Course: The Tragic Mode of Knowledge

HC 221H

Professor: Casey Shoop

How can it be that seeing the pain of others constitutes a form of knowledge? What does it mean, in the words of Gloucester in King Lear, to “see it feelingly”?  From Aristotle to the present, tragedy is an aesthetic form that seeks to pose, interrogate and answer this question of what we learn from the dramatization of human suffering.

This course explores tragedy’s beginnings in 5th-century BC Athens where the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides help to constitute the democratic polity while simultaneously interrogating the extent to which that polity has realized those democratic principles. We move from these philosophical beginnings of tragedy as a form of civic reckoning to the early modern plays of Shakespeare lonely sovereigns to the modernist emptying out of tragic meaning altogether in the plays of Samuel Beckett and Bertolt Brecht to the reinvestment in tragic knowledge in the domestic dramas of Eugene O’Neill and August Wilson.

As we contextualize these works in historical time and place, we will also pose some of the philosophical questions that have persisted since tragedy’s inception: What are the ethics and politics at stake in the representation of violence and suffering? How do the particular trials of an individual character relate to the larger social collectivity?

What does it mean to experience emotional release or catharsis when we—in Susan Sontag’s words—“regard the pain of others”? Does the nature of tragedy change through historical time or remain relatively constant in its representation of human suffering? Does tragedy offer a different conception of the human, the animal and the thing? Finally, does art have the power to contain and perhaps even redeem the very pain it puts before our eyes?

Texts may include those written by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Shakespeare, Racine, Ibsen, Chekov, Brecht, O’Neill, Williams, Wilson, Baraka, Deavere Smith, Kushner and many others. We will also read philosophical texts on tragedy by Aristotle, Schiller, Hegel, Nietzsche, Williams, Steiner, among others.