The Death of Tragedy

The Death of Tragedy

by George Steiner

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An engrossing and provocative look at the decline of tragedy in modern art

“All men are aware of tragedy in life. But tragedy as a form of drama is not universal.” So begins George Steiner’s adept analysis of the demise of classic tragedy as a dramatic depiction of heroism and suffering. In The Death of Tragedy, Steiner examines


An engrossing and provocative look at the decline of tragedy in modern art

“All men are aware of tragedy in life. But tragedy as a form of drama is not universal.” So begins George Steiner’s adept analysis of the demise of classic tragedy as a dramatic depiction of heroism and suffering. In The Death of Tragedy, Steiner examines the uniqueness and importance of the Greek classical tragedy—from antiquity to the age of Jean Racine and William Shakespeare—as providing stark insight into the grief and joy of human existence. Then, delving into the works of John Keats, Henrik Ibsen, Samuel Beckett, and many more, Steiner demonstrates how the tragic voice has greatly diminished in modern theater, and what we have lost in the process.

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The Death of Tragedy

By George Steiner


Copyright © 1980 George Steiner
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-1188-3


We are entering on large, difficult ground. There are landmarks worth noting from the outset.

All men are aware of tragedy in life. But tragedy as a form of drama is not universal. Oriental art knows violence, grief, and the stroke of natural or contrived disaster; the Japanese theatre is full of ferocity and ceremonial death. But that representation of personal suffering and heroism which we call tragic drama is distinctive of the western tradition. It has become so much a part of our sense of the possibilities of human conduct, the Oresteia, Hamlet, and Phèdre are so ingrained in our habits of spirit, that we forget what a strange and complex idea it is to re-enact private anguish on a public stage. This idea and the vision of man which it implies are Greek. And nearly till the moment of their decline, the tragic forms are Hellenic.

Tragedy is alien to the Judaic sense of the world. The book of Job is always cited as an instance of tragic vision. But that black fable stands on the outer edge of Judaism, and even here an orthodox hand has asserted the claims of justice against those of tragedy:

So the Lord blessed the latter end of Job more than the beginning: for he had fourteen thousand sheep, and six thousand camels, and a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand she-asses.

God has made good the havoc wrought upon His servant; he has compensated Job for his agonies. But where there is compensation, there is justice, not tragedy. This demand for justice is the pride and burden of the Judaic tradition. Jehovah is just, even in His fury. Often the balance of retribution or reward seems fearfully awry, or the proceedings of God appear unendurably slow. But over the sum of time, there can be no doubt that the ways of God to man are just. Not only are they just, they are rational. The Judaic spirit is vehement in its conviction that the order of the universe and of man's estate is accessible to reason. The ways of the Lord are neither wanton nor absurd. We may fully apprehend them if we give to our inquiries the clearsightedness of obedience. Marxism is characteristically Jewish in its insistence on justice and reason, and Marx repudiated the entire concept of tragedy. "Necessity," he declared, "is blind only in so far as it is not understood."

Tragic drama arises out of precisely the contrary assertion: necessity is blind and man's encounter with it shall rob him of his eyes, whether it be in Thebes or in Gaza. The assertion is Greek, and the tragic sense of life built upon it is the foremost contribution of the Greek genius to our legacy. It is impossible to tell precisely where or how the notion of formal tragedy first came to possess the imagination. But the Iliad is the primer of tragic art. In it are set forth the motifs and images around which the sense of the tragic has crystallized during nearly three thousand years of western poetry: the shortness of heroic life, the exposure of man to the murderousness and caprice of the inhuman, the fall of the City. Note the crucial distinction: the fall of Jericho or Jerusalem is merely just, whereas the fall of Troy is the first great metaphor of tragedy. Where a city is destroyed because it has defied God, its destruction is a passing instant in the rational design of God's purpose. Its walls shall rise again, on earth or in the kingdom of heaven, when the souls of men are restored to grace. The burning of Troy is final because it is brought about by the fierce sport of human hatreds and the wanton, mysterious choice of destiny.

There are attempts in the Iliad to throw the light of reason into the shadow-world which surrounds man. Fate is given a name, and the elements are shown in the frivolous and reassuring mask of the gods. But mythology is only a fable to help us endure. The Homeric warrior knows that he canneither comprehend nor master the workings of destiny. Patroclus is slain, and the wretch Thersites sails safely for home. Call for justice or explanation, and the sea will thunder back with its mute clamour. Men's accounts with the gods do not balance.

The irony deepens. Instead of altering or diminishing their tragic condition, the increase in scientific resource and material power leaves men even more vulnerable. This idea is not yet explicit in Homer, but it is eloquent in another major tragic poet, in Thucydides. Again, we must observe the decisive contrast. The wars recorded in the Old Testament are bloody and grievous, but not tragic. They are just or unjust. The armies of Israel shall carry the day if they have observed God's will and ordinance. They shall be routed if they have broken the divine covenant or if their kings have fallen into idolatry. The Peloponnesian Wars, on the contrary, are tragic. Behind them lie obscure fatalities and misjudgements. Enmeshed in false rhetoric and driven by political compulsions of which they can give no clear account, men go out to destroy one another in a kind of fury without hatred. We are still waging Peloponnesian wars. Our control of the material world and our positive science have grown fantastically. But our very achievements turn against us, making politics more random and wars more bestial.

