Classical And Renaissance Tragedy

“All tragedies are finished by death” (Byron, Don Juan, 3.9). With reference to one classical and one Renaissance tragedy, discuss either the presentation of death or the importance of the ending in tragic drama.

In this essay I will be looking at the importance of the ending in tragic drama with reference to Sophocles' Oedipus the King and Cyril Tourneur's The Atheist's Tragedy or, The Honest Mans Revenge (1611)

Lord Byron's above quote in its entirety states, “all tragedies are finished by a death, all comedies are ended by a marriage”. In The literature workbook, Calvo and Jacques explain that Byron's aim is to illustrate the difference between tragedies and comedies; “comedies have a happy ending”, whereas tragedies do not. Byron's definition rests on a long established practice of regarding tragedy and comedy as two well differentiated, almost incompatible dramatic genres: since classical Greek tragic drama moves us and fills us with fear or pity, comedy simply leads to laughter”[1]. Therefore when declaring “All tragedies are finished by death” Byron was determining their sombre nature in comparison to comedy, not in isolation. Notably, most if not all tragedies always involve some form of death through suffering, however the deaths are not arbitrary isolated incidents and affect the play as a whole. Furthermore, death in the ending is not mutually exclusive. Consequently the importance of the ending in tragic drama must be dependent on other classical markers of its genre. Therefore in order assess the ending one must begin by defining what makes a drama a tragedy.

According to Aristotle's Poetics written around 330 BC, “Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is admirable; complete (composed of an introduction, a middle part and an ending), and possesses magnitude; in language made pleasurable, each of its species separated in different parts performed by actors, not through narration; effecting through pity and fear the purification of such emotions”[2]. This reinforces the previous idea of catharsis of such incidents whereby the key element of tragedy is felt “through pity and fear” resulting from a good ending. Furthermore, Aristotle stresses that the other most important element to a quality tragedy is a well conceived plot[3]. He asserts that “the structure of the best tragedy should be not simple but complex”. Aristotle citied Sophocles' Oedipus the King as the perfect example of such a classical tragedy.

Oedipus the King is an Athenian tragedy by Sophocles performed in 429 BC. The first criterion of a Greek tragedy as also defined by Aristotle's Poetics is that the hero of a tragedy must be a person who is neither perfect in virtue and justice, nor one who falls into misfortune through vice and depravity, but rather, one who succumbs through some miscalculation“ (ch. 13)[4]. Sophocles reveals at the start of the play that Oedipus is such a man through his endeavours to solve the riddle of the sphinx and alleviate the plague afflicting Thebes, “You can trust me; I am ready to help, I'll do anything (Sophocles 1225). As is common in the Greek tragedy Oedipus is also an aristocrat. Born of the King and Queen of Thebes he is of true nobility. Following Aristotle's qualifications of the tragic hero Oedipus does have a tragic flaw, hamartia, which brings about his end. Pride, or hubris is usually at the root of most tragic protagonist's downfall however in this case Oedipus' main flaw is ignorance, impatience and blindness to his own fate. This characteristic not only leads to his demise but may also enable the reader to sympathize and identify with the character. His ignorance enables him to believe his parents are the King and Queen of Corinth, however unknowingly, Oedipus was abandoned as a baby and adopted by them. . Contentment and circumstance leads to Oedipus killing his father and marrying his mother. This thus fullfills Aristotle's criteria for a well-formed plot through connection and closure. Due to the fact that the story was already well known to his audience Sophles's success rests on the use of dramatic irony and a well constructed closing.

Unusually, although the resolution began before the start of the play, the climax of Oedipus the King still occurs in the ending through Oedipus's recognition that he is in fact the very man that he was looking for. He was responsible for the plague, murdered his father and committed incest with his mother. The consequences of Oedipus's learning of his true identity and crimes results in him blinding himself. This provides the necessary suffering as an action that involves destruction or pain, such as death, extreme agony, wounding of the tragedy. Similarly D'Amville in The Atheist's Tragedy is also literally responsible for his own suffering. The prophet Tiresias's blindness foreshadows his ignorance to the truth and the action itself. Tiresias says: “So, you mock my blindness? Let me tell you this. You [Oedipus] with your precious eyes, you're blind to the corruption of your life...” (469)[5]. Hence, sight serves as a metaphor for insight and knowledge, but previously sighted Oedipus was ironically blind to the truth about his origins and inadvertent crimes.

