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(Tragedy and Poetry)
Chapter one
Tragedy and Poetry
(Tragedy and Poetry)
Since its inception in ancient Greece two millennia and a half
ago, tragedy has never faded out. It is true that there were periods when
other forms of entertainment or other types of drama eclipsed tragedy,
but it has never failed to maintain the interest of both dramatists and
philosophers. It is noteworthy that tragedy has often been written in
verse; the use of prose as the medium of tragedy is only a recent
phenomenon. This chapter is a survey of the history of tragedy from its
birth in Athens twenty-five centuries ago up to the first half of the
twentieth century. This chapter also hopes to explore some basic
theories of tragedy from Aristotle to Nietzsche. Needless to say, the
views of the twentieth century upholders of poetic drama, e.g T.S Eliot
and Maxwell Anderson will be examend.
If we go back in history we can see that tragedy witnessed four
great periods; fifth century in ancient Greece; The Elizabethan and
Jacobean period in England; the seventeenth century in France; and the
second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth
century in Europe and America.
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The word tragedy refers to a work of art that probes with high
seriousness questions concerning the role of man in the world. The
ancient Greeks first used the word in the fifth century B.C to describe a
certain type of play which used to be presented in ceremonies in Greece.
The government paid for these dramas which were attended by the
whole city. The topics of the performances show that they focused more
on the religious aspect of the celebrations than on entertainment. There
were altars to the gods with the presence of priests, and the subjects of
tragedies deal with the failures of the heroes of legend, religious myth
and history. Works of art in this period of time relied heavily on the
works of Homer and common knowledge in the Greek communities ("
Tragedy ", 12.Sep.2012).
Tragedy can transform experience and history into meaning, and
the shock of significance may have the power to transform us. Tragedy
lies in our expectation that knowledge might emerge out of the human
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In Oresteia, Aeschylus presented a trilogy like Oedipus' trilogy.
The three-act drama dealt with sin, revenge, and reconciliation,
Prometheus's punishment is the predictable consequence of defying the
supreme deity. All of the elements of tragedy, all of its cruelty, loss, and
suffering are presented in the works of Homer and the ancient myths
but were dealt with as absolutes-self sufficient and without the
questioning spirit that was necessary to elevate them to the level of
tragedy (Bushnell 11).
Aeschylus and his fellow tragedians made great achievements in
handling the nature of existence. The Athenian dramatists maintained a
vivid sense of the reality of their character's knowledge. In the fifth
century BC, they learned from their tragedies the possibilities and
limitations of the spirit. Prometheus's work can be compared to the
Bible in its structure and preoccupation with the problem of suffering
due to unfair deity. Aeschylus realized that evil is inevitable, loss is
irreversible and suffering is irretrievable. To the Greeks, when the tragic
hero suffers, it is a sign of learning about his mistakes. Suffering to
Aeschylus is a means of acquiring knowledge. As a matter of fact, his
tragedies set new tones in tragedy (Bushnell 12).
(Tragedy and Poetry)
Sophocles' Oedipus the King can be considered an icon in his
career. In his masterpiece, Sophocles provided to us all the basics of
tragedy. It is the basis and the ground floor for Greek tragedies, no other
play can be compared to it. In Sophocles' plays, the chorus is less
important if we compare him to other Greek writers. The course of
action is fast and highly jointed; the dialogue is crisper, more
disconnected and shows the real meaning of the play. In Oedipus Rex,
tragic hero can be a man for whom freedom of the self is a necessity.
Tragedy must keep a balance between the optimisms of religion or
philosophy or any other beliefs that result to explain the secrets of
existence. On the other hand, pessimism would turn down the human
experience as worthless and useless (Bushnell 13).
Greek tragedies are timeless. They were performed in a ritual
context. Also, they were shaped by assumptions other than those who
produced them. If Greek tragedy had been the cultural artifact of a
society, it would have been classified; I would say a type of performance
which was ritual.
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The tragedies of Euripides examine in great detail the breaks of
human lives under the pressures that gods intentionally place on them.
