragic effects (of the play) is said to lie in the contrast between the supreme will of the Gods and the vain attempts of mankind to escape the evil that threatens them” (Woodard 102).Furthermore, according to Freud, there appears to be an indication in the text of Oedipus the King that the legend of Oedipus sprang “from some primeval dream material which had as its content the distressing disturbance of a child’s relation to his parents owing to the first stirrings of sexuality” (Rickman 219). At the point where Oedipus has begun to feel troubled by his recollections of the oracle in the beginning of the play, Jocasta (his wife and mother) consoles him by referring to a dream. Thus, Oedipus the King “is the reaction of the imagination to this dream, and just as this dream is accompanied by feelings of revulsion, so too the legend must include horror and self-punishment” (Woodard 104).In conclusion, it is quite clear that Oedipus the King, whether interpreted by Sophocles, Aristotle or Sigmund Freud, forces us to recognize the compelling influence of destiny, for the destiny of Oedipus “moves us only because it might have been ours, the same curse upon us before our birth as was laid upon Oedipus” (Rickman 220).BIBLIOGRAPHYMartin, Thomas R. Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996.Rickman, John, ed. A General Selection From the Works of Sigmund Freud. New York: Doubleday, 1957.Sophocles. Oedipus the King. Trans. Stephen Berg. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.Webster, Richard. Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis. New York: Basic Books, 1995.Woodard, Thomas, ed. Sophocles: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1966.
The Creative Instinct
In The Poetics, Aristotle asserts that literature is a function of human nature’s instinct to imitate. This implies that as humans, we are constantly driven to imitate, to create. By labeling this creative impulse an “instinct,” one is to believe that this desire for imitation is a matter of survival, of necessity. The question then arises, of what does one feel compelled to imitate and in what way does it aid in our survival? According to essays by T.S. Eliot and Barbara Johnson, the purpose of literature is to be a part of a necessary creative process, sometimes to the extent that the creator is lost and consumed by the cause.The first issue to tackle is the question of what literature imitates. Imitation and representation encompass all the media of artistic expression with the artist striving to represent aspects of reality or human experience. This is done either through song, the visual arts, or literature. The artist, in a sense, strives to imitate God by wielding creative power and performing a human version of divine creation. The artist is attempting to communicate his or her subjective interpretation of the world. However, the use of an interpretive medium also poses a unique challenge. In the case of Literature, imitation is complicated by the inherent limitations of language. Despite, or perhaps because of these limitations, artist then becomes part of a creative process in which the relationship between the writer, the text, and the subject matter become intertwined, blurring distinction between these separate components.T.S. Eliot deals specifically with how one should view literature in relation to its creator. He opposes the school of literary criticism that judges a poem’s effectiveness based on the history and personality of the poet rather than the poem itself. According to Eliot, the poet must understand his or her position in the literary tradition. He states that “what is to be insisted upon is that the poet must develop or procure the consciousness of the past and that he should continue to develop this consciousness throughout his career”(CMS 407). According to Eliot the only consciousness a writer should have is of his or her place in the literary tradition. Consciousness of emotional authenticity is irrelevant for Eliot. Consciousness of the literary past is what gives a text its individuality. The individuality of the poet or the uniqueness of the emotions expressed in the poem is unnecessary because, Eliot believes, “one error, in fact, of eccentricity in poetry is to seek for new human emotions to express”(CMS 410). Eliot wants the focus to be on the actual text for its contribution to the literary tradition rather than the poet’s personality or emotional depth. Questions of whether or not the poem realistically captures human experience are not as important as whether the poem maintains its own emotional impact regardless of the poet’s history. Therefore, if one understands imitation as the creator’s representation of personal emotions or subjective experience, Eliot does not see imitation as the goal of literature. The poem is not representing something, but rather, it is existing on its own. Despite the fact that Eliot does not see “mimesis” or, imitation as the goal of poetry, his theory of depersonalization of literature does relate to Aristotle’s idea of mimesis. Eliot does not view the poet’s personal experience as the proper motivation for good literature. During the creative process, the poet should experience “a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist, is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality” (CMS 407). However, this does not mean that the poet does not communicate emotional depth through poetry. A poet can still successfully capture certain epistemological and philosophical truths about existence and reality. He or she is still fulfilling the instinct to imitate. In fact, Elliot argues, only through depersonalization can the poet successfully communicate his imitation because it is not bogged down in subjective interpretation. Therefore, the poet is imitating and representing, but Eliot believes it is possible only by escaping the self and removing the personal implications of a text’s meaning.Barbara Johnson explores mimesis in relation to the limitations of language in her essay, “A Hound, a Bay Horse, and a Turtle Dove: Obscurity in Walden.” Johnson focuses on Thoreau’s use of symbolic language and what she sees as his unintended goal. She understands Thoreau’s use of obscure symbols as representing an idea of obscurity rather than actual objects or concepts. She asserts that “You are supposed to recognize them as not as obscure symbols, but as symbols standing for the obscure, the lost, the irretrievable”(CMS 658). In this sense, form follows content. The symbols are purposely obscure because they represent the irretrievable and obscure. Thoreau’s imitation here is not relegated to a particular experience of loss, but of a concept and he accomplishes this in an intentionally cryptic fashion. This is because the concept he is attempting to communicate is itself so unknowable, so he uses obscure terms. Thoreau realizes the limitations of language. He understood that the act of imitation is itself an endeavor limited by language. Therefore, for Thoreau, this instinctual impulse toward imitation remains exactly that an impulse toward creativity despite the limitations of the medium. However, his text also maintains a consciousness of its inherent limitations. Johnson calls Thoreau’s technique “catachreses,” or, figurative substitutes for a literal term that does not exist (CMS 659). Thoreau fulfills his imitative instinct by using literature’s representative, though inherently limited, faculty to represent something, which can not be represented. Johnson concludes her essay by stating that Thoreau became so completely consumed in the creative act, that his figurative language ceases to be understandable as either pure rhetoric or a literal cataloguing of thoughts. She explains that, “what Thoreau has done in moving to Walden Pond is to move himself, literally, into the world of his own figurative language.”(CMS 661) His writing loses its coherence because his symbolism saturates and overwhelms the narrative. Johnson explains that “Thoreau has literally crossed over into the very parable he is writing, where reality itself has become a catachresis”(CMS 661). He has delved so deeply into the act of representation that the reader is never sure of the creator’s true intent. Perhaps it is Thoreau’s intent to illustrate that the imitative power of literature is that one can never quite represent an idea, thought, emotions, without disclaiming its true intent beforehand. The paradox of artistic intent is that because of its inherent duality, art and literature can never specifically be separated from its creator or its product. Both Eliot and Johnson agree that a text should posses a certain consciousness. For Eliot that consciousness is of the literary tradition, of the text of human experience. As Johnson demonstrates through Thoreau, text can not help but be conscious of its own limited imitative capacity. Eliot believes that if a poet depersonalizes a text enough, than it can really accomplish an expression of deep emotion or thought. Johnson sees the medium of literature as an obstacle to actual representation, but that ambiguity enhances the text to the extent that it “delights and baffles” (CMS 655). Aristotle’s idea now takes on greater depth given these new perspectives. He phrases it as an “instinct towards imitation” because this impulse toward to creation is practically unconscious. As thoughtful beings, humans are driven to pursue this creative instinct. It is as innate an instinct for survival as the need for food and shelter. Therefore we pursue this impulse toward imitation almost without caring if we imitate successfully. We are acting within our given boundaries and limitations. According to Johnson, that is what gives literature its richness. Eliot believes the poet can transcend those limitations. Everyone agrees that one must act on the creative instinct.
