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Tragedy in Drama

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English Literature

You have probably heard people call certain situations in their lives tragic many times. But what do we mean by tragic or a tragedy? Tragedy is a genre in drama that addresses the inherent suffering that is a part of human existence.

The meaning of tragedy in drama

How do you know if the drama that youre reading or watching is a tragedy?

Tragedy is a genre in drama that expresses serious issues. A tragic play is usually about a hero or heroine who goes through trials and tribulations that dont lead to a happy resolution. Most tragedies end with death and destruction. Plays in the category of tragedy often raise important questions about the human condition.

A tragedy is a play that revolves around a tragic hero who causes suffering to themselves and others because of either an inner flaw or external circumstances beyond their control. Whether the hero is fighting a human villain, a supernatural force, or something that symbolises evil, a tragedys ending is never happy. Tragedies are not stories of triumphant victories; they are stories that show us how difficult life can be but also remind us of the strength we have. Tragedies often have moral messages. However, some tragedies are more ambiguous and make us question things without providing a clear answer. In both cases, a tragedy is a drama that deals with the fundamental theme of what it means to be human.

The history of Western tragedy in drama

Origins

Western drama originated in classical Greece (800-200 BC), in the city-state of Athens, around the 6th century BC. The initially simple art form later developed into more complex narratives. The stories presented on stage were then divided into two main genres that we still use today tragedy and comedy.

Antigone (c. 441 BC) by Sophocles and Medea (431 BC) by Euripides are famous classical Greek tragedies.

The earliest surviving text that defines the characteristics of both tragedy and comedy is the Poetics (c. 335 BC) by Aristotle. According to Aristotle, the purpose of tragedy is catharsis.

Catharsis occurs when a character goes through some purification to release emotions. Catharsis can also occur in the audience.

In the Shakespearean tragedy Hamlet (1600-1601), the titular character experiences catharsis at the end of the play after holding in grief, anger, and thirst for revenge. The viewers also go through catharsis and release the emotions that the tragedy has made them feel.

Aristotle outlines the six main elements of tragedy, with plot and characters being the most important ones:

  1. Plot: the story that drives the action.
  2. Characters: Aristotle believed that in a tragedy, the characters need to be better than they would be in real life. According to Aristotle, an ideal tragic hero is virtuous and has moral motivation. They also have to commit hamartia, a tragic mistake.
  3. Thought: the logic behind the chain of events and the consequences they lead to.
  4. Diction: the proper way to speak the words of the tragedy. This has to do more with the performance of the tragedy rather than its text.
  5. Spectacle: for Aristotle, the power of tragedy should be communicated mainly through a well-developed plot; the scenic effects are secondary.
  6. Music: in classical Greece, all dramas included music and songs performed by a Chorus.

The Chorus is a dramatic device and a character at the same time. In ancient Greece, the Chorus consisted of a group of performers who narrated and/or commented on the action in the play by singing. They usually moved as one. The Chorus continued to be used throughout the centuries (e.g., the Chorus in the 1597 Shakespearean tragedy Romeo and Juliet ). Today, the Chorus has developed, and dramatists and directors incorporate it in different ways. The performers in the Chorus dont always sing, and the Chorus could be a single person instead of a group of people.

Additionally, in Poetics, Aristotle introduces the concept of the three unities of drama, which is also referred to as the unity of time, place, and action. This concept is mainly connected to the elements of plot and thought. The three unities of drama concern the idea that time, place, and action in a play should be connected in a linear and logical way. Ideally, the story would take place within the time frame of twenty-four hours with no time jumps. The scenes should happen in one place only (no drastic change of places between scenes, such as the characters moving from Venice to Beijing). The action should consist of events that are logically connected.

Which of Aristotles elements of tragedy are still relevant today? Can you think of any plays that youve read or seen that incorporated some or all of them?

Beyond classical Greece

Western tragedy through the ages

In classical Rome (200 BC455 CE), tragedy continued to be a prevalent genre because Roman drama was highly influenced by its predecessor, Greek drama. Roman tragedies were often adaptations of Greek tragedies.

