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A Risk Theatre Reading of Shakespeare’s MACBETH

The true star of Macbeth is the low-probability, high-consequence event. And the true story of Macbeth is the hero’s reaction to it. In this tragedy, a man is transformed by a series of low-probability, high-consequence events, in the beginning raised up by chance, and, in the end, cast down by the same power he hoped to harness. Macbeth is the story of how low-probability, high-consequence events encouraged a man to wager all-in, thinking that he was bound for glory, and of how the random element fooled him.

For the dreamers who believe that low-probability, high-consequence events could be tamed through progress, the play warns of evil’s allure and the follies of ambition and confidence. For others, whose powers of recognition are clearer, and who perceive the random element working at each existential juncture in life and in history, the hypotheses of other-worldly powers, ambition, and confidence were redundant. To them, Macbeth tells an all-too-human story of how, because of our innate predilection to scorn chance, having always satisfied our intellectual biases by seeking any other explanation than one which involved the random element, we thought ourselves lords of chance and became, instead, the fools of chance.

The definition of a low-probability, high-consequence event is one in which, before it happens, is considered improbable. Sometimes the possibility it can even happen cannot be imagined, such is its remoteness. Examples include the Gutenberg Press, the rise of the personal computer, or the Gunpowder Plot. We can know that a low-probability, high-consequence action has occurred by watching the reactions. Sometimes, it prompts the one who has seen it to alert others. “From the spring,” says the dying Captain, “whence comfort seemed to come / Discomfort swells: mark, King of Scotland, mark” (1.2.27-8). Other times it elicits disbelief. “Nothing is,” says Macbeth, “but what is not” (1.3.144). Sometimes, one takes one’s own life: this was the case of the “farmer that hanged / himself on th’expectation of plenty” (2.3.4-5). Having bet all-in on a bumper crop, when waylaid by the low-probability event, out of rent, out of food, and out of luck, he hangs himself. The danger these events present is that, though they were impossible to predict beforehand, after they happen, we retrospectively invent simplistic explanations of how they arose. In doing so, our sense of comfort is misguided, as we fail to give chance its due. This danger extends to the criticism of Macbeth.

In Macbeth, the action pivots around four low-probability, high-consequence events. The first is when, contrary to expectation, Macbeth becomes Thane of Cawdor. The second is when, against all hope, he becomes king. The third is when Birnam Wood, impossibly, comes to Dunsinane Hill. The last is when, beyond nature’s permutations, he meets a man not of woman born. That each of these events will happen is foreshadowed by the Witches—Shakespeare’s agents of improbability—to Macbeth, who, in turn, rejects each as being out of hand. By dramatizing the path from prediction to rejection to fulfillment, Shakespeare makes probability the play’s true theme: what happens when more things happen than what we thought would happen happens?

To most people, the Witches are not agents of improbability, but rather supernatural agents. Like the oracles of old in Greek tragedies, the Witches would prophecy to Macbeth his fate, fate being the antinomy of chance and probability. But, the funny thing is, to dramatize fate—to bring fate onto the stage—fate had to be cast into the play as a random event that takes place against all odds. That such an event could have taken place against overwhelming odds is then attributed back onto the powerful action of fate. The feeling of surprise that a miracle has occurred is the proof that fate exists. But really, there was no fate, only the fulfilment of a low-probability, high-consequence event that the audience appreciates to represent fate. Fate in tragedy is a literary artifact, is probability dressed up as fate. In this way, Macbeth, by exploring fate, became a venue to explore the impact of the highly improbable. Wherever there is fate, there is also chance: the way fate manifests itself in literature is by overcoming the random element. At last, fate and chance are synonymous, two sides of the same coin.

Macbeth begins with Scotland in alarm. The first crisis sees the rebel Macdonald leading Irish soldiers into Forres. King Duncan sends in Macbeth and Banquo. But, in the act of dispatching Macdonald, a second crisis strikes. Seeing Scotland convulsed by civil war, Sweno, Norway’s king, seizes the moment. He allies with another Scottish rebel, the Thane of Cawdor. With covert support from the thane and fresh Norwegian troops, they open a second front at Fife. Macbeth and Banquo remobilize to win the day. The opening action sets the scene for the first two of the four low-probability, high-consequence events.

After the battle, Macbeth and Banquo, on the road to Forres, encounter the Witches:

Macbeth. Speak, if you can: what are you?

1 Witch. All hail Macbeth, hail to thee, Thane of Glamis.

2 Witch. All hail Macbeth, hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor.

3 Witch. All hail Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter. (1.3.47-50)

The first Witch accosts Macbeth by name and title. This draws his attention: when his father died, he had become Thane of Glamis. The second Witch teases him with a present tense pronouncement, calling him Thane of Cawdor. Macbeth finds this both disturbing and unlikely. The news that Duncan has executed the traitor and given his title to Macbeth is still in transit. Then, the third Witch goes in hook, line, and sinker, hailing Macbeth as tomorrow’s king. Macbeth finds this impossible:

Macbeth. Stay, you imperfect speakers, tell me more.
By Finel’s death, I know I am Thane of Glamis,
But how of Cawdor? The Thane of Cawdor lives
A prosperous gentleman: and to be king
Stands not within the prospect of belief,
No more than to be Cawdor. Say from whence
You owe this strange intelligence, or why
Upon this blasted heath you stop our way
With such prophetic greeting? Speak, I charge you. (1.3.70-8)

The Witches vanish. At that moment, Angus and Ross enter. Acting as though the mouthpiece of chance, Ross hails Macbeth the Thane of Cawdor:

Angus. We are sent
To give thee from our royal master thanks,
Only to herald thee into his sight
Not pay thee.

Ross. And for an earnest of a greater honour,
He bade me, from him, call thee Thane of Cawdor:
In which addition, hail most worthy thane,
For it is thine.

Banquo. What, can the devil speak true?

Macbeth. The Thane of Cawdor lives. Why do you dress me
In borrowed robes?

Angus. Who was the Thane lives yet,
But under heavy judgement bears that life
Which he deserves to lose.
Whether he was combined with those of Norway,
Or did line the rebel with hidden help
And vantage, or that with both he laboured
In his country’s wrack, I know not,
But treasons capital, confessed and proved,
Have overthrown him. (1.3.101-118)

Macbeth’s surprise—“Why do you dress me in borrowed robes?”—relays to the audience the improbability of what is happening. Banquo too, stunned, says: “What, can devil speak true?” a little too loud.

As the true star of the show, not only do low-probability events change our perceptions of how many things there are in heaven and earth, they also change the plot’s trajectory. Macbeth, previously fighting traitors, turns traitor. With the low-probability event, Shakespeare boldly pivots the trajectory of the play. The imperial theme begins.

Shakespeare’s Swans

Part of the good interpreter’s task is to sound out yesterday’s iambs on today’s instruments. For yesterday’s plays to jingle and jangle to modern ears, new approaches are required, approaches which resonate with today’s preoccupations. Today, there is a preoccupation with low-probability, high-consequence events: 9/11, the Great Recession, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Deepwater Horizon, and other events give us reason to reflect on how nothing is impossible, once it happens. In the last decade, a new term has arisen to describe these events: today, we call them “black swans.”

The term “black swan” comes from Roman antiquity, and its journey to the present day has been itself swan buffeted. In the beginning, it meant something entirely different. The Roman poet Juvenal coined the term in the Satires where he likened a wife, perfect in all her virtues, to “a prodigy as rare upon the earth as a black swan (6.165).” Since it was believed that the perfect wife does not exist, the black swan became a byword for the impossible. This was the term’s first meaning.

In 1697, European explorers sighted black swans off the coast of Australia. With one sighting, the improbable overcame the probable and a belief system—that all swans are white—fell. As a result, the term was orphaned. In 1843, however, John Stuart Mill reinvented it. In A System of Logic, Mill transformed the term from an expression of impossibility (which it could no longer denote) into a visual representation of the power of the unexpected. In Mill, the black swan is the empiricists’ bogeyman. It symbolizes the philosophers’ horror of how one observation can wreck any number of inferences based on any number of observations made over any immemorial period of time. In philosophical circles, the black swan came to symbolize the danger of formulating general principles from particular observations, otherwise known as the problem of induction. Another swan event, however,  was required for the term to enter the public consciousness.

In 2007, mathematician, options trader, and philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb released The Black Swan. He argued that Wall Street’s risk management models, far from containing risk, exacerbated risk and endangered the financial system. Being rooted in the idea of past as prologue, these models gave traders false assurances that they could wager all-in: every swan will be white and events progress forwards, inexorably, quiescently, in a predictable steady state. But, if time were a punctuated equilibrium and arrived in fits and starts like ketchup out a glass bottle, full of revolution, a world of hurt awaits. Taking the cue from Mill, Taleb called these unforeseen, unexpected, and catastrophic events black swans. Mainstream financial pundits, busy riding the boom, disregarded Taleb, whom they regarded as an eccentric voice crying out in the wilderness. But, without warning, the Great Recession broke out in 2008 to break each one of the world’s oldest and most decorated financial institutions. The timing of Taleb’s book—having come out the previous year— seemed prescient.

Though experts disavowed that such a catastrophe could be ascribed to as fleeting a notion as chance, Taleb’s ideas were backed by a badass image (a sinister swan) and hardcore math (attacking the venerable bell curve). When the media suggested that the Great Recession could be understood as a swan event, a low-probability, high-consequence event precipitated by, of all things, chance, a firestorm of controversy ensued. It was at this time that the term “black swan” to denote the impact of the highly improbable entered the popular consciousness.

Before there was Taleb, there was Shakespeare. Only Macbeth was not taken as a warning of the highly improbable, but rather, a warning of the dangers of confidence, ambition, and evil. Perhaps that was because people did not associate Shakespeare with probability theory, which, having been recently founded in the sixteenth century, was still in its infancy. Shakespeare, however, grasped with his playwright’s intuition the inordinate impact the highly improbable. Consider his use of the improbable elsewhere to generate fantastic outcomes: Desdemona, in Othello, dropping the handkerchief, spotted with strawberries or the letter-carrier, in Romeo and Juliet, being caught in the wrong house at the wrong time. Hamlet’s injunction to Horatio—“There are more things in heaven and earth, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”—also warns of the impact of the highly improbable (Hamlet 1.5.167-8). Shakespeare’s tragedies are full of curious improbabilities and now, when they are all the rage, is the time to talk about Shakespeare’s swans.