However, if the gods had nothing to do with the problems of humans
they leave the human struggles with himself causing his individual
breaks. No Euripidean hero is ever compared to Sophocles' Oedipus. In
Medea, Medea's revenge on Jason is unfair by killing their children and
poisoning his second wife's dress to kill her and this raises the question
of gods. Gods in Euripidean plays, in short, cannot be appealed to in the
name of justice. Euripides' harmony towards moral tolerance leaves the
audience in a moment of disability to choose the right thing from the
wrong one. So the acts of gods in the Greek writers Aeschylus, Sophocles
and Euripides do differ from one another. In Aeschylus' plays, the gods
are there and take action. In Eumenides, the goddess Athena is helping
to solve the problems of justice. In Sophocles' plays, the gods are far and
their moral judgment is not questioned. In Oedipus Rex, Oedipus faces
his vital ending without any justice act of the gods. In Euripides, the gods
are destructive, breaking their impulsive wills on a vulnerable character
(" Tragedy ", 17.Sep.2012).
(Tragedy and Poetry)
Aristotle's ideas about tragedy are mentioned in his famous
book of literary discourse titled Poetics. Aristotle has discussed in detail
the structure, purpose, and intended effect of tragedy in his book. His
ideas have been adopted, expanded, and discussed for several centuries
until now.
In chapter 6 Aristotle defines tragedy as follows:
A tragedy is the imitation of an action that is serious, and also as
having magnitude, complete in itself in language with pleasurable
accessories, each kind brought in separately in the parts of the
work; in a dramatic, not in a narrative form: with incidents
arousing pity and fear; wherewith to accomplish its catharisis of
such emotions (ch.6, 1449b24-8).
As Bushnell points out, "Aristotle gives a fuller account of this
wholeness by differentiating the beginning, middle and end of the tragic
action in terms of causality: the beginning is not caused by anything that
comes before; the middle is caused by the beginning and causes the
end; the end is caused by the beginning and middle but causes nothing
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further. To this wholeness and seriousness Aristotle adds magnitude
which he defines as the scope required for a probable or necessary
succession of events which produce a transformation either from
affliction to prosperity"(Bushnell43).
This error of judgment is known as hamartia. The role of
the hamartia in tragedy comes not from its moral status but from the
inevitability of its consequences. The fall of the hero is not pure loss.
Though it arouses solemn emotions, tragedy does not leave its audience
in a state of depression; a plot should be made of a hero going from
happiness to misery. The misery should be the result of some hamartia,
or error, on the part of the hero. (Bushnell 46). Aristotle argues that one
of the functions of tragedy is to arouse the unhealthy emotions of pity
and fear through catharsis. "Catharsis is a term in dramatic art that
describes the effect of tragedy or comedy and quite possibly other
artistic forms principally on the audience although some have
speculated on characters in the drama as well. Nowhere does Aristotle
explain the meaning of "catharsis", as he is using that term in the
definition of tragedy in the Poetics, for this reason a number of diverse
interpretations of the meaning of this term have arisen" ( D.W. Lucas
(Tragedy and Poetry)
The second great period of tragedy was during The English
Renaissance drama. A distinctly English form of tragedy began with the
Elizabethans. The translation of Seneca, and the reading of Aristotle's
Poetics were major influences. Many critics and playwrights, such as Ben
Jonson, insisted on observing the classical unities of action, time and
place i.e., the action should be one whole and take place in one day and
in one place (" Tragedy ", 24.Sep.2012).
Christopher Marlowe was the first English dramatist of the
traditions of the Greeks. His tragedy Tamburlaine is the most famous
and significant of his tragedies. "The qualities of Tamburlaine defined as
tragic are primarily stylistic: both metrical and rhetorical (Bushnell 301)".
'' Marlowe intended his story to end, not with Tamburlaine's fall but
with his violent subjection of the kings of Arabia and his marriage to the
fair Zenocrate (Bushnell 302)''.
(Tragedy and Poetry)
Nevertheless, it was romantic tragedy, which Shakespeare wrote
in Richard II, Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear, which succeeded.
