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Tragedy is a dramatic genre focusing on human suffering and, in particular, the tragic or unhappy circumstances that befall a significant character. While many civilizations have evolved forms that elicit this contradictory emotion, tragedy frequently refers to a specific lineage of drama that has historically played a distinctive and vital role in the self-definition of Western civilization.
See the fact file below for more information about Tragedy, or download the comprehensive worksheet pack, which contains over 11 worksheets and can be used in the classroom or homeschooling environment.
Key Facts & Information
- Around the sixth century BCE, Western play began in ancient Greece (800-200 BCE), in the city-state of Athens. The initial basic art style evolved into increasingly sophisticated storylines throughout time. The stories told on stage were split into two major categories, which we still use today: tragedy and comedy.
- Aristotle‘s Poetics (about 335 BCE) is the first known treatise that specifies the elements of both tragedy and comedy. The goal of tragedy, according to Aristotle, is catharsis.
- Catharsis happens when a character undergoes cleansing to release emotions. Catharsis can develop in the audience as well. After being held in grief, fury, and a drive for vengeance, the eponymous character in Shakespeare‘s tragedy Hamlet (1600-1601) finds catharsis at the end of the play. The audience also goes through catharsis, releasing the feelings that the disaster has caused them to feel.
- Aristotle defines the six fundamental elements of tragedy, the most significant of which are narrative and characters:
- Plot: is the tale that propels the action.
- Characters: according to Aristotle, the characters in a tragedy must be better than they would be in real life. An ideal tragic hero, according to Aristotle, is noble and possesses a moral drive. They must also commit hamartia, a catastrophic error.
- Thought: thought is the reasoning underlying a series of actions and consequences.
- Diction: the proper method to say the tragedy’s words. It has more to do with the tragedy’s performance than with its words.
- Spectacle: Aristotle believed that the power of tragedy should be primarily transmitted through a strong plot; scenic aspects are secondary.
- Music: All plays in classical Greece featured songs sung by a chorus.
Western Tragedy Through Age
Beyond the Classical Age
- Because of its predecessor, Greek play, heavily inspired Roman theatre, tragedy remained a popular genre throughout ancient Rome (200 BCE-455 CE).
- Greek dramas were frequently adapted into Roman tragedies. Seneca’s Medea (1st century) is an example.
The Middle Ages
- During the Middle Ages, tragedy faded into oblivion, eclipsed by other genres such as religion-oriented morality plays and mystery plays.
- Another version of Medea is Pierre Corneille’s tragedy Médée (1635).
- The tragedy was reborn throughout the Renaissance as individuals sought inspiration from classical Greece and Rome. European Renaissance dramas greatly inspired Greek and Roman themes.
- Based on the same myths, Greek mythology and Seneca’s play inspired Jean Racine’s Phèdre (1677).
The 18th and 19th Centuries
- After the Renaissance, tragedies produced in 18th and 19th-century Europe began investigating the lives of more ordinary people. Subgenres arose, such as the Bourgeois tragedy.
- In European countries, the middle-class inhabitants were referred to as the bourgeoisie social class. During the Industrial Revolution, the bourgeoisie gained increased power (1760-1840), and they were doing well in a capitalist world.
- The bourgeois tragedy is the type of tragedy that first appeared in 18th-century Europe. Bourgeois tragedy follows bourgeois people (ordinary middle-class folks) as they face problems in their daily lives.
- A notable example of Bourgeois tragedy is Friedrich Schiller’s Intrigue and Love (1784).
The 20th Century
- Between the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, European dramatists continued to emphasize the suffering of ordinary people rather than the exploits of great heroes. Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 play A Doll’s House serves as an example.
- Tragic events did not always favor the bourgeoisie because of the changes in society at the time and the growth of the socialist ideology. Some dramatists examined the problems that the lower strata in society faced while criticizing the middle classes. Example: Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths (1902).
- Western theatre and literature underwent a significant transformation following the catastrophic events of the First and Second World Wars. Playwrights looked for new formats that might accurately capture the moment’s emotions.
- The classic Aristotelian notion of tragedy was vigorously contested beginning in the middle of the 20th century as tragedy evolved into a more complex genre. Because it frequently incorporates aspects from other genres, many modern plays cannot simply be categorized as a sort of tragedy.
