On Greek Tragedy

by Derrick G. Jeter

Sixteen months after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, his brother, Robert traveled to the Caribbean island of Antigua. Grief-worn, Robert was becoming a shell of a man. The former first lady, Jackie, and others, accompanied him on the trip. Jackie took a book, which she gave to Robert that became a catalyst of courage, propelling him out of his depression. The book was Edith Hamilton’s The Greek Way.

Hamilton’s book is a lively written summary of Greek thought, as captured in their history and literature, particularly in the plays of tragedy. Robert Kennedy’s biographer, Evan Thomas wrote of Kennedy’s attachment to to Hamilton’s book and especially the tragedies.

The saving grace for Kennedy was the exaltation Greeks found in suffering. “In agony learn wisdom!” cries the herald in Aeschylus’ Prometheus. The Greeks understood that “injustice was the nature of things,” but that the awfulness of fate could be borne and redeemed through pain. By reading the great tragedies, Kennedy could find meaning (and relief) because “tragedy is nothing less than pain transmuted into exaltation by the alchemy of poetry,” Hamilton writes. “Tragedy’s one essential is a soul that can feel greatly.” Few souls ever felt more than Robert Kennedy’s. He committed to memory, and often quoted, the last passage from Hamilton’s chapter on Aeschylus. The author has been describing Agamemnon’s accursed fate, and the fate of the House of Atreus, to “visit upon the children the sins of the father.” But “pain and error have their purpose and their use: they are steps on the ladder of knowledge,” writes Hamilton, quoting Aeschylus: “God, whose law it is that he who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despite, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”1

What Kennedy found in reading Hamilton’s descriptions of the Greeks and in reading their plays many others have also found. There is a powerful and personal pull in tragedies, which is particular to the Greeks, who conceived it and perfected it. Greek tragedy endures because the Greek mind had the capacity to see the world without compromise. They faced evil and suffering unflinchingly. And even in the midst of terrible evils they could see beauty and truth in the world. In other words, the Greeks were realists when it came to the sorrows and joys of human life.

After the age of Homer, the epic poet who penned The Iliad and The Odyssey, the Greeks began to think deeply about human life, and started to perceive that it was bound up with evil and suffering, and that injustice was the nature of things. The Greeks wrote songs and stories of beauty before the age of the tragic play, but now they wanted to know why there was evil and suffering in the world along with beauty and truth; they wanted to explain the apparent contradiction. Their attempts at wrestling with this contradiction in a dramatic manner became know as “tragedy.”

As an art form, tragedy has a very narrow history and an exclusive club of authors. The greatest tragic plays were only produced during two periods of literary history. The first period was in the Athens of Pericles, often called the “Golden Age,” from 450–429 bc. The second period was in Elizabethan England, from ad 1558–1603. These two periods had at least five things in common. First, both nation states were at the height of political power. In Greece, the Athenians had defeated the invasion of the Persians at Marathon (489 bc) and Salamis (480 bc), and England ruled the seas with the sinking of the Spanish armada in ad 1588. Second, heroes abounded and heroism stirred the hearts of ordinary men. Third, civilians in both nation states were secure, peaceful, and prosperous. Fourth, freedom to think and create flourished. And fifth, both the age of Pericles and the Elizabethan era were passionate times. With such a constricted period of time in which great tragedy was written, there are really only four great tragic authors—three Greeks and one Englishman. The first, and perhaps the greatest, tragic author was Aeschylus. The other two Greeks were Sophocles and Euripides. And the British playwright, obviously, was Shakespeare.

