We have seen, in our own time, the climax and the decline of liberal tragedy. To understand its structure of feeling is now a central problem. For we are all to some extent still governed by it, even now when we can see that it is failing to hold.

At the centre of liberal tragedy is a single situation: that of a man at the height of his powers and the limits of his strength, at once aspiring and being defeated, releasing and destroyed by his own energies. The structure is liberal in its emphasis on the surpassing individual, and tragic in its ultimate recognition of defeat or the limits of victory. We have known, for nearly four centuries, a tension between the thrust of the individual and an absolute resistance, but this tension has passed through many forms, which we must try to distinguish. What we must trace, finally, is the transformation of the tragic hero into the tragic victim.

Tragedy, for us, has been mainly the conflict between an individual and the forces that destroy him. When any feeling is as strong as this, it can shape the mind so closely that the past itself is absorbed and transmuted, and the art of others lives only in its light. Our reading of Greek tragedy is perhaps the clearest example. Until very recently, against the evidence, we have remade Greek tragic drama in this image of our own: the tragic hero, at the centre of the play, magnificently exposed to a crushing external design. We have tried to take psychology, because that is our science, into the heart of an action to which it can never, critically, be relevant. We have looked for a tragic flaw, capable of starting such an action, in the character of an individual man. Yet it is now becoming clear (at a time, significantly, when our governing structure of feeling is beginning to disintegrate) that the Greek tragic action is not rooted in individuals, or in individual psychology, in any of our senses. It is rooted in history, and not a human history alone. Its thrust comes, not from the personality of an individual but from a man’s inheritance and relationships, within a world that ultimately transcends him. What we see is a general action specified, not an individual action generalized. What we learn is not character but the mutability of the world. Human life as such, always and everywhere, is subject to these exigencies. The exemplary case, reminding us, reliving this knowledge, brings pity and fear, in the general human condition.

It is said that Christianity altered this view of the world, putting a new emphasis on the individual. But this seems doubtful, especially in its assumption of a single Christian tradition. There is no tragedy, within the Christian world, until there is also humanism and indeed individualism. In our own literature, there is no tragedy before the release of personal energy, the emphasis of personal destiny, which we can see, looking back, in the complex process of Renaissance and Reformation. By the time of Marlowe and Shakespeare, the structure we now know is being actively shaped: an individual man, from his own aspirations, from his own nature, sets out on an action that leads him to tragedy. We are bound to recognize this new spirit, even when we have properly remembered how strong a hold a different and traditional interpretation of life still had. Certainly we cannot understand Elizabethan tragedy if we fail to notice the elements of persistence, from a mediaeval view of the world. The old conceptions of order and hierarchy, the intricate connections between man and nature, are there not only in active speech but in some of the essential conventions of the dramatic form. It is comparatively easy to demonstrate such continuities, in particular the continuation of the morality tradition, with all this implies for the relationship between individual and type and a common condition. But the continuities are within a very active process of change. We have only to go back a hundred years from Marlowe, to the morality Everyman, to see what these fundamental ideas and conventions produced on their own. Death comes to Everyman, in the midst of life, and of course is feared; the attempt made to avert it. But the action, confidently, takes Everyman forward to the edge of that dark room in which he must disappear, and the most remarkable aspect of this confidence is that physically, on a scaffold above the dark room, God himself is waiting for Everyman to come. The hesitation in entering is still strong; the room itself can not be seen into. But to pass through it is not only inevitable; it is also the only way in which Everyman can come to his Father. While that dimension holds, there is aversion and fear, but the tragic voice cannot come. When it does come, it is unmistakable: a man alone in his extremity. It is not only, dramatically, that God has gone from the scaffold. It is also that life, before this extremity, is quite differently experienced. Where there had been, in Everyman, a gathering of life into common and formal categories, there is now a particularity, a momentariness, an active awareness of a process. Much of the new drama, even when its reference points are familiar categories, takes its most active life from a consciousness of the self in a passing moment of experience: a self-consciousness which is now in itself dramatic, and which new dramatic resources are employed to express. The common process of life is seen at its most intense in an individual experience.

The action changes accordingly. Again and again it is rooted in the nature of a particular man. It is true that this man, this hero, ends by finding his limits: tragic limits, including the absolute limit of death. But it is also true that again and again, if not invariably, he has reached for these limits: set his whole energy on an aspiring course which yet finally reveals them. Much of the extraordinary richness of this drama, beyond its incomparable celebration of the particularity of life, is precisely in the discovery and exploration of these limits, which can never be only death. Here, indeed, the persistence of orders and hierarchies, the familiar categories of man, exerts its necessary pressures. There is confusion, an exciting confusion, as the pressures are taken and tested, in the living act. Sometimes, indeed, it is a social order, which the individual affronts; it was so in the source of Macbeth. But the connections between this order and others are always active. The government of Scotland is a part of the government of the world. The division of Lear’s kingdom of Britain brings in question the seeds and the stars. This outward connection, of microcosm to macrocosm, is commonly evident. But the limits men reach, in their challenge to order, are not only of this kind. There are also new limits, within man himself. Order can break there, within the personality, as decisively and as tragically. Breakdown and madness, as private experiences, are quite newly realized and explored. The emphasis, as we take the full weight, is not on the naming of limits, but on their intense and confused discovery and exploration. The traditional categories are affirmed, but everything is questioned, in an outburst of energy so great that it seems, at times, to be shaking the whole body of man to pieces. Here, decisively, is one of the origins of the structure of feeling we are tracing: the thrust of living energy, in individual men, against limits which had once been composed into a confident order but which now, though still present and active, are questioned, fragmented, newly known and named, and are also confused by new experiences, new sources, of tragedy. The tragic voice, of our own immediate tradition, is then first heard: the aspiration for a meaning, at the very limits of a man’s strength; the known meanings and answers, affirmed and yet also questioned, broken down, by contradictory experience.

The most important persistence, for the subsequent history of drama, was that of a public order, at the centre of what is otherwise personal tragedy. The hero is still, normally, the man of rank, the prince. An order can rise or fall with him, be affirmed or broken by him, even when what is driving him is a personal energy. The tragic hero is still marked by a social status, which defines his general importance, even when, in this new exploration of life, the hero becomes other than his status, or at least can be otherwise seen. Where in Greek tragedy the hero’s status, with all it implied of inheritance, kinship and duty, enclosed the personality, which was developed only so far as the general action required, we find now, in Elizabethan tragedy, a personality within and beyond the similarly defining status, and the conflict that can result from this co-existence is often indeed one of the sources of the tragedy. Thus the tension of the general action, between the exploring energies of life and all that is known of order, is repeated in the hero himself, between the individual man and the social role. In these tensions, this particular tragedy was formed.

At this stage of development, we can properly speak of humanist tragedy, but not yet, in a precise way, of liberal tragedy. The next stage was indeed a collapse of the tensions which had produced this remarkable drama. In the early eighteenth century, a determined attempt was made in England to adapt tragedy to the habits of thinking of middle-class life. This necessary and understandable attempt had little immediate success, though the imitation of its example in France and Germany provided one of the elements for the emergence of serious modern tragedy. It is easy, looking back, to fix attention on the change most often discussed: that of the status of the hero.