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Tragic ugliness: the interplay of genre and aesthetics in Greek Drama

May 2012

This dissertation investigates the aesthetics of Greek tragedy in comparison with those of Old Comedy through a study of the ugly objects visually represented in each genre. Arguing against the received opposition of beautiful tragedy and ugly comedy, the dissertation concludes that tragic ugliness is essentially painful, visually eliciting the genre's characteristic emotions of pity and fear. The first chapter begins with Aristotle's foundational Poetics to establish a historically informed framework with which to work upon classical Greek notions of ugliness in drama. This chapter considers two passages implicitly relevant to tragic spectacle pertaining to genre, aesthetics, form, costume, and mimesis. The chapter suggests that Aristotle sets up an implicit generic taxonomy in Poetics according to which a subset of tragedy, a genre he tends to describe in ennobling terms, may be considered painfully ugly. The second chapter observes that, in contrast with those in other genres, tragic characters are rarely described as beautiful or ugly and that, as a result, tragic aesthetics are determined largely through theatrical costume. The chapter focuses in particular on rags, inherently formless garments that visually represent past sufferings and often code for bodily deformity. A case study of Xerxes' arrival in rags in Aeschylus' Persians demonstrates the importance of rags from our earliest tragedy. The third chapter uses the guest-appearance of tragic rags in Old Comedy to chart the aesthetic boundaries between the two genres. It demonstrates how Aristophanes exploited the formlessness of rags, allowing those garments alone among all tragic costumes to be imported into the ugly world of comedy without the burlesque distortion typical of comic paratragedy. The chapter offers a production analysis of a crucial scene from Acharnians, making the novel argument that the very same material costumes from Euripidean productions may have been recycled in Acharnians, implicit material proof of the rags' ugliness. The final chapter situates the aesthetics of tragic corpses within and outside of artistic representation. While living, tragic characters are rarely considered aesthetically, but as corpses their bodies become supreme objects of tragic spectacle with generic and mimetic implications.