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To be considered a classic tragedy, a story should follow the principles presented by Aristotle in his work, Poetics. A tragedy, in Aristotle's view, concerns the destruction of a person of high social status and strong character. The tragic fall of the individual is brought about by a tragic flaw. Arthur Miller expanded upon the classical definition of a tragedy to include not only those of high social status but also the common man. Using the criteria established by Aristotle and Miller, the plays Julius Caesar, Death of a Salesman, and Oedipus Rex may be considered as tragedies.
Although the title of the play, Julius Caesar, focuses on Caesar, the play itself is really based on Brutus. "Brutus had rather be a villager than to repute himself a son of Rome."(Shakespeare 172). This was said by Brutus after Cassius told him how Caesar had become a towering figure over Rome and how Caesar controls Rome. Notice the good in Brutus, and the extremes he will go to in order to protect democracy in Rome even if it means killing the one he loves, Caesar. Brutus possesses one of the most tragic flaws. He is too nice of a person and therefore he gets taken advantage of. He lets Cassius persuade him into killing Caesar for the good of Rome. Because he does for others more than himself he makes a fatal mistake, he lets Antony live. Brutus says to the conspirators, "For Antony is but a limb of Caesar"(Shakespeare 165) meaning that if Caesar is killed Antony will die off too. Brutus clearly does not regard Antony as being a threat, but little does Brutus know that Antony will stir up the town to seek revenge after the assassination of Caesar. This mistake will cost him his own life. When he dies he becomes a prime example of tragedy because not only did he bring about his own death he dies by his own hand.
In Death of a Salesman, Willy Lowman's tragic flaw is that he is a dreamer who is unable to face the realities of a modern day society. Willy builds his whole life around the philosophy that if a person is well liked and good looking then he will be successful. Willy says to Biff, "I thank Almighty God that you are both are built like Adonises.
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In Oedipus Rex Oedipus has a flaw that is unavoidable and also uncontrollable. His flaw is fate. The plot juxtaposes Oedipus's ignorance to his own identity with his tragic despair as he learns that he has killed his father and married his mother. Oedipus refuses to believe all of the prophecies until his prophet finally discloses the truth. He knows that he is the one who killed his father because he is the one who murdered Laius who in fact turned out to be his father that tried to get rid of him. After his wife, Jocasta, finds out that Oedipus knows the truth she commits suicide. "How could I bear to see when all my sight was horror everywhere?"(Sophocles 128) This is said after Oedipus punishes himself by digging his eyes out. Oedipus then wanders the land a beggar guided by his daughter, Antigone.
Clearly, then, all of these stories represent a great example of tragedy. They follow the rules preset by Aristotle and also the rules of Arthur Miller. We have sympathy for the protagonist in each play but at the same time we know that their down fall is brought about by their own ignorance. Even though the character is tragic he is also a great man because they suffer for the well being of others.
Works Cited and Consulted:
Aristotle. Poetics. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1997.
Bradford, Ernle. Julius Caesar - Pursuit of Power. New York: William Morrow & Company Inc., 1984.
Gordon, Lois "Death of a Salesman": An Appreciation, in the Forties: 1969) rpt in clc. Detroit: Gale Research. 1983 vol. 26:323
Miller, Arthur 'Death of a Salesman' New York, 1985.
Moss, Leonard. Arthur Miller. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1967.
Shakespeare, William. Julius Caesar. Elements of Literature. Ed. Edwina McMahon et al. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1997.
Sophocles. Oedipus Rex. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1991.