An Analysis of Theatre Tragedy and The Tragic Hero: Classical vs Modern
Tragedy by definition is an event causing great suffering, destruction, and distress, such as a serious accident, crime, or natural catastrophe. Through its definition the word tragedy can apply to many scenarios; however there once was a time where this wasn’t true in theatre.
From its initial creation by Aristotle the tragedy and its tragic hero had followed strict guidelines. These guidelines are known as classical interpretation. Oedipus the King by Sophocles is viewed by some to be the perfect example of the classical era of tragedy, as it follows all guidelines set by Aristotle. Years later however the new more encompassing work of Arthur Miller and his Death of a Salesman challenged the long held beliefs of classical tragedy and ushered in a new idea known as the modern tragedy. When it comes to the comparison of the two, like many things there is always a superior method of approach. In close analysis, the protagonist Willy Loman from Death of a Salesman and his story are a better representation of the tragic hero and tragedy than Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and its tragic hero Oedipus, proving that Arthur Miller’s theory on theatrical tragedy is better than Aristotle’s.
In order to truly understand the depth of Arthur Miller’s triumph one must understand the two theories of tragedy, classical and modern. Classical was created by Aristotle and was used to perfection in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. In the classical theory of theatre, the tragic hero comes from high standing and usually is a king or hero. The tragic hero in this interpretation is supposed to have one major flaw. Due to their major flaw the hero commits hamartia and the hero’s ultimate achievement of their goal is either blocked or limited.
As a result of this a catastrophe usually occurs which results in the hero going from high standing to low standing. After this there is usually a catharsis and a revelation, usually about humanity, to end the play. In contrast the modern theory presented by Arthur Miller and displayed in his work Death of a Salesman, presents tragedy as something even the common man can experience. In this interpretation the character has to be dissatisfied with their current situation in life. The hero has to be actively trying to get their rightful position in life.
This usually leads them to be displaced from society if they aren’t already. Overall in this view the hero wants what they think they deserve but ultimately cannot achieve. A common man who is not of high esteem is still able to experience the emotional highs and lows that are associated with tragedy and it is for this reason that Miller’s work bests Sophocles’. His work appeases to a broader audience and can be justified still in today’s society where there are many who are just average people living their lives. For the exact opposite reason Arthur Miller’s theory claims victory over Aristotle’s, the character Oedipus Rex loses to Willy Loman due to the lack of relatability as a tragic hero. Oedipus like all tragic heroes comes from a high position in life and commits a hamartia that causes him to fall into a lower position in life leading to a catharsis and revelation at the end of his story.
While his story is indeed a tragedy, the methods by which it takes place are almost archaic in current society.Long before Oedipus’s birth the God’s had already put a curse upon Laius and his family. This curse already put Oedipus on a fixed path towards tragedy that he could do virtually nothing to stop. When the reader understands that the curse had already put Oedipus on a set path to destruction the relatability of the story begins to take a dip, as no one in contemporary has ever been cursed by a god and put on a set path. This however is not the entire reason why the Oedipus feels inferior to Willy Loman as a tragic hero.
Later in his life after he becomes king Oedipus, now in high standing, commits hamartia when he decides to find the truth of how Laius died. Pushing onward he finds out his true origins and immediately forces himself to go into low standing in society. The overall sequence of these events, how he comes to discover his real identity, and his immediate actions afterwards just don’t really translate well into modern society. To the audience, especially if they know the back story, Oedipus is a man who can’t possibly be relatable to many because even though Sophocles tried to create the illusion that Oedipus had a choice in his destiny, he really didn’t due to his entire linage being cursed even before his birth. Overall Oedipus’s lack of relatability to a broad audience causes him to feel inferior to the character of Willy Loman. Where the tragic hero Oedipus fails, Willy Loman succeeds in regards to being a better representation of tragedy as a whole.
Not only is he relatable, but he also has an actual choice in his situation, and is a man in a prolonged suffering state. From the beginning Willy Loman feels human. He is not some high esteemed king, but a man trying to make ends meet through working a regular job as a salesman. Throughout his story he faces real world problems such as financial issues, fidelity issues, and dealing with the ultimate failures of his son Biff indirectly caused by him. When compared to Oedipus, Willy is a much more flawed man. So much so that this in turn makes him relatable to a wider variety of people in the audience mainly due to the sheer number of his faults.
Like Oedipus he cannot run away from his true reality, but where they differ on this is what truly makes him the better tragic hero. Unlike Oedipus, Willy’s course was not predetermined but self-determined. Due to his actions and inactions, such as not going to listening to his brother Ben and cheating on his wife Linda, Willy puts himself in a situation that many today find themselves in, a life full of regret. While the feeling Willy’s regret conveys to the audience isn’t different from Oedipus’s agony in finding the truth of his identity; it is more in-depth than Oedipus’s rushed actions after finding the truth. Willy’s suffering is present from the beginning of the play throughout its end.
He is constantly reliving has past actions and tries desperately to get to the point of where his true happiness lies. Unfortunately for him he soon realizes that there is no way for him to ever reach his desired place in life so he decides to commit suicide in order to somehow get the happiness that had so alluded him before, for his family. This however does not go as planned and instead of having an ending like Oedipus, where there was some hope for change in his family, Willy’s family continues to suffer and stay in their own ways effectively making Willy’s sacrifice pointless and prolonging his suffering to achieve his rightful place in life even in death. It is for these reasons that Willy Loman is a superior tragic hero to Oedipus. When it comes to tragedy and its representation in theatre the modern theory created by Arthur Miller and showcased by his work Death of a Salesman and its tragic hero Willy Loman are the greatest example of tragedy in all of theatre. When compared to Aristotle’s lesser theory of classical tragedy and Sophocles’ work Oedipus the King, Miller’s work stands head and shoulders above it and shines ultimately being more engaging and complex for its audience.