At the end of Oedipus the King, the chorus delivers a sombre message directly to the audience stating, “count no man happy till he dies, free of pain at last” (1684). Here the Chorus suggest Oedipus is dead, and their final line implies there might be some relief however they realize that Oedipus is not dead. He wanders, blind and miserable, somewhere outside of Thebes. This demonstrates that suffering and not death is the main component to tragic drama. The audience still sympathize with and pity Oedipus because his crimes were committed in ignorance. His wilful self-mutilation demonstrates his remorse and thus the plot reaches resolution through catharsis. Sophocles' ending finalizes the concept that you cannot escape your fate and the fact that Oedipus does not die as with most tragedies if of great significance and impact.

Cyril Tourneur's The Atheist's Tragedy or The Honest Man's Revenge also offers an alternative insight into the importance of the ending in tragic drama. It is a Renaissance tragedy revived from the classical Greeks fusing Elizabethan and Jacobean era stage drama and storyline complexities. Although the play retains many of the characteristics of the revenge tragedy dating back to the Seneca and Thomas Kyd's Spanish Tragedy (turning a good man or in this case honest man into a revenger), it is still unique. It offers “tension in revenge action and conventional Christian morality, thinly disguised[6]” in atheist beliefs. Surprisingly, the revenger takes no action, and looks to Heaven for Justice.[7]” Tourneur's deferred ending opposes human retribution and thus becomes the archetype of an 'anti revenge' play. The ramifications of which makes it the first radical departure from the mainstream bloody Elizabethan revenge tragedy. Since the refutation of atheism is Tourneur's main objectives in the ending of this play, an understanding of the Elizabethan conception of atheism is pertinent[8].

“The term atheism originated from Greek atheos, meaning “without gods”. Atheism can be either the rejection of theism, or the absence of belief in the existence of deities.[9] This disbelief is openly exhibited by D'Amville, the Machiavellian villian of The Atheist's Tragedy, in the first words he utters to Barachio in the opening scene of the play. He states, “thou art read In Nature and her large philosophy. Observ'st thou not the very self same course Of revolution both in man and beast?” (I. i. 3-6[10]) Here D'Amville attempts to equate man with the beasts. In essence, he is denying that spiritual quality which Christians believe separates mankind from animals. He ironically displaces God with nature as a false centre. “Tourneur never tires of reiterating the irony that 'atheism' does not mean freeing oneself from the adoration of deity, but merely substituting a false and debased god for a true one”[11]. Hence the hypocrisy of Nature substituting God bears resemblance to paganism. D'Amville displays an epicurean mentality which later proves to be his downfall; “Then if death casts up Our total sum of Joy and happiness. Let me have all my senses feasted in Th' abundant fulness of delight at once (I. i. 16-21[12]) Believing that there is no power above nature and holding material pleasure as highest objective with no thought of the consequences or afterlife D'Amville starts off ruthlessly and single-mindedly pursuing the wealth that will enrich his miserable posterity. D'Amville's disregards all moral and social codes. Consequently, family discord and rival tensions grow. His decision to disinherit his Nephew, murder his brother and attempt to rape Castabella is accompanied by no pangs of conscience (IV. ii. i.[13])

In contrast juxtaposing the tragic villain D'Amville, is Charlemont, the “revenger” or “the Honest Man“ and tragic hero. Although his victimisation would exonerate him partially or fully for exacting revenge, Charlemont remains stoic and almost entirely passive. Furthermore atheism is portrayed as destructive and unsustainable hence no revenge action is required of the protagonist regardless. “When he is once tempted to retaliate in the face of outrageous provocation, the ghost of his murdered father orders him to desist. Old Montferrers is meant to contrast vividly with the typical vindictive revenge-play phantom[14]”. Therefore Charlemont is the embodiment of profoundly conventional Christian virtue. The moralizing of character type is key in maintaining a successful ending to the play. Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences took a negative view of personal vengeance, stressing instead the Christian requirement to be patient and leave revenge to God. This alternative allows for justice and salvation whilst avoiding eternal damnation. The Aristotelian resolution necessary is provided at the end of the tragic drama through divine justice. According to Kyd the self-destructive nature of D'Amville's atheism is reflected in his death; ipso facto, his death at his hands. D'Amville snatches the axe from the hands of the executioner, intending to strike Charlemont, he staggers and strikes out his own brains(V. ii. 227-228). Hence evil destroys itself. However true to classical generic markers as he dies he confesses and the final recognition of the providence of God occurs whereby D'Amville asks Charlemont to teach him the secret of his fortitude (V. ii. 15I1.-159). Therefore he dies as one who has come to see the error of his ways though too late to be saved (V. ii. 257-268)

