In the situation wherein God is dead, then, tragedy of an Aristotelian nature categorically cannot exist, whether in terms of strict form or in terms of audience reaction to the situation presented. Conversely, suppose that God is indeed clearly known: under such circumstances, Hamlet is highly likely to let God judge the fate of Claudius, even to forgive Claudius, thus revenge cannot be exacted, directly violating Freytag’s Pyramid in that there would be no rising action or climax, meaning that the situation does not become worse for the tragic hero, inhibiting mythos.
Additionally, the lack of climax would mean the eradication of any feeling of catharsis, a crucial aspect of tragedy. It is the feeling of catharsis, according to Aristotle, which allows the audience to gauge emotions correctly, meaning that he thinks of tragedy as a calibrator of sorts.
Fundamentally, the scale of the tragedy witnessed in the play would usually dwarf the problems in the lives of the audience, purging them, theoretically making them feel happier: this cathartic concept in particular central to the primary purpose of tragedy – thus, the removal of the cathartic effect and of mimesis through verification of God has a hugely weakening effect on tragedy. However, speaking from a Marxist perspective (which is of course the perspective from which the quote in the title is derived), catharsis is not always desirable.
Bertolt Brecht, another Marxist and a prominent dramatist, believed that his plays should be a representation of reality, but not reality itself: he did not want a perfect representation of human emotion, which Constantin Stanislavski endorsed, but instead proposed his own “Verfremdungseffetkt” or “distancing effect” theory, making scenes alien to the audience in order to discomfort them: he is scathing of Aristotle’s idea of catharsis in ‘Poetics’ in his own theoretic work ‘A Short Organum for the Theatre’, saying that the cathartic effect left the audience unconcerned, even apathetic, that “what the ancients, following Aristotle, demanded of tragedy is nothing higher or lower than it should entertain people9”, rather than making them recognise social injustice and feel a sense of duty to society. Thus the removal of catharsis via the confirmation of God’s existence, while diminishing an Aristotelian aspect of tragedy, may well enhance Marxist tragedy.
In the event that God is clearly known, perhaps Claudius does not kill King Hamlet at all, as the ultimate consequences of his actions would be laid bare before him, and the fear of damnation exceeds his greed, meaning the entire plot (mythos, which includes peripateia and nearly all aspects of tragedy) collapses. Even if Hamlet chooses to seek revenge, he would be seen as foolish by the audience (especially the typical Elizabethan audience, who were typically God-fearing and strongly Christian), as he knows that God will unquestionably punish him, and that God would have punished Claudius regardless of Hamlet’s own actions, again diminishing pathos and with it the overall tragic qualities of the play. However, perhaps tragedy may still exist in a less strict sense if God is dead or clearly known.
If God was clearly known, and yet the killing of King Hamlet, who the audience have been told multiple times was a just and honest ruler (“So excellent a king that was, to this, Hyperion to a satyr””10), was allowed to continue, the (short-term, at least) success of evil over good could yet inspire pathos, a feeling of sympathy from the audience towards Hamlet (although this may be more the case for the more emotionally empathetic and less God-fearing modern audience rather than the more devoutly religious Elizabethan audience), as he must then question the morality of God, pondering whether God is necessarily omnibenevolent – there would still be scope for uncertainty, even with the verified existence of God.
In Hamlet, uncertainty is the key to tragedy: it is uncertainty which lends Hamlet his fatal flaw, which results in the mistakes that lead him to his ineluctable death and the collapse of the Danish royal family. Also, ambiguity concerning the nature of the Ghost and its importance relative to God (should God exist) could also inspire procrastination within Hamlet: should he obey his father, his creator, or the ultimate creator? Furthermore, as mentioned above, the apparent declining importance of God in Hamlet’s motivation and reasoning as the play progresses is indicative of the fact that tragedy can still exist (and not be hugely impacted at that) without God as a factor. It is therefore possible to achieve aspects of tragedy while categorically affirming or denying the existence of a God.
Overall, though, the general ambiguity regarding God is vital in preserving true tragedy. Goldmann’s quote may have been borne mainly out of his Marxist tendencies, but its message holds true for Hamlet. And while it has been established that certain facets of tragedy (pathos and hamartia) can remain in the face of hypothetical absolute truth, some components of tragedy are usually lost when God is dead or clearly known, as hope and faith, according to Marxism at least, fuels acceptance of social injustice and perpetuates suffering.
BIBLIOGRAPHY Hamlet – William Shakespeare Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right – Karl Marx Marxist Literary Theory – Terry Eagleton & Drew Milne Word Count – 1615 1 Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: (Cambridge University Press, 1970), p. 1 2 William Shakespeare, The Tragical History of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, The Second Quarto 1604-5, (The Arden Shakespeare, 2006), p. 285 3 Shakespeare, Hamlet, p. 176 4 Shakespeare, Hamlet, p. 278 5 Shakespeare, Hamlet, p. 285 6 Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, p. 2 7 Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, p. 2 8 Shakespeare, Hamlet, p. 176 9 Bertolt Brecht, ‘A Short Organum for the Theatre’, in Marxist Literary Theory by Terry Eagleton & Drew Milne, (Blackwell Publishers, 1999) p. 110 10 Shakespeare, Hamlet, p. 177.