The Imperial Theme

Shakespeare’s understanding of the highly improbable and its dramatic applications can be illustrated through Macbeth’s interaction with Angus and Ross. Macbeth’s question: “Why do you dress me / In borrowed robes?” is spoken from the viewpoint of his initial reality. In this reality, Duncan is his cousin and king. He will lay his life on the line fighting foreign kings and native rebels to defend this reality. In this reality, all swans are white. But the moment Angus and Ross confirm the second Witch’s pronouncement, Macbeth sights the black swan. A new reality opens, one in which he is king. It is the improbable that draws him to the existential fulcrum. In this reality, having seen the swan, he knows the impossible is possible. The plot pivots into the imperial theme.

Finding himself, unexpectedly, Thane of Cawdor, Macbeth muses: “Glamis and Thane of Cawdor: / The greatest is behind” (1.3.118-9). The greatest that lies behind is to be king. Not only have the Witches prophesied thus, Ross, in his fruitfully ambiguous phrase that the new thaneship is “an earnest of greater honour,” intimates that Macbeth could be named heir apparent, a declaration consonant with the system of tanistry used in medieval Scotland where the crown, not yet bound by primogeniture, would revolve between collateral branches of the leading families.

Why would the greatest lie behind? We perceive the past, not the future, as that which lies behind. “Leave the past behind,” we say. We perceive the future as that which lies ahead. “Look to the future,” we say. The future is something we see approaching. Our expressions reflect our biases. Since we fear uncertainty, we disarm it by putting it in plain view. To highlight the role of the unexpected, Shakespeare turns convention on its head by placing the future behind, rather than before Macbeth. The future now steals up to Macbeth with the result that, when it catches him, it takes him by surprise. The image highlights the elusiveness of chance: not only does it lie in the future, sometimes we cannot even see it coming.

The improbable event has so unseated Macbeth that he allows himself to consider murder. But the thought of murder is so abhorrent to his previous beliefs that his hair stands on end and his heart knocks against his chest (1.3.137-44). His last recourse to preserve his previous reality is, ironically, to trust chance: “If chance will have me king, why chance may crown me, / Without my stir” ( As soon as he considers it, however, Duncan names his son heir. Crushed by having the prospect of the crown presented and ripped away, Macbeth moves further towards murder with his “Stars, hide your fires” soliloquy (1.4.50). Within a day, Duncan will be dead, clearing the path for Macbeth to be invested at Scone. The imperial theme is complete.

The Engine of Suspense

After the first two swan events take place, two remain: Birnam Wood and the man not of woman born. When Macbeth faces his first setbacks, he seeks a fresh start and goes back to where it all began. He will seek the Witches. All they presaged has come to pass. They said he is Thane of Cawdor, and it was confirmed. They said he will be king, and he became king. They said Fleance would found the Stuart line, and Fleance proved hard to kill.

To show Macbeth the path forward, the Witches conjure three Apparitions. The first Apparition tells Macbeth to beware Macduff. Even without the Apparition, Macbeth knew Macduff would be trouble: Macduff had declined to attend both the coronation and the state dinner. The second and third Apparitions prove more helpful, setting in motion the last two low-probability, high-consequence events:

2 Apparition. Be bloody, bold and resolute: laugh to scorn
The power of man, for none of woman born
Shall harm Macbeth. Descends.

Macbeth. Then live, Macduff: what need I fear of thee?
But yet I’ll make assurance double sure,
And take a bond of fate: thou shalt not live,
That I may tell pale-hearted fear it lies
And sleep in spite of thunder. Thunder

[Enter] : a child crowned, with a tree in his hand.

What is this,
That rises like the issue of a king
And wears upon his baby-brow the round
And top of sovereignty?

All.                               Listen, but speak not to’t.

3 Apparition. Be lion-mettled, proud, and take no care
Who chafes, who frets, or where conspirers are.
Macbeth shall never vanquished be, until
Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill
Shall come against him. Descend[s].

Macbeth.                       That will never be.
Who can impress the forest, bid the tree
Unfix his earth-bound root? Sweet bodements, good.
Rebellious dead, rise never till the Wood
Of Birnam rise, and our high-placed Macbeth
Shall live the lease of nature, pay his breath
To time, and mortal custom. (4.1.78-99)

Like the prospects of becoming thane and king, Macbeth finds the likelihood of either eventuality so low as to approach nil. His courage swells with apodictic certainty:

Macbeth. Bring me no more reports, let them fly all;
Till Birnam Wood remove to Dunsinane,
I cannot taint with fear. What’s the boy Malcolm?
Was he not born of woman? (5.3.1-4)

Exactly as Hecate predicts, Macbeth, consumed by certainty, begins reciting the Apparitions’ words like a novel mantra:

Hecate. He shall spurn fate, scorn death, and bear
His hopes ’bove wisdom, grace and fear;
And you all know, security
Is mortals’ chiefest enemy. (3.5.30-4)

He repeats it to the Doctor: “I will not be afraid of death and bane,” he says, “Till Birnam forest come to Dunsinane” (5.3.59-60). “Thou wast born of woman,” he says, gloating over Young Siward’s corpse (5.7.12). He becomes another of chance’s fools.

In addition to all the functions mentioned earlier—driving the action forwards, exploding and reshaping worldviews, and pivoting the plot—black swan events also fire drama’s engine of suspense. They are part of a metatheatrical game played between dramatists and audiences.

A funny thing is that low-probability events, while low-probability to the characters (who are invariably blindsided by them), are, from the audience’s perspective, high-probability events. When the second Apparition tells Macbeth that “none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth,” Macbeth understands that, chances are, it will not happen. The audience, however, is of the opposing belief. They understand that a man not of woman born will certainly strike Macbeth down.

Similarly, when the third Apparition tells Macbeth that “until / Great Birnam Wood to Dunsinane Hill /Shall come against him,” Macbeth understand that, chances are, it will not happen. The audience, however, is of another belief. They understand that, like a Houdini or a David Copperfield—Shakespeare will wow them by pulling off the impossible in plain sight. The moment the Apparitions speak, the theatregoers start trying to figure out how Shakespeare will accomplish the impossible. On the one hand, the playwright telegraphs cues to the audience, and, on the other hand, the audience tries to figure out these cues. This metatheatrical game between playwrights and audiences is drama’s engine of suspense. With a few cues, the dramatist stokes the fires of a thousand imaginations.

When the Apparition tells Macbeth that he will never be vanquished until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill, Shakespeare is telegraphing to the theatregoers that it will happen. Since it is not immediately obvious how Shakespeare can accomplish this, the theatregoers try to figure it out. As they try to figure it out, they feel the thrill of suspense. “Am I on the right track?” thinks one. “This is how he will do it,” thinks another. In these thoughts is the magic of suspense, and its magic increases with improbability. To bring about a probable event only requires the skills of a probable dramatist. To bring about the improbable event requires the skills of a most improbable dramatist. In this way, when Macbeth responds to the Apparition by saying, incredulous: “That will never be,” the audience understands it two ways. On the one hand, Macbeth is saying that it cannot happen. On the other hand, it is Shakespeare saying to the audience through Macbeth: “If I pull this off, you will admit I am a dramatist of the most improbable skill.” And so, this game of suspense between dramatist and audience plays out.

As the endgame approaches, Malcolm closes on Inverness with the English forces to revenge his father. Shakespeare has a chance to locate the action. The English, being unfamiliar with the terrain, request a bearing:

Siward. What wood is this before us?

Menteith.                                  The Wood of Birnam.

Malcolm. Let every soldier hew him down a bough
And bear’t before him; thereby shall we shadow
The number of our host, and make discovery
Err in report of us. (5.4.4-7)

In the cat and mouse game of suspense, this is the moment the audience has been anticipating. Shakespeare satisfies the audience in the following scene where the Messenger arrives, breathless:

Macbeth. Thou com’st to use thy tongue: thy story, quickly.

Messenger. Gracious my lord,
I should report that which I say I saw,
But know not how to do’t.

Macbeth.                       Well, say, sir.

Messenger. As I did stand my watch upon the hill,
I looked toward Birnam, and anon methought
The wood began to move.

Macbeth.                       Liar and slave.

Messenger. Let me endure your wrath, if’t be not so.
Within this three mile may you see it coming.
I say, a moving grove. (5.5.28-37)

From two scenes earlier, they know that ten thousand march on Inverness. In any other play, the Messenger would have simply reported that troops approach under camouflage. In this play, however, Shakespeare plays up the improbability of the commonest of tactics to place the audience in check. He has brought Birnam Wood to Dunsinane Hill.

Though the improbable has, once again, happened, Shakespeare reminds the audience through Macbeth that their game is not done. The man not of woman born still lurks, undiscovered:

Macbeth. They have tied me to a stake; I cannot fly,
But bear-like I must fight the course. What’s he
That was not born of woman? Such a one
Am I to fear, or none. (5.7.11-14)

The probable, most of the time, prevails over the improbable. The improbable, however, has one decisive advantage. The probable can occur many times, and that is all that it can be: probable. The improbable, however, only needs to happen once. So it was with the black swan and so it is with Macbeth. As the end approaches, Macduff finds Macbeth:

Macduff.                      Turn, hell-hound, turn.

Macbeth. Of all men else I have avoided thee.
But get back, my soul is too much charged
With blood of thine already.

Macduff.                      I have no words.
My voice is in my sword, thou bloodier villain
Than terms can give thee out. Fight. Alarum.

Macbeth.                       Thou losest labour;
As easy mayst thou the intrenchant air
With thy keen sword impress, as make me bleed.
Let fall thy blade on vulnerable crests;
I bear a charmed life, which must not yield
To one of woman born.

Macduff.                      Despair thy charm,
And let the angel whom thou still hast served
Tell thee, Macduff was from his mother’s womb
Untimely ripped. (5.8.3-16)

Checkmate. The improbable man is the man born from caesarean section. The suspense, building since the second sabbath, resolves. The audience feels entertained, having seen how Shakespeare brings to pass the highly improbable, and many times.

Tragedy is a compact between dramatist and playwright. Its structure consists of a series of low-probability, high-consequence events, foreshadowed and fulfilled. Tragedy showcases the playwright’s ingenuity in bringing about the highly improbable. Minor feats of improbability for minor playwrights and major feats of improbability for major playwrights. Such a reading interests us, who are today most interested in finding new ways to explore the unexpected, as more and more, we see that in life as in tragedy, the more improbable it is, the harder it hits.

