Humanities Day 2012: Philosophy prof deconstructs the tragic hero

By Sarah Morell

“For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground, and tell sad stories of the death of kings.”

This seminal line from Shakespeare’s Richard II is the epigraph of the current project of philosophy Professor Ted Cohen, who unpacked the main points of that line in a talk entitled “Kings and Salesmen” as part of Humanities Day on Saturday.

Over the course of his hour-long talk, Cohen posed questions about the nature of fiction and art, the process of identifying with characters, and specifically, the difference in the tragedy that befalls a king versus the tragedy that befalls the common man. For this discussion, he drew heavily on Shakespeare’s characters of Hamlet and King Lear, and Arthur Miller’s character of Willy Loman, the tragic hero of Death of a Salesman.

“If you aren’t familiar with these works, shame on you,” he joked at the beginning.

He then launched into a discussion of Aristotle’s theory of the tragic hero. Cohen remarked that Aristotle thought that in tragedy, the hero should be higher and better than the average person. Certainly, the tragic dramas of antiquity and the Renaissance followed this formula, with characters like Oedipus and King Lear, according to Cohen. But in more recent times, the works of O’Neill and Miller formulate tragic figures that are nothing more than common—even inferior to the viewer, which Cohen suspects might change our relationship to them.

The conversation meandered from the works of Shakespeare to Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” to contemporary literature to the films of Hitchcock. Ultimately, the conversation returned to the fate of Willy Loman.

Quoting the character of Linda, Willy’s wife, Cohen read, “I don’t say he’s a great man, but he’s a human being and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid.”

His closing statement was a revision of his chosen epigraph. “Wouldn’t it be nice,” he said, “if instead, it read: ‘For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground, and tell sad stories of the fate of salesmen.’”