This sample MLA paper analyzes the use of dramatic spectacle in Greek literature. This essay uses philosopher, Aristotle’s, strong point-of-view towards drama. This essay was written by Ultius at a Master level to serve as a sample.
Aristotle and Dramatic Spectacle
Despite the fact that he never wrote a play himself, the Greek philosopher Aristotle had very strong feelings about what constituted the proper subject matter of drama. Over the course of his Poetics, Aristotle details what he considers to be the essential elements of both tragedy and comedy and also the most appropriate ways to illustrate such different visions of the human condition. Of course, as a philosopher, Aristotle also uses his ruminations about the nature of drama as a springboard to reflect upon the purpose of human existence. Just as Aristotle created a distinction between pleasure and happiness, the latter of which he believed to be superior, Aristotle also created a distinction between higher and lower forms drama.
Greek tragedies and drama
Aristotle famously noted that tragedy should invoke both pity and fear at the plight of a great man who is brought down by a tragic flaw. “Fear and pity may be aroused by spectacular means; but they may also result from the inner structure of the piece, which is the better way, and indicates a superior poet. For the plot ought to be so constructed that, even without the aid of the eye, he who hears the tale told will thrill with horror and melt to pity at what takes Place” (XIV). According to Aristotle, tragedy was always fundamentally rooted in character, not in circumstance and thus spectacle should be avoided. For example, in Sophocles’ famous tragedy Oedipus Rex, the self-mutilation of the main character takes place off stage and is reported after the fact by a horrified witness. In almost all Greek tragedies, truly terrible actions take place offstage.
Drama in Hamlet
Aristotle suggests that spectacle ultimately distracts from the important themes of the drama. But, with the benefit of many centuries of great drama subsequent to Aristotle, it is easy to think of many great plays which depict the actions which lead to a tragic character’s fall in spectacular ways. In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, for example, the final duel between Hamlet and Laertes is dramatized on stage, as well as Hamlet’s final decision to kill Claudius. This does not distract from or detract from the fact that Hamlet spends a substantial portion of the play engaged in serious thought about whether it is ethical to take the life of the king. The depiction of Hamlet finally engaged in violent action has a cathartic element for the audience, after Hamlet has repeatedly contemplated acting against Claudius and repeatedly chosen not to do it.
Aristotle views character and action as antithetical—in other words, either the dramatist can reveal character through scenes which evoke horror and pity in an elevated fashion or engage in spectacle that just panders to the audience member’s emotions. But Shakespeare’s tragedy and many of his other works highlight how actions can be used to reveal character, even if the actual revelatory incident itself is extremely spectacular and showy in nature. In Hamlet, the spectacle acts as a contrast between Hamlet’s introverted character and the world around him that is shaped by violence and bloodshed.
Relying too much on dramatic spectable?
When too much takes place offstage, not only does the audience feel cheated and lacks a sense of release; often major elements of the character’s decision-making processes are lost. When watching Oedipus Rex, the audience is deprived of many critical questions regarding the spectacle of Oedipus’ decision to blind himself. Why does he blind himself and not commit suicide? What is his thinking process? In contrast, by dramatizing all of the events in Hamlet, the audience is better able to understand why Hamlet engages in apparently inexplicable actions, such as when he decides not to kill Claudius earlier on in the play when Claudius is praying: “Up, sword; and know thou a more horrid hent: / When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage, / Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed” (III.3). Hamlet decides to wait to kill Claudius when Claudius has not unburdened himself of his sins but rather when he is committed in an act that will send the king to hell.
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Of course, it could be argued that some plays rely too much on spectacle and action to relate their stories to the audience. A good example of this can be seen in Miss Saigon, a Broadway musical retelling of the opera Madame Butterfly. In one critical scene, the hero Chris leaves Saigon in a helicopter, abandoning the Vietnamese that supported the Americans to the Viet Cong. The focus is not on the intimate love story but on the shocking stage effect. Still, it is important to communicate to the audience that the two characters are part of history and the helicopter on stage is a very compelling way to do so.
One of the problems with Aristotle’s analysis of drama is that he tends to split it to different component elements, such as character versus action or spectacle versus a higher and more refined appreciation of tragic themes. In fact, most dramas and comedies strive to use a variety of elements in harmony to create a particular effect upon the viewer. Although in theory, pure spectacle, or unnecessary sex, violence, or special effects may be inferior to a character-driven story line, even many sophisticated dramas use some variety of spectacle to illustrate the themes they are attempting to convey to the viewer. While it is true that some very intimate dramas lack a great deal of spectacle and instead focus on dialogue and interactions between the characters alone, this does not mean that this is the best and only way to tell a story. Many elements make up great storytelling and spectacle is one of them, and not necessarily one of the most inferior.
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Aristotle. Poetics. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. Internet Classics Archive. Web. 23 May 2017.
Schönberg, Claude-Michel & Boublil, Alain. Miss Saigon. YouTube. 7 Jan 2001. Web. 23 May 2017.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Shakespeare Homepage. Web. 23 May 2017.