Delights of Tragedy


AT an inquest on a modern who shot himself in a London hotel it came out that this undervaluer of life had gone to a tragic play on the evening before. At this there was some wagging of beards in the coroner’s court. The play was named and the coroner said, ‘Oh, I know it — a most depressing play, with a suicide at the end.’ The coroner’s clerk and the usher obviously felt that things looked pretty black for the art of Racine.

Still, there was this to be said: it came out, also, that the desperate person had lost his health and all his money; that he had been divorced by his wife and dismissed by his employers, and that the staple of his diet had been alcohol for many years. So we cannot be wholly sure that the play alone did it. Voltaire himself allows that an incantation, combined with a proper quantity of arsenic, will kill a sheep; and a man who had just seen Othello or some other ‘play with a suicide at the end ’ might quite well be inclined to blow out his brains — with a certain amount of additional encouragement derived from sickness, dipsomania, want, and unhappiness in the home. Tragedy, we may admit, is not an expressly life-saving appliance, such as the fireproof curtain that commonly attends its performance. But can it, to any sane man, be positively lethal either? Ought Hamlet and Phèdre, Medea and Lear, to be scheduled, along with cocaine, as perilous drugs? Shakespeare certainly is a terrible man for suicides at the end. So, should he be altogether tabooed, by way of starting a ‘safety first’ movement in theatres?

This, of course, is not an honest question. It is a rhetorical question. I am quite aware that nobody will answer ‘Yes.’ We all want to see tragedy played for all it is worth, unless there is something wrong with us at the time. But why do we want it? What makes it worth while to go out of our way in order to see the torments of Lear or the failure of Antony done, as we say, to the life?

We are sometimes told that tragedy startles or frightens us; or that it makes us feel all mankind to be helpless and blind; or that it gives us a sense of unfulfillment or waste — of greatness thrown away, or of strength and beauty frustrating themselves or tortured to death. But why are we moved to pay money in order to have it put to us that men are but worms or blind kittens, or that far more fine stuff goes to loss in this world than we should have supposed? If we dislike in ‘real life’ the sight of misery, failure, and corruption, why do we enjoy Macbeth? This is not a rhetorical question. I have no cocksure answer to it up my sleeve.

Of course confident answers are common enough, some of them offered on high authority. One is that tragedy does indeed give you the sensations of fear, abasement, or loss, but not as the world gives them; that by tragedy they come in an abated, purified, safeguarded form which does you good by bracing you to meet the attack of real terror or bereavement at other times. According to this theory the tragic writer and actor do to your soul something akin to what vaccinators do to your body: they do not inject the virus of fear or despair at its full strength, but only a kind of lymph distilled from the real thing, and rather like it, but somehow medicated so that it shall cause only a mild perturbation of your mind, about as like real anguish as three little eruptions on your arm are like confluent smallpox.

It is a pretty fancy. It has about it, too, an imposing air of standing in with science. And yet it won’t quite do. It goes too far away from the facts of experience — from what we all feel when we are moved by tragic novels or plays, and also from what we feel when we are vaccinated. We do not have ourselves vaccinated for pleasure. Far, far from it. The remote and negative after-effect is the one thing we want. But we do not go to see Julius Cœsar played for the sake of a remote aftereffect. No one books his seat with the sense of painful prudence which nerves one to go about for some days, by our own manful choice, with one arm in a sling. We go because we know we shall get from the tragedy, while we are there, a certain stir and glow in our minds; we want to induce in ourselves a specific mood of intense, if fugitive, exaltation — a mood sombre, no doubt, and perhaps sharing with actual sorrow such symptoms as tears, but still exultant and bringing with it a sense of heightened powers in heart and mind. To say how a lovely landscape affected him, Izaak Walton quotes the lines, —

I was at that time ravish’d above earth
And possessed joys not promised at my birth.