Price of Freedom: An Analysis of the Motivations of Different Tennessee Williams Characters with Respect to Aristotelian Definitions of Character and the Struggle between Duty and Desire
Tennessee Williams’s paradoxical nature as an individual can be seen at many different points throughout his life. Described as “enigmatic” by both his contemporaries and biographers, the prolific playwright seems to have translated this quality into many of his most celebrated characters (Woo 1). Two classic examples of this contradictory nature are Tom from The Glass Menagerie and John from Summer and Smoke. Both of these characters are practically defined by paradox. At the same time, they are both torn between intense personal desires, primarily for freedom and personal autonomy in some variety, and the intense duty they both have to their families and circumstances. As taxing as this struggle may be for the two men, as characters, it is a blessing in Aristotelian terms, as the pull between duty and desire defines Tom and John as proper characters according to Aristotle’s definitions as enumerated in Poetics, which are that a full character must be good, proper, true to life, and consistent (Aristotle 27). Throughout the two plays, Tom and John are able to fulfill these requirements specifically because they are being torn between personal and familial wishes. However, near the end of both Summer and Smoke and The Glass Menagerie, Tom and John are each forced to make a seemingly final choice between the two, the results of which determine the rest of their lives as people and their authenticity as characters in Aristotelian terms. Ultimately, Tom appears to choose personal desire, while John opts for duty to community. However, the very act of making a choice results in both characters ceasing to be full and authentic in the Aristotelian sense.
Before examining the ways in which Tom and John function within the framework of this conflict, it is necessary to understand exactly what is meant by the “struggle between desire and duty.” For each character, the term “duty” refers to the circumstances he live in, and the necessities those circumstances dictate. “Duty,” used in this way, also refers specifically to expectations or requirements that are not inherent to either Tom or John, but rather those which are forced upon them by external sources. In both cases, the primary catalysts for this pressure are the two men’s families, although in the case of John, Alma is also a primary source. By contrast, “desire” in this case refers to the needs and wishes of the characters that are derived solely from them and are fundamentally, if not necessarily originally, constructed as responses to their duties. For both Tom and John, their desires express an overall wish for freedom and subtler wish to explore life and be ride of the things that tie them down. Although the exact nature of each of the two character’s wishes and obligations are different, they are extremely similar in what they represent.
Tom’s situation is much easier to understand, as it is applicable or at least understandable to the majority of people. For him, his duties include making money and supporting his family, and he is also expected to try and find a husband for his sister, Laura. This is quite clearly shown by Tom’s statement to Amanda that he both pays rent for their apartment and also “makes a slave of himself” to do so (Williams, The Glass Menagerie 22). This last point is particularly revealing, as the use of the word “slave” carries the undeniable connotation that Tom is not working from any position of personal drive or desire, but rather from a sense of duty and requirement. Despite this, and likely as a result of it, he yearns for adventure and personal freedom, and escapes his obligations in many different forms, from drunkenness to movie going. For Tom, these trips to the cinema are not simply the vice based vents his mother believes, but rather brief opportunities to slake his desire for autonomy. Stating unarguably that he gives up “all that [he] dream[s] of doing or being ever” for the sake of making money for his family (in other words, his “duty”), the films he sees are a way to indulge his own personal desire for freedom by sinking briefly into the adventure filled worlds of other people (23-24). However, this is only a temporary solution to his much greater desire to, like his father before him, leave his family and embark on a life of adventure. Thus, it is easy to see the enigmatic nature of Tom’s situation. Despite wishing nothing more than to leave, he stays with his family, torn between two great forces. This is a situation that is familiar to many people: living in an unpleasant state and wishing for a better one. By contrast, the paradox of John’s struggle between the fantasies of freedom and the realities of responsibility is seemingly much more difficult to understand.
Unlike Tom, John is not destitute and struggling to rise up in the world, and, also unlike Tom, John is seen as an important and valuable member of society. Born into wealth with “a silver spoon in [his] mouth,” John is described as being not only favored by the randomness of birth, but also extremely gifted and seemingly destined for greatness (Williams, Summer and Smoke 18). Said to have been born with “surgeon’s fingers,” a graduate from one of the best medical schools in the world, and having an already famous doctor for a father, there seems to be no doubt in Alma or anyone else’s mind that John must be “divinely appointed” and destined for glory (18; 11). Everyone that is, except for the man himself. Throughout the majority of the play, John seems determined to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory: gambling, driving recklessly, spending time with disreputable company, and generally acting like “an overgrown school boy” (18). While on the surface, this behavior may seem like the simple excesses of youth or petty rebellion (or simply plain madness), the real reason is nearly identical to Tom’s, despite the situations being polar opposites: John wishes to evade the circumstances of his birth and be something different from what is expected of him by his friends and family. However, because his original situation was one deemed by society and those around him as “success,” John’s ever elusive desire for “something more” must correspondingly be what is generally thought of as failure: lechery, drunkenness, and gambling (53-57). In this way, John’s desire for freedom is clearly directly contrary to the wishes of those around him. Like Tom, he too is torn between desire and duty and, again like Tom, he continues to do his duty despite wishing fervently to act only according to desire. Thus, despite their respective circumstances of life looking like perfect opposites, John and Tom are both divided by the same fundamental issue, an issue which defines them both as people in their worlds but also as characters within a play.
