Tragedy 02: What Does It Do For People? cover

Tragedy 02: What Does It Do For People?


A discussion of what the use of tragedy is, and whether the emotional experience of tragic theatre is simply a passing thrill or a vital part of life.

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Tragedy 02: What Does It Do For People?


This NoteStream is taken from the second dialogue in a series of four between experts Oliver Taplin and Joshua Billings.

Here we’re talking about Tragedy with a capital T, and we’re moving on to the question “What does Tragedy do for People?”

The question was opened at the end of the first discussion because we came to think that Tragedy essentially arouses powerful emotions.

Now in real life, emotions are of course a vital part of our experiences, but we have a tendency, perhaps, to control them. At least most societies say you should keep your emotions in control, but perhaps, in the theater, you’re not expected to keep your emotions in control.

Theatre of Epidaurus

Theatre of Epidaurus

The best-preserved example of a classical Greek theatre, the Theatre of Epidaurus,

has a circular orchêstra and probably gives the best idea of the original shape of the Athenian theatre, though it dates from the 4th century BC

Image: "07Epidaurus Theater08" by Fingalo. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0-de


The point about emotions in the theater is that they’re felt vicariously.

They’re not felt about real life; they’re not felt about the life of the person feeling them. The audience feels about things that are being enacted in front of them – things that are being imitated. If you put it negatively, you’d say things that are being faked. And the experience, instead of being “in the world” is contained: contained within a special time and place, usually an auditorium as it was in Ancient Greece, where the theater was a fixed, and indeed a sacred space - sacred to Dionysis - and on the spring days of his festival.


But that raises the question, is the experience of Tragedy only a matter of feeling?

I certainly want to say quite unequivocally, that it is certainly not just a matter of feeling. Now it’s true that emotional response is incredibly fast, and that sometimes our emotions are, I would say, totally unthinking, even completely irrational.

But usually, emotions involve thought, they involve cognition. They involve some kind of processing of what is perceived. You perceive the situation, and then you emotionally respond, so it’s kind of what one might call a cognitive approach to emotion.


And here comes Aristotle again. He pioneered this, though not in his Poetics that we mentioned before, but in his Rhetoric:

discussing how to arouse emotions in the public. It’s obviously very relevant to political campaigning.

Aristotle takes anger as an example, saying “you feel anger if you believe yourself to have been unjustly under-rated, if you think you’ve been unfairly undervalued'. That’s very deceptive... and he also protectively adds that we feel anger strongest with family and with friends, because they’re the people, who of all people, we expect not to underrate us unjustly. We expect our family and our friends to value us with fairness. And that’s relevant to Tragedy, which is so often caught up with the stress and strains of family.


But then Aristotle says also that you feel anger on the behalf of others,

if you’ve been persuaded that they’ve been unfairly undervalued – undeservedly undervalued.

This sense of fairness of what is deserved is fascinating to see how early this develops in children. And it goes very deep, and it’s perhaps, I think especially applicable to pity. You feel pity for suffering, but above all, you feel pity most, and most strongly, for suffering that is undeserved, for suffering that is disproportioned, for suffering that is unfair.

And yet that’s not enough to arouse the emotions of Tragedy because what you feel pity for is not just awful things happening on stage. Tragedy is more than a depiction of having terrible things happen to people. There must be more than disaster in Tragedy, but it’s hard to put your finger on what it is that distinguishes a character in a Tragedy from someone who’s just unlucky.

Aristotle and Plato

Aristotle and Plato

Detail from Raphael's The School of Athens fresco.

In the center of the fresco, at its architecture's central vanishing point, are the two undisputed main subjects: Plato on the left and Aristotle, his student, on the right.

"Sanzio 01 Plato Aristotle" by Raphael - Web Gallery of Art:   Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons


I suppose it’s to do with what one would call narrative context.

The assessment that leads to the feeling, is made interesting, and is made thought provoking by the ethical context, by the morals, by the religion, by the politics, the psychological setting…

These are all built up in the play – at least, as I see it, in a good play – a whole contextual context is built up, and within that the emotions are played.

How does that relate to tragedies of everyday life? Tragedies of everyday life are not going to have the same kind of political context as a tragedy set in the past, or a tragedy set among great heroes. They’re not going to have the same religious context in different religious settings. But what you still get is this complexity of the human situation within, so that you get both the thought and the emotion simultaneously meshing.


Also, in the final analysis, you get a pleasure from Tragedy.

And that’s something that you don’t get from watching horrible things happen.

It’s often asked, “Well, what’s the difference between watching a tragedy in which you see Gloucester’s eyes put out, or perhaps Andromeda, or when we see Oedipus’ eyes put out…what’s the difference between that kind of a horribly atrocity, and going to see a horror movie? Or going to the amphitheater, and watching Roman gladiators chopping each other up?”