Romantic tragedy ignored the unities as in the use of subplots, mixing
tragedy and comedy, and emphasizing action, spectacle, and increasing
sensation. Shakespeare violated the unities in these ways and also in
mixing poetry and prose and using the device of a play-within-a play, as
in Hamlet. The Elizabethans acted on stage the violence that the Greek
dramatists reported. Titus Andronicus is a tragedy by William
Shakespeare. It is a revenge play in which fourteen people died. Some of
the killings were performed on the stage. Elizabethan and later Jacobean
playwrights had a diverse audience to please, ranging from Queen
Elizabeth and King James I and their courtiers to the lowest classes
("Tragedy", 19.Sep.2012).
William Shakespeare related his early writings to the current
situation in England. His plays were written to meet the interest of
James I of Scotland, who was later crowned as James I the king of
England. Shakespeare's plays meet true Elizabethan conventions. In
classical tragedy; the protagonist is always a man or woman of
(Tragedy and Poetry)
magnificence. This is also true in Elizabethan tragedy, which, however,
depends on shock and violence for much of its consequence (Nda 14).
In Macbeth, William Shakespeare conforms to the classical
concept that the tragic action should be built around royalty. Macbeth is
a Scottish general and later becomes the king of England. In Macbeth,
we find ourselves let in on the plot to murder Duncan and we hear the
prophecies that motivate Macbeth. Such characterization of the central
figures is well suited to expressing tragedy. The hero is like most other
traditional works and not mere characters and individuals, butrepresentative symbols of an entire cultural entity. Macbeth is caught in
a series of actions which eventually lead to his destruction. The influence
of witches and the persuasion of Lady Macbeth lead the hero to commit
regicide, and from this point there is no hindrance to his tumbling to the
final fall. The tragic hero is presented as brave and courageous, even in
the face of death. He seems to accept responsibility for what has
befallen him (Nda13-14).
(Tragedy and Poetry)
"For a span of just over fifty years, two dramatists dominated the
stage of French classical tragedy. Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine while
espousing radically different views of the tragic genre appeared to their
contemporaries and to succeeding generations intimately locked in
artistic rivalry (Bushnell 393)". This competition opposed two ethical
views; one political the other personal.
In 1634, Pierre Corneille wrote his first tragedy Mêdée. He chose
his first tragedy to enter the door of tragedy through myth. The heart of
this tragedy is sexual desire, jealousy and revenge. Corneille chose to
follow Seneca's depiction of the passions, fears and murderous powers
of a woman (Bushnell 394). In this he follows the theatrical style which
took over the Parisian stage in the first third of the century. Drama at
this period was known for the twisted plots, dramatic misprisions and
plot reversal at the end. Jean Racine is one of the three greatest French
dramatists of the seventeenth century, the other two being Hardy and
Corneille. "Racinian tragedy is always a family affair (Bushnell 404)".
(Tragedy and Poetry)
What this means is that in Corneille's tragedy we see a separation
between family and state. On the other hand in Racine's tragedy we see
that there is no separation between family and state (Bushnell404).
Corneille applies Aristotle's three unities of time, place and action
limits the action of his plays is to one day. There is no change of scene;
there is neither comedy nor relief. The nature of the process is sharp
and powerful. Racine's conception of character and the analysis of them,
suggested the presence of Sophoclean heroic humanism. French
playwrights developed the so-called the linking up of scenes (''Tragedy'', 1.Oct.2012).
The sunrise of the 19th century was lighted up by the last flickers
of the torch of the French revolution; and its earlier years were filled
with the echoing cannonade of the Napoleonic occupations. It was not
until after the battle of Waterloo that the battle-field of Europe became
only a parade-ground; and this is perhaps one reason why there was a
dearth of dramatic literature in the first quarter of the century and why
no dramatist of prominence flourished (Matthews 269).
(Tragedy and Poetry)
All the way through Europe during the first years of the century the
acted drama was for the most part unliterary and the so-called literary
drama was apparently unacceptable, proving itself pitiably ineffective
whenever it was likely to be put on the stage. In Germany the more
popular plays were either sentimental or melodramatic; and every now
and then they were both. In England the more serious dramas were
repeatedly adapted or imitated from the German, while the comic plays
like those of the younger Colman were often little better than helterskelter patchworks of exaggerated incident and contorted caricature. In
France tragedy was being squeezed the life out of in the tightening
bonds forced by the classicist rules; and comedy was panting vainly for a
larger freedom of theme and of treatment (Matthews 269).
