The Teaching of Tragedy.
No characters appeal more powerfully to the imagination than those impressive figures about whom the literature of tragedy moves,—figures associated with the greatest passions and the most appalling sorrows. The well-balanced man, who rises step by step through discipline and work to the highest place of influence and power, is applauded and admired; but the heart of the world goes out to those who, like OEdipus, are overmatched by a fate which pursues with relentless step, or, like Hamlet, are overweighted with tasks too heavy or too terrible for them. Agamemnon, OEdipus, Orestes, Hamlet, Lear, Pere Goriot, are supreme figures in that world of the imagination in which the poets have endeavoured both to reflect and to interpret the world as men see it and act in it.
The essence of tragedy is the collision between the individual will, impulse, or action, and society in some form of its organisation, or those unwritten laws of life which we call the laws of God. The tragic character is always a lawbreaker, but not always a criminal; he is, indeed, often the servant of a new idea which sets him, as in the case of Giordano Bruno, in opposition to an established order of knowledge; he is sometimes, as in the case of Socrates, a teacher of truths which make him a menace to lower conceptions of citizenship and narrower ideas of personal life; or he is, as in the case of Othello and Paolo, the victim of passions which overpower the will and throw the whole life out of relation to its moral and social environment. The interest with which the tragic character is always invested is due not only to the exceptional experience in which the tragic situation always culminates, but also to the self-surrender which precedes the penalty and the expiation.