Against the Tragedy Paper, by Kate Edwards


Women in tragedy exist to further male ends, male conflicts, male stories. When there isn’t the explicit hatred, contempt and fear of women, the fact remains that women in tragedy exist not as people but as abstractions of ideas of the female, which in turn stand for barbarism, madness, instability, that is ultimately resolved and expelled. They are symbolic; used as abstractions of the “other” to throw light on masculine concerns. Classical Greek culture forms (and is considered to form) the basis of modern Western culture: its literature, languages, law, politics. Its drama that does not assign women personhood therefore can be considered active in today’s politics, in the broad sense of power relationships.

What does this mean for the study of tragedy? The tragedy paper occupies a hallowed position in the Cambridge English tripos, along with practical criticism. It is described as “life-changing” and is positioned as the focal point for all modes of enquiry about English literature in the tripos. Froma Zeitlin references numerous critics who have argued for the view of tragedy as puberty rite and initiation, “a kind of recurrent masculine initiation, for the adults as well as for the young” . I suggest that the way the study of the tragedy paper at Cambridge is presented is analogous to this: as a kind of initiation into ways of thinking about life and a transformation into intellectual adulthood, a so-called life-changing experience.

It is important to consider that like the writing and performance of Greek tragedy, the tragedy paper was designed for a student body that was male. While there is some evidence to suggest that some women were in attendance at tragic performances, and there were some women studying at Cambridge in the 1920s, both the Dionysian festival and the Cambridge English degree were overwhelmingly male domains. The main architect of both the practical criticism and tragedy papers was I.A. Richards. From the English Faculty website: Richards argued that tragedy was ‘still the form under which the mind may most clearly and freely contemplate the human situation, its issues unclouded, its possibilities revealed’ (this quotation is from his The Principles of Literary Criticism).

Practical criticism in its ‘purest’ and original form seems to involve considering a text in an ideological vacuum: divesting a text of its cultural and political context in order to see how it is composed more clearly. Richards’ explanation of the tragic form also emphasises this idea that truly rigorous intellectual thinking must take place in a situation where the mind is free from all petty considerations. What is left is what is considered essential in nature, which is all too often what is privileged in our society, namely the struggles of highly born men. Tragedy asks the audience to consider the human situation of protagonists that are male. Zeitlin makes the point that Medea, having made her radical demands for justice and equality, is promptly removed off stage and out of human society into the heavens at the end: swept under the celestial rug.

The sharing and acknowledgement of women’s lived experiences are considered as crucial to feminist action and praxis as, say, feminist intellectual production or more traditional activism in the form of protest. Conversely the denial of the fact that women are faced with the threat of male violence and control is a form of misogyny. The English Faculty has begun to move towards an acknowledgement of this, with warning symbols next to lectures that “contain material that could be deemed upsetting” . It appears that the lectures that are accompanied by these warnings all deal with sexual violence in literature, with a view to ensuring the mental safety of students who have experienced trauma from sexual violence and rape. It gives students the choice to make an informed decision on whether they want to attend – although the phrasing, “deemed”, synonymous with ‘judged’ or ‘supposed’, suggests a kind of wary remove from actually acknowledging this.

Many members of the Faculty seem uneasy with this new practice. One supervisor claimed he couldn’t think of a work of literature that wasn’t traumatic; that the study of literature is inherently traumatic; that a comedy of manners could be more “upsetting” than graphic description of rape because its misogyny was more insidious and so warnings on specific lectures are superfluous. This view indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of what constitutes psychological harm. It is one thing to find depictions of rape, or structural misogyny, racism and homophobia upsetting on an intellectual and moral level; it’s another for stimuli to provoke, say, flashbacks of original trauma and the accompanying mental distress, urge to self harm or suicidal ideation. The first sense of trauma can be useful to experience in terms of stimulating understanding and impetus towards change; the second is dangerous. The mistaken conflation of the two perhaps explains the widespread view that these content warnings somehow repress the discussion of oppression and violence.

It seems that in the English Faculty, misogyny is only an abstraction, an interesting mode of enquiry that one can take or leave. But not only is there a psychological damage in framing an inherently misogynist genre as politically neutral, the study of tragedy also partly determines what degree class women receive, potentially affecting job prospects and earnings. The same supervisor who expressed a distaste for lecture content warnings disclosed that statistical analysis across several years of tripos results revealed that men are significantly more likely than women to achieve a first in Tragedy and practical criticism specifically. These are the two papers which are relics of 1920s male-dominated Cambridge. They are the two papers which insist most on divesting texts of social contexts that make sense of inherent misogyny. And they are the only two papers which are compulsory. Hints and anxieties about gender imbalances in results surface repeatedly in examiner’s reports through the last ten years. In 2007 an examiner writes of tragedy “while the maintenance of tradition is commendable, there is a danger of obsolescence – which in part seems to be created by the desire to set a Paper that is appropriate to all students in the Tripos, when there is perhaps no longer so much confidence that there are criteria which can easily be applied to all candidates” . That is, the student body is now not only concerned with white male issues. But these doubts are framed as observations, never accompanied by a call for change. Just two years ago the works of writers from other anglophone nations were finally deemed worthy of the core Part I syllabus – the literature of Africa, America, Asia and the Caribbean was previously squeezed into an optional paper in Part II.

Essentially, there is misogyny in demanding someone to consider and appreciate an aestheticised version of a violence that they have experienced and continue to experience: an account of male violence against women written by men, for men, for their aesthetic pleasure. Here I am purposefully not making a clear distinction between reality and mimesis because I want to emphasise the fact that these texts are politically active; they form part of a culture that condones this violence. The solution of course is not to ban the academic discussion of misogynistic violence in literature but ensure it is considered not as abstract literary concept but as part of a real and current threat experienced by students in lecture theatres, seminars, and supervision. It is also necessary to abolish or radically reform the tragedy paper as a compulsory element of the degree. We must abandon the view that a generic tradition that does not present women as human is the one supreme form through which one contemplates the “human situation”.

Kate Edwards


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