" It is particularly important that the theatre, the most transient of
all the arts, which leaves nothing behind but a few inadequate
photographs and vague memories, be caught in print if it makes claim to
historical significance and progressive development. For that reason the
theoretical discoveries that have been made deserve to be recorded just
as much as the facts and events (Drain 6)."
(Tragedy and Poetry)
The twentieth century describes a period of great change within
the theatrical culture of the 20th century. There was an extensive
challenge to long established rules surrounding theatrical illustration;
resulting in the growth of lots of new forms of theatre,
including modernism, expressionism, political theater and other forms
of experimental theatre, as well as the continuing development of
already established theatrical norms like naturalism and realism. All
through the century, the artistic reputation of theatre improved after
being derided throughout the 19th century. However, the growth of
other media, especially film, has resulted in a diminished role within
culture at large. In the light of this change, theatrical artists have been
forced to seek new ways to engage with society (Drain 16).
The drama of the modern United States ahead of World War I
definitely was not considered a modern drama. In the years prior to the
little theatre movement gave rise to a new age of American playwrights
who experimented with European realisms and anti-realisms, and the
new stagecraft made metaphoric space of theatre production, American
drama existed much as it had since the Civil War. Literary and theatrical
modernism in Europe was a reaction to the shifting situations of modern
life (Bryan 25).
(Tragedy and Poetry)
Although the American social and political landscape was transformed
by the same cultural forces, the American drama of the twentieth
century revealed instead a theatrical business structure that resisted
new forms and a literary culture that produced few new works of drama
(Bryan 25).
The four great critics who have discussed tragedy are Hegel,
Nietzsche, T.S. Eliot and Miller respectively. Hegel's theory of tragedy is
based on two things; the notion of conflict and the possibility of its
resolution. Hegel made a big shift in the terms of thought about tragedy.
It was neither a simple dramatic genre anymore nor a kind of story to
tell. Tragedy to Hegel was more than the number of plays by Sophocles,
Shakespeare, Corneille and Schiller.
It was an idea to which these plays were more or less adequate
embodiments (Poole58). The idea was more or less philosophical, ethical
and theological (Poole59). To Hegel, tragedy was a way of representing
the conflicts suffered by spirit in its descent into the world; spirit
becomes dispersed into specific forms and figures that represent one
aspect of it (Poole59).
(Tragedy and Poetry)
Tragedy represents the conflict not of right against wrong which is
melodrama or justice but of right against right (Poole52). For Hegel, it is
important that this conflict is a necessary stage, no matter how painful,
in the cause of historical progress. Hegel went further to acknowledge
the conflict at the heart of tragedy that it was extremely purposive
Friedrich Nietzsche gave a new life to the modern reception of
tragedy mainly in its Greek form. Tragedy with Nietzsche became a very
powerful label. It also became relevant, a kind of primordial experience
that brought one back to the depths of the human heart but to the roots
of human history and human existence. Nietzsche's thinking about
tragedy rephrases a long-standing tradition which looked to Greece
whenever tragedy came to mind. Tragedy for Nietzsche is the single
pivot around which antiquity, indeed world history turns everything that
leads up to its development. The birth of tragedy causes a sensation. The
birth of tragedy to Nietzsche's life that his profile and identity as a
thinker and a cultural force couldn’t help but be proud up with his views
on tragedy, and consequently with the way he would be remembered,
whether in terms of his career or in terms of his thinking (Bushnell 68).
(Tragedy and Poetry)
The birth of tragedy typifies Nietzsche's presentational styles,
both early and late not least because it is an object more than a stable
text. At the heart of the birth of tragedy lies the opposition between the
Greek gods, Apollo and Dionysus who in turn stand for two antagonistic
aesthetic principles that are nonetheless complementary and equally
vital to the production of the highest are. Apollo represents the realm of
clear and- luminous appearances, dreams, harmless deception and traits
that are typically Hellenic and classic. On the other hand, Dionysus
represents hidden metaphysical depths, disturbing realities, intoxication
and traits that are exotic and unclassical (Bushnell 69).
