In the fourth century B.C., Aristotle set forth his description of dramatic tragedy, and for centuries after, tragedy continued to be defined by his basic observations. It was not until the modern age that playwrights began to deviate somewhat from the basic tenets of Aristotelian tragedy and, in doing so, began to create plays more recognizable to the common people and, thereby, less traditional. Even so, upon examination, the basic plot structure of some modern tragedies actually differs very little from that of the ancient classics. In spite of its modernity, Arthur Miller's great twentieth-century tragedy, Death of a Salesman, can be successfully compared to the Aristotelian description of traditional tragedy.
According to Aristotle, the protagonist, or tragic hero, of a tragedy is a person of great virtue and of high estate, usually a member of a royal family. The tragedy then carries the protagonist from his position of esteem and happiness to one of misery. Although Miller's protagonist, Willy Loman, is not of high estate, he is the head of his household. His wife, Linda, aware though she is of his failings, sees him as "the dearest man in the world" (1.1373). Furthermore, he is a man whose intentions to be the best salesman possible are honorable, although misguided. It must not be overlooked that prior to the twentieth century, almost all literature had as its protagonist someone of high estate. The typical protagonist of the modern age, however, is one whose main conflict is survival, and that conflict is certainly true of Willy Loman. Linda summarizes the plight of the modern tragic hero when she says, "A small man can be just as exhausted a...
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... don't want to be . . . when all I want is out there, waiting for me the minute I say I know who I am" (2.1421)?
Tragedy did not end with the modern age. Instead, it has found new form and is perhaps more recognizable with the common man as its protagonist. Traditional tragedy is intended to create in the audience pity and terror for the tragic hero's condition. Most of us see enough of ourselves in Willy that we sympathize with him, even when we disagree with him. Furthermore, it is difficult for late-twentieth-century Americans not to feel terror when considering how the forces that destroyed Willy might destroy us as well. Perhaps that fear is, indeed, the very heart of the tragedy Arthur Miller created.
Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman, The Riverside Anthology of Literature. Ed. Douglas Hunt. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton, 1991. 1345-1426.
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