Fine tragedy, too, can fill you with that astonished consciousness of having been born into a more wonderful world than you knew; its early deaths, baffled loves, and overshadowed lives become a kind of uncovenanted inlet for your spirit into something which you feel to be the ardent heart of life. The essence of your feeling is enjoyment.

This essential enjoyment is given its place in a different theory, framed by Bergson, the sprightly modern philosopher. Bergson holds that we like tragedy because it can throw us into a delicious reverie of retrospection; under its spell, he suggests, we dream ourselves back into an earlier stage in the growth of the human race, a stage in which the naked heat of natural passion, such as tragedy often shows us in action, had not been cooled and covered up with crust upon crust of social usage and moral law, just as a cold and stiff crust has formed itself over the ball of molten metals and fiery vapors which the earth is said to have been. Bergson holds that when a tragedy works on us strongly we are tasting the sort of delight which the earth might feel if it could muse over the fine wild times that it had in its more volcanic youth.

This is a pretty fancy, too. And no doubt a modern playgoer may feel that he is a person of old and eventful lineage; he is the latest term, for the moment, in an immensely long series; at every step of it something relatively primitive has been suppressed and something relatively subtle has come in. So he may well believe, on the authority of the wise, that the tissues of his brain are charged with remote ancestral memories and visited by the ghosts of many ancient experiences and sensibilities. He finds it easy enough to suppose that when he is moved by the tragic conflict between Shakespeare’s Richard II and Bolingbroke, the setting of the one star and the rising of the other, there is some element in him which still feels a residual thrill from the time when only the germ of our tragic drama yet existed — some rude dance or charade in which primitive man tried to express his sense of the conflict between summer and winter or between the old year and the new year that comes to kill it.

But due respect for the fruits of modern research does not call upon us to assume that our passions are weaker than those of the Neanderthal Man, or that all that is left, in that line, for the grown-up mind of the race is a vein of sentimental dreaming, like Justice Shallow’s, about the famous doings of its ungovernable youth. Try to fix and define, to yourself, your own state of feeling at times when a great tragedy is working on you most strongly. I think you will feel pretty sure that if your sensations throw any bright light on the path of human evolution they throw most of it forward, along the road that we still have to travel. They are head lamps, not tail ones.

But now to draw off, for the moment, from this line of approach, and try to come at the heart of the matter from a new side.


When you meet, in the flesh, a writer whose work has seemed to you to have tragic force, you are apt to feel that, face to face and talking with him, you are, in essentials, further removed from him than you were when you had only read his books. You may feel that now you are being held off at arm’s length, when you remember the man’s other self—the frank, authentic self which you saw coming out in his work. Compared with that self-revealer, the man before you seems like a creature withdrawn into a shell. Between you and him there has now risen the estranging film of defensive reticence which separates nearly all of us from our friends.

Or, possibly, somebody whom you have known for many years writes a tragic book of some power; and then, as you read it, you say to yourself, ‘How little I have known him, really, all this while!’ Now that the mood of his tragedy possesses you, you feel that you know far more about what goes on in the guarded parts of his mind, when he is most deeply moved, than you ever did before.

It is not easy to own the truth of this, freely and fully. One’s everyday habits of thought impede that. In the commonest sense of the word, a person whom you never saw before is a stranger. And a stranger, as people say, is a stranger. Besides, one’s knowledge of people whom one has met every day is so circumstantial — one knows so exactly all the trivial things about them; it seems sound to assume that if anyone’s mind and heart are known to us, it must be theirs. But examine and cross-examine your sensations with a resolutely open mind; assume nothing; take nothing for granted; then it may come to you, not as a paradox but as a plain statement of fact, that in looking long and yieldingly at Turner’s ‘Dido Building Carthage’ you are being used as a confidant; confession is being made to you of a quality of melancholy more intimately selfrevealing, perhaps, than any avowal made to you by a living friend. And, again, in the tragic novels of Thomas Hardy, a clean breast is made of certain intensities of personal emotion so intimate that perhaps they could never be faithfully avowed except by an artist through his art.

