William’s writings in the post-war period had a kind of existentialist motif of blocked individual liberation. The essay ‘Tragedy and Tradition’ is a discussion on the common and the traditional interpretations of tragedy. He has used his power of perception and has come with a strong thesis on the evolution of tragedy in the essay. Raymond Williams takes the subject of tragedy as a form of art and tragedy as an experience. He retraces the tradition of tragedy as he believes in the continuity of tradition. He doesn’t want to reject the present by the past or vice versa; but he thinks that concept of tradition is important to understand modern tragedy. In the previous essay, he tells the basics of tragedy in these words: we come to tragedy by many roads.
“It is an immediate experience, a body of literature, conflict of theory, an academic problem”
He believes that tragedy is not the death of kings; it is more personal and general. Tragedy is not simply death and suffering and it is certainly not accident. Nor is it simply a response to death and suffering. It is a particular kind of event and particular kind of response which are genuinely tragic and which the long tradition embodies. His basic thesis in this article is:
“The meaning of tragedy, the relationship of tradition to tragedy and the kinds of experience which we mistakenly call tragic”
Discussing the historical development of tragedy, Williams says that when the unique Greek culture changed, the chorus which was the crucial element of dramatic form was discarded and the unique meaning of tragedy was lost. He says that things change and concepts change. On the basis of our concepts we tend to seek permanent meanings in art, which, according to Williams, is a serious mistake. People think that the medieval period produced no tragedy, but ‘Monk’s Tale’ is the example in which we see protagonist falling from prosperity to adversity. Thus again, according to him, is the result of the fixation to an absolute meaning of tragedy. He says:
“It is not that we lack the evidence. But we fail to use it because it doesn’t fit our idea of tragedy”
Later tragedy became more secularized in the Renaissance and Neoclassical age. During Renaissance, there is a precise emphasis on the fall of famous men, as ‘Rank’ was still important because the fate of ruling class was the fate of the city. But with the dissolution of feudal world, the practice of tragedy made new connections. The stories were transformed. During the neoclassical period emphasis on dignity and nobility of the hero continued. But the moving force of the tragedy was now a matter of behavior rather than a metaphysical condition. The real question of tragedy now was moral than metaphysical. The tragic error was moral, a weakness in an otherwise good man who could still be pitied. After Williams has discussed the idea of tragedy, he gives his reading of 18th and 19th century tragic theories.
Lessing was a noted German critic and dramatic poet. He said the Neoclassicism was a false classicism and the real inheritor of the Greeks was Shakespeare and the real inherit of Shakespeare was the new national bourgeois tragedy. Raymond Williams doesn’t agree with Lessing. He holds that Shakespeare was not the real inheritor of the Greeks; rather he was a major instance of a new kind of tragedy. The character of Elizabethan tragedy is determined by a very complicated relationship between elements of an inherited order and elements of a new humanism. If the historical idea of the development is to be fully understood, we must understand the complicated process of secularization. The only fully religious tragedy we have is Greek because Elizabethan drama was totally secular. Williams calls it a case of ‘Backward assimilation’ which ignores ‘forward assimilation’. Secular drama was a major step in the historical development in the idea of tragedy. In fact, Elizabethan tragedy anticipates the trends of Humanism and Romanticism. Raymond William says:
“In one sense, all drama after Renaissance is secular”
Elizabethan drama was secular in practice but retained a Christian consciousness. Neo-classical is the first stage of substantial secularization. It insisted on relating suffering to moral error. Tragedy, in this view, shows suffering as a consequence of moral error and happiness as a consequence of virtue; meeting the demands of poetic justice. The weakness is that morality is static and moral emphasis is merely dogmatic. Further he discusses Hegel who didn’t reject the moral scheme of poetic justice but he said that emphasis on morality would make a work social drama not tragedy. Tragedy, he said, was a specific kind of spiritual action. What is important for Hegel is not the suffering ‘mere suffering’ but its causes. Mere pity and fear are not tragic. It does not consider the external contingency beyond the control of the individual i.e. illness, loss of property, death or the like. To Hegel, conscious individuality, individual freedom and self determination are essential for genuine tragic action. Hegel asserts that tragedy recognizes suffering as:
‘suspended over active characters entirely as the consequence of their own act’.
The modern tragedy is wholly personal and our interest is directed not to the abstract ethical questions but to the individual and his conditions. As with Karl Marx, Renaissance tragedy has been seen as the result of the conflict between dying feudalism and the new individualism. Individual suffers, not because he is conflict with gods or fate, but with the process of the social transformation. Tragic hero, in Marxist Criticism becomes ‘world historical individual’, in conflict with ‘world-spirit’. Williams reads Schopenhauer who believes that tragedy and sufferings are rooted in human nature and that these above and beyond particular causes. To this tragic sense of life, ethical and historical considerations are irrelevant. Misfortunes and sufferings are not exceptions but normal facts of life. So, the meaning of tragedy is resignation to the nature of life. For Nietzsche, tragedy dramatizes a tension which is resolved in higher order. According to him, the action of tragedy is not moral, not purgative, but aesthetic. Williams argues that we usually try to make a contrast between the traditional and the modern and try to compress and unify the various thinking of the past into a single tradition. About tradition Williams explains:
“It is a question, rather of realizing that a tradition is not the past; but an interpretation of the past – a selection and evaluation of ancestors rather than a neutral record and the present serves as a link between the traditional and the modern”