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Tragedy is a form of drama, literature, or other fiction that centers on the nature of human beings, their conflicts and their sufferings. [1] The noun, “tragedy” is derived from the Greek word,“tragoidia.” Tragedy is often associated with the "one dictionary definition [that] says: 'any play or narrative that seriously treats of calamitous events and has an unhappy but meaningful ending' or just 'any dramatic, disastrous event'," but it can also have an association with play genres [2]. However, “tragedy” should still be considered a noun that has a fluid definition because it has multiple forms. Tragedy can be an aftermath, a type of play, a character , a feeling, or a conflict that contains multiple situational circumstances. Tragedy mainly encompasses negative connotations due to the fact that it often accompanies traits of sadness, misfortune, and despair. Tragedy can be depicted as the result of a disturbing event, a literary classification, a displeasing situation, or even a movie or playwright that evokes a high level of somberness and sorrow. Tragedy has an intended purpose to invoke grief and misery in its audience, whether it is in a play, book, or movie.

Tragedy is a public genre or literary work found most popular in written play scripts, which are brought to life on stage by actors. The main character of the tragic drama is often a hero that encounters grave trouble and/or adversity. The misfortune of the hero often reveals a key element of the hero’s behavior and is a true indicator to the ending of the play. Tragedy focuses on the inner weaknesses of mankind, but these weaknesses are often caused by external forces. Most audiences view the misfortune that the protagonist experiences as unwarranted. Although tragedies are known for their susceptibility to be marked by sadness and despair, there is often an optimistic solution for the hero’s hardships. This is not to say that the entirety of the characters won’t experience anguish and woe.

Origins of Tragedy

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Roman statue of Dionysus [3].

The Greek word "tragoidia" translates to "goat song," which could hold one of several meanings. Although not all tragedies are considered Greek, it is quite common to "refer to the tragedies that have survived the ancient world as 'Greek' although tragedy as we know it, was developed in Athens." During the fifth century BC, tragedies typically were described as "a song for the prize of a goat or song at the sacrifice of a goat." Typically after someone won a goat or animal after a contest they would sacrifice it.[4] These rituals took place in the form of dance, which is considered the first ever form of tragedy. This was the prominent element to a tragedy for many years. Over time a speaker was added, likely a priest because these rituals had a religious theme . Eventually dialogue between the speaker and dancers occurred leading to the introduction of the chorus. These ritualistic elements continued to evolve into the tragedy as it is known today; a dramatic performance given to an audience showing the protagonist undergoing sorrowful circumstances. The tragedy often evokes desolation and catharsis in its audience. [5]

In ancient Greece annual festivals were held in honor of the Greek god, Dionysus. The goat was considered sacred to him because he was the god of vegetation and wine. Since goats were considered to be of great value to Dionysus, it is said that rituals were held in order to promote the continuous cycle of death and life. Although tragedies have evolved over time, they still continue to have a common and reoccurring theme. The idea of human suffering has never ceased to be prominent. As tragedies have developed, they have continued to raise questions about the reasoning behind suffering, and the balance of good and evil. Additionally, tragedies have maintained their sad and dispirited qualities.

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Title page for King Lear [6].

One of the most popular Greek tragedies was Oedipus Rex. This type of tragedy was in the form of a play created by Sophocles.[7] This tragedy involves a Theban king having an incestuous relationship with his mother which eventually results in marriage. The king also makes it his mission to kill his father and succeeds in doing so. Sigmund Freud was most famous for his contribution to Oedipus Rex because it formed the psychological concept of the Oedipus complex. The Oedipus complex served as the theoretical reasoning behind the king’s actions. This well-known tragedy creates a major trademark in the history because it was greatly celebrated and displayed the true characteristics of what composes a tragedy: anguish and distress. [8]

