Tragedy: knowledge, understanding and handling genre

It’s been quite a couple of weeks, here in the Flatlands, but here I am, and here’s my latest King Lear post.

Tragedy! When the feeling’s gone and you can’t go on … You get the picture. Today I’m writing about the T-word, everybody’s favourite big chunky genre, ripe for students to get their teeth into. Who doesn’t love teaching tragedy? I adore it. And King Lear is one of my favourite tragedies to teach, along with A View from the Bridge and The History Boys. (You thought The History Boys was a comedy? Try reading it again, using tragedy as a lens, and see what you make of it. But that’s another post entirely.)

Greek tragedy mask from the 4th century BCE, in the Archaeological Museum, Piraeus. Photo by
George E. Koronaios. Source: Wikimedia Commons

It’s easy to see why tragedy, as a genre, has been given a place on A level specifications. It has enormous cultural and historical significance. It has its roots in classical Greece, but has been adapted, updated and played around with by writers ever since. The central concepts of tragedy give us a tool to explore all manner of narratives, from Sophocles to the present day. Is the history of humanity itself just another tragic drama? Are we suffering the consequences of the hubris of previous generations? That’s one for your Year Thirteens to ponder. So tragedy is massive, and complex, and serious. Because of this, it also challenges all those accusations that studying literature is simply a matter of personal opinion – mere ‘chatter about Shelley’, as E. A. Freeman, Regius Professor of History at Oxford in the late nineteenth century, put it. Studying tragedy involves knowledge: knowledge about narrative arcs and character-types, literary history and key features. It involves terms and definitions. Just think of all those Greek words with their complicated spellings: the perfect material for a set of beautifully colour-coded flashcards, for any number of Do Now activities. What’s not to like?

There are complications, though, and it’s these complications that I want to examine here. The first of these is that it is easy to fall into the trap of designing a knowledge-based unit on tragedy that prioritises the learning of facts about literature over an understanding of literature. You could construct a fabulous knowledge organiser that summarises a range of information about the genre of tragedy, build in opportunities for spaced retrieval and low-stakes testing, and make sure students know their stuff inside out: the difference between peripeteia and anagnorisis, A. C. Bradley’s concept of the tragic flaw, the phases of classical tragedy, examples of tragedy through the ages and so on. In fact, you needn’t restrict this to A level: if your students are doing Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet, you could include it at GCSE as well. Make sure they know about goat songs and antistrophes and you can really feel you’ve ticked the cultural capital box. The problem, of course, is that all this knowledge doesn’t necessarily increase students’ understanding of tragedy. It’s easy to teach: of course it is, it’s factual. And it’s easy to test students’ retention of this kind of factual knowledge. But as Robert Coe points out in his Impact article, one of the dangers of an emphasis on retrieval is that too much classroom time can be devoted solely to factual recall rather than application and understanding. I’d go further than this, and argue that too much of students’ learning time can be devoted to retrieval practice – often because this kind of learning involves nice neat notes, Leitner boxes, Quizlet activities and the like, rather than the messy complicated process of diving into a text, getting your hands dirty, and emerging with the sense that it’s all a whole lot more complex that you initially thought it was. There’s a safety in knowing that you’ve learned something off by heart, and if you’re a stressed A level student, that kind of safety has a definite appeal.

So we need to make sure that when we teach students about the genre of tragedy, we treat this knowledge carefully, as a means to an end – where that end is an understanding of the text – rather than an end in itself. And even when we set aside the distractions of retrieval practice, this knowledge can still, sometimes, get in the way. Students can often get bogged down in concepts such as hamartia and anagnorisis, treating them as what AQA describes in its 2017 Examiners’ Report as ‘generic absolutes or templates which writers are always trying to model’ rather than ‘a loose set of conventions which are modified or reinforced with every text produced’. (That this is clearly an ongoing problem is indicated by the fact that AQA repeats this point in its 2018 Examiners’ Report.) AQA also emphasises that ‘the stories have to come first. There is no point writing about … ‘aspects’ of genre if students haven’t got inside the stories that the narrators are telling’ (Examiners’ Report, 2019). But students do need to know about the features of the genre, ‘how their texts connect with what might be regarded as traditional generic patterns’, and how they disconnect, ‘as seen when writers consciously play with and subvert genre’ (Examiners’ Report, 2019). How, then, do we ensure that this knowledge is handled sensitively, and that it illuminates students’ understanding of the play rather than obscuring it?

