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Tragically Flawed

There was an article on HowlRound this week called:

Against the Dramaturgy of Punishment: From the Greeks to The Normal Heart

In it, author MJ Kaufman argues for the kinds of dramas he writes; those in which abhorrent and rigid people aren’t undone by their racism/sexism/what-have-you. He argues punishing that these “tragic flaws” is not what classical tragedies consist of, but rather that they arise from the opposition of two irreconcilable forces: love vs. honor, state vs. religion, society vs. sex, etc. The tragic flaw, he argues, is not what makes tragedy.

And I think he’s right.

When the bad guys are destroyed and the good guys win, that’s not tragedy, that’s melodrama. What Kaufman so objects to is the pat, easy endings that come from comeuppances duly comeupped! Life is not like that, life does not break down into the moral and the immoral, and for a drama to reflect this unreality is to stray from tragedy into the melodramatic.

Life, in fact, is confusing and contradictory. Life often asks which of our values is more important (love or honor?), and the answers are not easy. Tragedy reflects this hardness and ambiguity. Kaufman argues that Greek plays are “never really over,” because these epic battles are still being fought in our minds today. Antigone is still fighting Creon, because there is no right choice between logic and morality. Oedipus is still hunting his famine, because fate and free will remain entangled today.

So what, then, of the tragic flaw?

Some would say that phrase is an unfortunate mistranslation of Aristotle’s term “hamartia,” that it carries within it a more nuanced meaning. In fact, “hamartia” could just as easily be translated as “tragic mistake,” “error,” or “sin.”


The point is that in Greek tragedy, the term referred to a character’s tragic choice, not their tragic trait.

This is how these characters embody an entire worldview; they make choices in defense of their unshakeable values, and these choices lead to conflict. It is the unshakeableness of their values that is tragic (for if they could have been moved, their destruction might have been avoided)!

We now see this pattern acted out in melodrama as well: a character who is willing to grow and change (Dorothy) always wins out over those who will not bend (Emperor Palpatine). It is simply that in melodramas a protagonist begins flawed, and changes towards perfection. In tragedy, no one is wrong to begin with! That’s why it’s so tragic!

I think there is value in both melodrama and tragedy — they serve different purposes — but Kaufman is right to call out his detractors. The dramaturgy of punishment, as he calls it, is the siren song of melodrama smoothing the brutal corners of life.

There’s a place for that. But not in a tragedy.


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