Intimacy, an avowal, a confidant — may not the words throw some first faint rays of light on our difficulty? Almost all intellectual or emotional intimacy excites and delights us; the rising scale of satisfaction that a player draws from the onward march of a fine tragedy may correspond with his gradual admission to an exceptional measure of intimacy with the deeply moved mind of the dramatist.

The mind to which that thrilling access is gained will not only be deeply moved. It will also be uncommon. In presence of any piece of fine tragic art we are likely to feel that it shows, at least, an unusual capacity for strong emotion in the artist. He must have had the power and Mill to achieve feelings more poignant than ours; he must have carried certain feelings — much further than the common run of us can — toward whatever the ultimate issue of the most intense feeling may be. Before the ‘Dante’s Dream’ of Rossetti you may well feel that the painter, while at work, was more profoundly moved than most of us could be, without his help, by the thought of a great love that never found its mortal close. When we are stirred by the music of some antique chant, such as the ‘ Dies Iræ,’ there may be set free, as chemists say, an extremely powerful emotion with which some mediæval artist was once charged. When Horace said to the Roman dramatist, ‘Grieve, yourself, first, if you want me to weep at your play,’ I fancy he cannot have meant that the tragic author ought to grieve over the fall of his hero as any of us might grieve over a friend or son of his own; rather that he should be searched and shaken by some genuine personal vision of such a calamity, a vision so passionately poignant that any emotion which he hopes to arouse in an audience will fall well within the measure of his own.

To supply a whole town with water from a well, the water must first be pumped up to the top of a tower higher than any of the domestic cisterns which it is to fill. One may think of a tragic writer’s mind as a tower like that, and think of his ‘subject,’ the facts from which he starts, the murder of Cæsar or of Duncan, as so much water at the bottom of a well, not available for human use until the tower has enriched it with the property of elevation, the gift of high pressure. The historical facts behind the play of Macbeth are mere matter for criminal courts. To turn them to tragedy, exaltation must be imposed upon them, and this can be done only by one who himself is capable of a towering height of sane emotion. Shakespeare did not derive from the preëxisting novel the energy of emotion which animates with its dark blaze the last act of Othello. He derived it — you can only say he derived it from being Shakespeare. It came of the full exertion of an enormous personal power of being moved, of feeling tragically. The creation of any fine tragedy is an outburst of one species of tremendous vital energy; its author has, in a certain respect and for a certain time, lived with a rare and glowing intensity. And, to all of us, any contact with abounding life and energy is rousing and exciting. It is, if not delight itself, at least the raw material of delight.

Here, then, already, are two possible sources of pleasure in tragedy: first, the thrill of an emotional confidence or intimacy of any kind; secondly, the thrill of contact with vital power in full flood. But there may be other savors to enjoy, besides.

Every great tragedy must, in a certain limited sense, be a thing intensely artificial. Every speech in it has to be cunningly calculated. Its author has to cope, not only with technical difficulties that attend every kind of imaginative writing, but also with the special set of difficulties that beset writers for the theatre. When Gloucester at the beginning of Richard the Third bursts into the big opening speech, ‘Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer,’ and so on, almost every line is, from one point of view, a good yard of ground won by Shakespeare in conflict with a dramatist’s first technical difficulty — that of getting his audience to see quickly what the play is to be about and how everything stands at the start. When Macbeth, just after the murder of Duncan, delivers the famous speech about sleep, one can see, besides many other things, Shakespeare the wary theatrical craftsman dealing with the technical difficulty of playing out time until the short interval has elapsed which might naturally pass before the next occasional sound in the sleeping castle. It is, of course, the same with comedy. In the ‘seven ages’ speech in As You Like It, you see Shakespeare meeting the technical difficulty that Orlando has just gone off to fetch Adam and that something or other must be done to give him time to reach Adam and come back; you see Shakespeare timing the action, watch in hand as it were, and possibly giving man an extra age or two, lest Orlando and Adam should seem to come incredibly soon.