As shown extensively above, the split between personal needs and familial obligations is both fundamental and integral to both Tom’s and John’s psychology, but it is also principal in their legitimacy as proper characters in the Aristotelian sense. As stated previously, Aristotle notes in Poetics that there are “four things to be aimed at” with respect to character: goodness, propriety, trueness to life, and consistency. In all cases, Tom’s and John’s struggle between duty and desire helps to fulfill these requisites. The case of goodness is proven easily. Both Tom and John make it clear that they wish to indulge their personal desire much more than continue with their duties. However, until they are forced to choose, each keeps performing his duties; Tom does so by continuing to go to work and by bringing Jim home. John’s performance of duty is more difficult to see, since he goes further down the path of indulgence of desire, but he too does his duty by both not simply leaving, but also by planning to marry despite clearly despising her father and believing that he himself has “slide downhill” at an incredible rate (Summer and Smoke 55). This certainly counts as a duty, given the previous definition, and thus each man’s performance of duty despite wishing otherwise can be classified as selfless rather than selfish, thus fulfilling the Aristotelian requirements of goodness. The next two requirements, propriety and trueness to life, are both fulfilled by this enigma in similar ways. Humans are by nature paradoxical, and a character who violates this rule would certainly be viewed as improper and unrealistic (Marken and Carey). Thus, the very fact that this struggle seems contradictory fulfills both these requirements. The final requisite for Aristotelian characters is consistency. While this may seem like a stumbling block for Tom and John, who appear to oscillate constantly between the two options, Aristotle anticipates this problem by specifically stating that characters can be “consistently inconsistent,” which is certainly the case for Tom and John, who are both, at different times, driven to act in line with their duties as well as their desires. (Aristotle 28). Thus, far from undermining their legitimacy as characters, Tom’s and John’s conflict between desire and duty strengthens it immensely. That is, of course, until they are forced to choose one definitively, and, in each case, the legitimacy of their consistent inconsistency must be questioned and examined.
In Tom’s case, the moment where he makes a final decision between duty and desire is very specific and can be narrowed down to a single line in the show. For Tom, the massive amount of pent-up tension in his life all comes to a head right after Jim leaves, when Amanda begins to accuse her son of being deceitful. In addition, she states categorically that Tom “live[s] in a dream” and “manufactures illusions” (The Glass Menagerie 67). This accusation suggests that for Tom, real life and the duties it necessitates have become naught but a distraction and ultimately irrelevant to the desires of freedom he is trying to make manifest. The absolutist tone of the statement is also not to be overlooked, as it seems to leave no more room for the continuation of the duty vs. desire paradox that defined Tom up until this point. Faced with this new reality, Tom’s only response is to make a final choice, and his actions leave no doubt as to what he chooses: he gets his coat and leaves (67). Thus, by ending the conflict and making a definitive choice, Tom very clearly violates the fourth aim of character, that being consistency. Throughout whole show prior to this scene, Tom is constantly torn between two forces, and thus is permanently inconsistent in his actions. The correction of this and the choosing of a single pathway diverges sharply from the rest of the play and represents a lack of consistency by merit of being consistent. Thus, by attempting to correct the contradiction that plagues him throughout the show, Tom inadvertently sabotages his completeness as a character in the eyes of Aristotle.
Unlike Tom’s final choice, John’s does not appear to take place as specifically in the text, and also unlike Tom, John appears to choose duty. While there is not as exact a line to point to that signifies John’s transformation, it is very apparent that between the end of Part II, Scene II and the start of Part II, Scene V, John has drastically changed. The death of his father appears to have finally shocked him out of his desire based indulgence, and he is now fully ensconced in the world of his duties. This is clearly shown by his continuation of his father’s work, as well as his fulfillment of Alma’s prophecies by “covering [himself] in sudden glory” (Summer and Smoke 70). He no longer acts wildly or like a boy, but rather like a sober and reserved man of status, like his father before him. Thus, by very clearly acting in line with only the expectations of those around him to the exclusion of his previous desires for adventure, it is evident that John has failed the Aristotelian character test in the same way as Tom, by acting in a uniform manner and thus breaking the policy of inconsistency.
Despite being apparent polar opposites in term of circumstances, John from Summer and Smoke and Tom from The Glass Menagerie have a great deal in common. Both are driven by a powerful desire to be independent, to find their own paths, to have adventures, and ultimately to have autonomy in their lives. Simultaneously, both men are trapped by the duties they have to their families and society, and this trapped existence ultimately forces both to decide between the two worlds. However, while it may appear difficult and contradictory as a real-life issue, the struggle both these characters face is integral to their authenticities in the eyes Aristotle, according to his four aims of character. Ultimately, the choice causes Tom to no longer be a legitimate Aristotelian character, and John remains only on a technicality. What is interesting to note is that the decision seemingly makes neither character happy, despite each having chosen a different path. The idea thus implicated is unavoidable: a choice where the two options are absolutes is not a healthy or productive one for either a character or a person.
Aristotle. Aristotle’s Poetics. Ed. Stanley Appelbaum. Mineola, NY: Dover, 1997. Print.
Marken, Richard S., and Timothy Carey A. “Controlling People: The Paradoxical Nature of Being Human.” Australian Academic Press. Australian Academic Press, n.d. Web. 13 Sept. 2016.
Williams, Tennessee. The Glass Menagerie. New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1975. Print.
Williams, Tennessee. Summer and Smoke. New York: Dramatists Play Services, 1977. Print.
