The word “tragedy” refers to a type of drama that explores serious, sometimes dark, and depressing subject matter.
Tragedies focus on the truth of human suffering, failed relationships, and the terrible events surrounding them. There is usually a central hero who is brought down by his or her flaws, things that the viewers should relate to. These are generally fairly straightforward and can often be separated into one or more of the seven deadly sins (greed, jealously, wrath, etc.). Alternatively, the “hero” of the story might struggle with an excess of something generally deemed as a positive character trait, such as loyalty or honor.
Definition and Explanation of Tragedy
In a play, work of fiction, or film, that is deemed a tragedy there is a “tragic hero”. This person, man or woman, starts the story with a great deal of respect and admiration. They’re known for their deeds, whether ones of bravery, selflessness, or some other character trait. But, though the story, they make choices that lead them down a terrible and unstoppable path to destruction. This person usually ends up isolated from everyone they cared about and everyone who could’ve helped them. This creates a feeling of pity in the audience (pathos) as everyone understands how this person got there. It is important that they’re choices be in some way relatable.
Why Do Writers Write Tragedies?
Writers pen tragedies in order to speak to audiences about the historical and contemporary flaws that make us all human. No matter the tragic hero’s status, king, general, salesman, billionaire, they all fall victim to their own flaws. Readers, listeners, and audience members from all walks of life will be able to relate to some part of their story. Whether that be a longing for a better life or a desire to return to the past. These tragic heroes have lessons to teach those who hear and read their stories. They are often complex and so entrancing that the moral is not made clear until the conclusion and catharsis.
Examples of Tragedies in Plays
Macbeth by William Shakespeare
When you think of a “tragedy,” it is very likely that the first thing that comes to mind is the work of William Shakespeare. His plays are often cited as some of the best examples of the genre. Of these, Macbeth is one of the most popular. Often referred to only as “The Scottish Play,” Macbeth follows the story of Macbeth, a brave and well-loved Scottish general. He receives a prophecy from three witches telling him that one day he’s going to become King of Scotland. This piece of information sends him and his wife, Lady Macbeth, on a downward spiral that leads them to murder King Duncan and take the Scottish throne.
Macbeth is filled with guilt and hounded by paranoia as he kills more and more people. He’s unable to take pleasure in his newfound power. The story ends with a civil war that ends with Macduff killing Macbeth in a duel and King Duncan’s son, Malcolm, being crowned king.
A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen
A Doll’s House is another very popular, commonly cited example of an English tragedy. The play begins on Christmas Eve. It follows Nora Helmer, who suddenly wakes up from her life of domestic control and starts to question her choices. She borrows money from Krogstad after forging her father’s signature in order to save her husband’s life. Krogstad starts to blackmail her after he’s fired from his job. Nora works in order to keep the secret from her husband, but he eventually finds out. Rather than praise her for her hard work and the fact that she saved his life, he scolds her harshly and refuses to listen to anything she has to say. In the end, Nora leaves him and her children.
Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
This tragic play is based around a salesman named Willy Loman. His story details his downfall in the last 24 hours of his life, and the events leading up to it through flashbacks. It takes place in New York and Boston. The opening details Loman’s failed business trip and information about Loman’s sons, one of whom is a laborer and the other who works in a department store. Loman sees a contrast between his own family and the very successful neighbors. Its clear that Loman’s mental state is deteriorating by this point, and everyone works to try to find more money for the family. He’s suspended from work, worries over his sons, and then eventually decides to kill himself. His family gets the life insurance money and are able to pay off the house.
Other examples of tragedy in drama include Tamburlaine and Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe, King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra, and Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster, and The Wild Duck and Emperor and Galilean by Henrick Ibsen.
Examples of Tragedies in Novels
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
This classic tragedy is set in Africa and follows the life of Okonkwo, a prosperous man. But, he has one major flaw—hubris. This leads him down a path that ends with the death of a man in a neighboring village. He’s accused, rightly, of the murder, and abandoned by his friends. He ends up dying completely alone.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
This novel is commonly considered a tragedy because it centers around a well-loved figure, Gatsby, whose flaws lead to his downfall. He’s obsessed with the past and his relationship with Daisy. He cannot accept that the past is gone, and there’s no way to retrieve it. He ends up committing crimes, doing business with unsavory figures, leading to his death, as well as the death of others.
Other examples of tragedy in novels include Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, Atonement by Ian McEwan, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, and Lord of the Flies by William Golding.
The term “tragedy” originates in Greece in the 5th century BC. It is related to a specific type of play performed at festivals that were supported by local governments. These were important occasions that were attended by the whole community. Three of the most important figures in the Greek literary scene were Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. It is from the Greek tradition of tragedies that the word “catharsis” originates as well. It refers to a release of emotion, specifically tension, that should occur at the end of a tragedy.
The first English tragedy, Gorboduc, was written in 151 by Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville. It was the first English drama written in blank verse, and one of the first history plays. It started a tradition of writing about history, kings, and their accomplishments. It transformed the style of English drama.
Some words that might be found in relation to tragedy are misfortune, calamity, cataclysm, disaster, and tragic drama.
Related Literary Terms
- Aside—a dramatic device that is used within plays to help characters express their inner thoughts.
- Dramatic Monologue— a conversation a speaker has with themselves, or which is directed at a listen or reader who does not respond.
- Point of View—what the speaker, narrator, or character can see from their perspective. This can change dramatically, depending on the character.
- Soliloquy—a dramatic literary device that is used when a character gives a speech that reveals something about their thought process.
Other Resources Relating to Tragedy
- Read: The Tragic Emptiness of The Great Gatsby
- Read: Macbeth by William Shakespeare
- Watch: The Death of a Salesman Film (1985)