No doubt it has often been said that in presence of a work of art the lay spectator need not, or even should not, be aware of the means taken by the artist to produce his effect. And there is the shallow proverb about art’s being the concealment of art. If this were wholly true, then art might be ranked with conjuring, in which it is indispensable to the highest success that the public should not see how the rabbit got into the top hat. But a picture is none the better for making us think it is not a picture at all, but a live man looking through a gilt frame, or a real landscape seen through a window. That is hanky-panky, not art, and surely it is equally true that the stage, though it gives us illusions, should not give us delusions. We should always be conscious, at least in some one or other of the chambers of our mind, of the artist behind the play, selecting, emphasizing, subduing, winnowing, refining. If you carry far enough the interrogation of your own sensations in the theatre, I think you will come to feel sure that some little fraction, at least, of your enjoyment of tragedy consists in the sort of sympathetic delight that all of us feel when we see any severe technical task triumphantly accomplished and any craftsman’s victory over the intractableness of his material handsomely won by the refinements of his ingenuity and precaution.


And now to look back along the way we have come and to pick up anything helpful that we have left lying about. First came the notion that a fine tragedy can give us the happy thrill of more or less conscious admission to an unusual measure of emotional confidence. Then that it might give us the joyous excitement of contact with an abounding and rousing vitality. Then that it offers us the delight of witnessing the achievement of a remarkable intellectual feat of contrivance, accommodation, and balance.

But to leave it at this would not do. For the stir of spirit which we feel at the climax of a fine tragedy is much more than the sum of these three separate enjoyments simply added together. Rather is it their product when they are all, in a sense, multiplied by one another. The delight of a spiritual intimacy is heightened, beyond anything expressible in terms of simple addition, when the confidence is that of a spirit of rare force and fire brooding over the innermost things of experience. And, again, the delight of receiving this communicated emotion is not offered to us merely side by side with the intellectual pleasure of seeing a choice craftsman fashion his work out into handsomeness. For in any great piece of work there is no mere juxtaposition, or superimposition, of intellect and emotion. What occurs is more like one of those chemical unions of elements from which a new substance arises, with properties wholly transcending any that are found in its separate components or in their merely mechanical union.

Consider what it is that goes on in an artist at work. Some idea, or mood, or scene, or character piques him. He sets to work to express this interest of his in his own technical way, through paint or words or musical notes or whatever his medium may be. This technical effort, perhaps begun almost coldly, soon absorbs and then excites him; the heat of it reacts on the prior interest which it has tried to express, makes it a much warmer, deeper interest or emotion, raises it into a passion of curiosity and desire to feel the emotion out to its very end, to carry it on till it has become all that it has in it to be. Then the enhanced emotion reacts in turn on the artist’s technical power, strings it up to go beyond itself, to reach out beyond what had ever before seemed possible to it; and again that momentarily reënforced technical power spurs on the emotional imagination to attempt unhoped-for miracles of insight. In the making of any fine tragedy we may discern this interaction between emotion and intellect, between vision and technique; not a mere coöperation of distinct forces, but an extremely powerful reciprocal action, each in turn firing the other and fired by it, and each, at every step in this ascending scale of collaboration, losing itself in the other more and more, so that it becomes harder and harder to say which is which, until in the finished work something has come into existence in which you cannot, for the life of you, say what is matter and what is form, so far has it passed beyond that common state of mediocre art in which a naked and uncomfortable theme seems to be trying awkwardly to put on a misfitting overcoat of paint or of language.

