There are two theories that have been used to explain ancient and modern tragedy. Neither quite explains the complexity of the tragic process or the tragic hero, but each explains important elements of tragedy, and, because their conclusions are contradictory, they represent extreme views. The first theory states that all tragedy exhibits the workings of external fate. Of course, the overwhelming majority of tragedies do leave us with a sense of the supremacy of impersonal power and of the limitation of human effort. But this theory of tragedy is an oversimplification, primarily because it confuses the tragic condition with the tragic process: the theory does not acknowledge that fate, in a tragedy, normally becomes external to the hero only after the tragic process has been set in motion. Fate, as conceived in ancient Greek tragedy, is the internal balancing condition of life. It appears as external only after it has been violated, just as justice is an internal quality of an honest person, but the external antagonist of the criminal. Secondarily, this theory of tragedy does not distinguish tragedy from irony. Irony does not need an exceptional central figure: as a rule, the more ignoble the hero the sharper the irony, when irony alone is the objective. It is heroism that creates the splendor and exhilaration that is unique to tragedy. The tragic hero normally has an extraordinary, often a nearly divine, destiny almost within grasp, and the glory of that original destiny never quite fades out of the tragedy.

The second theory of tragedy states that the act that sets the tragic process in motion must be primarily a violation of moral law, whether human or divine; in short, that the tragic hero must have a flaw that has an essential connection with sin. Again it is true that the great majority of tragic heroes do possess hubris, or a proud and passionate mind that seems to make the hero’s downfall morally explicable. But such hubris is only the precipitating agent of catastrophe, just as in comedy the cause of the happy ending is usually some act of humility, often performed by a noble character who is meanly disguised.

The primary purpose of the passage is to

compare and criticize two theories of tragedy

develop a new theory of tragedy

summarize the thematic content of tragedy

reject one theory of tragedy and offer another theory in its place

distinguish between tragedy and irony


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