During the late 16th Century, playwright William Shakespeare composed several works during the Renaissance Tragedy era, which became known as the Shakespearean tragedies.[9] Today, Shakespeare is seen as one of the central founders of British tragedies. Scholars typically categorize British tragedies into three distinct periods. The first period is marked by the tragedy Titus Andronicus and occurs around 1590-1594. The second period occurs around 1595-1601 and produces works such as Julius Caesar. Finally, the third period of tragedies produces some of Shakespeare's most famous tragedies including, Othello, Macbeth, and Hamlet, and occurs around 1602-1610.[10]

Key Characteristics

  • Mimetic Perspective — the sudden and catastrophic fall of a great person from fortune to misfortune.
  • Affective Perspective — arouses a catharsis of pity and terror.
  • Causal relationship between character and fate — character contributes to destiny.
  • Character not eminently good or noble, a mean between goodness and depravity. Possesses a hamartia, tragic flaw or simply a mistake in judgement.
  • Universe is not perfectly ordered; achieves balance between order and absurdity. Great people seem to die while the mediocrity rule.
  • Tragic protagonist undergoes a peripeteia, or a reversal of fortune; a fall that is part of the climax of the tragedy.
  • Tragic protagonist dies or meets his/her fate, bravely.
  • Tragic protagonist achieves a degree of anagnoresis or enlightenment; also an acceptance of his/her flaw.
  • Tragic protagonist makes important choices. His/her choices matter because they effect more than just his/her life.[11]

Tragedies and Tragedians

Greek Tragedies

  • Euripides[12]
    • Medea - Medea attempts to take revenge on Jason by slaughtering their children
    • Hyppolytus - Aphrodite takes revenge on Hyppolytus, resulting in his death
    • Bacchae - Pentheus, the king, is torn to pieces by a group of women, including his own mother
  • Sophocles[13]
    • Ajax - Ajax is driven to suicide
    • Oedipus Rex - Oedipus kills his father, marries his mother, and then blinds himself in shame
    • Antigone - Antigone commits suicide in jail awaiting her execution
    • Trachinian Women - Deianeira attempts to give Heracles a love charm, which turns out to be poison

British Tragedies

  • Shakespeare[14]
    • Hamlet - While attempting to avenge his father's death, Hamlet is murdered, along with many other characters.
    • Othello - Othello is tricked into believing his wife has a lover. He then kills her, realizes her innocence, and takes his own life.
    • MacBeth - MacBeth commits regicide, and then himself comes to an untimely end on the battlefield.
    • King Lear - Cordelia comes to the aid of her father and is imprisoned and sentenced to death.
    • Romeo and Juliet - Romeo and Juliet are star-crossed lovers who commit suicide when faced with the fear of not being together.

Views on Tragedy


  • A tragedy must not be a spectacle of a perfectly good man brought from prosperity to adversity. For this merely shocks us. Nor, of course must it be that of a bad man passing from adversity to prosperity; for that is not tragedy at all, but the perversion of tragedy, and revolts the moral sense. Nor again, should it exhibit the downfall of an utter villain: since pity is aroused by undeserved misfortunes, terror by misfortunes befalling men like ourselves. There remains, then, as the only proper subject for tragedy, the spectacle of a man not absolutely or eminently good or wise, who is brought to disaster not by sheer depravity, but by some error or frailty. Lastly, the man must be highly renowned and prosperous — an Oedipus, a Thyestes, or some other illustrious person. —Aristotle, The Poetics[15]


