One of the oldest types of stories out there, tragedies are designed to evoke human emotion through tales of human suffering that eventually provide the audience with a sense of release. Tragedy allows us to experience the worst case scenario situation in a safe environment, creating emotions within the audience and then allowing the audience to release those emotions without having to physically experience the tragedy themselves.
Tragedy has become one of the literary cornerstones of Western civilization, and the ability of these stories to emotionally grip audiences even centuries after they were written is one of the reasons they are so enduring and influential. From the theatres of ancient Greece to Shakespeare to the modern plays of writers like Arthur Miller, tragedy is still a powerful form of storytelling. It helps us analyze what it means to be human, what it means to make mistakes, and also is real in that not every story has a happy ending. Tragedy makes us confront the realities of our world and teaches us valuable lessons about the consequences of behavior.
The word tragedy comes to us from an ancient Greek word tragoaoidiā, which literally means “song of the he-goat.” It is believed that a male goat may have been the prize at early drama competitions in Greece. Choral dancing was a competition that often accompanied ritual sacrifice during religious rites in the early days. Another theory holds that the world tragedy is descended from the ancient Greek word trygos meaning “grape harvest” and the songs or odes sung in honor of the god Dionysus during harvest festivals. Aristotle also believed that these tragedies were the result of hymns performed both in song and dance to honor Dionysus during the harvest.
Starting out as improvised songs to honor the gods, the ancient Greek tragedy evolved into scripted scenes often telling stories of gods and kings. The featured actors started out as a chorus of 50 men or boys singing and eventually added other actors who had general roles. Thespis was allegedly the first playwright to have a character step out from the chorus and deliver a line around 534 BCE. The oldest surviving Greek-style tragedy is a dance-drama from Athens that emerged around 600 BCE but really came into its own around 500 BCE. It was at this time that tragedy began to spread outward from Athens across Greece itself.
Tragedy was a literary hallmark of ancient Greece’s Hellenistic period and though thousands of tragedies were written during this period, only 32 have survived. Only a handful of works by writers like Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides survive intact. Ancient Greek tragedies often involved a stage device known as an ekkyklêma, which was a hidden platform that could be rolled out to display the aftermath of an event that happened where the audience could not see. This was usually to portray murders. Cranes were also often used to hoist actors portraying gods and goddesses to signify their flight into the world of the characters, and this device gave birth to the phrase “deus ex machina.” In addition to innovating theatre apparatus, Greek tragedy and Greek philosophers also worked to define what the term tragedy meant.
Aeschylus was one of the first to try and establish basic rules for Greek drama, such as a three act structure, multiple actors, and plays with strict moral and religious messages. Sophocles was the first to challenge Aeschylus’ approach to the point that a competition of drama between the two led an embarrassed Aeschylus to self-imposed exile in Sicily. However, it would be Aristotle who would first try to define the genre definitions of these plays based on what emotions they were supposed to elicit.
Aristotle’s definition was that tragedy is a drama that expresses pity and fear to effect relief or catharsis and creates similar emotions in its audience to those being portrayed on stage. His work Poetics is the first critical study of tragedy and outlined tragedy as an imitation or mimesis of human behavior that therefore creates compassion and fear or catharsis in the audience. Aristotle's work would continue to be the authority on what made different types of drama - including tragedy - after the Romans invaded Greece and began to adopt much of ancient Greek culture as their own.
The Roman Empire took Greek tragedy and spread it across Europe, the Mediterranean, and even to territories as far flung as Great Britain. Roman theatre was largely Roman retellings of Greek plays up until around 240 BCE when Roman drama started to come into its own. Unfortunately, there are few modern resources on Roman tragedy. We know of early tragic playwrights like LIvius Andronicus, Gnaeus Naevius, Quintus Ennius, Marcus Pacuvius, and Lucius Accius not from their early works in tragedy but because of the accounts of them in other writings. No early Roman tragedies survive into the modern day, though the works of Livius Andronicus did become the basis for some of the most important literary works produced in ancient Rome.