Not Intended Consequences, but Unintended Consequences

Tragedy dramatizes low-probability, high-consequence events to remind us how good actions can have bad consequences. Unintended consequences arise when the swan event happens because the world has been changed: though no one knows what to do, everyone must act quickly. When Sweno and the Thane of Cawdor see Macdonald revolting, they must act at once, risking all: there is a tide in the affairs of men. This all-in risk, in turn, further antagonizes the unintended consequences: the greater the risk, the further the risk taker’s resources are stretched beyond what the risk taker can cover. The risk taker stands naked in the rain. Actions made in the new world, made in haste and multiplied by risk, tend towards unintended consequences.

Macbeth’s quest for the crown is set against the backdrop of all the failed attempts on the crown. Macdonald and the Thane of Cawdor dared, and lost their lives. Sweno dared, and was out ten thousand dollars. The opening action establishes that, in the world of this play, the highest risk enterprise is to reach for the crown. Despite the risks, however, the play also establishes Macbeth’s competency to fulfil the task. He was the one who thwarted the ingrates and upstarts, who, by all accounts, had been within a hair’s breadth. If they had been close, Macbeth, who was by far greater than them, could entertain higher hopes. Duncan, an armchair king, hardly stands in his way. From the outset, to kill a king is, paradoxically, presented as both the riskiest and the most assured task: riskiest because the others had failed and most assured because Macbeth is like no other. The deed needs to be fraught with risk to cement Macbeth’s daring. But the deed also needs to be most assured so that when the unintended consequences occur, the audience is surprised. This is the pleasure of tragedy.

Having seen what happened to Macdonald and the Thane of Cawdor, Macbeth knows the risk of “Vaulting ambition, which o’er-leaps itself, / And falls on th’other” (1.7.27-8). In awe of risk, he changes his mind, telling Lady Macbeth they will go no further. “I dare do all that may become a man, he says, “Who dares do more is none” (1.7.38-9). Despite his ample resources and insider knowledge, Macbeth remains circumspect. He refuses to act unless every question mark is removed.

At this point, Lady Macbeth offers the failsafe of failsafes. In addition to the assurances they already possess, she proposes to frame Duncan’s chamberlains for the murder. She will ply them with wine so that they can access Duncan. Once murdered, she will smear them with royal blood and set their weapons—now the instruments of murder—next to them. Everyone will be in a deep sleep after the long day. When the murder is discovered, Macbeth will, in a fit of rage, murder the chamberlains. The truth will die with them. None will know. Her plan, being foolproof, convinces Macbeth. Every question mark disappears. “I am settled, “ he says, “and bend up / Each corporal agent to this terrible feat” (2.1.80-1).

They put the plan into action. As expected, it works perfectly. Macbeth become king. Duncan’s sons, Malcolm and Donalbain flee, drawing suspicion of murder on themselves. No one knows better. The play shows them controlling, taming, and mitigating the foreseen risks. But then play turns to the unseen risks in the unintended consequences of their actions, cascading one after another in a beautiful sequence of mischance.

Macbeth had wanted to become king. But he cannot become the type of king he had expected. The best he can do is to become a tyrant, a degraded form of a king. This is the first of the unintended consequences. Now he begins consorting with murderers. Friends must die, and Fleance too. But when he marks them with death, further unintended consequences result. To be sure, ghosts can be found in Shakespeare’s other plays. In the world of this play, however, ghosts are like Juvenal’s black swans: they do not exist. Now, for the first time, the undead rise:

Macbeth. Blood hath been shed ere now, i’th’olden time,
Ere humane statute purged the gentle weal;
Ay, and since too, murders have been performed
Too terrible for the ear. The times have been
That when the brains were out, the man would die,
And there an end. But now they rise again
With twenty mortal murders on their crowns,
And push us from our stools. This is more strange
Than such a murder is. (3.4.73-81)

Macbeth, too, could not have foreseen how Lady Macbeth, entrenched within her iron will, would crack under pressure. Nor could he have foreseen that the moment he masters stoicism, hardening himself to all perils, is the moment Seyton breaks the news:

Macbeth. I have supped full of horrors;
Direness familiar to my slaughterous thoughts
Cannot once start me. Wherefore was that cry?

Seyton. The Queen, my lord, is dead. (5.5.13-6)

Lady Macbeth, too, generates unintended consequences. She had wanted to become queen. But she can only be a posthumous queen, a degraded form of queen: Seyton, as she dies, first addresses her thus.

How did Macbeth fall, Macbeth who removed every last question mark? Some say he fell because of overconfidence. If you believe he was overconfident, ask yourself if Shakespeare could have done any more than what he did to justify Macbeth’s confidence. He gave Macbeth the competence. He gave him insider knowledge. He gave him the best-laid plan. Why should Macbeth not have been confident? His confidence is grounded. He was confident, but did not fall as a result of confidence.

Others say Macbeth fell through uxoriousness. He should not have listened to Lady Macbeth. Lady Macbeth, however, had the foolproof plan. Her plan is shown to be successful. The suspicion of the murder falls on Malcolm and Donalbain. He was swayed by Lady Macbeth, but did not fall through uxoriousness.

Then, there are those who say he fell because of his ambition. The world of the play, however, encourages ambition. The throne is ready for a shaking. Macdonald, the Thane of Cawdor, and Sweno all sense a changing of the guard. Later Banquo—and perhaps Donalbain—entertain their own imperial themes. The king is a poor judge of character, easily deceived, and cannot take it to the field. God had already deserted him: he can only send his wounded to the surgeons, other kings heal their subjects by a divine touch. Macbeth was ambitious, but his ambition was justified.

If not confidence, uxoriousness, or ambition, why did he fall? I think he fell through chance, the unexpected, more things happening than what he thought would happen, black swans, uncertainty, unknown unknowns, and low-probability, high-consequence events, the effects of all of which were compounded by risk. While indiscriminate evil cannot explain why Malcolm should ask the troops to cut down the boughs of Birnam Wood, chance multiplied by risk can. By chance, Macbeth meets a man not of woman born. By risk, he dies. Had he not put so much on the line by killing Macduff’s wife, babes, and lord, the encounter may have been less grievous.

Chance and the unexpected appear to the mind as a gap in nature, as a vacuum where there should have been knowledge. The intellect is poorly designed to comprehend the dark night of chance: though the math to comprehend chance was available from antiquity, it was not until the Italian Renaissance that probability theory laid down its footings. The intellect strives at all times to prove that everything happens for a reason. Thought finds a world where the random element runs amok false and impenetrable. Thought abhors empty space, rails against wild things.

When the world confronts timid natures with accident and uncertainty, they feel pity and fear. Pity for the tolling of the bell and fear that they too are exposed. These natures, who needed to reassure themselves from chance, sought to contain it, some by devising simplistic explanations (overconfidence, uxoriousness, ambition, etc.,) and others by devising complex metaphysics (the forces of darkness and evil). With these objectively questionable and subjectively comforting explanations, they allayed their fears, saying to one another: “Be more modest in your ambitions,” “Do good,” and other like refrains, thinking that with a change in behavior, next time they could stop Birnam Wood. Their explanations are from the point of view that the mischance of men’s ambitions are caused by man, and not by chance.

When the world, however, confronts more ambitious and confident natures with accident and uncertainty, far from pity and fear, they feel wonder and awe, wonder at how an individual, so full of fire and the seed of greatness, could be struck down by chance, and awe for the smallness of man in the boundlessness of randomness. They see that the killing risks are not the risks they see, but the ones that cannot be seen until after. They see that greatness is not without risk, and that there is a price to live dangerously. These fiery natures Macbeth marshals forwards, into the unknown, into risk, into the dark night of thought, as though saying to them: “Friend, dare to live dangerously, and you too shall die. Why the fuss? I also died, who was better by far than you.”

To these souls on fire, the highest honour is to join Macbeth and the pageant of tragic heroes who, having climbed past every ladder, found a way to climb on top of their heads, ever higher, higher than Ida’s peaks and Icarus’ flight. For them, to live is to dare. But it may be that there are other readings, and that there are as many truths to Macbeth as there are hearts, some circumspect, some like fire, some obsequious, some firing out their chests like cannons, some lily-livered, some cold as iron, hard as rock.

Littlewood’s Law

Some find the concatenation of low-probability, high-consequence events in Macbeth beyond belief. How could one individual become thane, then king, fall into tyranny, lose his lady to madness, see the wood come up the hill, and then meet a man not of woman born? That this too is part of an all-too-human heuristic that shuns chance and uncertainty can be demonstrated through Littlewood’s Law.

J. E. Littlewood, a twentieth century Cambridge mathematician, believed that exceedingly improbable events happen more often than we anticipate. To demonstrate his hypothesis, he devised a thought experiment. First, he called these unanticipated events miracles. Next, he defined miracles as events a million to one against. Through the observation that we experience many events each day, he demonstrated that we encounter the highly improbable monthly:

Littlewood’s Law of Miracles states that in the course of any normal person’s life, miracles happen at a rate of roughly one per month. The proof of the law is simple. During the time that we are awake and actively engaged in living our lives, roughly for eight hours each day, we see and hear things happening at a rate of about one per second. So the total number of events that happen to us is about thirty-thousand per day, or about a million per month. With few exceptions, these events are not miracles because they are insignificant. The chance of a miracle is about one per million events. Therefore we should expect one miracle to happen, on the average, every month.

In life, it is thought that we experience a handful of defining moments, moments full of miracle and wonder such as comings of age, marriage, and convalescence. The implication of Littlewood’s Law, however, is that these existential fulcra whereon life hangs in balance happen more often than we anticipate. Life, far from being a steady state with gradual change, is in a constant state of revolution. The moments of respite are as infrequent as the major upheavals are frequent. In this probabilistic existence, we find ourselves often standing, like Macbeth, outside the safety of circumscribed beliefs.

Macbeth, in dramatizing the crossroad between probability and life, not only illustrates that more things can happen than what we think will happen, but also that these more things happen more frequently than we allow. These strange concatenations of events in the play may be more emblematic of life than critics have allowed. Even in a world of pure good, and one in which the drives of ambition and confidence are constantly held in check, we should expect to see a Birnam Wood event, by chance alone, on the average, every month.

The Old Master

Part of the reason so few have based their readings of Macbeth around low-probability, high-consequence events is that such readings are inherently paradoxical. The low-probability event is only improbable to Macbeth. To the audience, it is a high-probability event. This paradox drives critics to look elsewhere for the play’s keys. Many have done exactly this, basing their reading around ambition, hubris, error, uxoriousness, or the insidious action of evil. It need not be so, as the paradox is easily resolved: it exists to generate suspense. Another reason, however, why so few have tried this reading is that it flies in the face of the old master, Aristotle.