- For instance, Heiner Müller’s Hamletmachine (1977), while partly inspired by Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet, is not a tragedy in and of itself.
Tragedy in English Literature
- William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe were England’s most well-known playwrights of tragedies during the Renaissance.
- Two examples are Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1597) and Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (ca. 1592).
- The heroic tragedy was the primary genre of the theater during the English Restoration in the 17th century. In part, after this one, we’ll talk more about it.
- Tragedy was not a well-liked genre throughout the 18th and 19th centuries in the Romantic and Victorian eras. Melodrama and other comedic, dramatic genres that are less serious and more emotive have grown in popularity. Nevertheless, some Romantic poets produced tragedies. A good example is John Keats‘ Otho the Great (1819).
- Tragic literature in English reemerged as a significant genre in the 20th century, both in Britain and the US. Tragedies centered on the lives of ordinary people were written by British and American playwrights in the 20th century.
- Example: Tennessee Williams’ 1947 film A Streetcar Named Desire
- Let’s examine the three primary types of tragedy: domestic, heroic, and revenge.
- During the 1660–1670 English Restoration, heroic tragedy was common. Tragic hero stories are rhymed, and the story revolves around a larger-than-life hero who must choose between love and duty, with disastrous results. Heroic tragedies happen in remote locations (lands foreign to the author and the play’s audience).
- An example is Almanzor, the tragic hero of John Dryden’s The Conquest of Granada (1670). In the Battle of Granada, he defends the Moors, his ethnic group, against the Spanish.
- The Renaissance saw the most incredible popularity of revenge tragedies. Revenge tragedies include a tragic hero who decides to avenge the murder of a loved one by taking matters into their own hands.
- The most well-known example of a revenge tragedy is Hamlet by William Shakespeare. Hamlet learns that his mother and uncle are to blame for his father’s demise. Hamlet attempts to avenge his father’s death, which results in several more deaths, including his own.
- A domestic tragedy examines the difficulties that regular people encounter. Family relationships are a common theme in domestic tragedies.
- Example: Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949) is a domestic tragedy about a regular man named Willy Loman who cannot withstand the demands of a society that places a premium on achievement.
The Key Features of Tragedy in Drama
- Tragedies come in a variety of forms and have been written throughout history. These plays are linked by the fact that they all have the following essential features of tragedy:
- The tragedy’s principal character is the tragic hero. They either possess a fatal fault or commit a deadly error that brings them to their demise.
- The antagonist is a persona or an evil force that embodies chaos and leads the hero to disaster. Sometimes the antagonist is less obvious, such as a symbol that represents something the protagonist must overcome.
- Tragedies frequently occur in dark environments that hint at the agony the hero will experience.
- The tragic hero’s road to destruction is frequently defined by the influence of fate and other factors beyond their control. The trip is made up of a series of incidents that lead up to the tragic hero’s downfall in a step-by-step manner.
- Most tragedies convey a moral lesson to the viewer as a judgment on the state of humanity. Disasters can prompt audiences to reflect on existentially challenging topics after they leave the theater.
This bundle contains 5 ready-to-use Tragedy worksheets that are perfect to test student knowledge and understanding of a tragedy which is both an event that causes sadness or disaster, and a tragedy is a kind of story that deals with unhappy endings and sad events.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is a tragedy?
Tragedy is a dramatic genre focusing on human suffering and, in particular, the tragic or unhappy circumstances that befall a significant character.
What are the elements of tragedy?
Aristotle defines the six fundamental elements of tragedy: plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle, and music. The most significant of which is the plot and characters.
What are the three main types of tragedy?
Domestic tragedy, heroic tragedy, and revenge tragedy are the three primary types of tragedies.
Who were the most notable authors of tragedies in English literature?
William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe were England’s most well-known playwrights of tragedies during the Renaissance.
What do you call the main character of tragedy?
The tragedy’s principal character is the tragic hero. They either possess a fatal fault or commit a deadly error that brings them to their demise.
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Use With Any Curriculum
These worksheets have been specifically designed for use with any international curriculum. You can use these worksheets as-is, or edit them using Google Slides to make them more specific to your own student ability levels and curriculum standards.