Tragedy: A serious and often somber drama, written in prose or verse, that typically ends in disaster and that focuses on a character who undergoes unexpected personal reversals. Many scholars believe that tragedy, which comes from the Greek tragoidia (for “goat song”), originally referred to an ancient Greek ritual, accompanied by a choral hymn, in which a goat was sacrificed to Dionysus, the god of wine and fertility. Thespis, a sixth-century B.C. Greek dramatist, is usually credited with transforming these hymns honoring Dionysus into songs that told a story about a famous hero or god. Many scholars also believe that Thespis was the first Greek dramatist to have used an actor, rather than merely a chorus, to recount and advance the action.
Competitions in tragedy writing took place at an annual festival held to honor Dionysus, and from these events the great traditions of Greek tragedy developed; competitors typically entered a tetralogy of plays in which three tragedies were followed by one satyr play, a lighter piece in which a hero (often of one of the preceding tragedies) appears in the company of satyrs, half-human creatures whose raunchiness provided comic relief from the unrelenting seriousness of the tragic trilogy. (Some literary historians take the view that Gerald Else advanced in The Origin and Form of Greek Tragedy (1967), namely, that tragedy got its name because a goat was awarded to the winner of this dramatic festival, not because it originally involved the ritualistic killing of a goat.) The principal ancient Greek tragedians were Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles. Although all three wrote prolifically, only a handful of their works survive, including Prometheus Bound (c. 465 B.C.), Medea (c. 413 B.C.), and Antigone (c. 441 B.C.), respectively.
In the Poetics (c. 330 B.C.), Aristotle defined tragedy as a dramatic imitation of a serious, complete action of some magnitude that evokes both fear and pity in the audience and thereby allows catharsis — which in Greek means “purgation” or “purification” — to occur. The typical classical tragic hero was an individual of considerable social standing whose character was neither unusually good nor bad. According to Aristotle, for the hero’s fall from good fortune to seem significant, it must occur from a tremendous height; for an audience to achieve sympathetic identification, the hero cannot be completely virtuous or completely villainous. Although Aristotle maintained that tragedy can involve a propitious turn of events and end happily so long as the overall tone of the play remains serious, all the dramas that we would today view as tragic involve some worsening situation that leads to sorrow and loss. Thus, tragedies often begin happily but end in catastrophe for the protagonist (and often also for other characters) due to an error in judgment (hamartia) made by the protagonist.
Hamartia is often used synonymously with tragic flaw, but this usage is not strictly accurate. A tragic flaw is inherent in the protagonist, a character trait that is often, though not necessarily, a character flaw. Tragic flaws range from moral flaws, such as jealousy, to traits normally considered virtues, such as courage. Hamartia, on the other hand, may result from a character’s tragic flaw but is not, technically speaking, the flaw itself; it is, rather, the misstep or mistake that leads to the protagonist’s downfall and may thus include errors in judgment based on something as simple as lack of knowledge regarding a given situation. In most classical tragedies, the hamartia causes the protagonist to break a divine or moral law, with disaster and misery as the consequence. Yet, despite the cataclysmic events that befall tragic protagonists, tragedy often ultimately celebrates the dignity of the human spirit in confronting overwhelming misfortune and accepting the consequences of actions.
In Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex (c. 430 B.C.), one of the most famous ancient tragedies, King Oedipus’s tragic flaw — hubris — leads him to the hamartia of trying to avoid the prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother, an error he compounds by his insistence on finding and banishing the murderer of his royal predecessor, Laius. What he learns, in the course of the action, is that an old man he killed long ago was Laius, that Laius was his father, and that the woman he married is his mother. Horrified, Oedipus blinds himself.
In the Middle Ages, when the plays of the ancient Greek tragedians were little known, tragedy encompassed any narrative work in which a well-positioned individual falls from high standing into disgrace or poverty due to an unexpected reversal in fortune. Medieval tragedy, influenced heavily by miracle plays and morality plays, is less complex than classical tragedy in that the importance of the hamartia is minimized. As in classical tragedies, the conduct of protagonists may or may not merit the consequences that befall them, but in medieval, unlike classical, tragedies, little stress is placed on errors in judgment and actions that lead to the protagonist’s downfall. “The Monk’s Tale,” one of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (c. 1387), is perhaps the most famous example of medieval tragedy.
During the Renaissance, classical tragedies were rediscovered and exerted a strong influence on the development of the genre. In England, tragedy had its heyday during the Elizabethan Age, when many dramatists wrote tragedies influenced by Seneca (Lucius Annaeus Seneca), a first-century A.D. Roman playwright known for relatively intellectual tragedies meant to be recited, not performed. Elizabethan Senecan tragedies fall into two major groups. One consists of plays that are rather academic in spirit, given that they closely imitated Seneca’s forms and conventions. The other consists of works called revenge tragedies (or, in their most extreme manifestation, tragedies of blood) that were geared toward a popular audience, merged classical themes with English tradition, and proved far more important to the history of English theater and literature in general. Revenge tragedies resemble Seneca’s insofar as they involve considerable violence and an occasional ghost but differ from his works in bringing horrifying events onstage for the audience to see and experience. William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1602) is the most famous example of this tradition.