Nietzsche suggests that the people of ancient Greece were
strangely sensitive and susceptible to suffering. The primal unity of the
Dionysian brings us into direct apprehension of the suffering that lies at
the heart of all life. By contrast, the Apollonian is associated with images
and dreams, and hence with the appearances. Greek art is so beautiful
precisely because the Greeks depended heavily on the appearances
generated by images and dreams to shield themselves from the reality
of suffering (Poole64).
(Tragedy and Poetry)
Nietzsche considers the Greek tragedies of Aeschylus and
Sophocles to be among the humankind's accomplishments, achieve their
sublime effects by taming Dionysian passions by means of the
Apollonian. Greek tragedy evolved out of religious rituals featuring a
chorus of singers and dancers, and it achieved its distinctive shape when
two or more actors stood apart from the chorus as tragic actors. By
witnessing the fall of a tragic hero, we witness the death of individual
who is absorbed back into the Dionysian primal unity (Poole64).
T.S. Elliot is a very critical writer. He has a tendency to pick things
apart and give you every explanation he can to help you to understand
exactly what he wants you to know in his work. The Possibility Of A
Poetic Drama is a classic T.S. Elliot. He is picking apart the world of
writing and whether or not it is society that wants certain types of
drama or whether it is the writing community that cannot write them.
Certainly, he feels that it is not the writers who cannot seem to write
them or lack the talent but it is society uttering what they desire in
drama. This brings to mind the age old question of supply and demand.
If society wants a poetic drama, he feels that someone out there should
be able to write it. This whole piece goes through the history of writing
(Tragedy and Poetry)
through different eras of time and how society had affected who was a
great writer and who wasn't. Whether it is comedy, drama or not; it will
be the people who read it or see it that will decide either it is great at
time or not. He is only trying to establish when poetic drama may
become popular. I believe this to be true of any writing. There is always
a place and a time that it will become popular, but that does not mean
that if it is not popular now that it should not be written. It may only
become popular after it has been published and one person begins to
like to like and spreads the word. Society does dictate what is popular at
the time, but as society changes, so does popularity. T.S. Elliot voices
that well in this piece and I would expect no less from him ("Tragedy", 1.Jan.2013).
The term poetic drama became popular during the middle of the
twentieth century. It was T.S. Eliot who revived this term as a reaction to
the drama of ideas popularized by Galsworthy and G. B. Shaw under the
influence of Ibsen. Even Shaw has written ‘The Quintessence of Ibsen's’,
in which he gave his manifesto and showed the influence of Ibsen. As a
critic T. S. Eliot has written essays like ‘Poetry and Drama’ and ‘Possibility
of Poetic Drama’ and so on. In ‘Poetry and Drama’ he points out that
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poetry and drama are inseparable from each other. Poetry mirrors the
heart of the person which the reader cannot conceal. Poetic Drama,
according to T. S. Eliot, has far reaching effects as it affects the emotions
of person directly as a practitioner of poetic drama ("Tragedy", 1.Jan.2013).
Arthur Miller states in his essay, Tragedy and the Common Man
that we are often held to be below tragedy or tragedy below us; tragedy
is fit only for the highly placed and where this admission is not made in
so many words it is most often implied. However, Miller believes
the common man is as apt a subject for tragedy in its highest sense as
kings were. It is this belief that causes Miller to use a common man,
Willie Loman as the subject of his tragedy, Death of a Salesman. Miller
redefines the tragic hero to fit a more modern age, and the product of
this redefinition is Willie. Miller states, the tragic feeling is evoked in us
when we are in the presence of a character that is ready to lay down his
life to secure one thing his sense of personal dignity (Bushnell 500).
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Willie is no exception. Willie's sense of personal dignity is primarily
found in his family, most notably his son Biff. Willie transfers his dreams
of being great onto Biff and, when Biff is a failure in the world, these
dreams affect Willie's self-image and sense of personal dignity. To regain
this personal dignity, Willie must make Biff great. In the end, it is the
love for his son and the belief that his insurance money will make Biff
magnificent that give him the needed excuse and cause him to end his
life (Bushnell 501).
