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This article is taken from PN Review 186, Volume 35 Number 4, March - April 2009.

Tragic Endings David Gervais


To offer to speak about tragedy is to risk taking oneself too seriously. Grand generalisations are hard to resist, even though we know that one tragedy is never quite the same as another. Yet since Aristotle critics have often regarded tragedy as if it were a single, constant experience. George Steiner, for instance, in The Death of Tragedy, with its riot of allusions and its lust to generalise from them, constantly subsumes particular tragedies into theories about tragedy as a whole. The book is rich in detail but subject to an ulterior motive. This makes his later book Antigones all the more welcome because it focuses on a single classic play and its subsequent reception. In so doing, it acknowledges that every tragedy is a different kind of tragedy and that to link them too glibly is to blunt their impact. It is, in fact, as important to distinguish between tragedies as to seize on what they have in common. In the Poetics Aristotle confined himself mainly to Sophocles: had Shakespeare and Racine and Ibsen been at issue too he would have found it harder to measure them against his original blueprint. He might just have said, ‘The play’s the thing.’

One of the most suggestive accounts of tragedy that we have is Hegel’s, in particular his view of the Antigone as a conflict ‘between right and right’.1 This conflict is, of course, of universal import, not simply a kind of moral debate. Great ...

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