Just as the intellect abjures the role of chance as a causal factor in life, it is perhaps fitting that the greatest of intellects would abjure the role of chance from the construction of the best of plots. Aristotle declares in the Poetics that tragedy dramatizes the sorts of thing that could happen. Tragedy deals with probable events:

It is also evident from what has been said that it is not the poet’s function to relate actual events, but the kindsof things that might occur and are possible in terms of probability or necessity. (1451a)

Not only should tragedy deal with the probable, he goes on to say that chance events, being signs of inferior plot construction, are to be avoided (1454a-b). The net effect of his condoning the probable and condemning the improbable was to preclude chance and the highly improbable from the discussion of tragedy. It is a shame.

Aristotle had reasons for banishing the improbable. He was trying to rehabilitate tragedy. His teacher, Plato, had found tragedy to be degenerate and unceremoniously banned it from his ideal city-state (Laws 817a-e, Republic 607b). To rehabilitate tragedy, Aristotle gave it a social function. To Aristotle, theatregoers seeing the consequences of characters’ actions onstage would better understand the consequences of their own actions offstage. For this stage to street transference to work, however, actions had to be repeatable. For actions to be repeatable, they had to be probable. If a flaw onstage would lead to a similar fall offstage, nine or ten times out of ten, then tragedy could fulfil its social function.

In rehabilitating tragedy, Aristotle turned tragedy into a distant early warning of poor character. For the next two thousand years we would talk about how irascibility led to the fall. The fall was precipitated by confidence, stubbornness, ambition, and other behavioral factors that the agent could change, and by changing, escape tragedy. By neutering the improbable, Aristotle rehabilitated tragedy.

Aristotle has ruled the roost for two thousand years. In new millenniums, however, we seek new truths. In this age of the unexpected, we seek and find, through Macbeth, a new truth for tragedy that speaks to the pervasiveness of the random element. From its dramatization of black swans, Macbeth gains its overwhelming impetus. By affirming how the unthinkable happens again and again, Macbeth touches all the themes of our day. What is more, tragedy is once more dangerous. When it is dangerous, it is exciting and fit entertainment for the highest natures.

The Great Race

In this reading of Macbeth, I have shown how the action pivots around the fulcrum of the low-probability, high-consequence event. By the advantage conferred by this force multiplying machine, with the lightest touch the dramatist can provoke characters to abandon belief systems and risk certain comfort on uncertain hopes. Risk unbound, in turn, leaves characters susceptible to the unintended consequences of their actions: the more risk they assume, the more susceptible they become to each tremor. All the meanwhile, the dramatist plays a metatheatrical game with the audience, creating suspense by dangling before the audience the prospect that he will bring about an event so rare and wild that any lesser dramatist would cringe at the attempt. From the page to the stage, tragedy is a theatre of risk.

This concludes my study of probability in Macbeth. I needed to write this, because, to me, this play was like a great race in which runners would compete, and, in the course of the running, they would run across banana peels. Some of them they would see, and jump over in great leaps. Some of them they would not see, or see too late, and slip. The runner, who led by an overwhelming margin in the final stretch, slips by accident and is unable to cross the line. This same runner, while jockeying for position earlier, had also pushed last year’s winner into the ditch.

Now, listening to the commentators, I was surprised because they would never declare these falls as accidents. Instead they would say that this runner slipped because he ran too ambitiously or that that runner slipped because he ran with too much gusto. As for the frontrunner who never crosses, this, according to them, was to show that cheaters never prosper. If you saw the play as I do, would you not yourself have needed to say this, that it was not error, hubris, confidence, or justice that causes the fall, but that the fall results from something much simpler, namely that, in a course full of banana peels, more things may happen than what we think will happen?

This reading is based on my new theory of tragedy, which is laid out in my book: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. The book has launched the world’s largest competition for the writing of tragedy, The Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition, now in its third year. Thank you for reading.

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong, and I do Melpomene’s work.

Full Transcript of “Why Do We Enjoy Tragedies?” – Presentation at Okanagan College



OCTOBER 28, 2019


Am I at Okanagan College, home of the finest English Department in Canada? Thank you, Terry Scarborough, for the invitation. Great to see everyone here. Tonight, I have for you an amazing asset you can use to interpret and create literature. It’s a theory of tragedy called “risk theatre.” It will change the way you look at literature. Theories of tragedy are fascinating. They bind together drama, literature, and philosophy for a higher calling. They’ve been studied for over two thousand years, and will be studied for another two thousand years.

The art form of tragedy has entertained audiences for 2600 years. In fifth-century Athens, the “big three” of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides lit up the stage. In ancient Rome the philosopher Seneca wrote tragedies, as did the emperors Augustus and Nero. Tragedy enjoyed major resurgences in the English Renaissance (Shakespeare and Marlowe) and Neoclassical France (Racine and Corneille). The German Romantics Lessing, Schiller, and Goethe had a turn and, in the twentieth century, Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill brought tragedy to America. Tragedy has been with us a long time, and will continue for a long time after us.

The question: “Why do we enjoy tragedy?” has captivated the greatest minds from Aristotle to Hegel and Nietzsche. If you think about it, it’s odd that we enjoy tragedy. Tragedy depicts stories full of strife and sorrow. It should be repugnant to see our most exalted heroes go down in a blaze of glory. But it fires up our emotions like no other art. To answer why we enjoy tragedy, a dedicated genre called the theory or philosophy of tragedy arose. The theory belongs to a branch of philosophy which investigates the role of art: aesthetics. And though the theory of tragedy is but a limb on a branch of philosophy, if you tally all the words written in pursuit of higher learning over the last two thousand years, you’ll find that only the field of biblical exegesis has generated more discussion. The philosophy of tragedy is a cornerstone of western thought. Tonight, you’re going to assess a new asset in the interpretation of tragedy called risk theatre.

There’s hundreds of minor theories of tragedy. Of the major theories, perhaps a dozen. And then, there’s the big three. Let’s take a look at them. In the fourth century BC, they were interested in teleology, or the final purpose of things (from telos “end” and logos “story”). Predictably, Aristotle, who was around at that time, devised a theory of tragedy which explained tragedy’s final purpose. According to The Poetics, the purpose of tragedy is to elicit a cleansing or catharsis of the emotions of pity and fear through pity and fear. The tragic protagonist, through hamartia, or an error, undergoes a reversal in fortune. Because we recognize the protagonist to be similar to ourselves, we feel pity and fear. And, in feeling pity and fear, we are cleansed of these feelings to become better judges of character.

Flash forward to the eighteenth century, Newton’s century, a clockwork and mechanistic century full of colliding and ricocheting billiard balls all obeying Newton’s laws. The German philosopher Hegel lived in Newton’s wake. Predictably, Hegel saw tragedy as the product of collisions. To describe the tragic, he took the idea of the colliding mechanical masses in Newton’s cosmos and transformed these mechanical collisions into ethical collisions. The “tragic” is the sense of wonder that arises from seeing how equally justifiable ethical positions cancel one another out.

Flash forward to the nineteenth century. The invention of the irrational world of the subconscious. Dostoyevsky illustrated the power of the subconscious in his novel The Double. Is Mr. Golyadkin’s double an actual walking and talking double or a projection of the mind? No one knows. As though taking his cue, Nietzsche devised his theory: tragedy originates in a collision of psychological forces. To Nietzsche, tragedy is the collision between the rational mind, which he referred to as the Apollinian, after the sun god Apollo, and the irrational mind, which he referred to as the Dionysian, after the god of dreams, intoxication, and ecstasy. The tragic is the higher understanding that occurs when these psychological forces collide. In the destruction of the hero we catch a glimpse of a higher reality that eludes the grasp of either the conscious or unconscious mind when considered individually.

We see from the influence of Aristotle, Hegel, and Nietzsche how the theory of tragedy transcends art. It begins as an art form; art is the spark. The spark raises aesthetic issues: why do sad stories excite us? The spark becomes a flame. Next, tragedy raises ethical issues. Why do we suffer? The flame becomes a fire. Next, tragedy raises psychological questions. Is the rational mind thrall to irrational drives? The theory of tragedy gives rise to psychology and psychiatry. It influences the development of drama, screenwriting, and the novel. It imprints its image onto the visual and plastic arts. The theory of tragedy now sweeps through culture, like a raging inferno. They are powerful creations, all ubiquitous, which shape our imaginations. If it’s one theory you master, master the theory of tragedy. It will serve you well.

In a teleological age, Aristotle devised a teleological model of tragedy. In a mechanistic age, Hegel devised a mechanistic model. In a psychological age, Nietzsche devised a psychological model. If we want a modern theory of tragedy, we must ask: in what sort of age do we live?


We live in an age of risk. If you count the number of scientists active today, you’ll find they outnumber the aggregate number of scientists who existed from the dawn of time to 1970. Today’s army of scientists also work faster than ever. With AI and quantum computing, they can solve equations in seconds, equation that were deemed unsolvable in the past. The totality of scientific knowledge doubles every few years.

With great knowledge, we take great risks. We gamble. We design terrible weapons to keep us safe. Yesterday, bombs could destroy a town. Today, bombs imperil civilizations. We globalize the world’s financial systems. Yesterday, a rogue financial model would ruin individual traders; today, rogue models mire the world in misery. We gene-edit and engineer all varieties of life. Yesterday, the Irish Potato Famine decimated Ireland; today, Monsanto plays God with all the world’s crops. Yesterday’s local risks are today’s global risks. We are the new titans, overreachers in an age of risk. How else do we describe an age which creates artificial black holes at CERN? They say, “Of course it’s safe, what could go wrong?” But I’ve seen risk go awry the day Deepwater Horizon blew out or the day Challenger fell from the sky. Because we live in an age of risk, we will make risk the fulcrum of the dramatic action in tragedy. Today, tragedy is a theatre of risk.

Playwrights write in and they say they want to write tragedy, but the mystique of its motivations and nobility and flaws puts the art form out of reach. Critics look at tragedy, and they see it as a barbaric relic of the past. Because we live in an age of risk, let’s reclaim tragedy by making risk the fulcrum of the dramatic action. Tonight, we’re going to talk about how it’s not hamartia or a tragic flaw, but rather, heroes blow up because they make delirious wagers. Tonight, we’re going to talk about how it’s not pity and fear, but anticipation and apprehension: anticipation for what the hero wagers and apprehension for how the perfect bet goes awry. Tonight, we’re going to talk about how it’s not the Oedipus complex, but rather, it’s about thrilling low-probability, high-consequence outcomes that happen against all odds. Tonight, we’re going to take the mystery out of tragedy so that even a young child can understand.