In conclusion what makes revenge unnecessary in The Atheist's Tragedy is the existence of God who compensates for failures of human justice, in the future if not in the present, in the next world if not in this one. 'Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord'.[15] Consequently Levidulchia, her lover Sebastian and her husband Baron Belforest also face a similar inevitable fate as a result of their affairs reiterating that no subversive wrong doers go unnoticed or unpunished. Likewise God also rewards the virtuous man exemplified by Charlemont and Castabella who unlike D'Amvile who looks to social and dynastic order they faithfully attribute justice and wealth to the works of heaven. Accordingly Charlemont and Castabella's tolerance is eventually recognized stating; “Now I see that patience is the honest man's revenge (V. ii. 275-279) In order for such morals to appeal to a renaissance audience they receive immediate and tangible rewards that were more than promises of a paradise that was to come only after death. Hence they marry, as originally intended and receive wealth and titles. The cathartic implication of such a conveniently neat and happy ending it to reiterate the importance of God as the ultimate judge and executioner who punishes and destroys the wicked and protects the innocent.

As outlined in the beginning, the key component to tragedy is catharsis through the plot. This is achieved through recognition and realization. A satisfactory ending is crucial as is evidence of a complex well structured plot. Likewise catharsis resolves the tragedy of the plot. In both plays a literal and social catharsis is achieved but not necessarily through death. Although an audience may experience satisfaction from an unhappy ending this comes about not from the death itself but as a probable or necessary consequence of the hero's actions and the results of those actions and fate. Dr. Larry A. Brown further clarifies this distinction between death and ending stating that: “Aristotle's definition does not include an unfortunate or fatal conclusion as a necessary component of tragedy. Usually we think of tragedy resulting in the death of the protagonist along with several others. While this is true of most tragedies (especially Shakespeare), Aristotle acknowledges that several Greek tragedies end happily. In tragedy people must make difficult choices and face serious consequences, but they do not always meet with death. In Oedipus the King the hero inflicts his own punishment by blinding himself, but he goes into exile instead of dying.”[16] This demonstrates that the importance of the ending in tragic drama is the resolution; the conflict is successfully resolved. In conclusion both Sophocles' Oedipus the King and Cyril Tourneur's The Atheist's Tragedy clearly disprove Lord Byron's statement that “all tragedies are finished by a death”. The success and importance of their ending is not dependant on death but on the quality of the plot and completion of justice.

  1. Calvo, Clara and Weber. Jacques. Jean, The literature workbook (Routledge, 1998)
  2. Aristotle, The Poetics ed. Malcolm Heath (London: Penguin Group, 1996) p.10
  3. Aristotle, The Poetics ed. Malcolm Heath (London: Penguin Group, 1996) p.10
  4. Aristotle, The Poetics ed. Malcolm Heath (London: Penguin Group, 1996)
  5. Sophocles, Theban Plays: King Oedipus Tyrannos ed. Robert Fagles (London: Penguin Group, 1974)
  6. Miola, Robert S., Shakespeare and Classical Tragedy: The Influence of Seneca (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992)
  7. Schneider, Jack, The Atheist's Tragedy: The Atypical Revenge Tragedy (1969)
  8. Sternberg, Meir, Expositional modes and temporal ordering in fiction (Indiana: University Press, 1993)
  10. Tourneur, Cyril, The Atheist's Tragedy(Oxford: University Press, 1998)
  11. Maus. Eisaman. Katharine, Four Revenge Tragedies:introduction (Oxford: University Press, 1998)
  12. Tourneur, Cyril, The Atheist's Tragedy(Oxford: University Press, 1998)
  13. Tourneur, Cyril, The Atheist's Tragedy(Oxford: University Press, 1998)
  14. Maus. Eisaman. Katharine, Four Revenge Tragedies:introduction (Oxford: University Press, 1998)
  15. Maus. Eisaman. Katharine, Four Revenge Tragedies:introduction (Oxford: University Press, 1998)

Please be aware that the free essay that you were just reading was not written by us. This essay, and all of the others available to view on the website, were provided to us by students in exchange for services that we offer. This relationship helps our students to get an even better deal while also contributing to the biggest free essay resource in the UK!