Woo, Elaine. “Obituaries Lyle Leverich; Tennessee Williams Fan Became the Playwright’s Biographer.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 25 Dec. 1999. Web. 13 Sept. 2016.
Aristotelian Spectacle Shown Through Beds in the Plays of Tennessee Williams
An extremely specific author, Tennessee Williams is known for his elaborate and in-depth descriptions of sets, costumes, sound, and general staging, often appearing to have the last detail written out in his seemingly endless supply of stage directions. This descriptive style would, at first, make one assume that Williams’s plays do not conform to what Aristotle believed was the proper use of spectacle. According to the latter, spectacle includes all sets, costumes, and things to do with the staging of the show, and is by far the least important element of a proper tragedy, never to drive the plot or provide crucial details that could not be gleaned elsewhere. However, despite the contradiction that might appear to arise as a result of Williams’s copious stage directions, he not only acts within the bounds of Aristotle’s definition of spectacle; he appears to epitomize it. One of the most salient examples of this dynamic is Williams’s use of beds in several of his most famous plays, specifically in The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire. In examining this interaction, it is important to note both what the beds do and do not do in their respective roles in the plays. In this way, Williams’s use of beds in The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire is a near perfect example of the way Aristotle believes spectacle should be used in theatre.
Of the six major elements that comprise proper Aristotelian tragedy, spectacle is by far considered to be the least important. In Poetics, Aristotle states that spectacle—which B. R. Rees defines as “the visual aspect of the drama”—is “connected least with the art of poetry,” and that the spectacle should never be the driving force behind the plot (Rees 10, Poetics 13). Aristotle also makes it clear that while “fear and pity may be aroused by spectacular means,” the play ought to be able to be only spoken and still arouse such feelings (24). This clearly highlights the fact that in Aristotle’s view of the ideal tragedy, the spectacle should be used as a subsidiary device by the plot. This means that crucial plot points should not be hidden in the spectacle where they must be seen to be understood, as evident by his statement that the play must function equally well if there is no visual aspect at all. Instead, the spectacle should enhance what is already present and powerful, and provide both support and embellishment to the plot. It is in this way that beds in Tennessee Williams’s two plays The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire function as perfect examples of spectacle.
As pieces of the scenery, the beds certainly count as aspects of the spectacle. They are included in the floor plans of each play, and serve as visual aids for the audience and offer the actors a wide range of choices for how to interact with them. Specifically, the two beds that are of most note in each play are, in The Glass Menagerie, the daybed in the center of the living room on which Tom sleeps. In A Streetcar Named Desire, it is located in the bedroom and labeled as “iron bed” in the floor plan, and is also where Stanley rapes Blanche at the end of the show (Streetcar 104). In both cases, the beds each have two key traits that make them the ideal form of spectacle in Aristotelian terms. The first of these is the fact that they are relatively understated. Neither of them are shoved to the very center of the stage according the floor plans, and in the case of Streetcar, the bed is located as far upstage as it can go (104). In The Glass Menagerie, the day bed is located further downstage, but it is also set far closer to stage left and, given that it could not be located in the dining room, is located far enough upstage so as not to be the obvious point of focus (Menagerie 68). In addition, the daybed’s location allows for the actors onstage to interact with it at their leisure, meaning that when attention is fixed on it, that is only a byproduct of the focus given to the characters and plot. This understated nature of these two beds in their floor plans is reflected in productions of the plays.
In an image from article on Walter Schoen’s production of The Glass Menagerie, performed in 2009 at the Saratov Academic Theatre in Saratov, Russia and discussed in a piece by the University of Richmond, the stage is clearly set so that the daybed, as well as the other set pieces, are not so flashy or vital seeming that they draw attention away from the plot or the character, which Aristotle states are the two most important elements of tragedy (U of Richmond, Poetics 11). Correspondingly, in a revival production of A Streetcar Named Desire by the Walnut Street Theatre, located in Philadelphia and also performed in 2009, director Malcolm Black also stays true to Williams’s stage design and, by extension, to the beliefs of Aristotle. In pictures of the production taken by Mark Garvin and published by the Walnut Street Theatre on their website, Black’s staging has the “iron bed” located in the same far upstage region as Williams’s floor plan indicates, and, like Schoen’s Glass Menagerie, the bed is not used in such a way that attention is drawn from the plot or characters (Walnut Street Theatre). In both of these case, the beds in and of themselves do not provide any information that is absolutely essential to the plot that could not be gleaned elsewhere, meaning that the Aristotelian requirement that the spectacle could be removed entirely and the story preserved is fulfilled. An example of this improper use of spectacle with the beds would be if they were located so that they blocked the actors, or were decorated in such an extravagant fashion that the audience would choose to focus on them to the exclusion of the plot. In both of the productions cited above, the beds are set in the same unassuming and practical locations the Williams wrote they should be, and were both very standard looking and not at all attention stealing (coincidentally, they were nearly the exact same light golden-yellow color). In this way, the beds in both Glass Menagerie and Streetcar each possess the first of the two key traits that Aristotle believed were essential for the spectacle: they do not draw attention away from the plot or characters, and did not contain any essential information in their composition that would be lost if the show were down without visuals. They fulfill the second requirement by the fact that while the beds are not absolutely essential to the play, they do provide some amount of either support or embellishment for the plot, as shown by the different ideas they symbolize in their respective stories.
While Aristotle clearly believes that the spectacle of a play should not be essential to the show, he does not state that it ought to be useless or superfluous; rather, he focuses on the fact that the other elements are much more important, and that the spectacle should never take priority. The spectacle does have, he states, “an emotional attraction of its own,” albeit a less artistic or important one (Poetics 13). Thus, in order for the spectacle to be of most use to the show, its attraction must be directly tied to that of the plot, and instead of being an integral piece of the plot, it should instead increase the level of tragedy in a non-essential manner, so that the show may still be performed without visual aid, but when that aid is present, something is gained. This is precisely what the beds in Glass Menagerie and Streetcar accomplish.