  • First, the hero. The Shakespearean tragic hero, as everyone knows, is an overstater. His individual accent will vary with his personality, but there is always a residue of hyperbole. This, it would seem, is for Shakespeare the authentic tragic music, mark of a world where a man’s reach must always exceed his grasp and everything costs not less than everything. I think most of us believe that tragic drama is in one way or other a record of man’s affair with transcendence. —Maynard Mack, “Tragic Form and the Jacobean Tragedies” (1970)[16]
  • Tragedy should be used to describe the situation in which a divided human being faces basic conflicts, perhaps rationally insolvable, of obligations and passion; makes choices, for good or for evil; errs knowingly or involuntarily; accepts consequences; comes to a new, larger awareness; suffers or dies, yet with a larger wisdom. —R.B. Heilman, “Tragedy and Melodrama”[17]
  • A tragedy is a story of human actions producing exceptional calamity leading to the death of a man of high estate. In almost all [of Shakespeare’s] tragic heroes we observe a marked one-sidedness, a predisposition in some particular direction, a total incapacity, in certain circumstances, of resisting the force which draws in this direction; a fatal tendency to identify the whole being with one interest, object, passion, or habit of mind. This it would seem, is, for Shakespeare, the fundamental tragic trait. . . . It is a fatal gift, but it comes with it a touch of greatness, and when there is joined to it nobility of mind, or genius, or immense force, we realize the full power and reach of the soul and the conflict in which it engages acquires that magnitude which stirs not only sympathy and pity, but admiration, terror, and awe. The central feeling [in a Shakespearean tragedy] is one of waste. [At the end of a Shakespearean tragedy] we remain confronted with a world travailing for perfection, but bringing to birth, together with glorious good, evil which it is able to over-come or by self-torture and self-waste. And this fact or appearance is tragedy. —A.C. Bradley “The Substance of Shakespearean Tragedy” (1904)[18]
  • Thus the equilibrium of tragedy consists in a balancing of Terror with Pride. On the one hand, we are impelled to withdraw from the spectacle, to try to forget the revelation of evil methodized; on the other, we are aroused to withstand destiny, to strive to meet it with the fortitude and the clear eyes of the tragic figure. This feeling of Pride comes into full existence when the hero knows his fate and contemplates it: it is essentially distinct from the hubris which he may display, but which we cannot share in, before his eyes are opened. —Clifford Leach, “The Implications of Tragedy” (1950)[19]
  • Suffering beyond solace, beyond any moral palliation, and suffering because of human greatness which is great because [it is] great in passion: that, above everything else, is central to Shakespeare’s conception of tragedy. But this is not the whole picture. Not only is the vulnerability to fortune of human distinction Shakespeare’s theme; its special liability to intense suffering and destruction. He also emphasizes the precariousness of its very quality of greatness. —A.P. Rossiter, “Shakespearean Tragedy” (1961)[20]
  • Courage and inevitable defeat: when we confront the great literature of tragedy from our everyday world, it is perhaps these two qualities that strike us most forcible, for the first in any society is rare and the second is a prospect most men find intolerable. Without courage or endurance, the exceptional action or commitment which characterize tragedy would not be undertaken or sustained; without defeat, it would not be placed in the perspective of the ordinary world. . . . Courage without an overpowering challenge can be mere bravado or foolishness (and thus comic). Defeat without a great attempt can be mere pathos. —G.B. Harrison, “Shakespearean Tragedy” (1968)[21]
  • On a level quite above the immediate values of the play [Antony and Cleopatra] feeling is the quality most affirmed by it, indeed by all the tragedies. For this reason, Aristotelian categories seem to me quite irrelevant to Shakespeare — and even to Greek tragedy. A fall, a flaw, a recognition: the pattern must be stretched into a one-size-fits-all dimension to fit the plays. —Marilyn French, Shakespeare’s Division of Experience (1981)[22]


  • In the sense of having been initiated by the hero himself, the tale always reveals what has been called his “ tragic flaw,” a failing that is not peculiar to grand or elevated characters. Nor is it necessarily a weakness. The flaw, or crack in the character, is really nothing — and need be nothing — but his inherent unwillingness to remain passive in the face of what he conceives to be a challenge to his dignity, his image of his rightful status. Only the passive, only those who accept their lot without active retaliation, are “flawless.” Most of us are in that category. —Arthur Miller, “The Tragedy of the Common Man” (1941)[23]
  • Anagnorisis is not simply an awareness by the hero of what has happened to him, but the recognition of the determined shape of the life he has created for himself, with an implicit comparison to the uncreated potential life he has forsaken. —Northrup Frye, Anatomy of Criticism[24]
  • In every primitive tribe we find the shaman in the center of society, and is easy to show that he is either a neurotic or psychotic, or at least that his art is based on the same mechanisms as a neurosis or psychosis. The shaman make both visible and public the systems of symbolic fantasy that are present in the psyche of every adult member of society. They are the leaders in an infantile game and the lightening conductors of common anxiety. They fight the demons so that others can hunt prey and in general fight reality. —Geza Roheim, Magic and Schizophrenia[25]

