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The Tragic Paradox (review)

From: Comparative Drama
Volume 46, Number 4, Winter 2012
pp. 545-548 | 10.1353/cdr.2012.0032

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Leonard Moss believes that tragedy deals in paradox. The source of a tragic hero’s greatness is also the cause of his destruction. The overriding desire for honor that motivates tragic protagonists also results in their shame and demise. And the close of tragedies includes a simultaneous sense of vindication and annulment, affirmation and negation. So far, so unsurprising. After all, the chorus in Antigone articulated very similar sentiments back in the fifth century BC:

Man the master, ingenious past all measure
past all dreams, the skills within his grasp—
he forges on, now to destruction
now again to greatness.1

And Hamlet followed suit: “What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving, how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god—the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?”2 Even George Steiner declared, in The Death of Tragedy in 1961, that “[t]ragedy would have us know that there is in the very fact of human existence a provocation or paradox.”3

So what’s new? Not much, is the answer. This is a book that reads as if it had been published in the 1960s, despite the reference to recent scholarship cited in the footnotes (but not discussed in the text). Its vision of tragedy is preoccupied with the tragic hero—and more specifically the tragic male hero—and the “challenge” that he poses to the supposed “masculine model.” Moss begins with ancient Greek tragedy, going through an exploration of both male and female stereotypes as evidenced in the work of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. He continues with Shakespeare, who, he announces, “did not feature a female protagonist in his tragedies” (54). (What about Juliet or Cleopatra, one wonders? And how does one define protagonist or tragedy in Shakespeare, anyway?) There is an excursion into the expected philosophers on tragedy—Hegel, Nietzsche, Plato, Aristotle—before two final chapters on Samson Agonistes and King Lear. As such, the chronology of the book follows similar boundaries to those adopted by Emily Wilson in her excellent Mocked with Death: Tragic Overliving from Sophocles to Milton (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004) (not cited anywhere by Moss). Moss only differs from Wilson’s focus in his brief inclusion of two modern examples of post-Nietzschean tragedy: Strindberg’s Dream Play and Kafka’s Metamorphoses. We learn inexplicably that Strindberg “may have been the first Nietzschean dramatist detailing the tragic plight of commonplace characters” (99) (Moss never mentions Ibsen for some unknown reason), but, in other respects, these later examples are forced into the same schematic, interpretative straitjacket as the rest of the book:

Whether choric or heroic, tragic figures splinter supposedly rock-firm imperatives governing personal, family, and social life, juggling permanence with flux in their figurative language and narrative journeys as they try to renew a compromised identity. But the more avidly they struggle to reach that fixed goal, the more they contradict it. The metaphors of tragedy record their tumultuous struggle and their pitiable, fearful metamorphosis.


The difficulty with Leonard Moss’s analysis is that it is divorced from the historical context of the plays. The discussion of Greek tragedy, for example, focuses upon the “aristocratic” hero, without considering the function of tragedy in the new fledgling democracy of fifth-century Athens. As many critics, led by Jean-Pierre Vernant and Pierre Vidal-Naquet, have shown, the Greek tragedians were interested in exploring the tensions of living in a democratic city, by juxtaposing the individual with the collective, the hero with the chorus. The hybrid setting of tragedy, placed in the mythical world of kings while articulating the concerns of a democracy, served to highlight the anxieties of the transitional period of the fifth century. Exposed to tragic scrutiny, too, was the fifth-century attitude toward rhetoric, which was at once so vital to the functioning of the democracy and yet also perceived to be untrustworthy and dangerous. There is, however, nothing on the language of Greek tragedy in Moss’s book. Finally, the whole religious dimension of Greek...

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