The Greek philosopher Aristotle made original and famous statements concerning the economics of identity in literature. In the Poetics (c. 334-323 b.c.e.) Aristotle describes a tragic figure for Greek drama. The tragic hero needs to be an upper-class male Greek citizen who sees himself as a leader. Notably, the tragic character cannot be a Greek female (forbidden from holding property), a member of the lower class, or a slave. Dramatists who did not adhere to Aristotle’s precepts, such as Euripides, were criticized for what Aristotle claimed to be a lack of dramatic skills. Aristotle’s insistence that the tragic figure could only be a male of high position has been taken as a description and as a prescription. Lower-class figures have more often than not been relegated to the status of comic figures since then.
Roman literature, based on a more fluid class system, presented, relatively, a more flexible approach to the question of economic identity. It was not unknown in Roman society for slaves to be granted their freedom, and for them subsequently to gain great wealth. Roman comedy, especially the works of Plautus, frequently features narratives concerning escaped and freed slaves and their rise in good fortune. Even in these works, however, the characters are little more than caricatures, stock figures whose primary role is the advancement of often outlandish and obscene plots.
The medieval period...
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