The Tragedy Paper: Continuity and Change

The paper taken by Sylvia Plath has been a fixture in the course from the beginning, even though literary criticism, and studying it at Cambridge, have changed a great deal. Here you'll find a variety of perspectives on this paper, partly so you know in more detail what Plath was up against, but also as a way in to thinking about things that change, and things that don't, in the academic discipline of English.

First, Professor Stefan Collini from the Faculty of English gives an overview of the history of the paper and its relationship to the Cambridge course. Second, you'll find a number of Tragedy papers to browse - including the very first, the one taken by Sylvia Plath, and a much more recent one. Finally, you'll find some reactions - from a student and a teacher - to these papers and what they tell us about the changing subject.

1. The 'Tragedy' Paper at Cambridge (Stefan Collini)

When English first began to be taught as a subject in British universities in the late nineteenth century, the main focus was on the history of the language and on biographical and contextual information about past authors. Attention was concentrated on the earliest periods, especially Anglo-Saxon and medieval literature, and on the Teutonic roots of the language as it related to earlier forms of the Germanic and Norse languages. Cambridge, exceptionally, did not establish a separate degree in English during this period, and when it finally did so (beginning in 1917), intellectual fashion had moved away from this historical and philological model, helped by the reaction against all things German in the course of the First World War. Part of the thinking behind the self-consciously innovative Cambridge course was the aspiration to encounter great works of literature at first hand and to connect post-medieval English writing to its inheritance from the Classics and to its relations with the Romance-language literatures of France and Italy. As a result, one of the distinctive papers in the new English Tripos was to be deliberately 'comparative' - a 'special subject in the general history of literature, ancient and modern, in connection and comparison with English literature' (as the regulations put it).

Tragedy had, of course, been the pre-eminent genre of ancient Greece, and its standing was perpetuated by the priority which Aristotle assigned it in his . The founders of the English Tripos therefore decided that it would be the ideal topic for the new comparative paper, enabling students to study some of the greatest works in English alongside their peers from Classical and European literature. But Tragedy was also accorded a kind of supremacy in the aesthetic theory of I.A. Richards, one of the earliest teachers of the new course. (Richards devised the approach known as 'Practical Criticism' which became a hallmark of 'Cambridge English', and his theories had considerable influence on the nature of English studies at Cambridge in the 1920s and beyond.) Richards argued that Tragedy was 'still the form under which the mind may most clearly and freely contemplate the human situation, its issues unclouded, its possibilities revealed' (this quotation is from his The Principles of Literary Criticism). In particular, he claimed that Tragedy constituted the most powerful expression of that 'balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities' (this phrase is originally from Coleridge's Biographia Literaria) which he saw as the supreme value of aesthetic experience.

Tragedy was thus the topic specified for the 'comparative' paper in the earliest years of the English Tripos, but it embodied so many of the values of the new course that it was not to be a merely temporary element. In 1926, as part of a wider re-organization of teaching in the university, the modern two-part Tripos was introduced, and the new syllabus for Part II made Tragedy, as a subject in its own right, one of the compulsory elements (alongside other papers which have also survived in recognisable form to this day, such as Practical Criticism, the English Moralists, and the History and Theory of Criticism). Thereafter, through successive reforms of the syllabus, Tragedy remained a central and obligatory element in the Cambridge English course, one particularly associated with the work of several of its most famous teachers such as F.R. Leavis, Muriel Bradbrook, and Raymond Williams.

2. Tragedy Papers, Past and Present

Here you'll find four sample Tragedy papers.

1. 1919 (tragedypaper1919) - the very first that was set.

2. 1926 (tragedypaper1926) - from the year the course split into two parts, and Tragedy became integral to Part II. This paper is also notable for its brevity!

3. 1957 (tragedypaper1957) - the one Sylvia Plath took.

4. 2008 (tragedypaper2008) - bringing us into the present day.

Have a look at these: What changes can you see? Do you think the modern one is easier or harder than the older ones? What sort of knowledge and preparation do they seem to expect of the students taking them?


1. The Student

Final year undergraduate Kate O'Connor wrote this just after taking her own Tragedy exam.

Studying the tragedy paper was an incredible opportunity to think about literature with massive amounts of freedom. It definitely needed to come at the end part of an English degree, because otherwise the amount of choice would have been bewildering. I found that the compulsory Greek and Shakespearean elements helped to secure certain themes, such as violence, or women, or tragic structure. Then, you could set these ideas loose on any medium (novels, visual art, cinema, music), any historical era, and use them to think about anything from politics and philosophy, to nuclear war and comedy. The name of the course seemed like a kind of trick, because I never found a permanent definition of 'tragedy', but went on a kind of wild goose chase, learning about these other things on the way. The most exciting thing for me was finding the differences (and the similarities too) in the way people choose to talk about incomprehensible things, like death, through history.