What is risk? To some people, it’s a four-letter word. It means danger. Avoid it. This lay definition ignores risk’s upside. Risk is also reward. Economists will tell you risk is volatility. They tell you that because they can quantify volatility in their equations. Economists define risk by measuring how many standard deviations a measurement is removed from the average. Think of the familiar bell curve. The average is the top of the curve. Risk is what happen at the tails at either end. That’s why you hear of unexpected low-probability events being referred to as “tail events.”

Here’s how statisticians quantify volatility: if the average height of a human male is 5’10,” if you’re between 5’7” and 6’1”, you’re one standard deviation from the mean. But let’s say you’re 5’4” or 6’4”. Then, you’re two standard deviations from the mean. It keeps going: if you’re 5’1” or 6’7”, you’re three standard deviations from the mean. Mathematically, 68% percent of males will be one standard deviation from the mean, or between 5’7” and 6’1”. 95% percent of males will be within two standard deviations from the mean, or between 5’4” and 6’4”. The “risk” of being short or tall can be quantified in terms of standard deviations away from the mean of 5’10”.

Volatility is wanting as way of defining risk. Volatility quantifies the likelihood of “known knowns” and “known unknowns” but fails to quantify the likelihood of “unknown unknowns.” You can’t put odds on unknown unknowns. Volatility fails because it can only predict what’s already happened. It predicts the punches you see coming, but fails to predict the punch you don’t see coming. Like any boxer knows, the knockout punch isn’t the punch you see, but the punch you don’t see. So we’re back to the question, what is risk? I propose that risk is simply that more things can happen than what we think will happen. When more things happen than what we think will happen, the consequences can be very high because we’re unprepared.

Here’s an example. Consider the fortifications of the Maginot Line. In the years leading up to the Second World War, the French war minister Maginot knew that Germany was chaffing under the punishing Treaty of Versailles. It was not a question of if Germany would attack, but when. Maginot thought Germany had two options, and he bet that he could outwit his German counterpart. Option one: attack France’s industrial heartland in Alsace-Lorraine by advancing through the southeastern border. Option two: attack from the northeastern border by going through the Benelux countries, an act that would mobilize France’s allies. Maginot went all-in by building massive fortifications to protect Alsace-Lorraine: he would force Germany into option two. This way, Germany would face the combined allied forces on Belgium soil.

Great plan. But something unexpected happened. Germany attacked through the Ardennes Forest. Seeing that the dense wood was considered impassable, it had been left open. More things happened than what Maginot thought would happen. When they attacked through the Ardennes, they got behind the French defenses: the massive fortifications were now facing the wrong way. Paris fell in a month. Low-probability does not equal low-consequence. In fact, the consequences of low-probability events may be cataclysmically high because unexpected harms hurt you the most.

What happened? It starts with a good plan. Then, because the plan is good, you invest yourself all-in. Why not, the plan is good, right? Nothing could go wrong. Then “more things happen than what you think will happen.” Oh no! By going all-in, you’ve left yourself exposed. You haven’t kept your powder dry. There’s no plan B. Because you’ve overextended yourself, you’ve left yourself open to a world of hurt. Risk hurts because low-probability events carry high-consequences. If you’re driving a shiny red sports car, risk isn’t the telephone pole you see. Risk is the telephone pole you don’t see. Risk, by this definition, naturally lends itself to drama.


Let’s map this definition of risk onto a tragedy. You know, each theory of tragedy champions a particular play. Aristotle loved Sophocles’ Oedipus rex. Hegel loved Sophocles’ Antigone. And Nietzsche was fond of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Risk theatre champions Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Macbeth works fantastic in a risk theatre reading. It’s popularity on the stage today is a fantastic sign risk theatre is on the right track.

Macbeth. Macbeth makes a wager for the crown. Risk theatre begins with a gambling act. You need the gambling act because it triggers the low-probability, high-consequence event. This is crucial. The gambling act is to risk theatre what natural selection was to Darwin’s theory of evolution. Many talked about evolution before Darwin. They’re not remembered. Darwin is remembered because he came up with the mechanism called natural selection which explains how evolution works. So too, many have commented on unexpected endings in tragedy. What risk theatre gives you is the mechanism of the gambling act which explains how tragedy generates the unexpected outcome. The more you wager, the more you concentrate your powers in one position, leaving yourself open to unexpectation.

To be king, Macbeth bets that he can get away with murdering Duncan. Like Maginot’s plan, his plan is perfect: ply Duncan’s chamberlains with wine, kill Duncan in his sleep, frame the chamberlains for murder, murder the chamberlains in turn. Macbeth even has supernatural assurances from the witches: until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill and until he meets a man not born of woman, he can’t be harmed. What are the odds of Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill? They are low: how can the trees, rooted into the earth, move up the hill? The odds of encountering a man not of woman born are even less, as all men are born of women.

But, see what happens. As Malcolm’s forces advance on Inverness, they hew down Birnam’s branches for camouflage. Birnam Wood comes. Then, when Macbeth meets Macduff on the ramparts, he tells Macduff he doesn’t want to fight: his hands are overstained with the blood of Macduff’s wife and babes. He tells Macduff he has a charmed life: no man of woman born can harm him. But Macduff tells him, he’s an anomaly: he was not of woman born. He was born by C-section. All is lost: Macbeth had not anticipated these low-probability, high-consequence events. Of course, the audience certainly anticipates it, and that’s what makes drama engaging, as the audience, once they hear the witches’ prophecy, tries to figure out how Shakespeare will bring Birnam Wood to Dunsinane Hill and find an avenger not of woman born. Macbeth is fascinating because risk drives the action, bringing Macbeth’s best-laid plans to naught.


Let’s turn to another well-known tragedy: Oedipus rex. If you have a theory of tragedy, it’d better be able to explain how the major tragedies work. In this play, a plague strikes Thebes. King Oedipus asks the oracle how to lift the plague. The oracle answers: “Find and remove the regicide who walks amongst you.” To do a risk theatre interpretation, find the bet. Oedipus bets that he can find the murderer of the previous king and he stakes his reputation on it. It’s a good bet, as he’s the sharpest wit. He had, remember, solved the Sphinx’ riddle. By going all-in on his bet, Oedipus exposes himself to risk, or the danger of more things happening than what he thinks may happen. That risk manifests itself, when, contrary to expectation, Oedipus finds out that he himself is the regicide. Like Macbeth, this play is fascinating because Sophocles makes risk the dramatic fulcrum of the action.

The further we look, the more we see how Sophocles builds unexpected low-probability, high-consequence events into the play’s deep structure. Oedipus knows the oracle that he would sleep with his mother and kill his father. What he doesn’t know is that he’s adopted. He thinks that Polybus and Merope, the King and Queen of Corinth, are his birth parents. Listen closely, this is how the cat comes out of the bag. Oedipus is busy conducting interviews and getting nowhere in the cold case. Then, all of a sudden, a messenger comes from Corinth to tell him: “Your dad died, congratulations, you’ve inherited the Corinthian throne!” Oedipus, perplexed, says: “How could that be, the oracle said I would kill my father … I ran away from home to avoid killing him … perhaps he died from grief because I left?” At this point, the Corinthian messenger says, “Oh, you’re worried about that? Don’t be. You’re not actually from Corinth, you’re adopted. You’re originally from Thebes. You see, by some really weird low-probability, high-consequence series of events, I’m not only some random Corinthian messenger, I had also saved you when you were a babe. You see, I used to work around here, you were left to die, I saved you and brought you to Corinth where the childless king and queen adopted you.” “Who are my parents?” asks Oedipus. “That I don’t know,” says the messenger, “I got you from the shepherd. You’d have to ask the shepherd.”

By some coincidence, they’ve already sent for the shepherd. You see, the shepherd also has an unexpected double identity: not only was he charged by Oedipus’ parents to expose Oedipus, he’s also the sole-surviving eyewitness of Laius’ murder. You see, on that day Oedipus committed his ancient act of road rage, the shepherd was also there at the crossroads, as part of Laius’ train. The shepherd, when he comes out, refuses to say anything. But under pain of torture, he speaks. Yes, Jocasta and Laius gave him a babe to expose. He shackled the babe to a crag by its feet, but relented. Yes, the babe grew up to slay his father on that fateful day. How did he recognize Oedipus after so many years? When he crucified the babe to the crag, he drove a stake through its feet. The wound left a tell-tale scar.

What we have here is absolutely extraordinary. As Oedipus conducts the investigation into Laius’ death, a messenger comes. The messenger, by some strange synchronicity, knows that Oedipus was adopted, because he had saved him years ago. Then they meet the shepherd, who had given baby Oedipus to the messenger years ago. Then, in another twist of fate, it turns out the shepherd was also part of Laius’ train that day Oedipus struck Laius down. If this isn’t the dramatization of risk, then, I don’t know what is. Oedipus rex demonstrates how heroes, by incessantly raising the stakes, trigger low-probability, high-consequence events.

Critics have fixated on catharsis; we feel pity and fear because we’re like Oedipus. But is that true? If anything, he’s different. It’s only because we’ve heard about catharsis so many times that we start to believe it. He’s not like us. He’s a king. He’s the smartest person alive.

Critics have fixated on Oedipus’ supposed tragic flaw. His pride in wanting to escape the oracle. But is that true? If someone told you that you were going to do something horrible, wouldn’t you try to avoid it? In the sequel, Oedipus at Colonus, Oedipus has come to peace with himself. “How was I to blame?” asks an older and indignant Oedipus. I agree. He did what he had to do.

Critics have fixated on the Oedipus complex. The play is about subconscious desires. This interpretation is wrongheaded as it rests on overreading Jocasta’s one line consolation to Oedipus. Oedipus worries that he will fulfill the prophecy by sleeping with his mother. Jocasta consoles him: “Have no fear, many a man, in his dreams, has shared a mother’s bed.” This line has been made too much of. Her words are a stock consolation in tragedy. The consolation: “You’re not the only one … many others have also endured this” is formulaic and hardly means a thing. The chorus, for example, in Euripides’ Hippolytus, says a similar consolation to Theseus when his wife suicides: “Not to you alone has this grief come, many others have lost a trusty wife.”  So too, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Claudius consoles Hamlet with the “many others also” consolation: “But you must know your father lost a father, / That father lost, lost his.” When Oedipus fears sleeping with his mother, the stock formulaic consolation would be to say, “Not to you alone has this fear come, many others have also slept with their mothers.” But, of course, Jocasta can’t say this, since everyone believes Oedipus is innocent. So, the stock consolation has to do a little twist to become: “Many a man, in his dreams, has shared a mother’s bed.” The line should not be taken to mean Oedipus has a complex. That’s the last thing Jocasta would even want to imply at this moment.

