English Literature » Notes » ‘Riders to the Sea’ as a Tragedy
Riders to the Sea as a tragedy

‘Riders to the Sea’ as a Tragedy

Riders to the Sea, by John Millington Synge, is one of the perfect one-act plays where all the characters are the puppet of the fate. Synge, suggested by WB Yeats, stays four years in the “Aran Island” and very closely observes how destiny plays an important role in the life of the islanders and very sincerely portrays in this great play. Now we are going to discuss it in detail.

In this play, tragedy comes to the characters without any hamartia or tragic flaw. Here we see, the characters are not least responsible for their downfall or death unlike Shakespearean tragedy. Here destiny or the fate controls every thing. None can avoid it. Here life means nothing but tragedy and unconditional surrender to the mysterious fate.

The formulaic tragedies are essentially tagged with the classical Greek plays of Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles. These plays exerted an enduring influence on the subsequent tragic plays. The classical tragedies were composed of strict observation of rules and regulations, ranging from plot, setting, tragic hero, style, diction, dialogue, catastrophe, cathartic appeal, etc. However, during the Renaissance period William Shakespeare deviated from the strict adherence to rules and tried to create an individualistic style. The majority of modernist playwrights also paid much attention to establish a new type of tragedy. However, in all traditions, whether classical, Shakespearean, or modern, the conflicting forces in human mind and the bitter human suffering constitute the essence of tragedy. The spectacle of man’s suffering, caught by some mightier forces, brings the cathartic appeal which is the inevitable experience of a tragic play. So the difference between classical and modern tragedies then chiefly lies with the technique of presentation.

In the 20th century Synge opted to write moving plays that reverberated the traditions of the Greek tragedies in a rather modern style. Even with the modified style Synge has been able to produce tragic plays that could arouse the audience’s emotions. His critically acclaimed play Riders to the Sea is also a great tragedy in its representation of human suffering and cathartic appeal. However, the play is not merely a tragedy of an individual rather it is the tragedy of humanity, struggling for survival against the heavy odds of life.

In general there are two prevailing views on the tragic vision of life:

  1. Man is the helpless victim of fate: In Greek tragedies fate often plays a role in the downfall of a character. The tragic fate for the character is preordained and it’s absolutely futile to try to outwit it. For example, Oedipus and Antigone confronts tragic end since they maintained overweening self confidence in their respective attitudes. Again, Agamemnon kills Iphigenia by divine command; Orestes kills his mother by Apollo’s direction. In fine, in Greek tragedy, fate is the predominant force that leads the characters to their dooms.
  2. Character is destiny: This view is prevalent in Shakespearean tragedies wherein the role of fate is minimized and the focus is largely on human choice and moral accountability. It is the actions of each character that bring about their inevitable fate. For instance, Macbeth’s downfall is engendered by unchecked ambition which entailed a desire for power and position; Othello’s tragedy is brought about by jealousy which flared at suspicion and rushed into action unchecked by calm common sense; Hamlet’s inability to act brings about his tragedy.

Keeping the above context in mind we can find that in Riders to the Sea Synge incorporates mostly Greek tragic vision of life. It’s more a tragedy of fate than a tragedy of character. In this play, the characters confront their downfall without any hamartia or tragic flaw. Here destiny or the fate controls everything and none can change either its decree or direction. Hence, life means nothing but tragedy and unconditional surrender to the merciless fate.

The inhabitants of Aran Islands are dependent solely on the sea in order to support their family. They have been going to the sea from generation to generation fully aware of the danger of death. The cruel sea has devoured countless lives, but the struggle of the islanders never ceases as there are no other options for earning living. Thus here the sea assumes almost the role of fate and becomes instrumental to human suffering and death. It is rather the nemesis of human life that comes down to shatter human hopes and happiness.

Riders to the Sea is full of grim wherein we are informed that Maurya has already lost six loved ones to the ocean, her father-in-law, her husband, and four of her sons. In Maurya’s words:

I’ve had a husband, and a husband’s father, and six sons in this house – six fine men, though it was a hard birth I had with every one of them and they coming to the world– and some of them were found and some of them were not found, but they’re gone now, the lot of them…. There were Stephen, and Shawn, were lost in the great wind, and found after in the Bay of Gregory of the Golden Mouth.

Now her only surviving sons are the eldest Michael and the youngest Bartley. Unfortunately Michael has been missing for nine days and discovery of his dead body ultimately confirmed his demise. All these loved ones went to the sea being fully aware of the possible danger and faced what the destiny predetermined. They can’t be held liable for their decision, as it was an inevitable part of their living. Eventually, Bartley also walks in the same path and decides to go to the main land in order to sell a couple of horses at the cattle fair. He too, was conscious of the dangers but was determined to stick to his decision. In the end Bartley is thrown by his horse and swept out into sea, where he drowns. Thus Bartley falls a victim to fate without having any hamartia or whatsoever. Maurya’s speech also echoes that man is helpless against fate:

In the big world the old people do be leaving things after them for their sons and children, but in this place it is the young men do be leaving things behind for them that do be old.

Moreover, Maurya’s closing remark confirms that none can fight against the fate. So she admits the power of the fate and surrenders to fate saying:

What more can we want than that? No man at all can be living for ever, and we must be satisfied.

To conclude, Riders to the Sea is a great modern tragedy having Greek dramatic qualities. Here Synge did an excellent job by representing fate symbolically, however along with its age-old relentless nature. Through the cruelty of the fate Synge universalized the theme of human suffering and loss.

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