The past exam papers show that these themes stay the same, but the sense that tragedy is a fixed, definite genre changes. The 2008 paper has one question comparing it to non-Western traditions, which makes you question the course itself, and how 'universal' its ideas are. This is extremely different from 1919. The students ninety years ago were asked about the 'Right use', or the 'abuse' of tragic techniques, implying there is a correct tragic form. There are also questions about 'men of genius', 'understanding of women' and 'normal citizens'. I think I would have found it difficult, and less interesting, to think that there are fixed ways to understand these things. There seems to be a massive difference in 1926, when students were asked to discuss their own opinions a lot more. They were even asked to write an imaginary chapter of Aristotle's 'Poetics', on comic relief. It'd be great if there were still questions which asked you to think so creatively. It's really strange to think about these papers in their own decade: for example the 1919 paper doesn't mention war or violence, maybe these questions were too painful? Also, all the earlier papers ask about the state of contemporary drama, whilst the 2008 paper isn't able to generalise about a particular modern style.

2. The Teacher

Raphael Lyne teaches the Tragedy paper every year, marks the exams sometimes, and even set it once.

The 2008 paper is very familiar of course. It has the current instructions to write very specific minimum amounts about Greek tragedy and Shakespeare, and the unusual option to write only one essay (or three) in the three hour exam. All these rules post-date any of the other sample papers. The questions are open-ended, designed to be narrowed down and answered with relation to specific material, rather than to be tackled as a whole. Key words like 'discuss', 'consider', and 'examine', and even questions which are just quotations with no embellishment, enable people to respond in lots of different ways. While all this is more or less predictable each year at the moment, I do think that 2008 was a strikingly broad paper, with very few questions asking about specific kinds of drama, and lots of questions allowing people to draw on whatever material they think relevant. On the whole I like papers that do this, since the students have plenty of specific stuff prepared, and are just looking for a question to get their teeth into.

It's so different in the 1919 paper. I find the requirement to write 5 answers quite bewildering. It's clear, though, that they're not the kind of critical, argumentative, ambitious, selective essays that today's students are taught to write. They're often factual (e.g. 'Write a short account of the end of the Roman theatre', q. 7) or explicitly ask for 'Notes', as in q. 9. The emphasis is more on knowledge and history than on anything social or emotional. The question about whether tragedies should be read or performed (q. 17) could be set today, though I don't think today's students would be asked to come up with a definitive answer to such a vast question. 1926's paper is a thing of beauty in its brevity, but in some ways, I must say, it strikes me as pretty bizarre. The third question, 'What merits can be dramas of Seneca be said to possess?' asks for a qualitative judgment that today's students rarely have to offer. This might be lamented - maybe it is important for experienced readers to stand up and say whether something is good, and why. This particular question, though, seems very slanted - at best you're going to be outlining virtues in the Roman tragedian Seneca that he could 'be said to possess' (not actually possessing). I also like q. 5 - 'Set out and pronounce upon the claims of the rite of the mass and of the antiphonal Chant to be the germ-cell of religious drama in the Middle Ages'. The term 'germ-cell' would not be welcomed in an exam paper now - too much to unpack; 'pronounce upon' sounds very pompous; and this might have nothing whatsoever to do with Tragedy.

Finally, 1957, the paper Plath took. It still looks very different from 2008, but at least now there are only four questions to answer. There is also a requirement to write about a varied range of drama - the sections cover different periods, and students had to write about at least two. It isn't as specific as the Shakespeare / Greek rubric today, though. In this paper some of the key words I identified above as eliciting critical arguments ('discuss', 'consider') are in evidence; the underlying assumptions about what students of literary criticism should be doing are more recognisable. It's interesting to see an emphasis on qualitative criticism here, and also lots of specific questions. Where today it is often up to the student whether to write about Shakespeare or Webster, about Hamlet or Macbeth, the 1957 paper gives a lot more guidance. Today's examiners are more wary, I think, about enshrining assumptions about what is worth writing about, and what isn't. Marking the Tragedy paper can mean reading about opera, painting, sculpture, television, cinema, novels, poems, photographs, from all over the world, as well as the more predictable tragic dramas; I'm glad that's encouraged and enabled in today's papers.

The greatest work of classical literary criticism, Aristotle's Poetics focuses most of all on tragedy, and on drama as a representation / imitation (the Greek word is mimesis) of life. Many highly influential ideas in literary criticism are ultimately derived from Aristotle.

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