Medea (1st century) by Seneca.

During the Middle Ages, tragedy slipped into obscurity and was overshadowed by other genres, such as religion-oriented morality plays and mystery plays. Tragedy was revived in the Renaissance when people looked to the past cultures of classical Greece and Rome for inspiration. European Renaissance tragedies were heavily influenced by Greek and Roman themes.

Pierre Corneilles tragedy Médée (1635) is yet another adaptation of Medea.

Phèdre (1677) by Jean Racine is inspired by Greek mythology and by Senecas tragedy based on the same myth.

After the Renaissance, in 18th and 19th-century Europe, the tragedies that were written started to explore the lives of more ordinary people. Subgenres, such as the Bourgeois tragedy, emerged.

The middle-class citizens in European countries were referred to as the bourgeoisie social class. The bourgeoisie gained more influence during the Industrial revolution (1760-1840). They were thriving in a capitalist society.

Bourgeois tragedy is a sub-genre of tragedy, which emerged in 18th-century Europe. Bourgeois tragedy features bourgeois characters (common middle-class citizens) who go through challenges connected to their everyday lives.

Intrigue and Love (1784) by Friedrich Schiller is a prominent example of Bourgeois tragedy.

From the end of the 19th to the beginning of the 20th century, European dramatists continued to address the suffering of common individuals rather than great heroes.

A Doll's House (1879) by Henrik Ibsen.

With the changes in society during that time and the rise of the socialist ideology, tragedy was not always in favour of the bourgeoisie. Some dramatists criticised the middle classes and explored the issues faced by the lower classes in society.

The Lower Depths (1902) by Maxim Gorky.

After the devastating events of the First and Second World Wars, Western drama and literature changed drastically. Playwrights searched for new forms that would properly express how people felt at the time. Tragedy, from the mid-20th century onwards, became a more complex genre, and the traditional Aristotelian idea of tragedy was actively challenged. Today, many contemporary plays cant be categorised simply as a type of tragedy because they usually include elements of different genres.

Hamletmachine (1977) by Heiner Müller is loosely based on Shakespeares tragedy Hamlet without being a tragedy itself.

Tragedy in English literature

During the Renaissance in England, the most notable authors of tragedies were William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe.

Romeo and Juliet (1597) by Shakespeare.

Doctor Faustus (c. 1592) by Marlowe.

During the English Restoration period in the 17th century, the main type of theatre was the heroic tragedy. We will discuss it further in the next section.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, during the Romantic and Victorian periods, tragedy wasnt a popular genre. Comedy and other less serious and more sentimental dramatic forms, such as melodrama, gained more popularity. Still, some Romantic poets also wrote tragedies.

Otho the Great (1819) by John Keats.

The Cenci (1819) by Percy Bysshe Shelley.

In the 20th century, tragedy in English literature re-emerged as an important genre, both in Britain and in the United States. The 20th-century British and American playwrights wrote tragedies concerning the lives of ordinary people.

Tragedy in drama: Types and examples

Lets explore the three main types of tragedy: heroic tragedy, revenge tragedy, and domestic tragedy.

Heroic tragedy

Heroic tragedy was prevalent during the English Restoration period of 16601670. Heroic tragedy is written in rhyme. It features a larger-than-life hero who struggles to make a choice between love and duty, which leads to tragic consequences. Heroic tragedies are usually set in exotic places (lands foreign to the author and the audience of the play).

The Conquest of Granada (1670) by John Dryden is about the tragic hero Almanzor. He fights for his people, the Moors, against the Spanish in the Battle of Granada.

Revenge tragedy

Revenge tragedy was most popular during the Renaissance. Revenge tragedies are about a tragic hero who decides to take justice into their own hands and avenge the death of someone they loved.

Hamlet by William Shakespeare is the most famous example of a revenge tragedy. Hamlet finds out that his uncle and his mother have caused the death of his father. Hamlet tries to avenge his fathers death, which leads to many more deaths, including his own.

Domestic tragedy

Domestic tragedy explores the struggles faced by ordinary people. Domestic tragedies are usually about family relations.