Tragedy is the transcending art of living with passion and purpose, to find truth and beauty, in the face of evil, pain, and death. According to the Greeks, the opposite of tragedy was not joy, it was timidity and apathy. Hamilton wrote, “When humanity is seen as devoid of dignity and significance, trivial, mean, and sunk in dreary hopelessness, then the spirit of tragedy departs.”2 Only the poet can write tragedy, for only the poet can create a meal out of the strange mixture of pain and pleasure, ugliness and beauty, falsehood and truth. Tragedy “is nothing less than pain and pleasure transmuted into exaltation by the alchemy of poetry” Hamilton asserted.3 A sense of mystery shrouds the tragedy. It’s not merely pain, sorrow, or disaster—these leave the audience depressed. The mystery in tragedy is its ability to transcend pain into pleasure, what we might call “Tragic Pleasure,” which Aristotle described as, “Pity and awe, and a sense of emotion purged and purified thereby.”4 Friedrich Nietzsche described this “tragic pleasure” as, “The reaffirmation of the will to live in the face of death, and the joy of its inexhaustibility when so reaffirmed.”5

But not any play that stirs the emotions can be consider tragedy. Every tragedy must meet at least five essential elements. First, tragedies must deal with suffering. “It is by our power to suffer, above all, that we are of more value than the sparrows [Matthew 10:29-31]. Endow them with a greater or as great a potentiality of pain and our foremost place in the world would no longer be undisputed. Deep down, when we search out the reason for our conviction of the transcendent worth of each human being, we know that it is because of the possibility that each can suffer so terribly. . . . Tragedy’s preoccupation is with suffering.”6

Second, tragedies must create characters with greatness of soul. Tragedy’s one requirement is a soul that can feel greatly. As Hamilton wrote, “The suffering of a soul that can suffer greatly—that and only that, is tragedy.”7 The small soul can never know tragedy—sorrow or heartbreak, yes, but not the passion of tragedy.

Third, tragedies must call forth transcendence. Tragedy is something that reaches above and beyond the pit of pain. Suffering in of itself is not tragedy, not even undeserved suffering of the innocent. Nor is death necessarily tragic. Tragedy is the ability to call forth redemptive sympathy. This ability to call forth transcendence is found in the spiritual struggle, not the physical struggle.

Fourth, tragedies must concern themselves with the dignity and significance of humanity. Hamilton said, “The dignity and significance of human life—of these, and of these alone, tragedy will never let go. Without them there is no tragedy. To answer the question, what makes a tragedy, is to answer the question wherein lies the essential significance of life, what the dignity of humanity depends upon in the last analysis.”8 The tragic writer must concern himself with the significance of life. The comic writer, in contrast, is primarily concerned with the surface of life. What do outside trappings have to do with tragedy? Nothing.

Finally, tragedies must delineate a purpose in suffering. For the Greeks, the purpose of suffering was to teach men the truth. Just as Robert Kennedy memorized: “‘God, whose law it is that he who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despite, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.’”9 The Greeks saw their suffering as a means of hope for others who suffer, to point them to the truth. Quoting from Euripdides, Hamilton recorded, “Yet had God not turned us in his hand and cast to earth our greatness we would have passed away giving nothing to men. They would have found no theme for song in us nor made great poems from our sorrows.”10

One can see why Robert Kennedy found solace, paradoxically, in the tragedies of the Greeks. He came to some answer to Hamilton’s question: “Why is the death of the ordinary man a wretched, chilling thing which we turn from, while the death of the hero, always tragic, warms us with a sense of quickened life? Answer this question and the enigma of tragic pleasure is solved.”11 I don’t know whether Kennedy came to fully understand or accept the greatest tragic story of all, but the good news for the Christian reader of tragedy is the fact that the tragic suffering and death of Jesus answers Hamilton’s question and fulfills the essential elements of a tragedy, finding its ultimate purpose in the resurrection.

  1. Evan Thomas, Robert Kennedy: His Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), 287.
  2. Edith Hamilton, The Greek Way (New York: W. W. Norton, 1942), 232.
  3. Aristotle, quoted in Hamilton, The Greek Way, 229.
  4. Friedrich Nietzsche, quoted in Hamilton, The Greek Way, 230.
  5. Hamilton, The Greek Way, 230.
  6. Hamilton, The Greek Way, 233–34.
  7. Hamilton, The Greek Way, 235.
  8. Hamilton, The Greek Way, 233.
  9. Aeschylus, quoted in Hamilton, The Greek Way, 257.
  10. Euripides, quoted in Hamilton, The Greek Way, 237.
  11. Hamilton, The Greek Way, 237.