The Judaic vision sees in disaster a specific moral fault or failure of understanding. The Greek tragic poets assert that the forces which shape or destroy our lives lie outside the governance of reason or justice. Worse than that: there are around us daemonic energies which prey upon the soul and turn it to madness or which poison our will so that we inflict irreparable outrage upon ourselves and those we love. Or to put it in the terms of the tragic design drawn by Thucydides: our fleets shall always sail toward Sicily although everyone is more or less aware that they go to their ruin. Eteocles knows that he will perish at the seventh gate but goes forward nevertheless:

We are already past the care of gods.
For them our death is the admirable offering.
Why then delay, fawning upon our doom?

Antigone is perfectly aware of what will happen to her, and in the wells of his stubborn heart Oedipus knows also. But they stride to their fierce disasters in the grip of truths more intense than knowledge. To the Jew there is a marvellous continuity between knowledge and action; to the Greek an ironic abyss. The legend of Oedipus, in which the Greek sense of tragic unreason is so grimly rendered, served that great Jewish poet Freud as an emblem of rational insight and redemption through healing.

Not that Greek tragedy is wholly without redemption. In the Eumenides and in Oedipus at Colonus, the tragic action closes on a note of grace. Much has been made of this fact. But we should, I think, interpret it with extreme caution. Both cases are exceptional; there is in them an element of ritual pageant commemorating special aspects of the sanctity of Athens. Moreover, the part of music in Greek tragedy is irrevocably lost to us, and I suspect that the use of music may have given to the endings of these two plays a solemn distinctness, setting the final moments at some distance from the terrors which went before.

I emphasize this because I believe that any realistic notion of tragic drama must start from the fact of catastrophe. Tragedies end badly. The tragic personage is broken by forces which can neither be fully understood nor overcome by rational prudence. This again is crucial. Where the causes of disaster are temporal, where the conflict can be resolved through technical or social means, we may have serious drama, but not tragedy. More pliant divorce laws could not alter the fate of Agamemnon; social psychiatry is no answer to Oedipus. But saner economic relations or better plumbing can resolve some of the grave crises in the dramas of Ibsen. The distinction should be borne sharply in mind. Tragedy is irreparable. It cannot lead to just and material compensation for past suffering. Job gets back double the number of she-asses; so he should, for God has enacted upon him a parable of justice. Oedipus does not get back his eyes or his sceptre over Thebes.

Tragic drama tells us that the spheres of reason, order, and justice are terribly limited and that no progress in our science or technical resources will enlarge their relevance. Outside and within man is l'autre, the "otherness" of the world. Call it what you will: a hidden or malevolent God, blind fate, the solicitations of hell, or the brute fury of our animal blood. It waits for us in ambush at the crossroads. It mocks us and destroys us. In certain rare instances, it leads us after destruction to some incomprehensible repose.

None of this, I know, is a definition of tragedy. But any neat abstract definition would mean nothing. When we say "tragic drama" we know what we are talking about; not exactly, but well enough to recognize the real thing. In one instance, however, a tragic poet does come very near to giving an explicit summary of the tragic vision of life. Euripides' Bacchae stands in some special proximity to the ancient, no longer discernible springs of tragic feeling. At the end of the play, Dionysus condemns Cadmus, his royal house, and the entire city of Thebes to a savage doom. Cadmus protests: the sentence is far too harsh. It is utterly out of proportion with the guilt of those who fail to recognize or have insulted the god. Dionysus evades the question. He repeats petulantly that he has been greatly affronted; then he asserts that the doom of Thebes was predestined. There is no use asking for rational explanation or mercy. Things are as they are, unrelenting and absurd. We are punished far in excess of our guilt.

It is a terrible, stark insight into human life. Yet in the very excess of his suffering lies man's claim to dignity. Powerless and broken, a blind beggar hounded out of the city, he assumes a new grandeur. Man is ennobled by the vengeful spite or injustice of the gods. It does not make him innocent, but it hallows him as if he had passed through flame. Hence there is in the final moments of great tragedy, whether Greek or Shakespearean or neoclassic, a fusion of grief and joy, of lament over the fall of man and of rejoicing in the resurrection of his spirit. No other poetic form achieves this mysterious effect; it makes of Oedipus, King Lear, and Phèdre the noblest yet wrought by the mind.

From antiquity until the age of Shakespeare and Racine, such accomplishment seemed within the reach of talent. Since then the tragic voice in drama is blurred or still. What follows is an attempt to determine why this should be.


The word "tragedy" entered the English language in the later years of the fourteenth century. Chaucer gave a definition of it in the Prologue to the Monk's Tale:

Tragedie is to seyn a certeyn storie,
As olde bookes maken us memorie,
Of hym that stood in greet prosperitee,
And is yfallen out of heigh degree
Into myserie, and endeth wrecchedly.

