Tragedy is a branch of drama that addresses the sorrowful downfall of a protagonist in a serious manner. In many tragedies, the protagonist is a tragic hero of exalted social status whose own character flaw combines with fate to bring about their ruin.

What is a Tragedy?

Tragedy is a branch of literature that addresses the sorrowful downfall of a protagonist in a serious manner. In classical tragedy, the protagonist is a tragic hero of exalted social status whose own character flaw combines with fate to bring about their ruin. In more recent centuries, however, tragedy has taken other forms, featuring protagonists of social insignificance and removing the tragic flaw to suggest a character’s complete powerlessness in the face of modern challenges. Regardless of the details, all tragedies attempt to examine serious questions of existence, especially the relationship between man and the universe.

The tragic form was first developed by the ancient Greeks as a dramatic art. Playwrights like Sophocles and Euripides wrote tragic dramas to accompany ritualized religious celebrations. These plays established the concepts of the tragic hero, the tragic flaw (hamartia) and the resulting catharsis. The entrances and exits of a masked chorus who provided commentary throughout the play prefigured the scene changes of later theater. The Greek model elicited pity and fear from an audience as a result of the tragic interplay of a character’s choice and their inevitable fate. Greek tragic heroes typically begin a play at the height of their powers - happy, respected, successful, and of noble birth. Their own character failings, however, drive them to make a series of mistakes that leads to their downfall. The sorrow induced by the tragedy derives from the viewers’ ability to understand the hero’s thinking and imagine themselves in his or her shoes. This connection with the tragic protagonist has remained central to the genre despite its many variations over the centuries.

After dying out as a preferred form of literature for a few centuries, tragedy experienced a revival during the 16th and 17th centuries in Elizabethan England and French Baroque theater. English playwrights like Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare continued the Greek tradition of tragic heroes brought low by their own flaws, as in The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus, Othello, or Macbeth. They introduced more ordinary protagonists, however, and enriched their tales with the addition of subplots. French writers like Racine, Corneille, and Molière included high-born protagonists but helped popularize the tragicomedy, in which tragedies ended with a happy outcome.

Over the next few centuries, tragedy evolved along with the growth of the novel. Novels like Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment transferred elements of tragedy to narrative form. Although they no longer followed the dramatic character arc of the play, tragic novels nevertheless addressed the great religious and psychological questions surrounding human suffering. Today, tragedy remains a much appreciated literary genre. As modern audiences continue to enjoy tragedies from across the millennia, they also continue to produce new variations of the genre on for the stage, the page, and the screen.

Tragedy Examples

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