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Death of a Salesman: Tragic but Not a Tragedy Essay

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Death of a Salesman: Tragic but Not a Tragedy


Though a more modern version of tragedy in its’ classical sense, Death of a Salesman in many ways is very much like an ancient Greek play. In his ‘Poetics’ Aristotle tries to set out the common ideas throughout tragedy, attempting to demystify the necessary elements for such plays. One of his main ideas was that of the ‘Three Unities’ - that of Space, that of Time and that of Action. He stated that all the action of a tragedy must occur in the place, which was often the front of a palace, which allowed the poet to have many characters coming and going, and allowed random meetings to occur easily, rather than having to ‘explain’ the reason why any meeting should occur. It was, however, possible for the poet to bring in events occurring in other places through the use of messengers, who could talk about the events without the audience seeing them.

All the action would have to unfold in one day, and must be played out in ‘real time’ - the time would pass as fast for the characters in the play as for the actors and the audience watching. This prevented the use of act and scene breaks, as time could not jump forward, it had to pass normally. Again references to the past often came in the form of speech from characters whom often had not been seen for a very long time, such as the shepherd in Oedipus Rex who explains how he had come by Oedipus as a baby whilst attending his flock.

The entire play had to revolve around a single plot, and subplots, such as you see in many of Shakespeare’s comedies, were not allowed. Aristotle reasoned that if there were other plots interfering with and infringing upon the main plot we could not concentrate entirely on Antigony’s plight, ...


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...ccept his refusal to act rationally. An audience can accept that ‘true’ tragic heroes are often irrational, and driven by very different feelings from those of normal human beings, but in the end, Willy Loman does not evoke tragic emotion because he is, simply, a dime a dozen.



Works Cited and Consulted

Aristotle. Poetics. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1997.

Baym, Franklin, Gottesman, Holland, et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 4th ed. New York: Norton, 1994.

Costello, Donald P. “Arthur Miller’s Circles of Responsibility: A View From a Bridge and Beyond.” Modern Drama. 36 (1993): 443-453

Florio, Thomas A., ed. “Miller’s Tales.” The New Yorker. 70 (1994): 35-36.

Martin, Robert A., ed. Arthur Miller. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1982.

Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. New York: Viking, 1965.


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