Over the years, I’ve experimented with various ways of introducing knowledge about the genre of tragedy. I used to front-load it, but that approach is almost guaranteed to encourage students to treat the idea of tragedy as a rigid framework. It might be possible to do a quick read of the whole play, then introduce the idea of tragedy, then go back and study the play in more detail, but that seems incredibly time-consuming, and given that the unit we’re studying is called ‘Aspects of Tragedy’, I think the concepts need to be introduced relatively early. But not too early. What I’ve started to do is to explore Act 1 Scene 1 – a scene where there’s a lot going on, in terms of establishing character and setting the plot in motion – and then to introduce the genre and its central concepts. I sketch it lightly, looking at the notion of tragedy as a fall from a position not just of high status but also of potential greatness. We talk about what might provoke that fall. This has been interpreted, variously, as an error of judgement (Aristotle’s hamartia) or as a fatal character flaw (A. C. Bradley’s concept, although many study guides on the internet conflate the two). I emphasise that despite these differences of opinion, the key thing students need to know is that the protagonist’s fall is prompted by something that he or she does – and that once this process has been set in motion, it cannot be halted. I also talk about the idea that the protagonist will, at some point, experience moments of insight into the consequences of their actions. I touch on the idea of catharsis, but don’t dwell on it too much at this point, largely because I think it’s more helpful to focus on catharsis once we get closer to the end of the play: it’s a difficult concept for students to grasp, bound up as it is with audience reaction, and I feel it’s something they need to experience from within rather than dealing with it as a purely abstract concept. (Several years ago, I took my A level group to see Death of a Salesman at the Royal Exchange in Manchester, an intense, harrowing production with Don Warrington as Willy Loman, and one of them remarked afterwards, ‘I never really understood what catharsis was all about before, but I do now’.) All of this, at this stage, is verbal. I talk through the concepts, and expect students to make notes, but I find that giving them a set of notes seems to encourage rigid thinking, as if everything they need to know about tragedy can be summarised on one sheet of paper. Getting them to make notes seems to help keep things provisional and tentative, and that’s how I want it to be at this stage.

We then talk about Macbeth. All of the students have done Macbeth at GCSE, and getting them to apply their new-found knowledge about tragedy to a play they know well helps them to see the conventions of the genre as tools to help them explore aspects of the text, rather than a rigid framework. We think about Macbeth as a tragic protagonist, and the image we get in Act 1 Scene 2 of a brave, loyal warrior. We think about what Macbeth’s tragic error might be, and examine several possible answers. And we identify potential moments of anagnorisis that occur in the play, those points when characters recognise the nature of their circumstances. I ask them, then, to try applying the conventions to other narratives they know, including examples from film and television. Playing around with the concepts in this way helps to increase the students’ familiarity with them, but it also enables them to see the conventions as malleable.

It’s at this point that they can start to use the conventions to explore King Lear. They can see that the love trial of Act 1 Scene 1 is a perfect example of hubris (and when you show them different stage interpretations, like the ones I refer to in this post, they can see how this can be emphasised by setting and direction). They’ve got several examples of Lear’s irascibility and rash decision-making, and they can also see how the foundations are laid for Lear’s downfall, in that conversation between Goneril and Regan at the end of the scene. It’s all starting to make sense, but it’s also set within the context of the play itself, rather than overpowering it.

There’s a lot more work that I’ll do to develop students’ understanding of tragedy, including modelling how to write about it in ways that maintain a sense of tentativeness, of weighing different interpretations, rather than simply cramming in terms. We’ll continue to make links with Macbeth, and later, we’ll look at different interpretations of the genre itself, using Emma Smith’s excellent lecture on King Lear for the University of Oxford’s Approaching Shakespeare series. But no quizzing, and no flashcards, because ultimately, they don’t help students to work productively with this fascinatingly complex genre.

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