BMCR 2017.12.33

Aristotle and the Arc of Tragedy: Oedipus Rex, Othello, Death of a Salesman

, Aristotle and the Arc of Tragedy: Oedipus Rex, Othello, Death of a Salesman. New York: Radius Book Group, 2017. 95. ISBN 9781635762600 $15.95.


Aristotle and the Arc of Tragedy opens with brief remarks on Aristotle’s Poetics emphasizing the noble identity of the tragic hero, the hamartia that precipitates his downfall, and the catharsis the audience experiences by watching his story unfold. Leon Golden stresses that the Greek term hamartia entails a miscalculation on the part of the hero, not a moral failing, while katharsis must be understood as primarily cognitive. The book then offers three chapters that each examine a great tragedy of the Western classical canon: Oedipus Rex, Othello, and Death of a Salesman. In addition to extensive plot summary, each evaluates the role played by hamartia and catharsis in its respective play. According to Golden, all three dramas achieve catharsis and so deserve their place in the canon, but only Oedipus and Othello live up to the expectations Aristotle sets for the tragic hero. Willy Loman is found to be morally lacking, exemplifying “the impassable chasm separating the heroes of classical tragedy and the protagonists of so many modern incarnations of the genre” (57).

If the book ended here, or concluded with brief, summative remarks, it would be quite successful for the lay audience it appears to be targeting. While the author’s heavy reliance on long block quotations from scholarly sources is unusual in a book intended for a popular audience, these excerpts are seldom overly complicated or arcane. The consistency with which Golden discusses hamartia and catharsis offers a clear interpretive framework that the reader can readily apply to each of the plays presented as well as others they may know independently. The lengthy review of the plot of each play is appropriate for an audience who may not have read these plays recently and who will certainly not have memorized every detail. While there are moments where Golden perhaps does not offer the strongest possible support for his position —for example, in making his case that Othello must be counted a tragic hero, he misleadingly emphasizes the vengeful motives and actions of Iago—this does not interfere with his message as a whole. In some ways, the book has the feel of a series of public lectures and largely succeeds in this capacity.

Despite these qualities, the book’s impact is diminished by the inclusion of a fifth chapter and a Coda. These final sections argue forcefully for a position first articulated by Golden in a 1962 TAPA article,1 namely, that catharsis must be interpreted as intellectual clarification rather than purgation or purification. Golden offers four arguments in support of what he calls “a firm, unambiguous solution to the catharsis question” (64): (1) the meaning of katharsis in other, Aristotelian and non-Aristotelian texts; (2) evidence from “the core argument of the Poetics ” (74), by which Golden means principally the connection between cognition and mimesis; (3) psychoanalysis, consisting of a long block quotation from Bennett Simon ( Mind and Madness)2; (4) and “the judgment of a distinguished practicing drama critic of the last century” (74), consisting of a long block quotation from John Gassner (“Catharsis and the Modern Theater,” 1937).

These final two sections of the book are problematic for two reasons. First, the tone shifts distinctly by comparison with the rest of the book and Golden appears to stop writing for a lay audience. Whereas in Chapter 1 he carefully explains that the Greek word mimesis is often translated as representation or imitation (89 n. 1), Golden includes a surprising amount of Greek and German text in Chapter 5. While initially the book contained only key Greek words, as appropriate for a non-academic audience, Golden now includes entire phrases even though his average reader is unlikely to have much ancient Greek, if any. While the Greek is transliterated (including the one case where Golden additionally provides the original Greek script) and both Greek and German are translated, it is unclear why Golden has been inconsistent with his practice in the rest of the book or what a lay audience is expected to get from the inclusion of the original languages. Moreover, insofar as Golden has already discussed catharsis as intellectual clarification in the previous four chapters, it will not be clear to the average reader of this book why the final chapter and Coda are even necessary.

The second problem is that, while Chapter 5 is likely to lose the book’s lay audience, it is unlikely to be compelling to the scholarly reader. The fact that two of Golden’s four key arguments are simply quotations of other, now dated scholarship without any commentary or analysis from the author does little to advance his case. Moreover, most of the other excerpts mustered in support of Golden’s interpretation of catharsis are primarily sourced from scholarship that cites favourably the initial 1962 statement of his position. The suggestion that catharsis must be understood as intellectual clarification is not in itself problematic and many academic readers may be inclined to agree with Golden on this point. However, the way in which he supports his argument is not sufficiently rigorous and is often unconvincing.

In sum, while Aristotle and the Arc of Tragedy offers a concise and accessible introduction to some of the key ideas in Aristotle’s Poetics, the book suffers from its uneven tone. In particular, the final chapter pursues an argument that is unlikely to persuade either a popular or an academic audience and is more appropriate for a different venue.


1. Golden, Leon. 1962. “Catharsis,” TAPA 93: 51–60.

2. This work is nowhere fully cited, but appears to be Mind and Madness in Ancient Greece: The Classical Roots of Modern Psychiatry, Cornell University Press, 1978. The lack of a complete citation is problematic given how much Golden’s position depends on Simon.