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Tragedy and a test of nobility

15 March 2013

NOW that the trials of Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce are over, it is obvious that they have brought disaster on themselves. It is easy for commentators to gloat over their downfall, and to feed our voracious appetite for scandal, especially where public figures are concerned. But there is a tragic dimension to what has happened, and we should allow that tragedy to have its dignity.

Both individuals have shown a capacity for dignity in the past weeks. Telling the truth, as Mr Huhne did, was the right thing to do, even if it was, in the end, the only thing that he could do. At least he did not try to avoid humiliation by making excuses. Ms Pryce's silence at the outcome of her trial seemed to indicate an acceptance that there was now no escape from the consequences of her actions.

Tragedy, in Greek drama and in Shakespeare, is the result of a flaw in character in those who are otherwise noble. There is, after all, no real tragedy in a villain's getting his or her come-uppance. Nor is it tragic, in the dramatic sense, when disaster falls on the wholly innocent.

Dramatic tragedy requires tension and disclosure: the audience needs to find the protagonists worthy enough to care about, to see disaster approaching, and to wish that they had the insight that would have led to a different outcome.

In the case of Mr Huhne and Ms Pryce, many of us have been close to where they have been. The avoidance of those last three speeding points is such an obvious temptation to anyone who is in a hurry and has a job to do - from a driver to a nurse, a reporter, or even a bishop. Any of these might have succumbed.

Every wife who has been brusquely and brutishly told by her husband that her marriage to him is over can identify with Ms Pryce. She was not expecting her marriage to fall apart, and did not deserve her anger and grief to be exposed in such a fraught, painful, and humiliating way.

The arguments to and fro about marital coercion missed the emotional point. However powerful or eminent married people may be, they are exquisitely vulnerable to the one to whom they made their marriage vows. Bullying and revenge are the weapons of marital war. The bitterness and mutual wounding are the consequence of love betrayed. But it was love once.

So what nobility is left for these two? Their greatest test is now. They can show their nobility by silent acceptance, as can the rest of us by our compassion.

The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

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