And I think, one has to say, that actually a horror show could be tragic if it has a complicated and thought provoking enough context. The horror is not, in itself, anti-tragic at all – Tragedies can sometimes show real grotesque and horrifying actions onstage – for instance when you think of the Bacchae. But, the atrocity is not for atrocity’s sake. It’s part of something larger.

Oedipus at Colonus

Oedipus at Colonus

"Oedipus at Colonus" is one of the three Theban plays of the Athenian tragedian Sophocles.

Painting "Oedipus at Colonus" by Fulchran-Jean Harriet (1776 - 1805)

Thought Provoking

So the context created by the narrative is essential to the whole business!

If the issues and questions raised aren’t thought provoking, then it’s not Tragedy. It’s something else.

And they’re not going to be thought provoking; you're not going to have tragic deaths - without the emotions as well. People sometimes say, “Is Tragedy merely entertainment?” And I say, yes – I don’t think I agree with the “merely” - but Tragedy is entertainment. It’s not somehow above entertainment; it’s not somehow transcending or superior to entertainment.

Audiences and readers go to it for, as we said, a certain kind of pleasure.


There’s even a compulsion.

I always remember Keat’s ode on sitting down to read King Lear again. He said,

“...for once again the fierce dispute,

Betwixt damnation and impassion'd clay

Must I burn through ...”

And this “Must I burn through” is the compulsion: he has to- he can’t keep away from it! - he is a kind of addicted to it, and he must “burn through it”. So there is a kind of pleasure in the distress.

King Lear by Joshua Reynolds

King Lear by Joshua Reynolds

Oil on canvas, 1760.


So the pleasure is certainly there, but it is hard, then, to define where that pleasure comes from.

One of the ways it’s been defined, and a word you hear again and again, and which ultimately goes back to Aristotle’s Poetics, is the word “catharsis” – some kind of purgation. But it’s hard to say what is purged. What do we lose at the end of a Tragedy and how it is lost: is it an emotional response, a cognitive response, and then how could that loss be some kind of pleasure?

It’s the one thing everyone seems to agree about: that Tragedy has something to do with catharsis: “I went to this Tragedy and had a really good catharsis!” But I don’t really like it, and I’m not sure it is the right concept at all; it’s too purgative.

People argue endlessly over exactly what Aristotle meant by it, but what is agreed is it’s getting rid of something bad, and it’s a purgation, it’s a purification, it’s a cleansing.


But I’m not sure at all that does justice, really, to the experience of Tragedy.

I think medical metaphors are pretty unavoidable, but I prefer metaphors that are of taking in, rather than getting rid of; of ingesting, of taking on board. Sometimes I think it’s more like homeopathy – where you take a dose of the poison, in order to cure the poison. Even better than that, I think is vaccination or inoculation. Now there, processed from the actual virus or whatever, is something that is put into the system in order to strengthen the system against the full dose: to strengthen against the unbearable, and possibly fatal illness.


I’d like to explore the idea that Tragedy strengthens its viewers for life outside the theater.

It’s not going to ward off suffering; none of us are immune to unpredictable suffering. It might give us the illusion, it might give us the feeling that it’s somehow helping us to ward off the disease, but it can’t do that.

But Tragedy can increase our understanding, in can increase our insight, it can inform our life outside the theater. And if that’s right - if Tragedy is kind of an inoculation which enables you to cope better with life - then it’s not something you leave behind, like a catharsis, it’s not something that goes down the sewer.

It’s something you take with you out of the theater.


So it’s the way you feel after a good workout – Tragedy is a workout of emotions and feelings, of the ways we understand our place in the world.

And that’s why I don’t think that it’s a purification - or that a kind of getting rid of - is quite right.

Feeling and thinking through this incredibly intense experience in the theater, I think it was rather a crucible, (perhaps that’s because the Greek theater is the shape of half of a crucible,) in which you are subjected to these huge heaves which would be unbearable in reality.

But by getting this kind of controlled dose, you’re strengthened for the understanding of life.

Curtain Call

Curtain Call


The control of it is also crucial. One of things that Aristotle understands particularly well,

is that in Tragedy, we’re in an artistically shaped world so the things that might, if we were to witness them in real life be too terrible to derive any benefit from, in a theater, where they’re controlled, where they’re meted out with care and with intelligence in their execution, with technique and artistry and with beauty – in that kind of a controlled dose, that vicarious living through disaster – a disaster at second remove maybe - makes us more able to cope with the real disasters .

So now the question becomes, Does Tragedy Teach? This will be the subject of the third NoteStream in this series of What is Tragedy?.