In each play, the represent some idea or theme present throughout the show, but only do so by way of the plot and not through any special characteristic of their own. In the case of The Glass Menagerie, the very name of the “daybed” is suggestive. Because it is not even a proper sleeping area, the fact that Tom uses it and does not have his own room represents both his lack of proper privacy and accommodations, as well as the sacrifices that he is making for the family (Menagerie 22). By having Tom’s bed not even be a real one, as well as its being located in the living room, Williams emphasizes an idea that occurs numerous times in the text in such a way that without the bed, the feeling is still communicate, but its presence does add embellishment and additional detail. This dynamic is also visible by the fact that when Tom finally confronts Amanda about all the sacrifices he makes, the stage directions have him sitting on the daybed for most of the rant (23). This is another example of a place where the spectacle is not required for the advancement of the plot, but its inclusion does further the latter. In Streetcar, the bed represents something must more ominous, but equally important to the plot. Given that it is the location where Stanley rapes Blanche, its presence onstage serves as further vindication of his climactic statement that he and Blanche have been heading for this “from the beginning” (Streetcar 94). However, the bed’s continual presence throughout the show is not necessary for this line to be understandable; there is ample evidence in the dialogue throughout the play that tension was building between Blanche and Stanley, and also that Stanley might be the type of man who would do this. Thus, the bed does not usurp the role of the plot and provoke “fear and pity by spectacular means” (Poetics 24). Instead, it continues to support and vindicate elements that exist already. The fact that the final stage direction of this scene states that Stanley “starts towards the bed” also proves this dynamic between spectacle and plot, since the audience can already clearly see what is going to happen through the dialogue and characters, but the additional visual cue by the spectacle aids in this advancement (Streetcar 94). In this way, in both plays, the spectacle does not have any power or meaning in and of itself, but rather is given symbolic value by the nature of the plot.
Thus, in both the case of The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams use of beds is a perfect example of how Aristotle believes spectacle ought to be employed: they neither pull attention away from the plots nor provide crucial information by themselves, meaning that were the shows done without a spectacle at all, the absences of the beds would not destroy the plays’ abilities to provoke fear or pity. However, they are not useless, and do serve the plot by adding additional meaning or understanding to ideas that already exist, while still not being fundamentally essential to the show. Thus, Tennessee Williams manages to accomplish a difficult feat in the eyes of Aristotle, and does it with such effectiveness that one almost feels back for the old Athenian, given that he unfortunately could not use Williams’s works as one of his many examples in Poetics.
Aristotle. Poetics. Edited by S. H. Butcher, Mineola, Dover Publications, 1997.
“A Classic American Masterpiece to Celebrate!: A Streetcar Named Desire.” Walnut Street Theatre, edited by Ralph Weeks, www.walnutstreettheatre.org/season/show/a-streetcar-named-desire. Accessed 15 Nov. 2016.
“The Glass Menagerie Professor’s Tennessee Williams Production Wins Big in Russia.” Review of The Glass Menagerie, Saratov Academic Theatre, Saratov. University of Richmond Newsroom, edited by Cynthia Price, U of Richmond, 30 Oct. 2009, news.richmond.edu/features/article/-/162/the-glass-menagerie-professors-tennessee-williams-production-wins-big-in-russia.html. Accessed 15 Nov. 2016.
Rees, B. R. “‘Pathos’ in the ‘Poetics’ of Aristotle.” Cambridge University Press, vol. 19, no. 1, Apr. 1972, pp. 1-11. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/642517. Accessed 15 Nov. 2016.
Williams, Tennessee. The Glass Menagerie. Acting ed., New York, Dramatists Play Services, 1945
. —. A Streetcar Named Desire. Acting ed., New York, Dramatists Play Services, 1947.
Understanding Aristotle’s View of the Germans in The Night of the Iguana
UA cursory glance over some of Tennessee Williams’s most celebrated plays reveals a consistent conformity to Aristotle’s rules of tragedy as outlined in Poetics. Plays such as The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire showcase full plots, superb characters, a spectacle that functions in the correct manner, and all the other markings of a true Aristotelian tragedy. However, this general trend appears at first glance to not be present in Williams’s later play, The Night of the Iguana. The main problem in Aristotle’s view and the one that might prevent Night of the Iguana from being a proper play in this sense is the wedding party of Germans who appear periodically throughout the show. This repellent and ill-formed group defy nearly all Aristotle’s rules for a valid and proper character, and do so in particularly obnoxious and overt ways. Their almost cartoonish defiling of this system could very easily be enough to discredit the play itself from being a proper Aristotelian tragedy. But it does not. This is because the Germans as a group and the show as a whole make far more sense if the latter is interpreted not as part of the branch of Character, but rather as part of the Spectacle.
Before fully exploring why the Germans are much more easily understood as a spectacle, it is necessary to demonstrate how and why they are absolutely not valid as characters. As Aristotle clearly states in Poetics, the four requirements for a character to be complete and proper are, in order of importance, that the character is good, is true to life, has a sense of propriety, and is consistent (27). Beginning with their goodness, it is very clear from the audience’s first view of the Germans that they are written to be both abrasive and jarring, if not downright cruel. When Shannon is tied up in the hammock after his fit, Herr Fahrenkopf gawks at him, then proceeds to mock and insult him, rocking the “hammock like a cradle” and drowning the stage with raucous laughter (Iguana 59). In addition, the fact that the party are clearly passionate Nazis is a strike against their goodness, both in and out of the play. When Shannon sees the group for the very first time, his first comment is “Aw, Nazis,” clearly suggesting that their membership in the Third Reich is enough of a moral sin to dismiss them off hand (8). Their terrible manners and mannerisms continue to show that the group clearly does not fulfill Aristotle’s requirement of being “good,” and those specific traits also lead very well into the next rule for characters: their being true to life. The Germans’ actions and appearance are so overdone as to be almost ridiculous and grotesque. After Nonno, who very obviously appears to be a rather frail, quiet old man, delivers a poem, the stage directions clearly state the that bridegroom Wolfgang applauds right into the old man’s face (39). This shocking breach of etiquette and propriety is so extreme as to be quite unrealistic. In addition, Frau Fahrenkopf is explicitly described as being unrealistic and excessive. When first shown the iguana, she is described as reacting “with exaggerated revulsion” and having a “grotesque attitude of terror” (37). These observations square very neatly with Martin Spevack’s commentary in Tennessee Williams: The Idea of the Theatre, where he states unequivocally that the Germans in The Night of the Iguana are “grotesquely caricatured” (Spevack 228). All of this evidence very clearly shows that German wedding party resoundingly fails the second requirement of being true to life for proper Aristotelian characters. Unfortunately, it only gets worse.
