Monday, August 4, 2008

Notes on the Ancient Greek Tragedy

Antigone Leads Oedipus out of Thebes
by Charles Francois Jalabeat

Ancient discussions of tragedy introduced one of the most persistent of all theories of art, the imitation theory: art is an imitation of nature or of human life and action. Classical tragedy began in Athens in the sixth century BC as part of spring celebrations of Dionysus, god of the grape harvest, dancing, and drinking.

Plato (427-347 BC) discussed art forms like tragedy, along with sculpture, painting, pottery, and architecture, not as ‘art’ but as ‘technÄ“’ or skilled craft. He regarded the all as instances of ‘mimesis’ or imitation. Plato criticized all imitations for failing to depict the eternal ideals of realities (‘Forms’ or ‘Ideas’).

Aristotle (384-322 BC) defended tragedy in his Poetics by arguing that imitation is something natural that humans enjoy from an early age, and even learn from. Aristotle felt that tragedy could educate by appealing to people’s minds, feelings, and senses. If a tragedy shows how a good person confronts adversity, it elicits a cleansing or ‘katharsis’ through emotions of pity and fear.
Aristotle’s idea that a tragic hero acts from a ‘hamartia’ or mistake rather than evil intent was distorted into a theory of the so-called ‘tragic flaw’ and was applied to describe foibles of Hamlet and Othello.
Freeland, Cynthia. Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction.Oxford U Press: New York, 2001.

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