Monday, December 26, 2011

Such a Tragedy

So, I was supposed to go to "bed" (aka couch) at a reasonable hour Sunday night, to prepare myself to wake up fairly early to go see the Titan missile museum. However, in the course of my mind's wandering I started thinking about how much I'm looking forward to seeing Macbeth next semester, which got me thinking about Shakespearean tragedies. I realized that, after I see Macbeth, Hamlet will be the last "major" Shakespearean tragedy I have yet to read or see for the first time, something I should remedy methinks. Thinking about the ones I have read or seen brought my thoughts to Romeo and Juliet, probably the most quintessential Shakespearean tragedy in our society, and I began to wonder whether I truly believe that it is a tragedy.

My favorite characterization of the tragedy genre is that the virtue of the main character is the very thing that leads to their downfall. Consider the classic tragedy Oedipus Rex, one of my favorites. (Spoiler alert! But shouldn't you already know this story?) Oedipus' parents are rulers of a Greek city-state (Corinth, Argon? Doesn't matter.), and they receive a prophecy from Delphi that their newborn son (Oedipus) will kill his father and marry his mother. Being good parents they promptly give the babe to a servant to leave on a mountainside to die of exposure, but the servant gives him to a shepherd to raise. A grown Oedipus learns of the prophecy and, not knowing he was "adopted," he flees from the loving parents who raised him in order to protect him. In his journeys he meets a boorish man at a bridge who provokes a fight, of course the virtuous Oedipus slays the king of $city-state and his guards.

Then Oedipus comes to $city-state, which is besieged by a sphinx. Oedipus vanquishes said sphinx, then the recently widowed queen of $city-state marries him as a reward (what was her husband doing bullying travelers while his polis was besieged anyway?). Fast forward, Oedipus, the paragon of manliness, has sired wonderful children and ruled $city-state benevolently, when $city-state is cursed with a drought. Oedipus, the good ruler, tries to discern the cause of the drought, despite warnings from wise men that it might be better that he not know. Upon finding out that the dreaded prophecy has indeed come true and they have sired a cadre of child-siblings the queen, Jocasta by name, commits suicide and Oedipus gouges out his eyes to expunge the dishonor.

So, the whole unfortunate kerfuffle comes about from people trying to do the thing that is best. And one little incident of infanticide, but the Greeks were down with that. If Oedipus hadn't acted in such an upright manner, he probably could have lived a satisfying life ruling a drought stricken city-state, that is the tragedy.

Consider, on the other hand, the story of Romeo and Juliet. (Spoiler alert! But really, how do you not know the this story?) Each, upon learning of the death of the other, commits suicide. Of course, the first death was faked, something of which Romeo was supposed to be informed. So, through a simple failure of communication the young lovers kill themselves. Let's examine the actions of Romeo and Juliet. While their romance is rather precipitous, I am enough of a romantic that I feel inclined to look upon that benevolently. Faking one's death to be with one's lover is, again, romantic, albeit extreme considering one will be leaving behind one's family forever, but they hate Romeo anyway, so forget them.

Where their actions become questionable is the idea to commit suicide. Had Romeo refrained from killing himself they could have been together. Even Juliet's suicide doesn't improve anything, no polis escapes a drought. So, in final analysis, while Oedipus Rex is a true tragedy, Romeo and Juliet is simply a sad, selfish waste. For a Shakespearean tragedy worthy of the name, I suggest Julius Caesar.


elfarmy17 said...

R&J is the only Shakespearean tragedy I've seen/read, but I'm going to see a heavily-edited-by-teens version of Macbeth in about a month. It involves Where's Waldo brutally murdering people, and Buffy The Vampire Slayer marries Hermione Granger at the end.
Apparently the new script eliminates a lot of the tragic elements, but it sounds awesome anyway.

Kenny said...

Hermione + Buffy = Awesome. However, I am pretty sure that Buffy is not into girls like that.

Karen said...

elfarmy... That seriously just sounds TOO awesome. Enjoy.