Published 31 Mar 2017

The term tragedy could be literally transmitted to “goat song, which in turn refers to the ritual of Dionysus. We, however, would not focus on the roots of tragedy as defined here; rather we would focus on Aristotle’s concept of tragedy. It was basically from the story of Dionysus, as well as from other sources on which Aristotle’s concept of tragedy was deeply embedded. One of the major features of Aristotle’s description of tragedy is “an imitation of noble and complete action, having the proper magnitude” which basically means that a tragic character is noble person or someone who is great or emits an aura of certain “magnitude” Aristotle, 350 B.C.).

The conception of the tragic hero that we gather from Aristotle’s Poetics is that he is a highly esteemed and prosperous man who falls into misfortune because of some serious hamartia i.e. tragic flaw. Aristotle gives the example of Oedipus and Thyestes, which means that according to him, it was Oedipus’ hamartia that was directly responsible for his fall. Although the meaning of hamartia is far from certain, its most frequent applications is in the sense of false moral judgment, or even purely intellectual errors. Among Greeks no sharp distinction between the two existed. It is generally believed that according to Aristotle the hamartia off Oedipus consists in some moral faults and it has been tried to identify various moral faults in Oedipus.

Distinguished Professor Butcher has identified four possible range of meaning of Aristotle‘s Hamartia i.e. tragic flaw. The foremost of these connotations is an error due to unavoidable ignorance of circumstances whereas an error caused by unawareness of conditions that might have been identified and for that reason to some extent morally blameworthy is another manifestation of the sense in which the term hamartia was used by Aristotle. The third sense is “A fault or error where the act is conscious and intentional, but not deliberate. Such acts are committed in anger or passion.” Where as fourth is “A fault of character distinct, on the one hand, from an isolated error, and, on the other, from the vice which has its seat in the depraved will…a flaw of character that is not tainted with a vicious purpose.”(Butcher, 1961, p. 310)

Miller’s concept of tragedy was new and different from Aristotelian tragic conception as Miller was indeed sensitive to contemporanaeity and meant his play to be a tragedy. I think his theory of tragedy is more relevant in the contemporary world than the Aristotelian tragedy. At about the time of play’s opening, Miller himself, when interviewed, stressed the tragic intention: “The tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing his sense of personal dignity.” (Miller, 1949)

This is a manifestation of Miler’s concept of tragedy which was new and different from classical concept of tragedy. He rejects the Greek tragedy and calls it archaic that “fits only for the very highly placed, the kings or the kingly”. (Miller, 1949) He considers that common man is an apt subject for tragedy, for exaltation of tragic action is a property of all man and tragic feeling is not aroused by stature of hero. He furthers his theory and is of the view that the feeling of terror and fear can be aroused by man’s fight against the environment too. Consequently, tragedy, then, is the consequence of man’s total compulsion to evaluate himself justly or the individual attempting to gain his rightful position in the society.

The crucial point is that whether Sophocles wants us to think that Oedipus has basically unsound character. One way of deciding this question is to examine what other characters in the play say about Oedipus. The only result that we can arrive at in this way is that Sophocles intends us to consider Oedipus an essentially noble person. In the opening scene of the play, the priest of Zeus refers to him as the greatest and noblest of men and the divinely inspired savior who saved Thebes from being destroyed by the Sphinx. The Chorus also considers him to be noble and virtuous. They refuse to believe in Tireseas accusations of him. When catastrophe befalls Oedipus, not a single character in the play justifies it as a doom which has deservedly overtaken Oedipus. (Dodds, p.39) So there were certain other tragic flaws that were acting behind the curtain to bring about Oedipus tragedy. Furthermore, it is an imitation of noble and complete action and arouses pity and fear among audiences over the tragic destiny of Oedipus. So Oedipus rex corresponds to the classical concept of tragedy and indeed Aristotle heavily relied on Oedipus Rex to draw his theory of tragedy.

This is primarily the reason why the claim that Willy Loman of “Death of a Salesman” is a tragic hero is arguable. There my be those who would argue that Willy Loman could not be regarded as great or noble even if he has a high moral reputation (which evidently he also lacked especially when he was portrayed as someone who committed adultery). However, one should take note of the fact that “noble” here does not necessarily mean that someone be of a noble blood or the like, rather it simply means that someone be larger than life – and that is something Willy Loman positively is, larger than life. All throughout the play, Willy had constantly been motioning, picturing things to be in such a state of splendor and relating it as such, an individual with huge plans and impressive dreams, really a grand character. Even if a person decides to scrutinize the play from another position but with the same definition, the outlook of the united individuals of the play no one is an actually a seeming person, rather a collection of enlarged appropriations, larger than life.

There is no arguing the fact that The Death of a Salesman corresponds to the next characteristic of Aristotle’s notion of a tragedy: the Death of a Salesman is most absolutely portrayed in “dramatic, not narrative form” (Aristotle, 350 B.C.), there actually is no odds of it not meeting up to this particular description. It is quite obvious that the subject of modern tragedy cannot be king or royal personage but they must be larger than life characters as advocated by Aristotle. So Death of A Salesman is a tragedy in the modern as well as in the classical sense.


  • Aristotle. Poetics. London : Oxford University Press, 1978.
  • Butcher, S.H. Aristotle’s theory of Poetry and Fine Arts. Hell and Wang: New York. 1961.
  • Dodds, E. R. On Misunderstanding the Oedipus. Greece & Rome. Vo. 13. No. 1. (Apr.1966). Pp. 37-49.
  • Miller, Arthur. Tragedy and the Common Man. 1949.
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