Other Forms of Tragedy

Although most tragedies are famously known for their pessimistic qualities and fallen heroes, this is not the only type of tragedy that should receive universal recognition. There are different types of tragedies that incorporate revenge, violence, domesticity, social class, and comedic plots.

The revenge and violent tragedies were closely associated with the Elizabethan Age.[26] They mainly used massacres, revenge, damage, and spirits in order to evoke sadness in the audience. The characters in the play paid close attention to social rankings. For example, the greater the hero was to society, then the more likely he or she was to fail, or experience disheartening circumstances. This type of tragedy was frequently written in varying poetic forms. Aside from the extreme use of violent action to evoke certain feelings from the audience, the revenge tragedies mainly used “play-within-a-play” structures as a way of heightening the chaos. Some prime examples of this type of tragedy are Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, and Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy. [27]

The next type of tragedy mainly centered its focus on social rank in society. The middle and lower class were the ones who increased their stance in the social hierarchy by gaining more power and attention. Unlike the revenge tragedies, the tragedies that focused on social class were mainly written in prose, as opposed to verse. The protagonist in this type of tragedy is known to experience a local, or household disaster that is detrimental to his or her life in society. The domestic tragedy has an intended purpose of evoking understanding and compassion within the audience. Although the hero of most tragedies is supposed to display courage, bravery, and determination, the domestic tragedies in modern day society use an anti-hero . The anti-hero does not display the traditional qualities of a hero. Instead, the anti-hero proves to be inconsequential and unsuccessful in his tribulations. The example of this type of tragedy found in the eighteenth century was George Lillo’s The London Merchant: or, The History of George Barnwell. [28]

The last type of tragedy is that which incorporates comedic relief. They are commonly known as “tragicomedies.” While the events in tragicomedies are often considered with tragic and humorous, their main purpose is to revel a major problem for the character(s), but a happy ending is achieved due to unknown circumstances typically at a time of panic. The greatest examples that display the qualities of a tragicomedy is Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and John Fletcher’s The Faithful Shepherdess. [29]

Modern Tragedy

There are several key differences between classical tragedy and the modern form of tragedy we can observe today. The first being that the true definition of tragedy has become less precise as time has passed. The primary setting is one that focuses on the status limitations of the common man. The main character may not fit the classical picture of royalty, but rather appear as an average man in an average environment. [30] The second difference is seen in societal oppression playing a much larger role than what is seen in classical tragedies. Instead of a poor decision being made solely by the main character, themes of an unkind and harsh society are highlighted as contributing factors. The last primary difference is in audience affect; a transition is seen from catharsis and pity to true empathy as the plight is viewed as utterly relatable. [31] The change of focus from a mighty royal hero descending to despair to that of a relatable common man facing oppression and everyday tragedy is the primary difference between classical and modern forms of tragedy.

