Philosophical interest in the art of tragedy, an interest which is as ancient as tragedy itself, has tended to centre around two thoughts, both of which were presaged in the ﬁrst sustained philosophical discussion of tragic drama, Aristotle’s Poetics (1987). One is the thought that tragedy is in one way or another an especially philosophical genre of art; a thought for which many have found encouragement in Aristotle’s claim, in Poetics 9, “that poetry is more philosophical and more serious than history.” The other is the thought that there is something deeply puzzling about the nature of the response that tragedy appears to demand from its audience; a thought inspired by Aristotle’s description, in Poetics 14, of the tragic poet’s task as being “to provide the pleasure which derives from pity and fear by means of mimesis.” Given that the experience of tragedy is one which involves fundamentally passions that are by nature ‘negative,’ how can that experience be one of pleasure? The focus of this essay will be on reﬂection on these thoughts in the western philosophical tradition. (On the history of critical theories of tragedy, see Wellek 1955. On psychoanalytic theory and tragedy, see Kuhns 1991.)
Works of tragedy, whatever else they may be, are narratives of human suffering, and at its simplest, the question posed by Aristotle’s characterization of our experience of tragic art in terms of pleasure is that of how we can take pleasure in representations of human beings in pain. This has been taken by some (e.g. Burke 1990: 41-4) to be a question about human psychology: why is it that our responses to suffering as it is depicted in tragedy differ from our responses to suffering in everyday life, in which context it rarely elicits pleasure? By others (e.g. Nietzsche 1993), it has been
suffer; yet isn’t this precisely what we are doing when we enjoy tragic works of art? And it is also a question of aesthetics: tragedies are among our most highly valued works of art, and the value that we attach to them lies in the nature of the experiences which they offer us. But if those experiences involve our taking pleasure in the portrayal of suffering, then the value that we attach to tragedy itself starts to look problematic.