The third requirement as listed above is that for a character to be valid in the eyes of Aristotle, that character must have a sense of propriety. This means that the character must realistic and understandable within the context of their society, and that the character cannot be radically different from what would be expected of such a person in real life. As one might expect at this point, the Germans most certainly do not fulfill this role. From their first appearance, the seem to be intended for shock value, and are described as making “minimal concessions to decency” and generally being extremely physically revealing and distracting (Iguana 7). This is certainly out of character for 1940, and Shannon’s umbrage at Maxine’s shirt only being open reveals the level of propriety that was expected at the time. In addition, the requirement of propriety is also broken in the same way that the one regarding the characters’ trueness to life; the fact that the Germans are very clearly not a realistic group of people, and that their very presence seems to be designed to offend both the other characters’ and the audience’s senses, demonstrates clearly that they do not meet Aristotle’s third requirement for valid characters. The final requirement, consistency, is the only place where it can be argued that the Germans actually do fulfill Aristotle’s requirement. However, such an argument is particularly ill-founded, as the thing the Germans are most consistent at is breaking all the other rules of character. Not a very strong defense. In this way, despite the fact that Germans do technically fulfill the requirement of consistency (which Aristotle incidentally describes as the least important of the four), the German wedding party violates Aristotle’s requirements for valid characters on a truly impressive scale (Poetics 28). Thus, the short answer to the question of the Germans’ validity as characters? Mein Gott, nein!
Such a breach of Aristotle’s rules of character to this extent could easily invalidate Night of the Iguana as a whole play from being valid in Aristotelian terms. As part of the branch of Character, the German party stains the validity of all the other characters in the show, and by extension the plot itself. However, this argument is not entirely valid. This is because the Germans are not most clearly understood or analyzed as characters, but rather as part of the spectacle. If this interpretation is explored, the first factor that becomes immediately apparent is the fact the Germans’ physical appearance and physical actions are far more important and meaningful than anything they actually say. As stated above, one of the main causes of their seeming grotesqueness is their excessive physicality, such as the aforementioned clapping in Nonno’s face, violently rocking the hammock Shannon is tied in, and their generally scanty dressing (39, 59, 8). Their lines, by contrast, primarily extensions of their physical actions, and are not necessary to get the point that they are rude, coarse, and excessive across. In this way, the consistency of their mannerisms and physicality throughout the play is highly reminiscent of the unchanging nature of an ever present set piece, prop, or any other more traditional form of spectacle. In addition to this broader conceptualization of the Germans as part of the spectacle, the group also vindicates this interpretation by fitting very neatly into Aristotle’s two main components of a proper spectacle.
With the same intensity that they defy the tenets of characters, the German wedding party definitively upholds and fulfills those of the spectacle. As Aristotle states, the two most important components that the spectacle must have are that it is not at all fundamentally necessary for the efficacy of the plot and its ability to arouse fear and pity, but that it does help to further the plot in some non-essential manner (Poetics 25). A cursory examination of Night of the Iguana makes it very clear that the Germans are not at all necessary nor fundamental to the plot of the show. They only appear around four times, and each time they are onstage, they are not the primary focus of the scene. Indeed, in an article written for the South Atlantic Review, Norma Jenckes states that “‘there is no compelling reason’ for the German tourists” to exist in the play at all (Jenckes 9). There are no crucial elements of the plot that rely on the Germans. In fact, they often seem to merely serve as an enhancement to what is already taking place, or, if performed poorly, a distraction to the overall plot. A clear example of this is the scene when Maxine and Shannon get into a fight shoving the liquor cart back and forth. In this moment, there is a definite sense of extreme tension and consternation between the two, and their argument is periodically interrupted with the Germans’ rude and demanding call for more champagne (Iguana 44). This is a perfect example of how the spectacle should function. This fight could very easily take place without the Germans present and nothing would be lost. However, the fact that they are there does add additional levels of chaos and intensity to the scene, thus helping to further the plot in a non-essential manner. Another similar example is towards the end of the play when Shannon has been tied up in the hammock after peeing on the ladies’ luggage. In this example, he is already apoplectic and in the middle of a fit, so there is no question as to whether or not the Germans were essential to this plot point coming to fruition. However, Herr Fahrenkopf’s goading of Shannon, as with the demands for champagne earlier, continues to heighten the stakes of the encounter, again improving and aiding the plot, but not in a manner the is essential to its validity. In addition, it is also important to keep in mind that in both of these cases, the words of the Germans are far less important than their physical spectacle, as the feeling of added chaos that they need to bring is generated far more by their loud and obnoxious demeanor and actions than by the specifics of what they say. This only continues to show the ways in which the German tourists can be much more easily understood and their inclusion in the play explained if they are interpreted as part of the Aristotelian spectacle and not as characters.
It is not normal for actual people to be part of the spectacle of a show. However, an interpretation of this nature helps to explain the enigma surrounding the German wedding party in Tennessee Williams’s The Night of the Iguana. The party very clearly violates all of Aristotle’s rules of what character should be, and does so in such a way that would theoretically invalidate the show itself. However, the paradox of the Germans is made clear and understandable if they are treated as part of the spectacle, and the play is vindicated as a valid Aristotelian tragedy as a result. This kind of interpretation creates a wide range of possibilities, and opens the door for a great deal of comparative analysis of Aristotle’s tragic requirements.
Aristotle. Poetics. Edited by S. H. Butcher, Mineola, Dover Publications, 1997. Jenckes, Norma.
“Structures of Feeling in Tennessee Williams’s ‘The Night of the Iguana’ and Edward Albee’s ‘A Delicate Balance.'” South Atlantic Review, vol. 70, no. 4, Fall 2005, pp. 4-22. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20064685. Accessed 1 Dec. 2016. Spevack, Martin.
“Tennessee Williams: The Idea of the Theater.” Jahrbuch Für Amerikastudien, vol. 10, 1965, pp. 221-31. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41155401. Accessed 1 Dec. 2016.