See also


  1. Miller, James E., Helen McDonnell, and Edmund J. Farrell. "Introduction to Greek Drama." America Reads / Question and Form in Literature. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman, 1979. 301. Print.
  3. "Dionysus." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 11 Dec. 2014. Web. <>
  4. Dunkle, Roger. "Greek Tragedy." International Art and Culture of Ancient Greece, Professor Alan Garfield. Ed. Alan Garfield. N.p., 2005. Web. <>
  5. Armstrong, Linda, Mary Dieterich, and Sarah M. Anderson. "Glossary of Technical Terms." Common Core: Types of Text. Quincy, IL: Mark Twain Media, Inc., 2014. 41. Print.
  6. "King Lear 1608 [1619] Quarto." King Lear 1608 [1619] Quarto. N.p., n.d. Web. <>
  7. Stevenson, Daniel C. "Works by Sophocles." The Internet Classic Archive. N.p., 1994-2009. Web. <>
  8. Tearle, Oliver . "A Brief History of Tragedy." Interesting Literature. N.p., 1 May 2013. Web. <>
  9. Schwartz, Debora B. "Tragedy." Shakespeare Plays. N.p., 1996-2005. Web. <>
  10. AbsoluteShakespeare, . "William Shakespeare." Absolute Shakespeare. N.p., 2000-2005. Web. <>
  11. Armstrong, Linda, Mary Dieterich, and Sarah M. Anderson. "Glossary of Technical Terms." Common Core: Types of Text. Quincy, IL: Mark Twain Media, Inc., 2014. 41. Print.
  12. Stevenson, Daniel C. "Works by Euripides." The Internet Classic Archive. N.p., 1994-2009. Web. <>.
  13. Stevenson, Daniel C. "Works by Sophocles." The Internet Classic Archive. N.p., 1994-2009. Web. <>
  14. AbsoluteShakespeare, . "Shakespeare's Plays." Absolute Shakespeare. N.p., 2000-2005. Web. <>
  15. Aristotle, Stephen Halliwell, W. Hamilton Fyfe, D. A. Russell, Doreen Innes, Demetrius, Longinus, and Demetrius. Poetics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1995.
  16. Heilman, Robert Bechtold. Tragedy and Melodrama: Versions of Experience. Seattle: U of Washington, 1968.
  17. Lerner, Laurence. Shakespeare's Tragedies: An Anthology of Modern Criticism. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1968.
  18. Bradley, A. C. Shakespearean Tragedy; Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth. London: Macmillan, 1929.
  19. Leech, Clifford. Shakespeare: The Tragedies; a Collection of Critical Essays. Chicago: U of Chicago, 1965
  20. Rossiter, A. P. English Drama from Early times to the Elizabethans; Its Background, Origins and Developments. London: Hutchinson's U Library, 1950.
  21. Rossiter, A. P. English Drama from Early times to the Elizabethans; Its Background, Origins and Developments. London: Hutchinson's U Library, 1950.
  22. French, Marilyn. Shakespeare's Division of Experience. New York: Summit, 1981.
  23. Miller, Arthur, and Robert A. Martin. The Theater Essays of Arthur Miller. New York: Viking, 1941.
  24. Parker, Hershel, and Harrison Hayford. Moby-Dick as Doubloon: Essays and Extracts, 1851-1970. New York: W.W. Norton, 1970.
  25. Róheim, Géza, Warner MUENSTERBERGER, and S. H. POSINSKY. Magic and Schizophrenia ... Edited by Warner Muensterberger with the Assistance of S.H. Posinsky, Etc. Pp. Viii. 230. International Universities Press: New York, 1955.
  26. Lethbridge, Stefanie, and Jarmila Mildorf. "Revenge Tragedy/Tragedy of Blood." Types of Tragedy. N.p., Mar. 2004. Web. <>
  27. Lethbridge, Stefanie, and Jarmila Mildorf. "Revenge Tragedy/Tragedy of Blood." Types of Tragedy. N.p., Mar. 2004. Web. <>
  28. Lethbridge, Stefanie, and Jarmila Mildorf. "Domestic/Bourgeois Tragedy." Types of Tragedy. N.p., Mar. 2004. Web. <>
  29. Lethbridge, Stefanie, and Jarmila Mildorf. "Tragicomedy." Types of Tragedy. N.p., Mar. 2004. Web. <>
  30. Diana Otto. "The Tragic Genre from Classical to Contemporary: King Lear and A Thousand Acres." Modern Tragedy. N.p., 2014. Web. <>
  31. Diana Otto. "The Tragic Genre from Classical to Contemporary: King Lear and A Thousand Acres." Modern Tragedy. N.p., 2014. Web. <>

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