After Julius Caesar established the Roman Empire, only a handful tragedies survive. One is written by an unknown author and nine others by stoic philosopher Seneca, who adapted his stories from earlier Greek works. Unlike the Greek plays, Seneca’s versions dwell more on moralizing, rhetoric, detailed accounts of violent deeds, long soliloquies and while the Gods disappear, supernatural characters like witches and ghosts are frequently used. Seneca also wrote some of the first revenge tragedies as well as began introducing elements like suicide, blood, gore, and the occult into his works.
During the Middle Ages, tragedies and all other forms of theatre took on a religious tone with plays serving to teach people about biblical events or to accompany feast days and religious rites. Most of these plays were used to teach moral lessons and traces of them can still be found in nativity and crucifixion dramas told at churches worldwide. Italy was one of the few places were non-religious tragedies were still being told, largely influenced by the works of Seneca.
One of the first new tragedies written after the Roman period was Albertino Mussato’s Latin verse tragedy Eccerinis, which was used to satirize events happening in Padua at the time. Other early secular tragedies still played on classical themes and mythological stories. It was in 1515 that Gian Giorgio Trissino wrote his first tragedy in the Italian language rather than the traditional Latin. Trissino’s play Sophonisba portrayed the story of a Carthaginian princess to drank poison rather than be captured by the Romans. Soon, other writers were producing secular plays across Italy in the Italian language. Antonio Ferreira wrote A Castro in his native Portuguese in 1550, but it wouldn’t be published until 1587. Other writers, influenced by translations of Sophocles, Seneca, and Euripides being published across Europe in the 1500s as well as the emerging Italian trend of new plays written in vernacular stated to take hold across Europe. In Spain, writers like Pedro Calderón de la Barca, Tirso de Molina and Lope de Vega contributed to the Spanish Golden Age of Literature and many of their works were translated into French for the stage as well. Theatre also became one of the most popular artforms of Renaissance Britain.
While Shakespeare is probably the most famous writer of tragedies to come out of this era, Christopher Marlowe and John Webster were also famous dramatists that helped make the tragedy one of the focal points of the British stage. During this period, the British theatre developed three major classes of tragedy. The tragedy of circumstance involve the consequences of people who are born with the burden of birthrights, the tragedy of miscalculation were tragedies resulting because of an error of judgement, and revenge plays were tragedies in which a person’s attempt to seek vengeance went horribly wrong. The Elizbaethan and Jacobean theatre also began what is known as the domestic tragedy. Instead of only focusing on tragedies that occurred to the noble or powerful, they introduced tragedies involving characters from the middle or lower classes. This prompted a rebirth of tragedy and a new way of looking at tragic characters.
While tragedy as theatrical drama was taking off in England, the concept of tragic operas were developing in Italy and spread into France and Germany. Opera had emerged in Italy around this time and while France and Germany had similar musical tragedies, they referred to these as tragédie en musique, considering opera a distinct genre of tragic musical rather than its own artform. French writers began to start writing their own tragic plays in the 1600s, particularly works by Pierre Corneille who redefined tragedy as a genre in France. For Corneille, characters in a tragedy should feature noble characters as protagonists and non-noble characters as villains, tragic stories should revolve around affairs of state such as wars or dynastic marriage, and tragedy did not have to have a tragic ending. Instead, Corneille felt the purpose of tragedy was to outline the moral code rather than express emotions.
Corneille was challenged by fellow French writer Jean Racine, who wrote tragedies inspired by Greek myths. While Corneille had argued that catharsis wasn’t necessary for a successful tragedy, it was the emotional nature and crisis at the heart of Racine’s tragedies that made them so successful. Racine still didn’t always require his tragedies to have a death, but he was one of the first to use biblical subject matter in his tragedies. One of the reasons he was able to do this without the censure of the Catholic Church was that Racine argued portraying biblical subject matter on the stage could educate young women about morality as most young women received no formal education at the time.
While it had been established earlier, tragedies focused on the middle or bourgeois classes began to take off in the 1700s in both England and German. This genre emerged in England as the sexually playful Restoration comedy was falling out of favor and both theatre and novels were exploring themes of women who were wronged and often met their downfall as the result of expressing their sexuality or putting their faith in the wrong man. These plays often dealt with temptation and sin, sometimes resolved with forgiveness and repentance but also resolved with divine punishment. During a time when theatre troupes relied heavily on the patronage of wealthy nobles, it also made economic sense to cast characters as domestic and middle class to avoid risking that some wealthy aristocrat might think a character in a play was targeting them. It also helped that the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution were creating a new middle class and that the middle class was eager to use some of their newfound wealth to see dramas that depicted lives similar to their own.
