Tragedy should be viewed, and is in fact recognized, as the pinnacle of literature, both in relation to the grandeur of its effect and the difficulty of achieving it. It is of great significance for the whole of our discussion and also important to bear in mind that the goal of this highest of poetic achievements is the portrayal of the terrible aspect of life, that the unspeakable pain, the misery of humanity, the triumph of wickedness, the scornful domination of chance, and the hopeless fall of the righteous and the innocent are brought before us here: for here we find a significant intimation as to the nature of the world and of existence. What emerges horribly is the conflict of the will with itself, displaying itself most fully here, at the highest level of its objecthood. It becomes visible in human suffering, which is brought about in part through chance and error, which step forward as rulers of the world and through their treachery (which goes so far as to appear intentional) are personified as fate; and in part it is brought about by humanity itself, through the clashes between the strivings of individual wills, through the wickedness and perversity of the majority. It is one and the same will that lives and appears in them all, but whose appearances battle amongst themselves and tear themselves apart. The will emerges violently in this individual, more weakly in this other, it is brought to its senses and attenuated by the light of cognition more over here, less over there, until finally, in isolated cases, this cognition, clarified and intensified through suffering itself, reaches the point where it is no longer decieved by appearance, by the veil of maya; it sees through the form of appearance, the principium individuationis, and the egoism that rests on this principle slowly dies away, so that motives that had prevously been so violent lose their power, and in their place, complete cognition of the essence of the world acts as a tranquillizer of the will and leads to resignation, the abandonment not only of life, but of the whole will to life. So in tragedy we see that, after a long struggle and much suffering, the noblest people eventually renounce forever the goals they had, up to that point, pursued so intensely, as well as renouncing all the pleasures of life, or even willingly and joyfully giving them up: thus Calderón’s steadfast prince; thus Gretchen in Faust; thus Hamlet, whom Horatio would gladly follow, but who calls upon him to stay and breathe on painfully for a while longer in this harsh world, to cast light on Hamlet’s fate and clear his memory. … By contrast, the demand for so-called poetic justice rests on a complete failure to recognize the essence of tragedy and in fact the essence of the world. This demand appears in its full triteness and impertinence in the criticisms that Dr Samuel Johnson has offered of some of Shakespeare’s plays, complaining with true naivety about the thorough neglect of poetic justice; which is certainly the case: after all, what have the Ophelias, Desdemonas and Cordelias done wrong? — But only the trite, optimistic, Protestant-rationalist or actually Jewish world-view would demand poetic justice and find its own satisfaction in the satisfaction of this demand. The true sense of tragedy is the deeper insight that the hero does not atone for his particular sins, but for original sin instead, i.e. the guilt of existence itself:
Because the greatest offence of man,
Is that he was born
as Calderón says with perfect frankness.
… The only thing essential to tragedy is the portrayal of a great misfortune. But the many different ways in which the poet can accomplish this can be organized into three specific categories. It can take place through extraordinary evil, an evil that reaches the limits of the possible and is attributable to the one character that is the author of the misfortune; examples of this type are: Richard III, Iago in Othello, Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, Franz Moor, Euripides’ Phaedra, Creon in Antigone, and the like. It can also take place through blind fate, i.e. chance and error: a true model for this type is Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex as well as the Women of Trachis, and in general most of the tragedies of the ancients belong here: modern examples include: Romeo and Juliet, Voltaire’s Tancred, and The Bride of Messina. Finally, the misfortune can also be introduced simply by means of people’s positioning with respect to each other, through their relationships; so that there is no need for a terrible mistake or unheard-of accident or even for a character whose evilness extends to the limits of human possibility; instead, morally ordinary characters in everyday circumstances are positioned with respect to each other in such a way that their position forces them knowingly and clear-sightedly to cause each other the greatest harm without the injustice falling on one side or the other. This last type seems to me much preferable to the other two, because it shows us the greatest misfortune not as an exception, not as something brought about by rare circumstances or monstrous characters, but rather as something that develops effortlessly and spontaneously out of people’s deeds and characters, almost as if it were essential, thereby bringing it terrifyingly close to us. And if in both the other categories of tragedy we catch sight of an appalling fate and horrific evil as powers that are indeed terrible but that threaten us only from a great distance so that we ourselves will probably escape them without being driven to renunciation, — then this last genre shows us the sort of powers that destroy life and happiness and that can at any moment make their way towards us as well, where the greatest suffering is brought about by entanglements essentially the same as those assumed by our own fate, and through actions that we too might perhaps be capable of committing, so that we may not complain of injustice: then we shudder as we feel ourselves already in the middle of hell. But the execution of this final type of tragedy brings with it the greatest difficulties because it has to produce the greatest effect merely by positioning and distribution, with the least expenditure of means and the smallest number of causes of action: thus even some of the best tragedies evade this difficulty. … To a certain extent Hamlet belongs here, if you look only at his relation to Laertes and Ophelia; Wallenstein has this merit as well; Faust is entirely of this type, if you consider as the principle action only the events with Gretchen and her brother; likewise Corneille’s Cid, except that this lacks a tragic end …
Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation: Volume I.
Translated and edited by Judith Norman, Alistair Welchman and Christopher Janaway.
New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010, pp. 279-282.