If those are the other readings, what’s the risk theatre reading? Risk theatre says that Oedipus motivates the action by raising the stakes. In the beginning, it’s a murder investigation. But then the murder investigation slowly turns into an investigation into Oedipus’ past. The stakes rise with each successive interview. First, there’s the interview with the prophet Tiresias. Since Tiresias is a prophet, he knows. But he doesn’t want to ruin Oedipus. He says: “Just send me home. You bear your burdens and I’ll bear mine. It’s better that way.” But Oedipus doesn’t stop. Risk goes up. At some point, his wife has figured it out, figured out who Oedipus really is. She begs him to stop, saying: “Stop—in the name of god, if you love your own life, call off this search. My suffering is enough.” But Oedipus doesn’t stop. Risk goes up. He has one more chance. In the final interview, the shepherd, like the others, implores him to stop: “No—god’s sake master, no more questions!” But Oedipus charges into doom.

This “charge into doom” is what I mean by saying “risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action.” Unexpected, low-probability, high-consequence events are, by definition, unlikely. But the more you throw caution to the wind, the more you expose yourself to the fallout from random events. A one day delay in the post shouldn’t kill you. But it does in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Friar Lawrence and Juliet have a brilliant plan to bring Romeo and Juliet together. They’ll let Romeo know by post. The letter carrier walks into his buddy’s place to say hi. The health authority happens to quarantine the house at that moment. The letter doesn’t make it to Romeo in time. You know the rest. What’s happened? The more risk you take on, the more you interconnect seemingly unrelated events until the point where any random event can blow you up. So too, Oedipus, by going all-in, exposes himself to the fateful meeting with the messenger and the shepherd. So too, Macbeth, by going all-in, exposes himself to Birnam Wood. Tragic heroes trigger low-probability, high-consequence events by raising the stakes to the point where they blow up.


How do we transform risk, or the danger of more things happening than what you think will happen, into riveting drama? Let’s expand on the gambling analogy. If, at the casino, a gambler lays down $10, sometimes things happen that the gambler expects will happen. In the game of poker, the gambler wins $10 if the gambler has three of a kind, expects that the other player has a pair, and is correct. And sometimes the unexpected happens. For example, if the gambler believes the other player is bluffing, but the other player isn’t bluffing, then he loses $10. There’s risk here, as something has happened that the gambler didn’t think would happen. But these are boring nickel and dime bets. You won’t see spectators standing around the table.

Now, consider what happens if the players move to the no-limit table and start betting $1000. More spectators would crowd around as they can now invest their emotions into the outcome. Some come to see gamblers blow up. Others cheer them on. The larger the bet, the more the spectator is transformed into a speculator. They crowd around, these armchair quarterbacks, speculating on, debating, and themselves betting on the outcome. Tragedy fascinates because tragedy dramatizes helter-skelter wagers.

Remember Richard Jessup’s novel The Cincinnati Kid—the one made into a Steve McQueen movie? It capitalizes on our fascination with the big bet. To become number one poker five card stud star, the Cincinnati Kid has to take down grizzled veteran Lancey “The Man” Howard. Their epic match comes down to the last hand. They both know the Kid has two pair and maybe a full house. They also both know the Man has one high card and maybe a straight or a straight flush. The Kid knows Lady Luck smiles on him. In a two-handed game of five card stud, the odds of a straight flush (that’s what the Man has) beating a full house (that’s what the Kid has) are over 300 billion to 1 against (Anthony Holden). This is a sure fire bet, like money in the bank. The Kid makes the bet. He goes all-in. He even leverages his position, borrowing a fortune to wipe the Man out. A large crowd gathers around. The crowd murmurs assent: the Kid has the Man by the neck. But, against 300 billion to 1 odds, the Man does have the straight flush. The Kid loses all. The spectators let out a shocked gasp and wonder: how did the perfect bet go wrong?

Tragedy, by dramatizing delirious all-in wagers, engages audiences in the exact same way. If you bet $10, a 300 billion to 1 event can happen, and you’d be fine. Well you’d be out $10. Yawn. The low-probability event doesn’t have high-consequences. It’s only when you lay it all on the line that the 300 billion to 1 event has high-consequences. When the 300 billion to 1 event has high-consequences, then, we have the lights, camera, and action of true tragedy.


Critics have said that proud and boastful characters populate tragedy because pride is a tragic flaw. Tonight, I call out these critics. It’s true, tragedy is full of proud and boastful characters. Playwrights, however, create proud and boastful characters not to give them a flaw, but because proud and boastful characters love risk. Inordinate, all-in delirious risk makes drama big. When the drama is big, audiences flock to see the show, because risk transforms spectators into speculators. The more the hero bets, the more the hero engages the audience. It’s the Cincinnati Kid principle: the more they wager, the more the spectators invest their emotions into the outcome as they start speculating. Does the Man have the straight flush? Will the Kid pull it off? If they’re betting $10, who cares? Change the channel. But if they’re all-in, leveraged up to their gills with their reputations on the line—then, stay tuned.

Let’s look at how tragedy sets up big bets. Consider Caesar in Shakespeare’s play. Should he go to the Capitol? You’ve heard the warnings. The soothsayer tells him to stay at home: “Beware the Ides of March.” The haruspex inspects the entrails of the sacrificial animal: oh no, the heart is missing! His wife has a nightmare: Caesar’s statue bleeds. Spirits walk the streets. Birds shriek out of season. A lioness whelps in the square. Graves yield their dead. The sky rains blood. If one of these things happened, it would be a good sign to call in sick. When all these signs happen, definitely do not leave the house. But not Caesar.

See how Caesar ups the ante each time he’s told to stay at home. First time:

Caesar: I rather tell thee what is to be fear’d

Than what I fear; for always I am Caesar.

second time, “Caesar stay at home!”

Caesar: Caesar shall forth; the things that

threaten’d me

Ne’er look’d but on my back; when they shall see

The face of Caesar, they are vanished.

third time, “Caesar stay at home!”

Caesar: Cowards die many times before

their deaths;

The valiant never taste of death but once.

and fourth time, “Caesar stay at home!”

Caesar: I am constant as the northern star,

Of whose true-fix’d and resting quality

There is no fellow in the firmament.

Like Oedipus who continued the investigation in defiance of the warnings, so too Caesar presses on like a bull in a china shop. He’s a proud egocentric. But it’s not hubris or a fatal flaw. Shakespeare makes him proud and egocentric so that he can raise the stakes and appear believable. We find many egomaniacs in tragedy because egomaniacs are natural-born gamblers.

Any theory of tragedy must be able to explain the world of tragedy: the characters, the setting, and the other commonplaces. Ever wonder why there’re so many idealists in tragedy? Take Creon and Antigone in Sophocles’ play. Creon’s a patriot. He’s for the fatherland to the point that, when his niece is caught burying her brother, a traitor in the civil war, he sentences her to death. Risk theatre can explain his idealism: Sophocles makes him an idealist because idealists love risk. So too, Sophocles makes Antigone a religious zealot so that she can take on inordinate levels of risk and do so with conviction. She knows she shouldn’t bury her brother, but because she’s devout, she will satisfy the gods of the underworld. Because she’s an idealist, she spits out Creon’s edict by saying: “I have longer to please the dead than please the living here: in the kingdom down below I’ll lie forever.” Because they’re idealists, they love to walk the walk by raising the stakes.

We’ve explained the egocentrics and idealists. What else can we explain? Have you wondered why there are so many aides, attendants, and advisors in tragedy dispensing crappy advice? Here’s why: if you have a prudent and circumspect hero, and you need them to go all-in, you give them the reckless advisor. Take Euripides’ play Hippolytus. The goddess Aphrodite strikes Phaedra with an incestuous desire for her stepson. Phaedra resists. Rather than give in, she would rather starve to death. But she has a trusted advisor in her Nurse. Her nurse says, “I can arrange the hookup. There’ll be no loss of honour.” Phaedra trusts her. When the Nurse’s plan backfires and Phaedra’s husband finds out, she will have to lay it on the line by framing her stepson for rape.

Next. Why are there so many kings, queens, and other one-percenters in tragedy? Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, the Duchess of Malfi, Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury. Again, it’s to do with risk. It’s hard to wager the world on an empty stomach. I mean, what are you going to lay down, your hunger? But, when you have ancestral capital, military capital, and human capital all burning a hole in your pocket, it’s easy to lay it on the line.

How about the supernatural elements that seem to litter the tragic stage?—the witches, ghosts, and oracles? They’re there to instill confidence. When heroes have confidence, they love risk. Look at Macbeth. Listen to the apparition, who tells Macbeth to take on risk, “Trust me,” it says, “I’m from another world. I have inside information. You’re all good. Fire at will.”

2 Apparition: Be bloody, bold, and resolute: laugh

to scorn

The pow’r of man; for none of woman born

Shall harm Macbeth. Descends.

Macbeth: Then live, Macduff; what need I fear of thee?

Ever consider why passions run white hot in tragedy? Tragedy seems to be full of lovers, maniacs with explosive rage disorder, and revengers screaming for vengeance. Why is that? Again, it’s because these types of emotions increase risk taking. Take a look at Shakespeare’s Othello. Othello’s “constant, loving, and noble nature” makes him ill-suited to carry out crimes of passion. No problem: Shakespeare has Iago put Othello “into a jealousy so strong / That judgement cannot cure.”

What about setting? Why do tragedies feature a world on the cusp: insurrection, inquisition, war. Risk theatre explains this. Risk comes at a price: the potential for loss. During times of political and social stability, why take on extra risk? Extraordinary situations are commonplace in tragedy because they skew risk to the upside: not taking risks incurs greater risk. Take the game of football. The “Hail Mary” pass where the quarterback throws a long desperation pass into the end zone is a hazardous interception-prone affair. You don’t do it if you’re ahead. But when you’re down and the clock is down and you’re far from the end zone, the “Hail Mary” option becomes attractive. That’s why tragedy dramatizes outlier events: witch trials in Miller’s Crucible, Britain rent in three in King Lear, plague in Cadiz in Camus’ State of Siege, or civil war in Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes. When the world is ablaze, risk’s enticements more than compensate for its blandishments.


Tragedy is a theatre of risk. The very structure of tragedy goads heroes to go all-in. No nickel and dime bets allowed! High rolling heroes and no-limit tables only! Risk theatre welcomes egocentrics or idealists. If they waver, look—here’s a trustworthy aide that speaks words of encouragement. Are they superstitious? Then goad them on with witches and oracles. Should that not suffice, souse them in the wine of passion. Give them access to the wealth of nations, armies, and all that glitters so temptation burns a hole in their pocket. Should that not suffice, destroy all they hold dear. Then, they go all-in. And when they go all-in, spectators start speculating on the outcome, investing their emotions into the action.