Throughout the Victorian era, tragedies usually relied on the conventions previously established in the genre. Victorians with their sense of morality liked to have plays that gave a moral message and while they were open to violence in their drama, they weren’t as keen on openly portrayed sexuality. Despite not being as open about sex, the Victorians did love a good romantic tragedy though they often wanted them to serve as cautionary tales. Victorian tragedies also tended to focus on the lives of the middle and upper middle classes, though it wasn’t uncommon for a tragic character to drop a social class or two in their downward spiral. Writers like George Eliot, Henry James, Thomas Hardy, and others incorporated tragedy into their novels with eliciting an intense emotional experience being the hallmark of much of Victorian literature.
Modernist and Post-Modernist literature would again change the face of tragedy. Influenced by the horrors of the World Wars, many contemporary writers of tragedy found it hard to depict anything on stage or in literature worse than some of the tragic events they had seen in real life. Irony and sarcasm began to replace elements such as hubris and catharsis in modern tragedies and characters became less and less defined as morally black and white into a more morally ambiguous category. Modern writers like Arthur Miller have also expressed that though tragedies do not always have the ending an audience may hope for, their purpose is to give the audience a sense of hope about the human condition.
Rather than a tragedy ending with death, many modern tragedies end with the knowledge of unrealized potential or a sense of futility, that the striving of the characters will change nothing. Writers like Isben also explore tragedy as futility, the sense that hard work doesn’t make things better for the lower or working classes, while writers like Chekhov depicted how the changing social order leaves people with a sense of hollowness. American writers like Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Eugene O’Neill wrote tragedies where the tragic flaw is a character’s own self awareness or social and psychological stress rather than any outside force. The ambiguous nature of human motives, suffering with no point, and the loss of potential are often themes explored in modern tragedies.
Drama versus Tragedy
Terms that are often used interchangeably, tragedy and drama are not always the same thing but the two do have a connection. Tragedy is a form of drama, though not all dramas are tragedies. However, the fact that both play on emotions and human suffering is the reason the terms have become synonymous, especially in the realm of modern media where tragic television shows and films are often classified as dramas. Conventionally, a drama may employ tragic elements but tends to have a positive, uplifting ending usually where the characters receive a happy ending. Tragedy conventionally has a lack of happy ending for the character and sometimes involves characters being punished whether they deserve it or not.
Dramas are sometimes classified as those literary works that don’t necessarily fit into either category of comedy or tragedy but walk a fine line in between. This is not to say that tragedies themselves are completely devoid of comedy. Tragedies may have some comic moments that are used to lighten the tension, though the overall path of the story leads to a tragic ending for the protagonists. Overall, drama tends to fall somewhere in between tragedy and comedy, though the term is also used to describe theatrical performances of all types.
One of the reasons the two terms may be confused is because of the world melodrama, which has been shortened into the slang term drama in recent years. Melodrama is often an overly exaggerated tragedy or story where there is a lot of angry disputes, characters who make great histrionic scenes, and plenty of intrigue or spiteful backstabbing and maneuvering. Melodramas are often tragedies because the desire of characters to have attention or to get their way often leads to tragic results. This is also the reason why a person who may be seen to overact or make situations out to be worse than the are is accused of causing “drama.”
Since Aristotle, philosophers and writers have tried to define what exactly constitutes a tragedy, especially as our common meaning of the word has changed as well. Despite this, there are still some common elements of tragedy that we see in successful examples of the genre ranging back from the ancient Greeks well into modern times. The realistic depiction of raw human emotion and flaws are one of the reasons that tragedy remains such a success type of storytelling and that, even though we can expect them to elicit negative emotions, we as an audience still seek out these stories.
