Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | December 4, 2012

Tragic? Or just really sad?

greek theater

Few words are more overused than hero or tragedy.  In their classic senses, each involves a person who strives for some noble cause but struggles with both internal and external forces to achieve his or her goal.  Noble heroes nearly always succeed; tragic heroes do not.

Today my sophomores began their study of one of the great pairs of tragic heroes in Western history:  Julius Caesar and Marcus Brutus.  Shakespeare brings Brutus out of the depths of hell, where Dante had put him a couple of centuries earlier (alongside Judas Iscariot), and places him among other noble heroes who die for the good of their country.  Conversely, he demotes Caesar from his god-like status to that of arrogant tyrant.  Shakespeare concludes that both men were human – admirable in some ways, flawed in others.

Shakespeare makes it easy to assign the words “hero” and “tragedy” to such a tale.  His plays are grand in scope, involving richly-complex characters who wax eloquent about the meaning of life.

micheal-jacksonBut in the real world?  The glaring spotlight of the paparazzi and viral memes make our ability to see anyone as deep or complex impossible, even those whose downfalls might be considered tragic in a classical sense:  Michael Jackson, Rod Blagojevich, Mitt Romney, or the football player who killed himself this week in a very public way.  During and after their spirals downward, to prison or political purgatory or death, we learn all the seedy details – which rarely include striving for a noble cause.

Ironically, today this topic hit very close to home.  A past student of mine has been found guilty of a violent crime, committed two years ago on his college campus, just weeks after he began his life away from home.  He will likely be sentenced to ten years in prison.

It was impossible for me not to think of this student’s situation in tragic terms, having spent the day reading Shakespeare.  Those of us who knew the boy in high school witnessed his descent into a dark place as he matured.  Many of us knew of his troubled past at home, his sadness, his anger.  Some of us were not surprised to learn he had lashed out with violence once he left his hometown and all that was familiar, once his thin tether had snapped.

But no, this was no tragedy.  It was just one of the many sad cases of a young person whose thoughts and despair led him to commit an act that will separate him from civilized society, in some ways for the rest of his life.  And it has forever scarred his victim as well.  Thinking of them makes me grieve for all the young people in our country and around the world who end up in prison or worse, due to their inability to figure things out in time and make a workable life for themselves.  Are we all at least a little responsible?  We must be.


Buds wither on the branch

In constant shadow, unwatered

We sigh and turn away



  1. You continue to amaze me with your writings. You certainly have a “way with words” that I envy and admire. Love, Jo

  2. So beautifully stated, Kate — thanks.

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