Williams, Tennessee. The Night of the Iguana. Acting ed., New York, Dramatists Play Services, 1961.
Aristotelian Tragedy in Henry IV Part I
Aristotle breaks down the plot of the tragedy into three parts, reversal, recognition and catharsis. Shakespeare includes all three components of plot in his play, Henry IV Part I. He establishes a tragic hero, Harry Percy, and allows him to rise to power and influence. Then at his climax comes the reversal, which results in a fatal stab wound, followed by the recognition, which comes in Percy’s final words before dying. The combination of these two components, mixed with the audience’s ability to relate to Harry Percy and his fatal flaws, lead to the catharsis of emotion at the end of the play. By identifying Harry Percy as the tragic hero of Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I and examining Shakespeare’s use of these three aspects of plot it becomes clear that Henry IV Part I can be identified as an Aristotelian tragedy.
According to Aristotle, a reversal is “a change of the actions to their opposite” (96) that shows the tragic hero’s change of fortune. For a reversal to be successful it must be developed and must arise “in accordance to probability or necessity” (96). In Henry IV Part I, Shakespeare begins this development in Act I Scene I when the Earl of Westmoreland tells King Henry IV of the valiant efforts of Harry Percy at Holmedon. King Henry IV praises Harry Percy’s bravery and says he is “in envy that my Lord Northumberland / Should be the father to so blest a son— / a son who is the theme of honor’s tongue” (1.1.78-80). This praise is amplified as King Henry’s thinks of his own son’s “riot and dishonour” (1.1.84). Shakespeare begins to set up Harry Percy as the tragic hero of the play by introducing his fatal flaw, his hubris, which renders him unable to properly assess his situation and act accordingly, as demonstrated through his interaction with King Henry IV in Act I Scene III. During this conversation Percy blatantly refuses to hand over the prisoners he captured at Holmedon to King Henry saying he will not return the prisoners to the King even “if the devil come and roar for them” (1.3.123).” Unlike his uncles who understand the proper way to speak to a king, Percy is unable to conduct himself properly, which leads him to speak to the king as if he were an acquaintance rather than royalty. Act IV Scene I is another case of Percy’s hubris leading to ignorance. Percy discovers his father has taken ill and will not make it to battle. Instead of recognizing the true reason that his father has not come to battle, his fear of losing to King Henry, and the impact that his absence will have on the battle Percy ignorantly says, “I rather of his absence make this use, / It lends a lustre and more great opinion” (4.1.76-77). Percy’s hubris comes to a climax just before the reversal in Act V Scene IV. As Percy and Prince Hal finally meet on the battle field and prepare to fight, Percy says to the Prince, “the hour is come / To end the one of us; and would to God / Thy name in arms were now as great as mine” (5.4.67-69). This statement makes the result of the battle more shocking as the two men fight and Prince Harry emerges as the victor. As he dies Percy laments the loss of his honor: “O Harry, thou hast robbed me of my youth. / I better brook the loss of brittle life/ Than those proud titles thou hast won of me” (5.4.76-78). The reversal ends when Prince Harry says to Percy’s dead body, “When that this body did contain a spirit, / A kingdom for it was too small a bound, / But now two paces of the vilest earth / Is room enough”(5.4. 88-91).
The recognition, defined by Aristotle, is “a change from ignorance to knowledge” (96) that is most successful “when it happens at the same time as a reversal” (96). In accordance with Aristotle, the recognition follows the reversal in Henry IV Part I. Just as the reversal relies on the power dynamic between Harry Percy and Prince Hal, so does the recognition. Prince Hal’s father initially describes his son as wild and unruly; however in his soliloquy at the end of Act I Scene II, Hal reveals himself to be the opposite. He describes his situation by saying, “I know you all, and will awhile uphold / The unyoked humor of your idleness” (1.2.155-156), and reveals his plan to make himself appear lowly and unworthy of the crown, in order to delight his people with his dramatic transformation, when he reveals his true self. This speech is only heard by the audience and forces the audience to view the Prince differently, while the other characters in the play still view him as unworthy of the crown. The realization finally occurs when Harry Percy recognizes Prince Hal’s true self in Act V Scene IV. With his final words he says “No, Percy, thou art dust, / And food for— (he dies)” (5.4.84-85). Percy finally realizes his mistake in underestimating his opponent and overestimating his own abilities.
The final component of a tragic plot is the catharsis. Catharsis is a purging of emotions that result from a combination of pity and fear. These emotions occur through the audience’s ability to relate to the tragic hero’s descent into misfortune. Aristotle specifies the type of tragic hero that will elicit the best response from an audience. The hero cannot be a wholly good, as that type of character is not relatable and the audience will feel that the hero’s descent into misfortune is cruel. Also, the hero cannot be wholly evil, as the audience will feel as though the character deserves his or her misfortune. Instead, the character must be a combination of good and evil and must descend into misfortune not because of a vice, but because of a fatal character flaw.
In Henry IV Part I, Harry Percy is the tragic hero. Throughout the play Percy is shown as an ambitious warrior whose hubris leads to his downfall. He is seen as honorable and princely but he is also ignorant and tempestuous, as seen in his conversation with King Henry in Act I Scene III. His hubris leads him to reject King Henry IV, who viewed Harry Percy like a son, and allows him to fall from his high position at the beginning of the play, to his death at the end. Prince Hal, after he kills Harry Percy, poignantly describes Percy’s flaw, when he says “Fare thee well, great heart! / Ill-weaved ambition, how much art thou shrunk” (5.4.86-87).
All three components necessary to creating a tragedy are present in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I. The reversal and the recognition occur simultaneously and are followed by the catharsis. While the these three components may not be as tightly constructed as those of the Greek tragedies that Aristotle based his definition on, they are used in accordance, allowing King Henry IV to be defined as a tragedy.