Plays on Emotions - Since the first tragedies appeared on stage, their goal has been to turn and twist human emotions. Aristotle defined this ability to harness the emotions of the audience and have the audience share the emotions expressed by characters as the definition of a successful tragedy, but in a way all good literature works to harness the emotion of its audience. In order to experience any literary work successfully, the audience must identify with the characters on some level. For tragedy, the goal is to play on those negative emotions such as fear and pity. This can be done through a variety of techniques such as foreshadowing or giving the audience information that the characters themselves are not aware of. As a result, the audience can expect the tragic downfall that is about to happen even if the characters seemingly have no clue.
Downfall Due to Hamartia - Often times, the downfall of a character in a tragedy is precipitated by hamartia, the Greek term for a fatal flaw. We often think of hubris - a character’s self confidence and belief that they are all powerful and nothing can go wrong - as the only fatal flaw in tragedies, but while hubris is a common fatal flaw it isn’t the only one out there. Characters can be brought down by a myriad of flaws such as greed, lust, blind love, an error in judgement, moral deficiency, a personal vice, or failing to act when the hero could have prevented something tragic from happening to another character. Sometimes, hamartia can even be an actual physical flaw like Achilles' famed heel.
Flawed Characters - While it is the hamartia or fatal flaw that brings down the protagonists in a tragedy, these stories are always full of flawed characters. It is the fact that these characters are so flawed that makes it easy for them to fall into tragic circumstances or set off those circumstances for others. Often times, the main character has a fatal flaw that ultimately brings about their own downfall but the flaws of other characters along the way set them up for this ultimate downfall. Tragedies are filled with scheming characters and those who put obstacles in the way of the hero, often without facing any consequences themselves for their machinations.
Focus on Internal Conflict - Much of tragedy has to do with the inner turmoil and torment of characters. To achieve the emotional attachment with the audience needed to magic tragic characters relatable, the audience has to be able to see in to the mind of the characters, understand their thought process and understand why they come to the conclusions they do or make the decisions they make - even if the audience can already tell those choices are going to be the wrong one. Even external conflict within tragedy is often an outward manifestation of internal conflict. While the external conflict - such as killing another character or committing suicide - may be the climatic event of the tragedy, the building up to that physical manifestation of pain or fear is usually internal.
Element of Destiny - Though more of an element of older tragedies where gods and supernatural beings were frequent features, there is often a sense of destiny or inevitability in tragedies. Many tragedies make it feel like the protagonist is hurtling toward a negative outcome, no matter what choices or actions they may take to avoid this outcome. Greek tragedies were famous for having characters bringing about their tragic fates by trying everything they could to avoid said tragic fate. It is also a common theme in many tragedies for forces like gods, supernatural being, or simply the concept of predestination to seem to set a character in a trajectory toward tragedy. This could be because often times our own tragedies seem or feel unavoidable and the nature of life is unpredictability itself. Bad things happen to good people, and there is nothing to to do to stop it.
Domestic/Bourgeois - A tragedy where the characters involved are members of the middle or lower classes. This subgenre began to evolve during the Renaissance with tales like Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor, disappeared largely during the Interregnum, and then returned toward the end of the Stuart era. The domestic tragedy seeks to show that the life of the poorer and middle classes can be subjected to as much tragedy as the upper classes and that one not need have high stature or wealth and power to have a tragic downfall.
Epic - A genre that itself is similar to the tragedy, an epic is a story that can follows the long story of the heroic deeds of a character. While most epics are a type of drama, some do have elements of tragedy in them and often have tragic endings. A tragic epic is a story about the great rise of a character followed by their massive fall from grace. Because the epic makes characters seem larger than life, it can also make their falls just as tragic.
Family Saga - A story that follows the happenings and events surrounding several interconnected members of a family, typically over multiple generations, family sagas became rather popular during the modern era with books like The Forsyte Saga, The Thorn Birds and Brideshead Revisited. The family saga has been set in both historical and futuristic locals and is often heightened by family drama. Often times, these stories portray the tragedies of family life and the rise and downfall of various family members, their disappointments and achievements.
Greek - Still often performed today, Greek tragedies are dramatic theatrical products with their roots in the ancient Greek world. The original tragic stories, these rely on the earliest conventions of tragedies and often feature the mythological stories of gods, men, and kings. The surviving works of writers like Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides are part of this genre as are some more modern plays that seek to mimic the greek style.