Assume that this is what takes place in the mind that fashions a great tragic drama. Then what takes place in our minds, when we see it, is likely to be something not, of course, identical with this, but still related to this and responsive to it. Corresponding to the dramatist’s growing intensity of emotion there is the momentary rise in us of that curious access of tenderness which may bring tears to the eyes and yet is so painless, and even so subtly delicious, that most of those who have felt it wish to feel it over and over again. And, to correspond to the dramatist’s state of intellectual exaltation, his more than common command of his craft’s means of expression, there is evoked in the spectator a more than normal power of taking things in. At the climax of a tragedy it seems as if the average man and woman could understand almost anything — even things which may again become incomprehensible to them next day when they try to understand how they understood them. With most of us who are playgoers it is a common experience to find every line of a great tragedy charged with expression when we see it played and have completely surrendered ourselves to its power, whereas in our ordinary, unmoved state of mind we have not been able to make head or tail of many of its speeches. The most en igmatic exclamations of persons tragically involved — Cleopatra’s cry, ‘The soldier’s pole is fall’n,’ and Macbeth’s ‘She should have died hereafter’— cease to perplex us. What else, we feel, should they say?

We saw how, in the dramatist engrossed in his creative job, the power to feel more than most of us can, and the power to think more than most of us can, egg each other on to reach out beyond themselves and to do impossibilities — impossibilities at any other time and in any other state of man’s faculties. And so, in some measure, is it with the stirred playgoer, too. In him, too, the delight of an expanded emotional capacity and the delight of a strengthened mental eyesight act and react upon each other, giving and taking value and power. At the climax of the finest tragedies, their matter and their form, that which the dramatist feels and that which he thinks out, attain virtual identity in a kind of impassioned perfection. And in the fit spectator, also, the old consciousness of feeling and thought, as things distinct and often conflicting, may vanish clean away. He may be lifted on to a plane on which, for a little time, the separate energies of heart and mind attain at the same time their own utmost growth and also a harmony verging on absolute unity. And in that state of himself he may gain, for some fugitive moments, a glimpse of life as it might look to an eye and mind more penetrating than mankind, in the mass, has yet achieved.


A high mountain, with its upper half always hidden under ice and snow and often obscured by clouds, is one of the most movingly beautiful of things; it is, as a whole, one of the things most challenging to bodily effort for the sheer joy of effort, and one of the things that reward effort with the most enchanting consciousness of the reach of your bodily powers and of the marvel of possessing with your senses the physical world.

And yet, if you looked only at this or that point on the mountain’s surface, you might see only a little crag, down which a man might easily fall and break his neck, or a little crevasse waiting to trap anyone who walks carelessly over it. And, if you thought of that point alone, you might naturally say, ‘This crevasse is a bad business,’ or ‘That crag is a lamentable affair. Where does the delight come in?’

Great tragedy presents, you might say, that crag or crevasse, in all its own lethal horror, and yet as a part of a whole which is rousingly noble and grand. When untransfigured by tragic genius, the fatal involvement of some Antony of real life is just a bad business, no more; and when a Macbeth or any other good fellow goes to the bad it is a lamentable affair — merely that. But in fine tragedies such falls become, somehow, minute and isolated hazards to be found on the huge surface of life as their author imaged it to himself — and imaged it with a rapture of enjoyment, a kind of disinterested delight in finding everything just what it was, good or bad.

People sometimes shrink from assenting to this. They feel it almost immoral to say that Shakespeare delighted in a greedy murderer or a cunning slanderer. But read Macbeth and Othello with an open mind and surely you can have no doubt, Shakespeare revels in grasping the notion of Macbeth and of Iago. Not, of course, that in real life he would prefer them to straight-living persons, nor that in real life he is nearer to them or more like them. It is simply that, just as a child’s hands love to touch wool because it is soft and warm, and also iron because it is hard and cold, so his mind loves to frame the idea of goodness because it is good and of baseness because it is base. Without any prejudice to moral judgment there is possible a sort of gusto for all the contents of life alike—for pain and loss as well as virtues and victories — simply because each has its own delicious differentness for the apprehending mind.

