From Sophocles to Miller—Tragedy’s Many Masks


I believe, for myself, that the lasting appeal of tragedy is due to our need to face the foot of death in order to strengthen ourselves for life.

            Arthur Miller


It’s one of the most striking images in Western Civilization; Sophocles’ King Oedipus of Thebes stumbling from the palace, his bloody hands pressed against his eyes, writhing and suffering for his crimes. Before this moment, none would have judged his actions anything less than laudable. He saved Thebes from the Sphinx, married the recently widowed Queen, and strove to rule the city-state with wisdom and clarity. So, what on earth could have possibly brought this noble man to his knees? There is no need to recount the story in its entirety; most already know it so well. Sufficed to say, in addition to all the good he endeavored to do, he also inadvertently murdered his father, married his mother, and brought a plague upon the kingdom. It’s a scandal ripe for Jerry Springer, which, thanks to Sigmund Freud, often overshadows the true meaning of this drama. According to Aristotle’s Poetics, which is considered the first book on the craft of playwrighting, tragic characters like Oedipus bring about their misfortune, “not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty.” This frailty is hubris, otherwise known as the “fatal flaw” of excessive pride, and it’s caused the ruin of many a tragic hero over the past 2,000 years.

            Tragedy is not perennial. It has only blossomed as a popular dramatic form during a few periods of history. The Greeks invented it, the Elizabethans mastered it, and, most recently, Arthur Miller challenged it. Although his plays conform to most of the conventions outlined in the Poetics, many critics refuse to categorize All My Sons and Death of a Salesman as true tragedies, citing Aristotle’s requirement that all tragic characters be “highly renowned and prosperous” so that their fall excites greater fear and pity in the audience. Miller, whose characters are neither renowned nor prosperous, refutes this antiquated notion. “It is now many centuries since Aristotle lived,” he writes in the forward to Four Plays. “There is no more reason to fall down in faint before his Poetics than before Euclid’s geometry.” According to Miller, there is only one requirement for the tragic character. “So long as the hero may be said to have alternatives of a magnitude to have materially changed the course of his life, it seems to me in this respect at least, he cannot be disbarred from the heroic role.”

In this, Miller is in agreement with the classic traditions of Greece, which used Tragedy as a political and moralistic tool, hoping that by witnessing the fall of a great man due to his own hubris, audiences would avoid letting themselves become poisoned with the same self-destructive character flaw. Just as Oedipus exists to warn Greek audiences about excessive pride in ones own intelligence, so does Miller’s characters, Joe Keller and Willy Loman, exist to warn American audiences about the dangers involved in blindly pursuing the American Dream.

The key to tragic heroism, however, is not in the flaw itself, but in the recognition of the flaw. Miller’s early works are often called “plays of accountability”, which requires the hero to face his own culpability in the horrors he has produced and accept, or maybe even inflict, his punishment. This is a point about which the Greeks would agree. Oedipus does not, for instance, blame his sordid predicament on fate, the gods, his father, or the Chorus. If he did, he would not be tragic. He would be no better than the hundreds of politicians or corporate executives we see on TV every day, calling for accountability, but hiding behind lawyers and spin doctors when their own culpability is called into question. No, Oedipus recognizes his error, and so inflicts a befitting punishment. He pierces his own eyes, transforming his moral transgression into a physical emblem of his crime. What world, state, or corporate leader would willingly do that today?

Well, maybe Tragedy still has a lesson for two to teach us after 2,000 years. 


Dan Tarker, Literary Associate