The Theosophical Forum – September 1949

LITERARY NOTES: TRAGEDY — Isabel B. Clemeshaw

The philosopher finds that life is the greatest of all mysteries, and the mind of man is the most overwhelming fact in life. By his higher intellectual processes the philosopher endeavors to reason in a world of ideas beyond the fetters of the passions and desires. Then an abstract principle of conduct becomes clear. To that world of ideas he must discipline his will and brain, and condition his everyday life so as to compel the realization of these floating ideas.

The poet sees the mystery of life pictured in the invisible side of nature. He has a vision, as Jacob saw the Ladder of Life up which living beings were ascending and descending. Dante and Milton saw the planes of the inner worlds through which the soul of man ascends in its cycle of incarnations. Dante was impressed with the journey along the circulations of the cosmos of the spiritual ray in man in its after-death experiences, symbolic of the Path of Initiation; Milton, with the descent of the divine spark clothed in garments of Hell, and the problem of its return toward regaining its divinity.

The tragedian finds himself confronted with a different problem. He intuitively portrays on the stage not what John Jones seems like to himself or to Bill Smith, but how the lower part of the human soul of John Jones performs as seen by the spiritualized portion of it, the reincarnating ego: that sum total of what he has learned in former lives on earth. What appears in action is man as "but a walking shadow . . . that struts and frets upon the stage . . . a tale told by an idiot." But what the spectator understands in reality from the entire play is that "Man [is] the author of his own proper woe," and that there is no assignment of justice either in degree or in kind.

Greek tragedy pressed the point of justice and retribution. Fate, biding her time, administered a Spartan thwack, more as though she had arranged the catastrophe for the hero. Medieval "tragedy" was a narrative urging that man should live in fear; he was the plaything of circumstances, and helpless before some outside influence which struck suddenly, perhaps in the loss of some possession.

Shakespearean tragedy shows both an inner ('spiritual') and an outer struggle:

. . . things outward
Do draw the inward quality after them,
To suffer all alike.

In the earlier plays more of the outer struggle appeared, and in the later ones the hero's conflict was almost entirely with himself. Therefore these later plays have little tragic interest: the initiation was taken. In the four great tragedies — Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth — a more or less balanced dual conflict rages. Though

The web of our life is of mingled yarn, good and ill together,

we must not compromise between the two. To know what is regarded as a spiritual force, we have only to examine the great tragedian's view of its opposite. Evil is shown as pride, credulousness, irresolution, excessive susceptibility to the opposite sex, whatever is negative, barren, or destructive. If any of these is the principle that animates him, or if he identifies himself with others who imbody these weaknesses, he will be led to disunity, isolation, madness — death.

The hero was always an eminent figure in society: a king, a prince, a great general or official of State; and was at the height of his renown when the thought occurred to him which he translated into an act, thus resulting in a chain of acts and reactions — or omissions — which caused his death.

He was usually an averagely good man. The short time into which the events of the play are crowded intensifies the life of the hero and magnifies him so that it is his grandeur that impresses us. When one so responsible and trusted suffers agony, frustration and death, it has a paralyzing effect upon his entire world: he pulls that world down with him.

A sight most pitiful in the meanest wretch
Past speaking of in a king.

Yet, the spectator is not depressed, for he has seen more than one link (one earth life) in the chain of circumstances, and is more than ever convinced of human worth. The cross-section of evolution shown on the stage where ". . . from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe . . . And thereby hangs a tale," involves him anew in the contemplation of life itself. Here, he has seen telescoped, from the past, considerable maturity of intellectual and emotional experience. This gains momentum as the play so rapidly proceeds, and unfolds an infinite complexity of interrelated cause and effect in which the hero is enmeshed. The spectator has focused his attention not only on the genius before him, but on the mystery of the tale of life.

It is this mystery, that is untold and so forcefully brought home to the audience, that makes the tragedy so impressive. In character the hero is like ourselves; his conflicts are ours. We sympathize even when we know that while he identifies his passion or habit of mind with his whole being, a smaller man than he could have overcome it. Why can the hero not yield? we ask, while we can see that the tragic error lies in the very nobility of mind and soul that is interwoven with human weakness. The hero is rarely conscious that he is in the wrong. The mystery is laden with sadness at the spectacle of the great waste. "Another incarnation wasted," a theosophist would say, "unless he has assimilated his lesson and built it into the fabric of his soul," as Hamlet is shown to have done:

I shall the effect of this good lesson keep
As watchman to my heart.

It is the effect of each experience taken to heart, rather than the accumulation of experiences that makes for growth. ". . . life is a shuttle," the poet assures us:

When we are born, we cry, that we are come
To this great stage of fools.

Each time the hero, man, shuttles back into birth, he brings the storehouse of his experiences with him.

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason and infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel!

It is the fact that we are shown the godlike qualities of man that increases the mystery enshrined within him; this and the tale of the shuttling on and off the stage of life, "where every man must play his part" according to what he has woven into his nature. But there is yet another mystery: the consistent denial of the idea that truth and virtue shall at last succeed. The man who does not understand himself may mean well, but his reward usually will be the opposite of what he intended when the first thought is translated into the acts that snare him. He may be as well-meaning as Brutus, yet with others

. . . be winnow'd with so rough a wind
That even our corn shall seem as light as chaff.
And good from bad find no partition.

He will exclaim: "How my achievements mock me!" Yet feel that

Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.

It is in the restoration of this harmony that the mystery seems hidden. "There is no darkness but ignorance" while man is unaware that he is a part of a greater organism. Let the individual attack the Whole, or fail to conform to its moral order, and he will find that "the wheel has turned full circle" upon himself. The Whole, or Nature, is shown as an intelligence bent upon perfection and "There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow." Until man works unselfishly for the common good, living a spiritual and intellectual, rather than an emotional life, he does not begin to pay off against that outstanding account of evil which he has banked against himself. He feels like one

. . . imprisoned in the viewless winds,
And blown with restless violence roundabout
The pendant world.

This Higher Order, karman, has the last word. It is a just and compassionate cosmic law that teaches the individual while it heals the wounds made by him on his environment. In each life man is haunted by fear; he cries, "Out, out, brief candle!" in his desire to end it and begin anew. When he turns and works with Nature, he knows that

There's a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will —


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