Sunday, September 09, 2007

The Flaw in the "Tragic Flaw" Theory

Flannery O'Connor once remarked that literary critics were the ones who most often failed to understand her works. That goes double for Shakespeare's works.

One of the critics' biggest errors, as regards Shakespeare, is their attempt to apply Aristotle's 'tragic flaw' theory to his plays. The 'tragic flaw' theory, simply put, is that the protagonist in a tragedy always brings on his own downfall by some tragic flaw.

Using that criterion, the critic can assume an elevated height above the protagonist, psychoanalyze him, and thus avoid any meaningful reaction to the play or to existence.

But the tragic flaw theory is pure rot. Yes, many of Shakespeare's protagonists have tragic flaws, such as Timon and Lear, but others, such as Antony, Hamlet, and Coriolanus, are the noblest characters in the play. It is their nobility, rather than their flaws, that bring them down. And even in the play of King Lear, when the title character does possess that Aristotleian tragic flaw, one can find no tragic flaw in Cordelia; one finds only sublime beauty and nobility of soul in her.

Literary critics and Catholic theologians love to use the Greek structures because things are a lot simpler when using the Greek syllogisms. But even the Greek poets are too complex for the Greek structures. So how can one expect to fit the even more complex Christian poets, like Shakespeare, into the Greek molds? Well, I suppose you can do anything you want, if you want merely to be an academic bystander and not enter the real playing field of existence, but then, please stick to potted plants and computers and leave Shakespeare alone.