Melodrama - A type of sensational dramatic work in which the plot and characters work to appeal strongly to the emotion of the audience, a melodrama focuses more on emotion than characterization or other details. Often times, characters are stereotypes and are typically set in private spheres such as the home. Melodramas also focus on morality and family issues, often featuring moral challenges. A largely pejorative term today, melodramas were extremely popular during the Victorian era. Melodramas often featured tragic endings and part of their job was to teach moral lessons about socially acceptable behavior and choices.
Political - A tragedy involving political subjects, this subgenre has a history going back to ancient Greece when tragedies often involved royal families or the political situation of a country. Political tragedies often address moral issues or quandaries to the audience, often showing characters who are trying to do their best but are doomed no matter what political decision they make. The goal of these tragedies is to make audiences think about moral issues and to present the difficulty of finding solutions to political issues that satisfy everyone. Political tragedies can also have political messages about how certain events could be or could have been avoided.
Religious - A tragedy with religious themes, these tragedies tell biblical or religious stories that often have tragic endings. Evolved out of the mystery and miracle plays of the early medieval era and Renaissance, these plays often have their roots in the religious rituals of the Catholic Church and are meant to dramatize religious events for emotional effect. The intent of these tragedies is to get audiences to think about moral and religious issues as well as how sin can lead to downfalls.
Revenge/Blood - Popularized during the Elizabethan Age, the revenge tragedy or “tragedy of blood” often features a wronged character who is attempting to exact revenge on others. These plays often have graphic depictions of violence and gore, and usually, the character who is attempting to exact revenge receives punishment as well. Another convention is a character who has gone mad or at least pretends to be insane. Examples include Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, and Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy.
Romantic - The opposite of a romantic comedy, a romantic tragedy is when a pair of lovers attempt to surmount difficulty to their romance and ultimately are unsuccessful, usually leading to the death of one or more of the pair. Fatal flaws like jealousy, a lack of communication, or romances that defy social and political convention are often prominently featured in these stories. While the protagonists of romantic comedies are reunited at the end for a wedding, those in romantic tragedies may be reunited at the end to make a death or loss seem even more tragic.
Senecan - Based on the surviving works of Roman dramatist Seneca the Younger, this refers specifically to the ten plays that survive from ancient Roman theatre. While they contain many of the same conventions and principles as the theatre of the ancient Greeks, Seneca’s works have a more distinctly Roman influence. Their revival went on to influence the plays of the Renaissance area and served as the framework for many modern tragedies, particular the NeoClassical revival during the 1600s across Europe. Rather than a character talking to themselves or toward the audience as an aside, Seneca was also the first to introduce the concept of a tragic character talking to a servant who listens to the protagonist’s moral quandaries.
She-Tragedy - Also known as a “pathetic tragedy,” this was a common form of drama in the late 1600s and early 1700s focusing on the suffering of women. Sometimes the protagonist begins as innocent and virtuous but all of the female protagonists commit some sort of sexual misdeed or sin that sends them on a downward spiral. The stories often revolved around love and domestic concern and were among the first to showcase female protagonists after women were allowed for the first time on the British stage. They are also one of the first works to focus on female issues and psychology rather than that of men. Many playwrights also used she-tragedies to voice political opinions.
Tragedy of Circumstance - Popularized during the Renaissance, this tragedy features characters who are predestined to their fates. These characters are either born into a tragic situation or have a tragic situation thrust upon them because of the role they were born into, such as being a king or prince. Usually, any decision or moral choice made by the protagonist has no bearing on the situation and so any attempts they make to avoid their tragic fate are futile.
Tragedy of Miscalculation - Another genre popularized during the Renaissance, a tragedy of miscalculation is a tragedy where a character’s error in judgement leads to their downfall. Often times, the protagonist is warned against making this decision but makes it anyway. The bad choice made by a protagonist can also serve as a domino effect, leading to a downward spiral of circumstances for other characters.
Tragicomedy - Blurring the lines between comedy and tragedy, the tragicomedy intermingles the conventions of both genres and is just as likely to end in disaster as it is to end happily ever after. This story often features multiple plots that end up tying into one overarching plot at the end. Tragicomedies with tragic endings often have just enough comedy to lighten the overall mood while tragicomedies with happy endings have just enough tragedy to make much of the story serious.