Faux Pas: The French Theatre Academy’s Probable Rejection of Hamlet
Aristotle, in his 335 BCE work of dramatic theory, Poetics, wrote several observations on the nature of ancient Greek theatre and poetry, and also gave his opinions about the qualities he thought theatre and poetry ought to have. Poetics was largely thought to be commentary on theatre and poetry until it received a surge of popularity in France as part of the neo-classical movement. The views and opinions Aristotle expressed in Poetics became wildly popular, especially among the members of the French academy, a panel established to maintain the purity of French arts and literature. Soon after the rediscovery of Poetics, the academy established a rule that no play could be produced unless it lived up to the Aristotelian standard. The Aristotelian standard the French academy set was that all plays had to adhere to the three unities Aristotle wrote about, and also have verisimilitude. In other words, all plays had to have unity of time, unity of place, unity of action, and also had to be believable. While these rules generated some great works, most notably from Corneille and Moliere, ironically enough, some English plays that were written and produced at the same time and probably would have been rejected by the Academy are considered some of the best plays ever written. For instance, even though William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is often considered one of the best plays of the English language, it is likely it would have been rejected by the French academy for not living up to what they perceived to be Aristotle’s standard of theatre.
The first unity Aristotle writes about in Poetics is the unity of time. Aristotle wrote that “tragedy endeavors, as far as possible, to confine itself to a single revolution of the sun, or but slightly to exceed this limit” (Aristotle V). While it is worth mentioning that the sun does not revolve around the Earth, the French academy interpreted the quote to mean that no play’s plot should cover more than twenty four hours. As far as Hamlet is concerned, Shakespeare does not often make mention of the amount of time that has elapsed throughout the text. However, at one point Horatio reads a letter from Hamlet, who has been exiled to England, and the first few lines read “’Horatio, when thou shalt have overlooked / this, give these fellows some means to the king: / they have letters for him. Ere we were two days old / at sea, a pirate of very warlike appointment / gave us chase” indicating that Hamlet spent at least two days at sea, and that story could not have taken place in a span of only twenty hours (4.6.12-16). Aristotle would have been wholly unaccustomed to this form of storytelling, as Greek tragedies often had a very late point of attack, and what’s more, it is likely the French academy would have censored Hamlet on the grounds that the play spans more than one day in the life of the Prince of Denmark.
Hamlet may have also been censored for not having unity of place. In Poetics, Aristotle wrote that “nor, again, can one of vast size be beautiful; for as the eye cannot take it all in at once, the unity and sense of the whole is lost for the spectator; as for instance if there were one a thousand miles long” (Aristotle VII). The French academy interpreted these lines to mean that plays should not have a large setting, and rather, should be limited to one definitive location. Hamlet may have been close to passing inspection in terms of having unity of place because almost the entire play takes place within King Claudius’ castle. However, the stage directions for act four, scene four read “A Plain in Denmark,” indicating that for that scene the characters are outside of the castle and therefore, in a different location than the rest of the play (4.4.0). Aristotle’s firm belief that theatre should imitate real life as closely as possible would have made it difficult for him to accept the change in location, as obviously the stage’s location has not moved, and therefore, the setting should not change either, in order to establish a sense of realism and consistency. The French academy would certainly not have accepted the change in location as it means Hamlet does not have unity of place, and the academy would have had yet another reason to censor the play.
Furthermore, Hamlet would have likely been censored by the French academy for not adhering to Aristotle’s idea of unity of action. Aristotle wrote that in a play, “the plot manifestly ought…to be constructed on dramatic principles. It should have for its subject a single action, whole and complete, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. It will thus resemble a living organism in all its unity, and produce the pleasure proper to it,” (Aristotle XXIII). Hamlet is presented in a linear fashion, which aligns with Aristotle’s idea of unity of time; however, Hamlet does not have a single action as its subject. While the play remains fairly focused on Hamlet’s breakdown, and his plot to expose the king as a murderer, there are digressions within the text. A notable digression is the inclusion of the characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. In the first scene they appear in, King Claudius says to them “I entreat you both, / That, being of so young days brought up with him, / And sith so / neighbour’d to his youth and havior, / That you vouchsafe your rest here in our court / Some little time: so by your companies / To draw him on to pleasures,” which not only serves as being his instructions to them, but also communicates to the audience that these characters are to be the comedic relief (or at least, as close to comedic relief as the play will come) (2.2.10-15). Later on in the scene, Guildenstern confirms his role as a clown of sorts when he says “Heavens make our presence and our practices / Pleasant and helpful to him!” (2.2.37-38). The inclusion of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern would distract from the single action Aristotle talks about, and therefore, it would likely be another reason for the French academy to censor Hamlet.
Aristotle’s final guideline for plays is that they be believable, or have verisimilitude. On the subject of verisimilitude, Aristotle wrote “since Tragedy is an imitation…the example of good portrait-painters should be followed. They, while reproducing the distinctive form of the original, make a likeness which is true to life” which reifies the concept of mimesis, and conveys Aristotle’s belief that the closer to reality a play can come, the better it will be (Aristotle XV). It is difficult to determine whether or not something is believable or not, as few events are completely outside of the realm of possibility. Judging a play based on how likely the events described in it are to occur may expose a bit of a flaw in Aristotle’s thinking, and certainly the thinking of the French academy, as even among groups as broad as optimists and pessimists, believability is subjective. That being said, the end of Hamlet has been criticized for being a bit far-fetched as four characters (the Queen, Claudius, Laertes, and Hamlet) all die within 50 lines of one another (5.2.295-345). Given how often such rapid slaughters occur in reality, it’s likely that Aristotle would have rejected this ending, and that the French academy would have rejected not only the ending, but the play itself.
When looked at solely through the lens of Aristotelian rules such as the three unities and verisimilitude, Hamlet would not be considered a masterpiece, the French academy would have prevented the show from being produced, and the English language’s best play would have never seen the light of day. But even though society’s views on art have shifted such that the work we believe to be the best would be rejected thousands or even hundreds of years ago, society should not be too quick in rejecting the theories in Aristotle’s Poetics, as it is still a valuable piece of literature. There are few other extant works that describe the theatre of the ancient Greeks in such detail, and it offers valuable insight into cohesion and the value of grounding work into reality. Art has ostensibly grown out of Poetics, as well as the French academy. Even so, it is important to continue to read works like Poetics, because by knowing our artistic and literary heritage, we allow art and literature the room to continue grow in the future.