Unessay 2

From a postmodern perspective, the simple label of something being a “tragedy” seems to require further investigation. As we’ve pointed out in class, the definition, when investigated and pushed, doesn’t hold in all situations. While this isn’t necessarily a brand new observation, this is an observation with a fairly extensive history: theories of tragedy span back to Plato’s dialogues, with a firm foundation in Aristotle’s Poetics. Of course, since then, this definition has been challenged, and new theoretical understandings of what makes a tragedy a tragedy have been offered. However, Aristotle’s understanding of tragedy is virtually exclusively, as with most ancient Greek texts, written from a western perspective. Further, Aristotle’s Poetics view art as a self-contained aesthetic object, in that art, literature, and theatre can be viewed as external to the social and cultural conditions which produced them. In this way, the basis for theories of tragedy may be insufficient for capturing cultural nuances, nuances which would presumably be “external” to the western sphere of experience. This is especially for literature on a global context— outside the sphere of traditional western canonicity. 

According to Aristotle’s early conceptions of tragedy, in order for something to be considered ‘tragic’, it must, most importantly for the Aristotelian view, have a moment of Katharsis. Coming from a medical term which details how the body rids itself of poison, Aristotle used this term to describe the feeling during the end of a tragedy. This moment of, presumably, intense sadness following the events on stage, is paradoxically also a ‘feel good’ moment because of the sense of closure and “being cleansed” the viewer gets from their sadness. In this sense then, the individual experience of Katharsis being at the center of Aristotle’s view of tragedy clues in on an emphasis on individual experience within the plot and structure of tragedy itself. 

For the audience, Katharsis was the most important part of what made a tragedy a tragedy. For the structure of the plot, however, there were also key components that made up the definition of a tragedy. Here, Aristotle highlights Sophecle’s play Oedipus the King as being “the perfect tragedy”. In addition to Oedipus the King being particularly successful in evoking the feeling of Katharsis central to tragedy as a genre, this play also, according to classic models, exemplifies other key components of tragedy as well as a successful plot structure for a play in general. Importantly, a key feature of “what made a play successful to Aristotle”  was a sense of resolution. In short, this means that the play is realistic and the sequence of events could feasibly happen in real life. Here, the emphasis on resolution through realism is made apparent: the plot and events, according to this theoretical approach, should fit in the span of a day. Anything outside this range would be considered unrealistic. This would take away from the realism, therefore taking away from how much the audience can relate to the play, minimizing the pivotal feeling Katharsis the audience should experience. 

If Katharsis is central to Aristotle’s definition of tragedy, but Katharsis essentially relies on temporal realism (ie: resolution of plot within a roughly 24 hour cycle) does Aristotle’s definition of tragedy hold beyond a classical western understanding of time? Can Aristotle’s theory of tragedy coincide with notions of Karmic Debt, or does this understanding of tragedy discount, or not fully encapsulate other cultures? Here, the ending of the play, The Recognition of Shakuntala may provide insight into how to approach this issue. In this play by ancient Indian poet Kalidasa, based on the Indian epic Mahābhārata, the ending could be construed as being left ambiguous, yet still “tragic” for Shakuntala: After 

The closing lines in the play signify that this play does not have any sort of satisfying denumant: for the plot itself, this signifies that while the main conflict was solved, there is now a potential “sub-plot line” opened up, one which never gets resolved. Shakuntala is now, presumably, nothing more than the “thing” that ensures the King’s lineage, while the King doesn’t have to take any actual responsibility. In this sense, then, this play is tragic precisely because it defies the strict confines of the (roughly) 24 hour limit. The tragedy of Shakuntala is that her debt is never quite repaid, deferred would be a better term. Although Durvasas curse, the initial conflict, is resolved and Shakuntala is reunited with her child, this essentially exposes another conflict which can’t be resolved within the span of the play

“Kashyapa: Galava, fly through the air at once, carrying pleasant tidings from me to holy Kanva. Tell him how Durvasas’ curse has come to an end, how Dushyanta recovered his memory, and has taken Shakuntala with her child himself”  (Sakuntala, pg. 92). 

“King: Can there be more than this? Yet may this prayer be fulfilled. 

May kingship benefit the land. 

And may wisdom grow in scholar’s band. 

May Shiva see my faith on Earth; 

And make me free of all rebirth” (Sakuntala, pg. 93). 

Since the play is left “open” as opposed to “closed” or resolved in the traditional sense of an Aristotilian tragedy, the postmodern reader may be clued in on a Feminist reading, which would make this ending feel tragic, but at odds with Aristotles definition of tragedy. A tragedy that follows the rules is centered around a character’s “change of fortune”, which essentially details how a character “ depicts a change of fortune, either from bad to good fortune, or, more likely, from good to bad fortune”. However, this play’s ending doesn’t really even resolve (or address) the feminist issues central to the text, therefore the “change of fortune” Shakuntala experiences may actually go from “bad” to “worse”, if the play is considered in a broader societal context. 

In this sense, the play may be “tragic”, since we may be inclined to empathize (sympathize? Still not sure about these terms) with Shakuntala, but fails to fit the definition of a tragedy from this particular theoretical perspective. Using these two points, the feminist perspective and the way a play is resolved/the time a play is given to be resolved in, it seems like the definition of “tragedy” or tragedy as a genre is highly culturally contingent. The classical model of tragedy insists on a closed ending, where the individual faces defeat or triumphs and consequences stop when the curtain closes. In this way, classical tragedy as a genre might be thought of as being a highly “inward” and self reflective genre. While this works to some extent for considering individual circumstances, this approach is ultimately one that assumes all individual circumstances can be judged in the same way, based on the same cultural assumptions. Aristotle’s theory of tragedy may work well in some aspects, but it ultimately misses out on many cultural nuances, since it assumes a western standpoint. 

Works Cited 

Kalidasa, and Arthur W. Ryder. Kalidasa Translations of Shakuntala, and Other Works. London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1912. Print. 

Conversi, Leonard W. “Tragedy.” Britannica, www.britannica.com/art/tragedy-literature/Aeschylus-the-first-great-tragedian. Accessed 4 May 2022.

Sachs, Joe. “Aristotle: Poetics.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, iep.utm.edu/aristotle-poetics/. Accessed 4 May 2022.

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