A Cultural History of Tragedy: Volumes 1-6: Rebecca Bushnell

the price of the works reviewed is staggering…

Attempts to define ‘tragedy’ have gone on ad infinitum but the riddle remains, compounded by a question: why is the definition intractable? Noone, not even Nietzsche, can seem to answer the question.
Later, over the years, two answers, or partial ones, emerged for a question that lingered through my college years: the first is the direct correlation of high tragedy in its flowering with the eonic effect and its periodization (twice, its great moments occur near an eonic transition, not chance), and the second is really a question about poetry itself.
It can hardly be chance the tragic genre flourishes in correlation with the eonic series. That series is inscrutable in its own way but monopolizes most of the cultural advances in civilization. Thus to understand tragedy is to understand the enigma of creative history.
I recall reading a thesis on hamlet years ago, by an authoress whose name I forget, who pointed out that poetry generates an added dimension to prose, whatever that means, but the idea seems apt. The statement was meant almost geometrically, an extra dimension to prose.
We puzzle philosophically over ‘tragedy’ but the mystery disappears if you try to write a play in verse. To be sure, as George Steiner laments, the amount of bad poetic drama in the wake of the Elizabethan era is staggering, and they all failed. But the point remains that tragedy is not an idea or a thesis about literary genres but an actual exercise with poetic forms. The failed tragedies all get into a false ‘poetic’ style that is a vice even of Keats in his dramatic efforts.
The blank verse of Shakespeare is utterly simple, yet in a class by itself. It also follows a clear set of metrification rules, almost without exception: even the later ‘exceptions’, like Othello still follow those rules. Beside that is the power of metaphor in Shakespeare. Noone can seem to match that.
But the Greeks had an immense poetic technology that was must more realizable and able to produce multiple successful poets.
Almost every attempt at defining tragedy is contradicted in practice by the corpus of Greek tragedy whose authors did not have any such definitions, at least before the coming of Aristotle and his Poetics. The reason is that the business of plots matched with poetry puts the rendering into a dimension that is the mystery of poetry. I used to wring my hands over the death of tragedy pace that old sour  pus, George Steiner and his classic The Death of Tragedy, but later I taught myself the riddles of blank verse by scanning dozens of plays of Shakespeare. From there in hypothetical attempts, a bit too amateurish to preserve, to write a drama in blank verse, but not the stilted idiocy of so many later efforts, rather in the vivid near slang style of Shakespeare, the mystery of tragedy disappears, almost, or else is compounded in a new riddle: the nature of poetry itself. The mystery of tragedy wanes in that context, or else begins to seem irrelevant. And the attempts at definition show that Greek tragedy contradicts all such definitions by example Almost every greek tragedy is anomalous in that sense. The greek tragedians have never read any of the modern literary criticism trying to define it. Shakespeare shows signs of some puzzling over the definition of tragedy but he soon it seems found their resolution in the practice of blank verse. Even Hamlet, that piecemeal masterwork arrived at it seems over many years of tinkering (contra the claim that the Bard wrote it all in high speed), seems to be following attempted definitions, only to succeed and leave those definitions behind. Greek tragedy by any reckoning flunks all the definitions demanded of it.

Metrification in Shakespeare is utterly simple and highly consistent, but still mysterious, how did it really sound?:

‘An easy line like this iambic line: short long short long short long short long

in a real sense the verse is simple stuff: short short long long short long short long etc…

Bound in a form the verse is singsong stuff long short short long short long short long short long

This can vary: an iamb can go from short long to short short long, or long short short long, or short short long long, and a few others, and that’s it, simple but with immense variety…Virtually no modern renderings can seem to replicate the style which also has complex lilts that stretch over several lines, an obscure fact now lost perhaps. Almost no modern plays of Shakespeare can reproduce what it sounded like (but youtube has lot of people with good guesses), no doubt unwitting exceptions are many. Mel Gibson’s Hamlet often seems to come close once in a while.