Category Archives: Tragedy

Ides of March


The assassination of Julius Caesar in HBO’s Rome — ugly, the way these things always are

Frye in one of the notebooks on Renaissance literature:

The liberal who sits & hopes that somebody will assassinate Hitler of McCarthy or Huey Long is Brutus without Brutus’ courage & responsibility. He thinks of such people as destroying human relations by engrossing power. That is, essential social relations to him are the personal ones: he has no tragic conception of society. Antony, with his ruthlessness, his use of others (Lepidus) as “property,” his contemptible rhetorical tricks & his exploiting of Caesar’s will is still able to consolidate a society. He never makes a human contact: his loyalty to Caesar is the exception that proves the rule. . . Caesar does make personal contacts, & makes himself impersonal by an effort of will: as is said, the way to flatter him is to tell him he can’t be flattered. (CW 20, 268-9)

Thomas Becket

Master Francke’s Martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket, c. 1424

On this date in 1179 Thomas Becket was murdered (born 1118).

Frye on T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral:

In Murder in the Cathedral the dialectical and purgatorial aspect of the Christian “comic” action is at its clearest.  The foreground action is a tragedy in which the hero knows that “. . . all things / Proceed to a joyful communion.”  Of the four worlds [heaven, upper level of nature, lower level of nature, hell], there is no place for the rose garden: we begin in experience, represented by the chorus.  The chorus becomes increasingly aware that experience is the doorway to hell, and as the murderers move closer the women of Canterbury are haunted by images of beasts of prey, filth, and corruption, ending in the cry: “The Lords of Hell are here.”  Meanwhile Beckett is immediately involved in a sequence of temptations.  The chorus describes him as “unaffrayed among the shades,” he he says himself, in language realling the Purgatory line “Treating shadows as a solid thing”: “. . . the substance of our first act / Will be shadows, and the strife with shadows.”

The first tempter, “Leave-well-alone,” presents a temptation that Becket has gone too far to yield to even if he were capable of it.  Its object however is not to persude him to desert, but merely to remain in his mind as a source of distraction, confusing him in crucial moments: “Voices under sleep, waking a dead world, / So that the mind may not be whole in the present.”  Temptations of compromise and of intrigue follow, but the dangerous temptation is an unexpected fourth one to “do the right deed for the wrong reason”: to preserve in integrity and die a glorious martyr’s death.  This temptation is really an act of grace, something that Beckett would never even have encountered by himself, much less overcome.  The fact that the fourth tempter, as he leaves, repeats, word for word, Becket’s opening speech in the play, indicates that Becket at this point has “assumed a double part,” separating his real immortal self from the unpurified part of himself.  Both this theme and the theme of something apparently demonic turning out to be an agent of grace are frequent in other plays.  (CW 29, 243-4)

Saturday Night at the Movies: “Medea”


Maria Callas, in her only film role (and in which she does not sing), in Pier Paulo Pasolini’s film adaptation of Medea.

Frye cites Medea in a couple of places in notebook 13a to clarify his thinking on tragedy:

The sense of tragedy comes from the emphasis on causality in the plot.  Thus Medea begins with the Nurse wishing that a lot of things hadn’t happened which in fact had happened.  The sense of causality is in its turn derived from the primary contract, the sense of the natural law, which operates morally as nemesis.  This is all in AC: what I didn’t get so clear there was the sense of two contrasting falls, one tragic, Adam into the wilderness, & one ironic, Israel into Egypt.  The ironic contract is the social contract properly speaking, an imitation of natural law but without its certainty, hence the arbitrary quality, which being social rather than natural is not genuine fatality.  Hence hamartia, which is really a loophole that prevents fatality: character cooperating with events.  (CW 20, 290)

Jason blandly tell Medea, when she’s reproaching him for deserting her that she’s had all the advantages of a Hellenic education, & learning what justice & fair dealing are.  Good e.g. of the way tragedy concentrates on the natural & primitive & not the social contract.  (CW 20, 293)

The rest of the film after the jump.

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