Risk theatre sees each dramatic act in tragedy as a gambling act. And this has the most fascinating implications, as it transforms tragedy into a valuing mechanism for human beliefs, values, and ideals. Tragedy accomplishes this through an extension of the gambling analogy. In each gambling act, what is staked is put up against what is at stake. If you bet, for example, $10k to win a golden crown, what is staked—the $10k—is put up against what is at stake—the crown. You show how much you value the crown by how much you’re willing to bet. If you really wanted it, you might wager more, say $20k. Of course, in tragedy you can’t use money to win the crown. Cash isn’t legal tender in tragedy. You have to make your wagers in the human currency of blood, sweat, and tears. We call the sorts of wagers we see in tragedy existential wagers. Through these existential wagers, tragedy becomes a valuing mechanism for human assets. 

We already know the value of material possessions. A gallon of milk is worth $4.99, but how much is compassion, or the milk of human kindness worth? We find out in Macbeth. Macbeth is too compassionate to murder Duncan. No one knows this better than Lady Macbeth, who complains he is “too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness / To catch the nearest way.” So, to become king, Macbeth must ante up the milk of human kindness. In the act of anteing up the milk of human kindness, we see how much Macbeth values it. How much is the milk of human kindness worth? In Macbeth, it is worth a Scottish crown.

Risk theatre allows us to ask and answer such questions: how much is dignity worth? In Miller’s Death of a Salesman, traveling salesman Willy Loman stakes his dignity on the American Dream. He buys the American dream at the cost of his dignity. How much is a human soul worth? In Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, we learn that a soul can be worth twenty-four years of world domination. How about faith, how much is faith worth? In Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, we find out that one can purchase faith by laying down one’s life. How about the action of revenge, how much is that worth? In The Revenger’s Tragedy, Vindice lays to pawn his fraternal and filial bonds to become a revenger, bribing his own mother to pander his sister.

As a valuing mechanism, tragedy provides a social function. In our material world, too many things have become monetized. We value people in terms of their net worth: he’s worth 100k, she’s worth 200k. Insurance policies set a price on life and limb. We work, some for minimum wage, and others for more, exchanging life for greenback dollars. Tragedy’s social function reminds us that the things that are truly worth having are bought by blood, and not gold. Tragedy, despite its sad stories, exalts life by telling us that, the more we dare to wager, the more we set the value of life up on high. In tragedy, a soul can be worth the whole cosmos. Imagine that. Tragedy teaches us that human values lie beyond the monetary pale.


Let’s compare risk theatre head to head with Aristotelian, Hegelian, and Nietzschean interpretations using Sophocles’ well-known Oedipus rex. In the Aristotelian analysis, we identify with Oedipus as we realize that there is a bit of Oedipus in all of us. He has a tragic flaw though: pride. He wants to defy the oracle that says he will murder his father and marry his mother. Because of the tragic flaw, or hamartia, he experiences a reversal of fortune. The elements of the plot follow the rules of probability, and are causally connected. When we witness his doom, we undergo catharsis and are purged of the emotions of pity and fear because, like a scapegoat, he has perished so that we do not have to.

In the Hegelian analysis, there’re two colliding ethical forces. There’s the will of heaven, which declares that Oedipus will marry his mother and kill his father. Then there’s the will of man, Oedipus’ will, which says: “I will not do that, heaven be damned.” Both these wills are justified. Heaven has a right to pass sentence on mortals. But Oedipus also has the free will to object to heaven’s sentence. The tragic results when these wills collide and Oedipus is destroyed. In Oedipus’ destruction, the justice of the gods is upheld. Oedipus is a scapegoat who perishes so that the justice of the gods can reaffirm itself.

In the Nietzschean analysis, there’re two colliding mental states. There’s Oedipus’ rational mind, which is Apollinian. It seeks to break free from the oracle, the oracle that’s said that he’ll kill his father and murder his mother. With the daylight of reason, thought, and logic, the conscious mind speaks: “I must get away from Corinth and avoid mom and dad.” Then there’s Oedipus’ subconscious desire which is Dionysian, primal, dark, brutal. The Dionysian desire comes out in his dreams, where he has lain with his mother and overcome his father. When these two mental states collide, Oedipus is destroyed, but, in his destruction, the veil is lifted off reality. We see how life doesn’t matter, but what matters is how we transform strife and sorrow into the aesthetic phenomenon of art.

In the risk theatre analysis, Oedipus stakes his reputation on solving the murder of the previous king—he is, after all, the original riddler, the one who solved the Sphinx. As the investigation continues, the focus on the identity of Laius’ murderer shifts to the question of the identity of Oedipus himself: they are, after all, the same person. Sophocles draws in the spectators, transforming them into speculators by having Oedipus raise the stakes by refusing to call off the investigation. Finally, Oedipus triggers the unexpected low-probability, high-consequence event by bringing the Corinthian messenger together with the shepherd, the two people who can unlock his secrets. In the risk theatre reading, contrary to Aristotle, the elements of the plot do not follow the rules of probability, but rather, the elements of the plot conspire to bring about the most improbable outcome. Because the audience sees everything Oedipus sacrifices—his crown, his eyes, the life of the queen, and his children’s legacies—the audience learns that we pay for our goals and desires by blood, sweat, and tears. The audience then leaves the theatre marveling at how low-probability, high-consequence events shape our lives more than we like to think. By comparing different theories, we can see how each casts tragedy in a drastically different light. 


Everyone always asks: what about comedy? Risk, remember, can skew to the downside or to the upside. Tragedy dramatizes downside risk. In tragedy, against all odds, Birnam Wood is always coming to Dunsinane Hill. Comedy, however, dramatizes upside risk: you make a bet, the odds are completely against you, but somehow you win. In Menander’s comedy, The Girl from Samos one of the characters says, “Coincidence must really be a divinity. She looks after many of the things we cannot see.” You would definitely not say this in a tragedy. In tragedy, God is not on your side.

In comedy, low-probability, high-consequence events also occur. In Greek Old Comedy, the women in the play Lysistrata bring an end to the Peloponnesian War by staging a quite unexpected sex strike. In Greek New Comedy and Roman comedy, against all odds, the miser always recovers the stolen gold, kidnapped children are always reunited with their families, and young lovers always find ways around cantankerous patriarchs, onerous marriage laws, and a host of economic and social prejudices.

In comedy, chance is on your side. Don’t have a dowry? No problem, a pot of gold turns up. Can’t get married because you don’t have citizenship? What’s this trinket you have on your wrist? Oh, many years ago I had to give up my daughter because I fell on hard times, but I gave her the very trinket you’re wearing. Oh, what do you know, you’re about her age. Could it be, are you my long lost daughter? Oh!—that means you’re a citizen and you can get married to this fine young man! Tragedy and comedy both dramatize low-probability, high-consequence events. They’re really two sides to the same coin. Think of tragedy as the art that dramatizes downside risk, and comedy as the art that dramatizes upside risk.


In conclusion, I’ve given you a powerful asset for writing and interpreting literature called risk theatre. Risk theatre explains why we find tragedy fascinating. It’s fascinating because of the delirious hazards heroes take on. When you do a risk theatre reading, first, find the bet. What does the hero want, and what is the hero willing to lay on the line to get it? Once you’ve found the bet, you can see how tragedy acts as a valuing mechanism by setting a price on human ideals and beliefs. The price it sets is the price the hero is willing to pay. You will see how tragedy exalts life by imparting great value onto life. In tragedy, the milk of human kindness can buy a kingdom. Once you’ve found the bet, you’ll understand why the commonplaces of tragedy are the way they are. You’ll understand why tragedy loves instability and inquisition. You’ll understand why the hero is an egomaniac and why passions run white hot. You’ll understand the role the oracles, witches, and the supernatural play. You’ll understand why minor meddlers dispense crappy advice. You’ll understand why tragedy is populated by kings, queens, and other one-percenters. After you come to an understanding, you will marvel agape at how low-probability, high-consequence events upset the best-laid plans of mice and men. As you marvel the power of unexpectation, you will realize walking out the theatre that it is when we are most sure of ourselves that we are, paradoxically, in the greatest danger.

You’ll emerge from the theatre with a higher sensibility of risk. And this is perfect, as in this age of risk, we have a moral imperative to come to grips with risk. We dramatize unintended consequences on the stage of tragedy so that we become more robust off the stage. And because risk theatre imparts upon us a higher understanding of risk, I think that makes it a most valuable asset, as not only does it help us interpret literature, it also helps us to interpret life.

Risk theatre is more than a theory. I’ve teamed up with Langham Court Theatre in Victoria to inaugurate the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition (https://risktheatre.com/). It’s the world’s largest tragedy playwriting competition with a combined prize package worth over $17,000 dollars. The contest is in its second year. In its first year, I’m thrilled to announce 182 playwrights from 11 countries participated in this exploration of risk in the modern world. Wherever you are, please ask your local library to make my book: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy [Friesen Press 2019] available. Let’s share this amazing asset. Once you look at literature through the lens of risk, you’ll never look at it again the same way.

The transcript of this talk will be available on my blog melpomeneswork.com/okanagancollege/

Thank you.

“Aristotle’s Poetics: A Defense of Tragic Fiction” – Eden

pages 41-49 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell 2009

After two chapters on the political and cultic roots of Greek tragedy, A Companion to Tragedy turns to tragedy as literature in chapter three with Kathy Eden’s piece “Aristotle’s Poetics: A Defense of Tragic Fiction.” Here’s her author blurb from the beginning of the book:

Kathy Eden is Chavkin Family Professor of English and Professor of Classics at Columbia University. She is the author of Poetic and Legal Fiction in the Aristotelian Tradition (1986), Hermeneutics and the Rhetorical Tradition: Chapters in the Ancient Legacy and Its Humanist Reception (1997), and Friends Hold All Things in Common: Tradition, Intellectual Property and the “Adages” of Erasmus (2001).

Aristotle’s Poetics (written between 360-320 BC) has had an immense, twofold contribution to western thought. Not only does it dissect the inner workings of tragedy, it also created an entirely new genre called the philosophy of tragedy. As a guidebook on the history and social function of tragedy, it contributes to our understanding of literature. As a groundbreaking work in the new genre of the philosophy of tragedy, it contributes to our understanding of philosophy, particularly of aesthetics. It does so because it answers the question: “Why do we find the art of tragedy endearing when the action of tragedy is full of strife and sorrow?”

