When people describe an event as “tragic,” the first thing that comes to mind is that something terrible has happened to a person or people. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines tragedy as “a very bad event that causes great sadness and often involves someone's death; a very sad, unfortunate, or upsetting situation , something that causes strong feelings of sadness or regret, [or] a play, movie, etc., that is serious and has a sad ending.” In life, it is not difficult to classify particular situations as tragic, such as the ending of a young life by a drunk driver or the destruction of the World Trade Center by terrorists. However, in literature, being able to define a piece as tragic is more complex. Even a comedy, biopic, or otherwise light-hearted drama can include elements of tragedy. For instance, in the movie Ray (2004), the title character Ray Charles experiences several tragic incidences, including going blind as a child and the death of his mistress, Margie. The movie cannot be considered tragedy, however, because the movie carries an uplifting theme of redemption in which Ray’s conquering of addiction and success as a musician symbolize his triumph over temptation, pride, and other demons that could have consumed him. Ray lives a long life with success in his career, surrounded by loving family and giving the world joy through the music he is famous for making.
If tragedy in literature is not defined by inclusion of death, sadness, upsetting situations, or regret, then there must be other qualities in the piece in order to allow it to fall within the category of tragedy. According to Aristotle, tragedy is “an imitation of an action of high importance, complete and of some amplitude, in language enhanced by distinct and varying beauties; acted not narrated; by means of pity and fear effecting its purgation of these emotions” (Aristotle 1203). Chief elements of Aristotle’s tragedy include the tragic hero possessing a tragic flaw, “katharsis” or purgation, and recognition and reversal (Aristotle 1203-1204). According to Aristotle, the main character of a tragedy is “a person of ‘high estate,’ apparently a king or queen or other member of the royal family” (Aristotle 1203). However, in an essay addressing the subject of tragedy written by playwright Arthur Miller over 2000 years later, Miller argues against the idea that only the high born are proper subjects for tragedy. According to Miller, the common man is equally subject to tragedy as are the royal or exceptional; he writes, “if the exultation of tragic action were truly a property of the high-bred character alone, it is inconceivable that the mass of mankind should cherish tragedy above all other forms, let alone be capable of understanding it” (Miller, “Tragedy,” 1831). Miller also adds that to make a tragedy distinct from mere pessimism or pathos, “the possibility of a victory must be there” (Miller 1833).
It appears that over the past two millennia, the concept of tragedy has evolved, although some basic elements remain the same. Tragedy includes a “tragic hero” possessing a tragic flaw; this flaw is the catalyst promoting the tragic results. This hero can be a noble character such as Sophocles’ King Oedipus in Oedipus the King or a common man such as Willy Lowman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Miller struck on an important point of tragedy in his essay in that it must contain a situation to which the audience can relate. The idea that victory must always be a possibility appears to be more of a 20th century addition to the definition of tragedy; y it reflects the “American Dream” in which Americans tend to believe there is always a possibility of great success no matter the odds. The common factor in classical and modern tragedy appears to be the ultimate failure of the tragic hero to either beat the odds or escape fate.
Sophocles’ Oedipus the King includes all of Aristotle’s elements of tragedy. As a tragic hero, Oedipus is an admirable figure as a King who cares greatly for the welfare of his people, but his tragic flaw resides in his great pride. The recognition Oedipus experiences is in finally discovering his true identity. A messenger arrives to tell him, “Are you aware these fears of yours are groundless?” and reveals that Polybus and Merope were not his biological parents (Sophocles 1206). Further recognition ensues when a palace servant reveals to him that Queen Jocasta gave this servant a baby, he says, “So I would kill it,” because “She was afraid of dreadful prophecies” (Sophocles 1406, 1409). He realizes that all of the prophecies, that he would kill his father and marry his own mother, have come to pass. This brings his reversal; no longer is he a revered king, but a man who has tried to defy the Gods with pride in refusing to see his own situation; his self-effacement and exile represent his downfall from his high stature and reversal of his fortunes.
Oedipus the King is at odds with Miller’s definition of tragedy because it appears there is no escape for King Oedipus from his fate. However, the idea of success is dangled as bait in front of Oedipus, because in the beginning he believes that the real problem is that a plague is decimating his people and his initial idea is to find a way to solve that problem. All along, Oedipus believes that he is on the trail of solving a riddle in which he can find an easy culprit, a simple wrongdoer and criminal who can be exiled, and health and harmony will be restored to his citizens. As the audience learns, the downfall of Oedipus is veritably in motion before the play begins. While the events of the play appear to be singular, the Chorus ends by saying, “we cannot call a mortal being happy/ before he’s passed beyond life free from pain” (Sophocles 1829-1830). In other words, tragedy is a part of the human condition, something all people experience whether they are of high birth or common. After all, they are mortal, and unlike the Gods, lack supernatural power and control, which is echoed in one of Creon’s last lines to Oedipus, “Don’t try to be in charge of everything” (Sophicles1804).
Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman, does not fit with Aristotle’s definition of tragedy in that its main tragic character, Willy Lowman, is not a character of noble birth or even a man of extraordinary success. Even his surname, Lowman, implies that the character is a common man who, like the average person, struggles with simple problems such as keeping a job and providing for a family. Unlike Oedipus, Willy is not a leader who is responsible for the welfare of a kingdom. Sophocles uses a King to represent humanity in order to strike home to his audience the lesson that no one is immune from the trials and pain of life. In contrast, Miller uses his common-man character and the ordinary situations he struggles with to send a similar though not identical message, that even the plainest example of humanity is capable of being a tragic figure.
In Death of a Salesman, setting Willy Lowman as the tragic hero, possesses a tragic flaw which is that he denies the hard facts about his life. He is not a good salesman and therefore has trouble affording all of the appliances and other things he bought for his family, but prefers to maintain an illusion of success by lying about his sales and getting loans in order to pay his bills. His son Biff is simultaneously the representative of defeat with his bad grades and behavior, but also his greatest yet misplaced hope for vicarious success. Realization occurs for Willy because he realizes that his ambitions for himself are never going to come to pass. The tragedy of the situation is that his denial of reality is so strong that he commits suicide for some insurance money for Biff ; Willy doesn’t realize that the insurance company told his wife “That all these accidents in the last year — weren’t — weren’t — accidents” (Miller, “Death”). His death won’t be ruled an accident and his dream of forwarding success to Biff will fail.
The question of whether or not a victory or success was ever possible for Willy Lowman, as Miller says is necessary for tragedy, is a good one. It seems that if victory were possible, it would mean that Willy would begin to be able to see his life and the world with a more honest, candid eye. Perhaps he would visit a counselor who would urge him to accept his family members and himself as they are, he would change careers to one more suitable to his personality, he would accept the job that Charley offers to him, he would strive to live more within his means, or any number of things that would be a lot less interesting to watch in the play. Miller’s play asks its audience less to identify completely with the tragic hero than it does to take a lesson from him, which is that what humanity really has in common is a need to see things realistically and to deal with life accordingly.
Both plays are tragedies and both make use of the tragic hero, tragic flaw, and realization in order to complete the tragedy itself. However, the playwrights’ approach to selection of a tragic hero and humanity is different. Sophocles uses a King as his tragic hero because to his audience, it is natural that a King should represent his people and therefore civilized humanity. Miller uses a common man and a common situation not because it accurately represents the lives of his audience, but because in this man the audience can see pieces of itself, pieces of people it knows, and elements of society working for and against the character that are easily related to. In the over 2400 years separating the plays, the difference in culture, technology, governments, and other factors make it necessary to constantly innovate in forms of literature, including tragedies. As a product of ancient Greek culture, it is expected that Sophocles’ play would include the conventions of the time, including oracles, sphinxes, prophecies, and kings. As a product of 20th century American culture, it is expected that Miller’s play would reflect the American Dream of success as well as everyday American people worrying about jobs, school, material goods, and marriages.
Although the form of tragedy has evolved over the millennia, it cannot be denied by a modern audience that Oedipus the King is a tragedy. It would be a lot more difficult to take a play like Death of a Salesman back in time to Sophocles’ age and to present Miller’s play to a Greek audience as a good tragedy. What Miller and Sophocles have done is what any good playwright would do, that is, they have formed their works to appeal to an audience of their own times. Just because Oedipus the King does not fit every requirement of Miller’s essay on tragedy and Death of a Salesman does not fit every requirement of Aristotle’s concept of tragedy does not mean these plays are not tragedies. The main elements that connect them as tragedies are their tragic heroes with tragic flaws and the endings which do not depict victory or success. While there are some things that are very different in each tragedy, these differences illustrate more of a cultural change rather than the basic aspect of humanity that understands and appreciates tragedy.
Aristotle. “Aristotle’s Concept of Tragedy.” Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing. New York: Longman, 2012. Print.
Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. 1949. PDF file.
Miller, Arthur. “Tragedy and the Common Man.” Literature: nA Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing. New York: Longman, 2012. Print.
Ray. Dir. Taylor Hackford. Perf. Jamie Foxx, Regina King, and Kerry Washington. Universal Pictures. 2004. Film.
Sophocles. Oedipus the King. Trans. Ian Johnson. 420 B.C. Microsoft Word file.