theatre, philosophy,

pick up one of those and wright one

  • 1) If a “character” in a play or film shows certain “habits” (good or bad), use a film or play you have seen recently and explain how you got an understanding of a character’s “character” by seeing a pattern of similar actions in several scenes. What did the character “do” that let you start to make conclusions about his “character?”
  • 2) Aristotle says that one should feel uplifted after a tragedy, not depressed. Discuss which plays or films you have seen that have left you feeling depressed, or which have left you feeling uplifted. Does a play or film or TV show have to have a happy ending for it to leave you uplifted?
  • 3) If you were going to write a “tragedy” that worked the way Aristotle says it should, and you were going to write about someone you really look up to but who has some tragic flaw, who would that be? What would the “plot” of that tragedy look like?

So keep in mind that whatever Aristotle said about the play Oedipus is probably not what people thought when they first saw the play a hundred years before. You may read other things about the play Oedipus that discuss the “fate” that the gods had set for Oedipus and how that fate was ordained so that no matter what he did, Oedipus was doomed. That might have been a more common way of thinking earlier, but by Aristotle’s time, people did not think so much about the gods’ determining human actions. They had a different view of the world that gave more room for humans to mess up their own lives, without the gods being as responsible. But the play Oedipus the King had already become a “classic” by the time of Aristotle, and he was trying to show why he thought it was still worthy of respect and wonder.

Second, the main reason Aristotle was writing about tragedy and tragic heroes was not as an exercise for some English class he had to get credit in to get a job as a computer programmer. Aristotle was worried about helping people find real happiness in their lives, and he thought that going to a play was a way to help lead a happier life, not just a way to spend money for fun. Aristotle thought that the most important key to a happy life was one’s habits, one’s patterns of choices. Some people develop “good habits,” and those people have a better shot at happiness than others. Most people develop a mix of some good habits and some “bad habits.” (One of mine is way too many chocolate doughnuts.) This doesn’t mean that they are UNhappy, but they would be happier if they had fewer bad habits. Aristotle would say that a “good habit” is having fun and drinking good wine, but not drinking too much. The sum total of one’s habits was one’s moral character. You had “good character” if you had good habits; you had “bad character” if you had lots of bad habits. A very few people seem to “have it all.” For Aristotle, this didn’t mean having all the money in the world; it meant being happy because one didn’t have any bad habits–none at all! These few people were balanced, powerful, wise, courageous, generous, good-tempered, intelligent, creative, proud — in a word, “heroes.” These were people you could look up to because they had a fuller life than most people back then were able to lead — people like the legendary “Oedipus.”

Oedipus was a hero. Why? Well, when the play starts, we see him at the height of his power as the king of Thebes. He is courageous in trying to help the people solve their problems. He was courageous when, years before, he confronted the horrible monster the Sphinx and did what no man had done before — answered her riddle and freed the city of Thebes from her evil. Remember that other people had tried, and if they didn’t give the right answer, the Sphinx ate them! But Oedipus had the intelligence and courage to try what others had failed to do, and he did it! He then went on to lead Thebes in a difficult time, and he seemed to be leading a full, happy life, with a queen by his side, children, and a society under him where he was the leader. But Thebes is now going through a very difficult period: Plague, disease, uneasy times.

So we have a person who may seem a bit proud, but he has reason to be! He has been the leader, the wise leader, for years. He has the courage and the intelligence to do whatever it takes to help his town survive its current crisis. In Aristotle’s view, the more you developed your abilities and talents, the more you developed your mind and your body and your soul, the happier you were.

For Aristotle, all this meant that Oedipus should be really, really, really happy. He was using all his talents and skills to the best of his abilities, and he SEEMED very balanced in his habits. We should be able to look up to the character of Oedipus as the play starts as an example of “good character.” But something is wrong! He should be greater than most of us, who struggle with our own bad habits. He should be an example of a superior person. As the play goes on, though, we see that he does NOT have all the qualities that a “good character” should have; he has a flawed character. And as we watch the “habits” of Oedipus on stage, Aristotle tells us that what we see is the “fall” of a person who was almost great, but who had some internal “flaw” or “flaws” that led to him failing to live up to his full potential for happiness. Rather than look UP to the great Oedipus, we begin to be afraid for him, and we begin to pity him. This is the “fear and pity” that Aristotle talks about. We can only pity someone who is worse off in some way than we are; we can pity Oedipus because we realize WE have more insight into his problems than he does. We see before he does what is going to happen. We see in a way that he can’t see where his character is flawed, where he is unbalanced or undeveloped.

To summarize: For Aristotle, what we see on a stage is a character’s character. We use the same word for both the role in the play and the habits that a person develops because this word “character” is really the same. We don’t see the whole person of Oedipus, just enough of his actions to be able to tell what his “character” is. We see Oedipus is flawed, and we begin to feel better about our lives because we have more insight than he does. We can see his flaws more clearly than he, so we have a little better chance of happiness than he does. So according to Aristotle, when we leave the great theater after the play, we feel better off than before, uplifted, not depressed. We have more insight into how to be happy now. We know what can happen to someone who doesn’t fully control his habits. We see a man who is almost great struggle against those things that keep him from being fully happy, and we are glad to be a human being.

Aristotle said that the play Oedipus the King was an “ideal” tragedy because it showed all this so clearly. Other plays were less focused than this one, but in Oedipus, we see one person’s character as it deals with successive events in a short period of time. So we see what makes a tragedy more clearly here than in other plays.

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