In every tragedy, the institution of the family is essential in producing the desired tragic effects of fear and pity. This is true because the family experience is common to all humanity, as every man is a son and every woman a daughter, and may also perhaps be a husband or a wife, aunt or uncle, cousin or grandparent. The family is a profound mystery in which there is some inherent, deep connection that runs through blood lines and fundamentally ties children to their parents.
By cutting short the life of children in tragedies-whether by infanticide or some other means-tragedians take their spectators to the common ground of family and slowly break it apart before their eyes. Aeschylus in the Agamemnon, Euripides in The Bacchae, and Sam Shepard in Buried Child all use the death of children to produce the tragic effects of fear and pity.
Aeschylus creates an atmosphere of inescapability and a cycle of murder and retribution through Agamemnon’s sacrifice of Iphigenia, his infant daughter. Although the plot of this tragedy is built around the murder of Agamemnon, there are many allusions to the causes as to why Clytemnestra would seek to destroy her husband. Behind every act of revenge there is an initial cause, and I would argue that Clytemnestra’s act of violence comes as retribution for the sacrifice of Iphigenia.
The cause for the breakdown of the family in this text is therefore the result of a sacrificed child. The very fact of a father murdering his own child on behalf of a god should instill fear in us, and there is a small voice inside of us that mourns for the loss of a life so young and so innocent. Aeschylus relies on this past fact to concoct the plot of cyclical destruction of this family.
Because Agamemnon has taken the life of his child, Clytemnestra takes justice into her own hands and kills him, and because she has killed his father, Orestes then proceeds to kill Clytemnestra, his own mother. In this way, there is a real sense of the inescapability of your own family, and that past sins within the family will eternally haunt future generations of this blood line.
Consequently, we feel fear that perhaps the past sins of our family will at some point be carried out in our own lives, and pity for the loss of an innocent life that has received an undeserved fate. We are not completely sympathetic to any of these flawed characters, but we care deeply for the inescapable trap of fate in which they are so precariously entangled. In this way, the sacrificed child is the beginning of a cycle of inevitable death.
Euripides in The Bacchae likewise uses the murder of Pentheus by his own mother to instill fear and pity. Pentheus, the young ruler of Thebes who stands against Dionysian worship and the Maenads-of whom his mother is one-in the end is beheaded and mutilated by his own bacchante mother. Euripides establishes that we are neither to like Pentheus nor to appreciate his zeal, and we are meant to expect a certain amount of retribution for his impious actions.
However, when we see that it is ultimately his own mother who carries his head into town on a stick for all to see, we are pierced by the familial violence. We do not feel that Pentheus suffers a proportionate amount in regards to his impiety, but rather instead we are sickened by the breakdown of the mother-son relationship and the result which is a god-possessed mother beheading her only son. We definitely pity Pentheus for the injustice served him, and we even fear that perhaps our own families could be broken apart by differing religious views. In the end, Euripides achieves the tragic effect by showing us a mother weeping, holding the head of her decapitated son.
Shepard in Buried Child, much like the previous two, follows the tradition of deceased children by presenting a dysfunctional family with a small secret buried in the back yard. Shepard throughout the drama alludes to some scandal, some family secret, that has made the family into what it is, the cause behind their dysfunction. Much like the Agamemnon, Buried Child refers to a hidden past act that continues to influence the present. The drama builds to a point at which the secret is finally revealed, and we find that incest and infanticide go hand in hand in explaining its origins. Dodge murdered the child-who was the result of incest between Tilden and Halie-and buried it in the back yard.
The breakdown of family is once again evident as a perpetuator of the tragic effects of fear and pity, and a similar cyclical inescapability of the past adds to the sentiment. As Vince receives the house as his inheritance, we find that he will continue in the footsteps of his kin, which is at the same time a feeling we can recognize, and an action that we utterly fear will happen to us. The buried child in the back yard is representative of the loss of innocence and a pervasive deadness in the entire family, and as Vince picks up where Dodge left off, we foresee the inevitable pattern of death in the future and a part deep inside of us pities that damnable road and fears that we area already treading it.
Dead children seem to play a significant role in contributing to the tragic effects of fear and pity. Through these murders, we the conscientious readers can see the utter inescapability of the breakdown of family and witness the inevitable passage of the traits of dysfunctional parenthood into our own lives, and by playing to that haunting truth, each dramatist achieves the tragic effect.