‘What a piece of work is a man!’ — that speech of Hamlet’s is the very expression of this gusto, even in the midst of discouragement and doubt. You find it again in Pope’s lines about man as

A being darkly wise and rudely great;
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled —
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world.

That is the temper of genius. It seems to land upon the chequered soil of human nature and experience as though on an unexplored island of boundless strangeness, variety, and fascination, as exciting in its swamps and its wild beasts as in its springs and fruit; all join in making it one immense adventure for the spirit.

Here, too, the spectator’s sensations are likely to have some measure of correspondence to the quality of the artist’s creative ardor. If we can bring ourselves to own it, our feeling at the early deaths and baffled loves of tragedy is really one of exultation. You may call it sombre, but exultation it is; first, at that opened spectacle of human existence as a more tremendous enterprise than we knew — more terrible, but also more magnificent and a more thrilling challenge than ever to the spirit that is ready to meet anything; and also at our own strangely heightened power of being moved without being numbed, and of seeing, as it seems, right into life’s glowing heart with a clearness and calm unattainable in almost any other mood.


All that is enjoyment; in fact it comes pretty close, in its nature, to what has been held supreme and superhuman enjoyment. The kind of released mental insight which tragedy gives us, at least for a few moments, is, in a permanent form, the main delight which the chief of Greek thinkers attributed to God: one of the most profound of modern English philosophers, the late R. L. Nettleship, said: ‘I sometimes think one might conceive of God as a being who might experience what we call the in tensest pain and pleasure without being “affected” by it’—meaning, by ‘affected,’ disabled, or incapacitated, or reduced to incoherence or apathy, as we commonly are by personal griefs.

It seems conceivable, then, that at the picked moments of exaltation and vision which great tragedy brings we may be gaining a foretaste of the use of finer faculties with which the continued process of evolution may yet endow the race. We may not be able fully to analyze our own sensations at such moments; but it seems credible that the almost mystical rapture which they bring may be, although we do not know it, the joy of reaching forward through time and anticipating mankind’s future measure of spiritual understanding. The men of science tell us our eye has grown to be what it is from being merely a spot of ordinary skin a little more sensitive than the rest. Is it, then, difficult to believe that our present capacity for feeling and thinking is, compared with what it may come to, like, an eye that has as yet achieved only half of that growth?

At present the whole relation between delight and beauty on one side and tragic poignancy on the other is an obscure region infested by doubts and only fitfully lit by conjectures and seeming paradoxes. Keats tells us that

Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine.

Synge speaks of ‘ the desolation that is mixed everywhere with the supreme beauty of the world.’ Everyone has felt that there is a vague but sharp poignancy blended with his own delight in such things as tranquil summer evenings and fine dawns. When a perfect tragedy possesses your mind you seem for a moment to have your hand near some clue to all that region of enigma. You cannot keep your hold on the clue, but, for those moments verging on trance, everything has run almost clear in your mind. When the experience is over, you feel sure that what you have had was vision and not delusion; perhaps you may hope that you have craned forward and caught a momentary glimpse of life as a mind more fully grown might see life always.

How positive one becomes! A few pages back I was expressing a proper diffidence about any conclusions in view. And here I am, almost shouting in favor of one. It is not a calculated piece of ill faith; it is only a common effect of the strong waters of literary composition. A few minutes ago I was saying how a technical effort may engender in a tragic dramatist a wonderful heat and quickness of sympathy; in a less distinguished craftsman it certainly may bring on a fine turn of cock-sureness. Not only that which goeth in at the mouth but that which cometh out of the mouth may intoxicate.

But remember: this, like other artificial heats, subsides rapidly. Already doubts invade me. At any moment some better-gifted critic may bring out some reason for our enjoyment of tragedy more valid than any I have been able to think of. Mine is merely the unsystematic attempt of one playgoer to make out why his mind has been in such a stir whenever a tragedy of the first rank has risen to its climax in his sight.