Because the contributions of the Poetics have been immense, philosophers, creative writers, playwrights, and students of drama continue to read it to this day. Most of the time, they read the Poetics as a standalone work. But it is not a standalone work. Aristotle wrote the Poetics as a rebuttal to his teacher Plato. And it is when readers understand that Plato is the secret unspoken antagonist lurking in the Poetics that the Poetics begin to make sense. Or so this is Eden’s argument in her chapter.

The Origins of Aristotle’s Poetics

Aristotle’s teacher, Plato, did not like mimetic arts or fiction. To Plato, the shortcoming of mimetic arts is that they copy reality, and, as copies, are imperfect and corrupt representations. The psychagogic power of fiction–as false copies of reality–lead the soul astray. Tragedy, as fiction and drama, is a mimetic art. Because it stirs the emotions, it is dangerous, something that Plato bans from his ideal state.

Take Homer’s Iliad as an example. It is a mimetic art of fiction. It represents war–a few days in the Trojan War, to be specific. But if you want to be a general, would you learn about war by reading (or listening) to the Iliad or by finding a general who is actually an expert in warfare? Although the Iliad has stories of generals and their tactics, it is not the real thing. It would be dangerous to read the Iliad and then go off into battle. True knowledge comes from doing. Or philosophizing, which is to understand the causes of why and what something is. Mimetic and fictional arts such as epic and drama are, to Plato, not serious, a form of ‘child’s play’ (paidia).

Plato also values truth because it is consistent. Fiction and the mimetic arts, however, portray change. They portray changes in the tragic agent in the face of misfortune. And dramatic change is based on probability. Change, being based on probability, is not truth. The truth to Plato is unchanging. Art which represents change based on plausibility and probability to Plato is dangerous, an attack on immutable truth.

All these things Plato taught Aristotle. But Aristotle wasn’t so sure. That’s why he wrote the Poetics, argues Eden. The Poetics is Aristotle’s rebuttal of Plato. It is Aristotle’s attempt to rehabilitate fiction and the mimetic arts as something worthwhile and wholesome.

How Aristotle Rehabilitates Tragedy in the Poetics

While agreeing with Plato that drama is an imitating or mimetic art, Aristotle disagrees that it is ‘child’s play’. Tragedy, according to Aristotle, is not paidia but a ‘serious’ (spoudaia) representation. And, as a serious representation, it is worthwhile. Thus, when we wonder why Aristotle insists that tragedy is a serious representation, to understand that, we have to recall that he is rebuking Plato for calling the mimetic arts ‘child’s play’.

Now, how is tragedy a ‘serious’ representation? Although based on probability (here student and teacher agree), the tragedian ‘must understand the causes of human action in the ethical and intellectual qualities of the agents’. Tragedy is serious in that the tragic poet must convincingly weave together character and intention into the structure of the events. No small feat.

And what about the danger Plato identifies of tragedy influencing the emotions to lead the soul astray? Aristotle agrees with Plato that art has a great power over the emotions. But, instead of rejecting these emotions, Aristotle would rather harness them for a greater good. The purpose of tragedy, according to Aristotle, is to arouse pity and fear. Why pity and fear? ‘Pity and fear’ writes Eden, ‘are instrument in judging action . . . In the Poetics (ch. 13) we pity those agents who suffer unfairly, while we fear for those who are like us’. So, because tragedy elicits pity and fear, it performs a function in that it sharpens our ability to judge human action. And, because it sharpens our ability to judge human action, tragedy performs a useful social function. It is thereby rehabilitated. Or so Eden interprets Aristotle.

Risk Theatre and Aristotelian Theory

In my book The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected, I’ve developed a bold new 21st century model of tragedy. The feedback from the playwriting world has been fantastic. In the academic world, however, some critics wanted to see some more engagement with the existing body of tragic theory. This blog is a good place to respond. I could have done this in the book as well, but a decision was made at the time of writing to make the book accessible to as wide an audience as possible. The goal of the book is to start a 21st century art movement by reimagining the tragedy as a stage where risk is dramatized. Incorporating theoretical arguments would have detracted from the book’s main drive. So, what are the primary differences between risk theatre and Aristotle?

According to Aristotle, tragedy is ‘an imitation of human action that is serious’. According to risk theatre, tragedy is an imitation of a gambling act. The protagonist is tempted. The protagonist wagers a human asset (honour, the milk of human kindness, faith, the soul, etc.,) for the object of ambition (a crown, the opportunity to revenge, success, etc.,). And then the protagonist goes past the point of no return with a metaphorical roll of the dice.

According to Aristotle, there is a change (metabolē)–usually for the worse–in the hero’s fortune. This change is the result of hamartia, or an error. According to risk theatre, there is also a change, which is, again, usually for the worse. But this change is not due to error. The protagonist’s wager and course of action is reasonable. There is no mistake. The degree of success is high. What upsets the protagonist is an unexpected low-probability, high-consequence event that comes out of left field.

According to Aristotle, the elements of the plot follow the rules of probability. There is, as Eden says, a ‘causal connection between events’. According to risk theatre, the elements of the plot do not follow the rules of probability. In risk theatre, the unlikeliest outcome takes place: Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill (e.g. Macbeth) or it turns out that the man searching for the patricide happens himself to be the patricide (e.g. Oedipus). Risk theatre can generate the unlikeliest outcome because of a truism with risk: the more risk we take on, the more we expose ourselves to unintended consequences. In other words, risk theatre is exciting because, in taking on too much risk, the protagonist breaks the causal connection between events.

According to Aristotle, the emotions tragedy generates are pity and fear. According to risk theatre, the emotions tragedy generates are anticipation and apprehension: anticipation for what the hero will wager and apprehension for how the hero’s best-laid plans will be upset by some black swan event.

According to Aristotle (and Eden’s interpretation of Aristotle), tragedy ‘sharpens its audience’s ability to judge human action’. According to risk theatre, tragedy sharpens its audience’s realization that low-probability, high-consequence events can defy the best-laid plans to shape life in unexpected ways. Tragedy, by dramatizing risk acts, warns us not to bite off more than we can chew. In this modern world where we go forwards in ever larger leaps and bounds, do we not need a risk theatre model of tragedy more than ever? By watching a cascading series of unintended consequences play out on stage, perhaps we will learn the wisdom of the old folk adage: ‘Keep some powder dry’.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

Playing Card Card Combinations

trI.m in the midst of writing the chapter on ‘the best laid plans of mice and men’. It deals with how the unexpected steals up the the tragic protagonist. Uncertainty, risk, unexpectation (is that a word?–now it is!), and things like that are on my mind. One way of imagining risk would be to graph outcomes onto a bell curve. The fat tails on the extreme left and right sides of the curve could represent unexpected disaster or a happy windfall. Another way of imagining risk would be look at dice or card games.

We.re surrounded by so much probability theory and statistics today that it.s hard to imagine a world without such things. But the science of probability or a theory or permutations and combinations didn.t actually exist before the likes of Cardano and Tartaglia started systematically going through how many outcomes were possible when rolling one die, two die, and so on. That was as recent as the Italian Renaissance in the sixteenth century. Before then, how the dice turned out was all due to Lady Luck, otherwise known as Fortune. If you could go back in time with today.s probability theory and play the ancients, you.d be able to clean house. The odds on a lot of the ancient games rewarded higher outcome scenarios more than lower outcome scenarios. Cicero and Aristotle both thought about ‘likelihood’ and all they could come up with was that it would be hard to roll more than one or two ‘Venus throws’ (the highest throw with knuckle bones) in succession. It didn.t occur to them that such things could be quantified. They were, however, express scepticism that the ‘Venus throw’ would be due to the action of the goddess. But they were not able to offer a better explanation.

Surprising. The ancients gave us geometry, the Hippocratic Oath, democracy, philosophy, ethics, and so many other things but they just could.t get probability. Some say it.s because the dice they used were inconsistent (being polished animal bones). Others say the idea of the hand of god in random events was too powerful for the mind to overcome: the whole industry of divination was based on finding meaning in random events that, well, were not really random but god trying to tell us something. There are those who think they just didn.t have the mathematical capacity with their cumbersome roman numerals. Or they just didn.t like ‘experimenting’ (ie rolling hundreds of dice and recording the results).

That could all be true. But even today, it.s hard to figure out how the theory of combinations and permutations fit together. Last night, I was over at TW.s. As he took out some playing cards, he said, ‘Did you know the chances are that a deck of cards has never been shuffled with the cards in the order the are in now?’. I said, ‘Really?’. He replied, ‘There.s almost an infinite number of combinations so that you.d never in an eternity shuffle the cards into the same configuration’. TW.s into science so I knew he was right. But I was curious. How many combinations were possible?

We couldn.t figure out all the combinations of the 52 card deck. But we could try figuring out the combinations of one, two, three cards and so on. And from there generate a rule to see what the combinations would be for a full deck. With one card there.s one combination. With two cards there.s two. With three cards, we couldn.t do this in our head anymore. So we laid out the cards. Six combinations are possible with three cards. Now with four cards, it gets tricky. Not only did we need the cards in front of us, we had to start writing down the combinations since it was easy to miss one or count one twice. The combinations get bigger very quickly is what we noticed. I was thinking the pattern would be 1 card 1 combo, 2 cards 2 combos, 3 cards 6 combos, and maybe 4 cards would be 16 combos. Wrong. 4 cards is 24 combos. We speculated on the pattern. Maybe you multiply by a number 3×2=6, 4×6=24. But what sort of rule would determine the multiplier? The clear thinking beer we were imbibing was also helping our efforts! So we decided to work out the combinations for five cards to see if more data would lead to an insight (Bacon.s method of induction). But with five cards there were so many combinations… Too much work, we went back to drinking beer and watching a TV show on science instead. But this goes to show, it.s still difficult today to figure out probabilities. TW.s a project manager so he.s good at numbers. Years ago (certainly not today!) I got up to second year calculus.

So I cheated. The next day I googled it. Google is also something that Cicero and Aristotle didn.t have! The combinations are a function of factorials. So four factorial or 4! will give you the combination of four cards. Four factorial would be the equivalent of 4x3x2x1 or 24. Five factorial or 5! or 5x4x3x2x1 or 160 is the number of combinations with five cards. I would hate to even try imagining how big the number 52! generates. It would likely break a gear in the brain. So perhaps this is one of the reasons cards are fascinating: the unexpected is always possible because of the immense number of outcomes that are possible. Or–lurking underneath all the ‘common’ poker hands (full house, pair, two pair, etc.,) there.s always the chance of the dead man.s hand!