Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 1 session / week, 2 hours / session

Course Overview

"Tragedy" is a name originally applied to a particular kind of dramatic art and subsequently to other literary forms; it has also been applied to particular events, often implying thereby a particular view of life. Throughout the history of Western literature it has sustained this double reference. Uniquely and insistently, the realm of the tragic encompasses both literature and life.

Through careful, critical reading of literary texts, this subject will examine three aspects of the tragic experience:

  1. The scapegoat: the focus of the tragic narrative is upon a person or agent overwhelmed by destructive events, whose suffering is not undertaken voluntarily, that is, by a deliberate act of heroism, and is often unrelated directly to the commission of certain deeds. Our discussions will pay attention to this association and to issues concerned with the election of scapegoats and of sanctioned targets for the exercise of communal violence.
  2. The tragic hero: the scapegoat is usually lowly and outcast but the tragic protagonist at the inception of tragic drama and throughout the renaissance was inevitably someone of immense consequence, a royal or priestly figure, a person of power. Such figures are not usually central in modern narratives. Our discussions will examine the view that the tragic experience is thereby diminished in modern literature.
  3. The ethical crisis: the circumstances of the tragic action usually pose an ethical dilemma in which different values appear to make rival and incompatible claims upon us and acknowledging one claim does not exempt us from the authority of the claim that we choose to deny. Our discussions will examine the idea of tragic choice.

These aspects of the tragic will be pursued in readings that range in the reference of their materials from the warfare of the ancient world to the experience of the modern extermination camps. The syllabus includes the following: Aeschylus's magnificent trilogy, The Oresteia, two plays by Sophocles (Antigone and Oedipus Rex), a play by Euripides (Hippolytus), two Platonic dialogues concerned with the death of Socrates, two plays by Shakespeare (Macbeth and King Lear), Balzac's novel, Père Goriot, Melville's Benito Cereno, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Isaak Dinesen's short story, "Sorrow-Acre", and The Stranger, by Albert Camus. We will read excerpts from two theoretical approaches to ancient tragic drama, the first from Aristotle's Poetics and the second from Friedrich Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy. In addition, we will view and discuss Francis Ford Coppolla's film, The Godfather. No particular time is reserved for discussion of this film, but we will view it early in the course and reference will be made to it throughout the term.

Course Format

The subject meets once a week for two hours. Each session begins with a lecture of varying length, usually running for twenty-minutes to half an hour, although the lectures of the first two meetings will be somewhat longer. The rest of the session is devoted to class-discussion of the materials assigned for the session. Participation in discussion is essential to the life of the class and the force and cogency of students' remarks will have a marked influence on grades. Much of the grade will also depend upon the quality of the three written assignments required by the course: an early paper (running from five to seven pages) a mid-term paper (running from seven to nine pages) and a final paper (running from ten to twelve pages). The papers will each deal with some aspect of the readings and discussion; topics may be invented by the students but an extensive list of suggested topics will be circulated two weeks in advance of each paper's due date for those students who require it.

A final paper is due that is ten pages in length. This subject does not have a final examination.