Article Title

Tragedy and Timon of Athens


Since the critical term “tragedy” as it is generally used is a family-resemblance concept in Wittgenstein’s sense, it follows that the defining elements are multiple and indefinite, that being a tragedy does not entail extraordinary merit, that no one element is either necessary or sufficient to being a tragedy, and that the elements that make a text a tragedy may not be its most significant qualities. Still tragic writers often follow a more specific and narrower conception of the genre. Given these circumstances, critics would be advised to follow an open, flexible conception of the genre. To see how such a use of genre can illuminate a difficult text, one can look at Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens. It has elements of moral tragedy and of tragedy of character, even while it verges on satiric comedy and moral allegory. All of these generic affiliations illuminate parts of the play, but some otherwise unexplained elements can be illuminated by another conception of tragedy, Aristotle’s category the tragedy of suffering. Timon’s explosions of rage are the primary content of the second half of the play, and they are lyric expressions of his suffering, with little impact on the world around him even while they help to produce his willed self-dissolution. What we bring from the tragic denouement is not so much a moral lesson as an appalled sense of the fragility of our grasp on coherence and rational control.

Comparative Drama is carried by JSTOR and Project MUSE.