Tragedy, then, is the consequence of a man's total compulsion to
evaluate himself justly. It is the nature of man to make evaluations of
himself based upon his peers. Willie's peer with whom he evaluates
himself is Charley. Willie and Charley are about the same age; their
children grew up together, and have been friends for many years.
Charley has achieved what Willie has dreamed of for so long. Charley's
son is a successful lawyer, whereas Biff is a loafer. Charley is successful
in business, whereas Willie has washed out. As mentioned before, for
Willie to be great, Biff must be great. Willie has failed his job in making
Biff better than Charley's son; therefore he fails his evaluations of
himself (Bushnell 501).
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The flaw is really nothing but his inherent unwillingness to remain
passive in the face of what he conceives to be a challenge to his dignity.
Willie's dignity is also challenged by his lack of success in business and in
the raising of his son. Willie's unwillingness to remain passive manifests
itself in his desire to kill himself. Willie believes that once he kills himself
his son will be great, therefore so will he. His refusal to remain passive
makes him modern tragic hero according to Miller's redefinition
(Bushnell 502).
Success, wrote Maxwell Anderson, in an artistic field cannot be
achieved without a definition of the artist’s faith … (Whatever Hope 18).
Anderson had unconventional definitions of both faith and religion. His
sacred texts were those of Socrates, Aristotle, Sherwood, and Connelly;
his temple was the theatre building; and the followers of his religion
were those audience members attending the theatre in support of the
arts and participating in what Anderson called the “Exaltation of the
spirit of man” (Broadway 28).
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Anderson determined, through study of previous theatrical
successes of the Greeks and Shakespeare, that the purpose of theatre
was to find and hold up to our regard, what is admirable in the human
race (27). To ensure success of his plays, Anderson studied playwrights
who created plays which contain subjects that are everlasting because
they present what is admirable to the human race (Broadway 27).
Anderson states that the essence of tragedy means a victory
taken from defeat at the moment when a person is faced with
annihilation. At the end of a tragedy, the hero reaches a spiritual
enlightenment and to his death. In The Essence of Tragedy he defines a
play as being practically always an effort to recapture for the theatre the
artist's vision. The reader or the audience has the responsibility,
therefore, for figuring out the meaning of the drama (Anderson 5).
Tragedy and poetry may not be distinguished as if they were two
different things. Some dramatic works are also poetic works. The whole
corpus of French Classical drama is in rhymed couplets. And of course,
William Shakespeare, the greatest dramatist in the English language and
perhaps in any language, wrote his plays completely in verse, apart from
some occasional, brief passages of prose.
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Maxwell Anderson also states that a play should be written to
lead up to and far away from a central crisis, and this crisis is made in a
discovery by the main character which is under an ineradicable effect on
his thought, emotion and completely changes his course of action.
Anderson wrote that unless the playwright and his play have a dream or
a conviction and unless the playwright can defend that conviction
against death and hell the play isn’t worth producing (Keeping 76).
Anderson reached the most convincing expression for his tragic
view in a play which is not set in historical situations but in the
conditions of the thirties in Winterset (1935). Even for a play of
contemporary significance, Anderson preferred verse as the vehicle,
because he held the view that prose is the language of information and
poetry the language of emotion and that the best prose in the world is
inferior to the poetry in the theatre (Bushnell 501).
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He had arrived at certain ethical conclusions, for example, the
view that men who are fed by their government will soon be driven
down to the status of slaves or just cattle, which he found were contrary
to contemporary practices. Like all other serious dramatists, he believed
that the theatre is a serious religious institution devoted entirely to the
exaltation of the spirit of man. The spiritual reformation of man must be
the actual goal of the poetic tragedy. If man’s ultimate moral goal is to
become more god-like, then men must continually choose the path in
life which they believe will confirm the success of good. Excellence on
the stage, therefore, is a moral excellence of a character. The plight of
the character involves a continuing fight, on the part of the tragic hero,
to better himself; however, this plight is of no interest unless “his
character is somehow tried in the fire, and unless he comes out of his
trial a better man (Off Broadway 26).
To conclude, this was the main important periods and the main
figures in each period. And in the next chapter, I will deal in details about
tragedy to Maxwell Anderson keeping in mind his play "Winterset".
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