Tragedies: A Genre Study

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The word Tragedy derives from the Greek word Tragoidia, meaning 'goat song' or 'Song at the sacrificed goat'. The connection may have risen via the satyric drama, from which tragedy later developed, in which actors or singers were dressed in goatskins to represent satyrs.


A tragedy is a kind of drama with a quite simple action. It’s written in a poetic language and actually, a playwright of tragedies, as for instance Shakespeare, is just as much a poet as an author. Usually, the tragedy focuses on figures of stature. These are at a higher risk of losing status rather than gaining. The tragic protagonist often represents an entire group or a whole society. Thereby his fall in the drama implicates others. One mistaken action made by the protagonist results in a disastrous ending, so compared to other genres the possibility of a happy ending is unrealized. At best it shows “what might have been” in an ironic way only to make the tragedy seem even worse.

“The Tragic Vision”

These are some of the most important elements of classic tragedy. All together, they establish the “tragic vision”.
  • The conclusion is catastrophic.
    • The protagonist is taught a serious lesson through severe punishment

  • The catastrophic conclusion will seem inevitable.
    • The protagonist’s action will always lead to a tragic end

  • It occurs, ultimately, because of the human limitations of the protagonist.
    • The protagonist is only human and is capable of both good and evil

  • The protagonist suffers terribly.
    • To emphasize the wrong action

  • The protagonist's suffering often seems disproportionate to his or her culpability.
    • Again, to emphasize the moral lesson

  • Yet the suffering is usually redemptive, bringing out the noblest of human capacities for learning.
  • The suffering is also redemptive in bringing out the capacity for accepting moral responsibility.

The audience

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Aristotle describes the unique feature of the tragedy as “the tragic pleasure of pity and fear” the audience feel while watching a play. To achieve this reaction the protagonist cannot be either all evil or all good but needs to be someone the audience can identify with. Often the tragic hero’s suffering is greater than his offence, which leads the audience to feel pity. They could have behaved the same way as the protagonist did, and therefore they feel sympathy.

The Learning Process and Acceptance of Moral ResponsibilityFrom the very beginning of his career, Shakespeare was fond of the emotional display which tragedies offer

The tragic vision implies that suffering can call forth human potentials. Often there is a learning process connected to the suffering and terrible experiences. The tragedy provides a complex view on human heroism and the characters are portrayed as multidimensional. The audience is presented both to the human weakness, but also its greatness and dignity. The essential element is that the tragedy insists on the man’s responsibility for his actions.

Shakespearean tragedy

From the very beginning of his career, Shakespeare was fond of the emotional display which tragedies offer.
Some of Shakespeare’s most famous plays are tragedies, mainly written between 1601 and 1608:

  • Romeo and Juliet
  • Julius Caesar
  • King Lear
  • Hamlet
  • Macbeth
  • Othello
  • Antony and Cleopatra
  • Coriolanus
  • The History of Troilus and Cressida
  • The Life of Timon of Athens
  • Titus Andronicus external image shakeanim2.gif

In all of these plays, the protagonist, or anti-hero, is capable of both good and evil, as Aristotle’s perception of tragedy says. However, the anti-heroes of Shakespearean tragedies possess free will on another level than the classic Greek tragedy.
An example of a great tragedy is “King Lear”, written between 1603 and 1606.

Short synopsis: “An old and foolish king divides his land among his three daughters, but rebukes the youngest before giving her his land. The other two daughters then mistreat and abandon their father. He later dies holding the dead body of his only faithful daughter in his hands.”