Death of a Salesman (1949) by Arthur Miller is a domestic tragedy about an ordinary man, Willy Loman, who cant survive the pressures of a success-driven society. Willy lives a delusional life, which also affects his family.

The key features of tragedy in drama

There are different types of tragedies that were written in different historical periods. What unites these plays is that they all contain the same key features of tragedy:

  • Tragic hero: the tragic hero is the main character of the tragedy. They either have a fatal flaw or make a fatal mistake that leads to their downfall.
  • Villain: the villain is a character or an evil force who represents chaos and drives the hero to destruction and ruin. Sometimes the villain can be more obscure, such as a symbol that stands for something the hero has to fight against.
  • Setting: tragedies often take place in ominous settings that foreshadow the suffering the hero must endure.
  • The journey towards the fall of the tragic hero: this journey is often marked by the power of destiny and things beyond the heros control. The journey consists of a chain of events that provide a step-by-step walk to the fall of the tragic hero.
  • Moral message: most tragedies offer the audience a moral message that serves as a commentary on the human condition. Some tragedies raise difficult questions about our existence that the viewers can think about after they leave the theatre.

Tragedy in Drama - Key takeaways

  • Tragedy is a genre that expresses serious issues and raises questions about human suffering. A tragic play is usually about a hero or heroine who goes through struggles that lead to death and destruction.
  • Western tragedy originated in classical Greece.
  • The first surviving text that defines the characteristics of tragedy is Aristotles Poetics (c. 335 BC). According to Aristotle, the aim of tragedy is catharsis (purification that leads to the release of emotions).
  • Aristotle introduces the six elements of tragedy (plot, character, thought, diction, spectacle, and music) and the concept of the three unities of drama (time, place, and action).
  • Western tragedy evolved through the ages. Today, many contemporary plays cant be categorised simply as a type of tragedy because they usually include elements of different genres.
  • The three main types of tragedy are heroic tragedy, revenge tragedy, and domestic tragedy.
  • The key features of tragedy are tragic hero, villain, setting, the journey towards the fall of the tragic hero, and a moral message.

Tragedy in Drama

According to Aristotle, the purpose of a tragedy is catharsis (purification that leads to the release of emotions). The purpose of tragedy in general is to explore human suffering and to raise questions about the human condition.

Drama is a specific type of text that is written to be staged and performed by actors. Tragedy is a genre of drama.

Tragedy is a genre in drama that expresses serious issues. A tragic play is usually about a hero or heroine who goes through trials and tribulations that don’t lead to a happy resolution. Most tragedies end with death and destruction. Plays in the category of tragedy often raise important questions about the human condition.

Tragedy in drama is characterised by some key features: tragic hero, villain, setting, the journey towards the fall of the tragic hero, and a moral message.

The three main types of tragedy in drama are heroic tragedy, revenge tragedy, and domestic tragedy.

Final Tragedy in Drama Quiz

Question

True or false: a tragic play is usually about a hero or heroine who goes through trials and tribulations that don't lead to a happy resolution. 

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Answer

True.

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Question

Which of these is NOT one of Aristotle's six main elements of tragedy?

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Answer

Mask

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Question

According to Aristotle, the purpose of tragedy is...

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Answer

catharsis

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Question

Which of these plays is an adaptation of a Classical Greek tragedy?

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Answer

Médée (1635) by Pierre Corneille's

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Question

True or false: in 18th and 19th century Europe, the tragedies that were written started to explore the lives of ordinary people.

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Answer

True.

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Question

True or false: Hamletmachine (1977) by Heiner Müller is a tragedy.

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Answer

False.

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Question

True or false: The Romantic poets didn't write tragedies.

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Answer

False.

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Question

The three main types of tragedy are heroic tragedy, revenge tragedy and....?

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Answer

domestic tragedy

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Question

The Conquest of Granada (1670) by John Dryden is a...?

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Answer

heroic tragedy

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Question

True or false: Death of a Salesman (1949) by Arthur Miller is a domestic tragedy.

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Answer

True.

Show question

Question

Which of these is one of the aspects of tragedy?

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Answer

 Villain

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