There is no implication of dramatic form. A tragedy is a narrative recounting the life of some ancient or eminent personage who suffered a decline of fortune toward a disastrous end. That is the characteristic medieval definition. Dante observed, in his letter to Can Grande, that tragedy and comedy move in precisely contrary directions. Because its action is that of the soul ascending from shadow to starlight, from fearful doubt to the joy and certitude of grace, Dante entitled his poem a commedia. The motion of tragedy is a constant descent from prosperity to suffering and chaos: exitu est foetida et horribilis. In Dante, as in Chaucer, there is no inference that the notion of tragedy is particularly related to drama. A misunderstanding of a passage in Livy led medieval commentators to suppose that the plays of Seneca and Terence had been recited by a single narrator, presumably the poet himself. Two Latin tragedies in imitation of Seneca were actually written by Italian scholars as early as 1315 and c. 1387, but neither was intended for performance on a stage. Thus the sense of the tragic remained dissociated from that of the theatre. A remark in Erasmus' Adagia suggests that even in the sixteenth century classicists still had doubts as to whether Greek and Roman tragedies had ever been intended for dramatic presentation.

Chaucer's definition derives its force from contemporary awareness of sudden reversals of political and dynastic fortune. To the medieval eye, the heavens of state were filled with portentous stars, dazzling in their ascent but fiery in their decline. The fall of great personages from high place (casus virorum illustrium) gave to medieval politics their festive and brutal character. Sweeping over men with cruel frequency, the quarrels of princes implicated the lives and fortunes of the entire community. But the rise and fall of him that stood in high degree was the incarnation of the tragic sense for a much deeper reason: it made explicit the universal drama of the fall of man. Lords and captains perished through exceeding ambition, through the hatred and cunning of their adversaries, or by mischance. But even where the moralist could point to a particular crime or occasion of disaster, a more general law was at work. By virtue of original sin, each man was destined to suffer in his own experience, however private or obscure, some part of the tragedy of death. The Monk's lament "in manere of tragedie" begins with Lucifer and Adam, for the prologue to the tragic condition of man is set in Heaven and in the Garden of Eden. There the arrow of creation started on its downward flight. It is in a garden also that the symmetry of divine intent places the act of fortunate reversal. At Gethsemane the arrow changes its course, and the morality play of history alters from tragedy to commedia. Finally, and in precise counterpart to the prologue of disobedience, there is the promise of a celestial epilogue where man will be restored to more than his first glory. Of this great parable of God's design, the recital of the tragic destinies of illustrious men are a gloss and a reminder.

The rise of English drama in the Tudor period and its Elizabethan triumph restored to the notion of tragedy the implications of actual dramatic performance. But the images of the tragic estate devised in medieval literature carried over into the language of the theatre. When Fortune abandoned men in medieval allegory, it was with a swift turn of her emblematic wheel. Marlowe preserved this ancient fancy in The Tragedie of Edward the second:

Base fortune, now I see, that in thy wheele
There is a point, to which when men aspire,
They tumble headlong downe: that point I touchte,
And seeing there was no place to mount up higher.
Why should I greeue at my declining fall?

Mortimer accepts his doom with grim calm. Only a few moments earlier, he had spoken of himself as "Jove's huge tree, And others are but shrubs compared to me." A proud thought, but also an annunciation of disaster, for in medieval iconography trees were dangerously enmeshed with the image of man. They carried the graft of the apple bough from which Adam plucked, and some minute splinter of the desperate consolation of the cross. And it is when they are blasted at the crown, burnt, or wither at the root, that trees are most illustrative of the human condition. In the early Elizabethan tragedy of Jocasta, the wheel and the tree are joined together to convey a vision of fatality:

When she that rules the rolling wheele of chaunce,
Doth turne aside hir angrie frowning face,
On him, who erst she deigned to aduance,
She never leaues to gaulde him with disgrace,
To tosse and turne his state in euery place,
Till at the last she hurle him from on high
And yeld him subject unto miserie:
And as the braunche that from the roote is reft,
He never wines like leafe to that he lefte.

As Wagner's Tannhäuser reminds us, the withered branch did not lose its grip on the poetic imagination. Drawing on two lines by Thomas Churchyard in that most medieval of Elizabethan poetic narratives, the Mirror for Magistrates, Marlowe gave to the image a final splendour. In the epilogue to The tragicall Historie of Doctor Faustus, the Chorus matches the tree of Apollo to the burnt vine of the eightieth Psalm:

Cut is the branch that might have growne full straight,
And burned is Apolloes Laurel bough
That sometime grew within this learned man.


Excerpted from The Death of Tragedy by George Steiner. Copyright © 1980 George Steiner. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

George Steiner, author of dozens of books (including The Death of Tragedy, After Babel, Martin Heidegger, In Bluebeard’s Castle, My Unwritten Books, George Steiner at the New Yorker, and The Poetry of Thought), is one of the world’s foremost intellectuals. He has been professor emeritus of English and comparative literature at the University of Geneva, professor of comparative literature and fellow at the University of Oxford, and professor of poetry at Harvard University. He lives in Cambridge, England, where he has been an Extraordinary Fellow at Churchill College at the University of Cambridge since 1969. 

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