Tragedy, Beauty and Empathy

Just for the record, I’m not writing this because anything sad happened. I’m just obsessed with Shakespeare’s tragedies.

What is beauty? I’m not really even sure I know. If you asked me why I thought a certain piece of music or a poem or a painting was beautiful, I probably couldn’t tell you. I certainly recognize beauty, as most people do, but I don’t think I could define it accurately. I went to a friend’s blog to see if he’d posted anything new….. He hadn’t, so I reread a bit of one of his old posts. He mentioned Shakespeare’s tragedy, Romeo and Juliet. The two famous lovers kill themselves because they cannot be together. M said that if it were real life it would be horrifying and tragic, but somehow Shakespeare manages to make it beautiful. I think M is right in saying that it is beautiful, but I don’t understand why!

In my Shakespeare class we’ve just finished reading this play and we were just discussing this question. My conclusion was that there is beauty in the love itself and not so much the details of it. It is a very simple, pure love. They are so young and so innocent. At first their love seems almost silly. Juliet is not even 14. I didn’t have my first (and only so far) crush until I was 15. I would argue that their love is so beautiful because it simply cannot happen and we as the audience want it to very badly. Even in the few moments they have together, they are constantly afraid of getting caught. In a sense it is a paradox. It is sacred and yet forbidden and because of this, it ends in death.

I thought about avoiding this, but I’m wondering; is there something intrinsically beautiful about tragedy? I want to say “no,” but I just feel that a straight “no” is somehow wrong. If the answer is “yes,” then how are beauty, tragedy and emotion related? I personally find emotion to be exceedingly beautiful. There is something very powerful about extreme joy or sadness or anger in another. I think seeing so much energy focused into one particular mental state is like reading a very clear confirmative statement; this is what it is to be human. So on the surface, the relationship is pretty clear. Tragedy leads to emotion and emotion is beautiful, therefore, tragedy is beautiful. I think this is why we hear about it so much in the news. Tragedy, for whatever reason seems to be more compelling to most people than “good” news. I think it is because when we hear about horrible things happening far away, it gives us some kind of gut feeling that is similar to anger or sadness, but we don’t have to deal with it right at home.

What about when we have to deal with tragedy in our own lives? Is it still beautiful? I’m going to use the example of Hamlet since he is the most “real” of Shakespeare’s characters for me. Hamlet had tragedy and betrayal all around him and it really affected his outlook on life. He says to his “friends” Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that he still recognizes the beauty of nature, etc, but it means nothing to him now. Granted, Hamlet’s situation is pretty unusual—his father comes back from the grave and tells him to kill his uncle—but in another sense his situation is probably quite relatable for some people. His father died and his mother married another man within a month or two of his death. That could and does happen. For Hamlet, his own tragedy is not beautiful; in fact, it causes him to lose everyone: his lover, his mother and his friends (with the exception of Horatio). For the reader or the audience however, Hamlet’s tragedy is exceedingly beautiful, in part because of Shakespeare’s language, but also in part because of how plausible it is.

Interestingly, I don’t think the Bible says much about tragedy or how to deal with it (granted I don’t read the Bible nearly enough). The only place I can think of where it vaguely addresses it is Ecclesiastes “There is a time for everything…. a time for mourning and a time for rejoicing.” (I’m quoting from memory, so I probably don’t have it exactly). There’s a little comfort there, but you have to read into it a little. Sure, things may be bad now, but they’ll get better. I think the implication is that the Bible doesn’t address tragedy that much because we as believers are supposed to look to God for support. That’s great in theory, but not always great in practice. We can pray for those we’ve lost and ask God to take care of them and believe that He will, but most of the time, our primary concern is “Where can I find the closest hug?”

So why is there a disconnect? Why do people like to read about or see or listen to tragedy if there is no beauty in it when it happens to them? Perhaps seeing it somewhere else is some kind of relief. “Oh good, that’s not happening to me.” I think that’s part of it, but I also think it is because of human empathy. I think we like to be able to feel for or comfort people. It lets us feel that we are doing something worthwhile and helpful.

I could go into more detail on that, but this post is already sadder than I had planned on it being so I think I’ll stop here. I’ll write a happy post soon, I promise! I’ll be done with my finals and on vacation next week!

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