Elizabethan tragedians were responsible for a number of other innovations. They modified the classical tragic protagonist; unlike Aristotelian tragic heroes, who were not especially good or bad, Elizabethan protagonists were often predominantly ruthless people. Elizabethan tragedies also differed from their ancient counterparts insofar as they tended to present the events leading up to the tragedy chronologically, instead of beginning in medias res and relying on flashbacks to explain how the disaster came to pass. In addition, Elizabethan tragedians introduced the element of humor; the gravediggers in Hamlet, for instance, provide a level of comic relief that is usually absent from classical tragedies. Elizabethan dramatists were also responsible for the development of tragicomedy, a new genre that blended the essential elements of tragedy and comedy. Subsequently, during the Restoration Age, another blended genre called the heroic tragedy, or heroic drama, developed.
Classical tragedy exerted a particularly strong influence in seventeenth-century Europe, especially in France, where dramatists such as Jean Racine and Pierre Corneille systematically studied and imitated classical tragedians. Corneille wrote his own Médée (1635), although he also immortalized heroes from other national traditions, such as the Spaniard El Cid in his play Le Cid (1636). Racine, too, drew on Greek lore in Andromaque (1667) and Phèdre (1677), but, like Corneille, also told the stories of nonclassical heroines, such as Esther (1689) and Athalie (1691). So strong was the classical influence that both playwrights, like their contemporaries, tried to follow the so-called classical unities for fear of incurring critical condemnation. Playwrights in Spain and Germany likewise relied heavily on the classical tragic tradition. German poet and playwright Andreas Gryphius, for instance, modeled his dramas on Senecan tragedy.
During the eighteenth century, several writers of tragedy broke with tradition, replacing noble protagonists with middle-class characters as the tragic heroes of so-called domestic (or bourgeois) tragedies, such as George Lillo’s The London Merchant (1731). Prose also became the dominant mode of expression. Verse never recovered its prominence, although it remained a vehicle for tragic expression throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
In the nineteenth century, the novel became the main tragic form. In his influential critical study Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1946), German philologist Erich Auerbach posited that the realistic novel was the culmination of Western literary expression because it treats ordinary characters in a serious and tragic way. Drama, however, did not disappear. On the contrary, Scandinavian playwrights Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg expanded the boundaries of what was previously considered tragedy by introducing disease, psychological imbalance, and personal quirkiness as tragic subjects. For instance, in Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House (1879), the protagonist, Nora, becomes increasingly dissatisfied with the traditional female role of wife and mother. Strindberg’s Dance of Death (1901) portrays an even more horribly destructive marriage.
Few modern works may be called tragedies, at least if we use the term as it has been developed to describe and define classical, medieval, or even Elizabethan versions of the genre. Today’s “tragic” heroes are apt to be antiheroes, thoroughly ordinary, middle-class or proletarian, even down-and-out individuals whose downfall is likely to be attributable to society or to a psychological abnormality, rather than to fate or a moral flaw. Tennessee Williams’s unstable Southern belle, Blanche, from A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), is one example of the twentieth-century tragic hero, as is Arthur Miller’s pathetic salesman, Willy Loman, in Death of a Salesman (1949).
Some modern playwrights have stretched the boundaries of the genre by incorporating the Absurd and black humor into their works. Others have imported classical elements (such as the chorus); still others have injected psychoanalytic theory and analysis into “ancient” stories. Despite these variations, a number of plays are generally said to be tragedies; among them are Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), Federico García Lorca’s Blood Wedding (1935), Miller’s A View from the Bridge (1955), Jean Anouilh’s Becket (1960), David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly (1988), Margaret Edson’s Wit (1993), and Edward Albee’s The Goat, or, Who Is Sylvia? (2000).
Contemporary television series that likewise stretch the boundaries of tragedy include The Sopranos (1999—2007), in which mob boss Tony Soprano wreaks violent havoc even as he pursues psychoanalytic therapy, and The Wire (2002—08), both of which have been compared to Greek tragedy. Indeed, The Wire cocreator David Simon openly acknowledged his debt to classical Greek tragedy in an interview given to The FADER magazine (“The Left Behind,” Aug. 12, 2006), explaining that what “spoke to me was the Greek drama in which fated and doomed protagonists are confronted by a system that is indifferent to their heroism, to their individuality, to their morality. But instead of Olympian gods, … we have post-modern institutions. The police department is the god, the drug trade is the god, … Capitalism is the ultimate god in The Wire. Capitalism is Zeus.”