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Home :: Archive :: 1995 :: January ::
Re: Tragic "Flaw" -- Hamartia; Elizabethan Education
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 6, No. 0005. Wednesday, 4 January, 1995.
 
(1)     From:   Piers Lewis <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 03 Jan 1995 15:47:42 -0600
        Subj:   Tragic Hamartia
 
(2)     From:   Sean Lawrence <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 3 Jan 1995 19:44:16 -0800 (PST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 5.1028 Re: Tragic Flaw I
 
(3)     From:   David Joseph Kathman <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 3 Jan 1995 18:46:36 -0600
        Subj:   Elizabethan Education
 
 
(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Piers Lewis <
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Date:           Tuesday, 03 Jan 1995 15:47:42 -0600
Subject:        Tragic Hamartia
 
I think I agree with those who argue that 'hamartia' misses the mark (pardon
the pun) as an account or explanation of tragic experience.  To blame tragedy
on the flaws, deficiencies, failings (or what not) of the hero is to diminish
its power.  _Romeo & Juliet_ and _Oedipus The King_ are cases in point.
 
It strikes me as odd that Aristotle should have had nothing to say about the
obviously intentional ironies of the latter play.  'Irony' is a rhetorical
term; did he therefore consider it philosophically irrelevant? Or was there
something about tragic irony that made it philosophically unacceptable to him?
 
What deficiencies or failings account for the hideous cosmic joke that is
played on Oedipus?  Pride, you say?  His pride is what makes him great.  He
possesses 'greatness of soul' in Aristotle's terms.  He is a great man who is
doomed whatever he does.  His best qualities destroy him.  He is determined --
heroically -- to uncover the truth about the murder of King Laius and the truth
that he is ironically doomed to uncover is that he is--in all innocence--the
shameful source of the pollution for which the people of Thebes are suffering.
There is no rational solution to the 'riddle' or moral paradox that Oedipus
ironically embodies--how can the same man be a hero and an abomination?  both
loved and hated by the gods?--and the play ends in the only way it can:  with
the exposure of the shameful truth of his life and the warning (Yeats'
translation) "Call no man fortunate that is not dead.  The dead are free from
pain."
 
Irony entails the simultaneous juxtaposition of opposed, conflicting or
contradictory meanings.  Moral conflict or paradox of the kind that Sophocles
shows us (i.e. necessary, insoluble, grounded irremediably in the order of
things) is not allowed for or even recognized in the philosophies of either
Plato or Aristotle (or, it seems to me, in the philosophical tradition they
initiated).  Which is why I at least find Aristotle's discussion of tragedy
unsatisfying and unusable.
 
The misfortunes of Romeo and Juliet are obviously on an altogether different
scale; contingency -- bad luck -- is a factor in this play as it is not in
_Oedipus_ but their fate is equally grounded in necessity.  Here too 'hamartia'
misses the mark:  Romeo and Juliet are not 'flawed' characters in any sense --
unless you happen to see them, as Auden does, from the point of view of
christian righteousness; all they are 'guilty' of is thinking in all innocence
that they they can alter the conditions of their lives by shucking off their
names -- as if that were as easy as taking off one's clothes.  "What's in a
name?" asks Juliet innocently.  Lots; little does she know . . .  We too would
like to think that names don't matter -- look at the way her question has come
to be used, rhetorically, in the language of ordinary, everyday life.  Names do
matter and we know it yet we can't stop wishing they didn't; or imagining --
like Coriolanus -- that when life pinches and all our choices look equally bad,
we can take to the open road, find a world elsewhere where no one knows who or
what we are and start over.  Most of us stay at home, safely, and don't act out
our fantasies of escape; Romeo and Juliet, too young and innocent to know
better, make their great and courageous bid for freedom and almost get away
with it.
 
Piers Lewis
Metropolitan State University
 
(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Sean Lawrence <
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Date:           Tuesday, 3 Jan 1995 19:44:16 -0800 (PST)
Subject: 5.1028 Re: Tragic Flaw I
Comment:        Re: SHK 5.1028 Re: Tragic Flaw I
 
Hi.
 
I'm just catching up with two weeks of e-mail, and have read the whole "tragic
hero" debate with interest.
 
I'm surprised, though, that no-one seems to be discussing medieval tragedy.  I
mean, the characters of the "Monk's Tale" seem pretty much attacked by fate.
On the other hand, Lancelot in Malory seems to be brought down by flaws of his
own rather than an indifferent wheel of fortune.
 
I can't help but think that it would be more productive to concentrate on what
sort of "tragic heroes" were available to Shakespeare than to notice once again
the obvious fact that many of our conceptions have been received through a
filter of more recent history.
 
Cheerio, and happy new year everyone,
 
        Sean.
 
(3)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Joseph Kathman <
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Date:           Tuesday, 3 Jan 1995 18:46:36 -0600
Subject:        Elizabethan Education
 
Regarding Richard Kennedy's query on Elizabethan education, especially of
girls:  two books you should definitely look at if you haven't already are
David Cressy's *Education in Tudor and Stuart England* (1975) and the same
author's *Literacy and the Social Order:  Reading and Writing in Tudor and
Stuart England* (1980).
 
By the way, the statement that both of Shakespeare's daughters were illiterate
is not quite accurate.  Judith signed with a mark, and there is no particular
reason to believe that she could read or write.  But Susanna could certainly
sign her name, which would indicate that she was literate.   It's not
completely impossible that she was illiterate except for the ability to sign
her own name, but I'd call that pretty unlikely, especially given that she was
described in her epitaph as "witty above her sexe", i.e., pretty smart "for a
woman".  James Cooke, who had known Susanna's husband John Hall, describes in
his edition of Hall's medical notebooks how he called on Susanna at New Place
after Hall's death, and she brought out some notebooks that she said had
belonged to one of her husband's fellow physicians. Cooke told her that one or
two of them were in fact in Hall 's handwriting, but she denied that they were.
 This leads Schoenbaum in his *Documentary Life* to wonder whether Susanna
could in fact read and write, but I don't see this as reason to doubt that she
could; she could certainly sign her name (unusual enough for a woman,
especially outside London), and in the context of the times (see Cressy) this
is pretty strong evidence that she was literate.
 
Dave Kathman

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