"Ain't Gonna Study War No More"

My Photo
Location: Brooklyn, New York, United States

Right-To-Life Party, Christian, Anti-War, Pro-Life, Bible Fundamentalist, Egalitarian, Libertarian Left

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Birth of Greek Tragedy

The Tragic Elements of Myth

Prometheus_Bound - Thomas Cole
Prometheus_Bound - Thomas Cole

"Tragedy", say D.W.S Ryan and T.P Rossiter, "evolved from myth"(4). In its simplest definition, Tragedy is "a serious play representing the disastrous downfall of a central character, the protagonist"(Baldick 226). Tragedy, like myth, depicts an event of universal significance with lasting implications not only for the characters but also for the audience.

Origins of Tragedy

Tragedy arose from "the worship of Dionysos, god of wine and fertility"(Brown "Tragedy" n.pag) in several reported ways. Some Ancient "hero cults memorialized the hero's suffering with tragic choruses"(Brown "Tragedy" n.pag). Aristotle, however, suggests Tragedy evolved from "improvisations [made to] dithyrambs, a type of choral poetry celebrating mythological subjects"(Brown "n.pag). Tragedy later became a way for dramatists to re-examine the themes expressed in the myths and reflect upon contemporary life.

Tragedy as Genre

According to Brown, "Tragedy came to signify a dramatic presentation of high seriousness and noble character which examines the major questions of human existence"("Tragedy" n.pag). The link between Tragedy and ancient Greek myth is most evident in the Prometheus myth. Here, the fate of humankind rests upon the titan who dares to defy the despotic Zeus.

The Tragic Cosmos

Tragedy explores human existence within a cosmos that often disrupts man's ability to rise within the universe or comprehend humanity's place within it. Prometheus's story is indicative of this. In the beginning, he fights alongside the Olympians during the Titans' revolt. Prometheus is "the wisest of his race"(Graves 141) and a trusted ally. Athene, "at whose birth from Zeus' head he had assisted, [teaches] him architecture, astronomy, [and] mathematics"(141), among other skills. Initially loved and honoured by the gods, Prometheus is awarded the sum of earthly knowledge.

In its infancy, humanity is "a weak, ignorant, and defenceless" race"(Warner 5). But Prometheus, "for some reason of his own, love[s] [them]"(5). He hates that humans "[live] like animals in caves", 'adapting' to new situations. Much like the non-Greek gods Osiris and Raven, Prometheus saves humans from a state of barbaric ignorance. He teaches them "every art and every science" including an appreciation of "the beauty and strength of thought and feeling"(Warner 5).

An unloving creator, Zeus "[begrudges] men all the gifts that Prometheus ha[s] given them"(5) because it grants them "the ability to shape their lives into something better", to raise "their thoughts to heaven"(Warner 5). To the tyrannical god, humanity's "increasing powers and talents"(Graves 141) constitutes another rebellion he must smite. Humiliated after Prometheus dupes him into accepting "bones and fat" as the "divine" sacrifice, Zeus robs humans of fire and condemns them to eat raw flesh (Graves 141). In this universe, human potential stagnates.

The Tragic Vision

The overall "tragic vision" shows "characters struggling within the limitations of mortality...[and attempting]...to find meaning and purpose to human activity"(Brown "After" n.pag). Why such apathetic gods create humans goes unanswered. To thwart Prometheus, Zeus has Hephaestus create Pandora, the one who condemns humanity to mortal death by opening the jar and unleashing "all the Spites that might plague mankind"(Graves 142), namely "Old Age, Labour, Sickness, Insanity, Vice, and Passion"(142). Like their malevolent creators, each "attack[s] the race of mortals"(142).

Humans become pawns in a divine game. This theme permeates tragedy from Aeschylus to Shakespeare. Prometheus has intended to create a junior civilization worthy of the gods and to give them a meaningful existence. A fatherly benefactor, he "[is] not satisfied that man [will] be like the animals"(Warner 4) and "fashion[s] man in a nobler form, upright like the gods,...superior to...animals"(4). For this crime, Prometheus "endure[s] great punishment"(4). Tragedy arouses pity and fear because one "envision[s] [oneself] within this [universal order]"(McManus n.pag).

The Tragic Hero

Tragic heroes are those persons who "dissatisfied with the hand destiny [has] dealt them"(Brown "After" n.pag) challenge the very forces of the universe with disastrous consequences. The hero is a larger than life figure, a person whose "rise and fall determine[s] the fate of others...and...shakes the world itself"(Brown "Tragedy" n.pag). By giving humans fire, Prometheus commits hamartia, a miscalculation that orchestrates his downfall, leaving humans vulnerable to Zeus. The god orders "his two invincible servants, Power and Violence, to seize Prometheus"(Warner 5).

Atop the Caucasus mountains, Prometheus is bound with "eternal chains", "lash[ed] by hail and winds," crushed beneath a mountain, and has his liver torn out by "the winged hound of Zeus, the great eagle"(Warner 5,7). The myth reminds listeners that his punishment never ended, indeed, that he suffers for his great convictions. A "god tortured at the hands of other gods"(Warner 6), his agony is a condemnation of the obscenity of a monstrous Olympus.

Such suffering and conviction are admirable; the mind, indomitable. Zeus "ha[s] the power to control his body"(Warner 6), but no "exercise of supreme power could make [the titan]...alter his mind"(7). When Oceanus pleads with him to "speak humbly to one who is more powerful than [us](6), the titan vows "no pain would ever make him bow the knee to the tyrant of the gods"(Warner 6). Perhaps out of hubris, Prometheus declares, "I know the power of Zeus...though I may feel it, I do not fear it"(7).

The tragic element of this myth lies in Prometheus's stubborn unwillingness to concede to Zeus, thus endangering humans and himself. The two servants mockingly expose this underlying hubris in their remark, "you did good to men...against the will of Zeus"(Warner 5). And yet, by his suffering, humanity sees its worth and potential and the danger of transgression.

Works Cited

Baldick, Chris. Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1991.

Brown, Larry A. "Aristotle on Greek Tragedy." January 2005. Home Page. July 23, 2009.

Brown, Larry A. "Tragedy After Aristotle." Home page. July 23, 2009.

Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. 8th ed. London: Folio Society, 2000.

McManus, Barbara F. "Outline of Aristotle's Theory of Tragedy in the Poetics." July 2002. Home Page.

July 23 2009.

Ryan, D.W.S, and T.P. Rossiter. Literary Modes. St. John's: Jesperson Press, 1983.

Warner, Rex. "Prometheus." Literary Modes. Eds. D.W.S Ryan and T.P. Rossiter. St. John's:

Jesperson Press, 1983.

By Christopher Mansour



Post a Comment

<< Home