Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Saturday, April 20, 2013


Tragedy is an imitation of an action… -Aristotle On Tragedy (Fifth Series, Volume 3)

One of the main advantages of reading the Great Books is that we get to read “the best that has been thought and said in the world.” The whole idea of the Great Books is to return to the texts that readers have preferred for the past 2500 years. Occasionally we get to read and compare the best of the best; sort of an all-star Great Books selection. In the Western tradition it doesn’t get any better than comparing notes on Aristotle and Shakespeare.

Aristotle had much to say about many topics and he took great pains to outline the foundational elements of drama in general and tragedy in particular. For example, how can we know a good tragedy from a bad one? For starters, Aristotle says a good tragedy has to have a certain noble magnitude and be expressed in noble language. A drug addict dying in a city gutter is sad but by Aristotle’s definition it’s not tragic. Why not? Because the drug addict doesn’t make a good tragic hero. Hamlet makes a good tragic hero because (a) he’s a prince of noble birth, and (b) he expresses himself well. The English language has become filled with Hamlet’s phrases such as: “To be or not to be…” or “what a piece of work is man.” So even though the drug addict may actually be a better person than Hamlet in some ways, the drug addict will never be a tragic hero by Aristotle’s terms.

And the quote given above gives us another clue why Hamlet is a tragic hero. By claiming that tragedy imitates action Aristotle is rejecting the idea expressed earlier in the play that “there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” For Aristotle things don’t become good or bad by thinking about them, but by doing them (or in some cases by not doing them). Hamlet is a classic case of someone not doing the right thing. But he’s not the only one who doesn’t do the right thing in this play. Gertrude (Hamlet’s mother) and Claudius (Hamlet’s stepfather) both know that Hamlet is getting dangerous. And yet they don’t do much more than send for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to find out what’s wrong with him. What are a parent’s duties in a situation like this? What should parents do when they know their adult children have become mentally unhinged? And speaking of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, what are their responsibilities to Hamlet as his friends? Do friends spy on their friends? Hamlet accuses them of abandoning their friendship with him in order to support Claudius, Hamlet’s stepfather and new King of Denmark.

And since we’re talking of kings, does Claudius have special obligations beyond those of a stepfather? Claudius is also a king. Hamlet says things to Claudius that may be considered rude or ill-bred for a child to say to a parent. But for a subject to say the same things to a king would be considered treason. And Hamlet himself is caught up in this double-bind. Why doesn’t he go ahead and follow the ghost’s instructions to kill Claudius? Hamlet doesn’t know himself. He has the motive, he has the means, and he has the willpower to do it. But somehow he just can’t go through with it. Many readers consider this to be Hamlet’s tragic flaw: he knows what needs to be done but he just can’t do it. Laertes is Hamlet’s opposite. Laertes returns from Paris hell-bent on seeking revenge. And he’ll have it too. No wasting time thinking about it. Laertes will move heaven and earth to avenge his own father’s death. Can Hamlet say that? No. And for many readers that makes it a tragedy.


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