The term is applied to literary and dramatic representations of serious actions which eventuate in a disastrous conclusion for the protagonist (the chief character).
More precise discussion of the tragic form properly begin with Aristotle’s classic analysis in the Poetics (fourth century BC). Aristotle based his theory on induction from the tragedies of Greek dramatists such as Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.
Aristotle defined tragedy as “the imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself,” involving “incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish the catharsis of such emotions.” Aristotle’s catharsis in Greek signifies “purgation,” or “purification”. As per Aristotle many tragic representations of suffering and defeat leave an audience feeling not depressed, but relieved, or even exalted. Aristotle uses this distinctive effect on the reader, which he calls “the pleasure of pity and fear,” as the basic way to distinguish the tragic from comic or other forms, and he regards the dramatist’s aim to produce this effect in the highest degree as the principle that determines the choice and moral qualities of the tragic protagonist and the organization of the tragic plot.
Aristotle says that the tragic hero will most effectively evoke both our pity and terror if he is neither thoroughly good nor thoroughly bad but a mixture of both; and this tragic effect will be stronger if the hero is “better than we are,” in the sense that he is of higher than ordinary moral worth. Such a man is exhibited as suffering a change in fortune from happiness to misery because of his mistaken choice of an action, to which he is led by his hamartia—his “error” or “mistake of judgment” or, his tragic flaw. (One common form of hamartia in Greek tragedies was hubris, that “pride” or overweening self-confidence which leads a protagonist to disregard a divine warning or to violate an important moral law.) The tragic hero, like Oedipus in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, moves us to pity because, since he is not an evil man, his misfortune is greater than he deserves; but he moves us also to fear, because we recognize similar possibilities of error in our own lesser and fallible selves. Aristotle grounds his analysis of “the very structure and incidents of the play” on the same principle; the plot which will evoke “tragic pity and fear” is one in which the events develop through complication to a catastrophe in which there occurs (often by an anagnorisis, or discovery of facts unknown to the hero) a sudden peripeteia, or reversal in his fortune from happiness to disaster.
Authors in the Middle Ages lacked direct knowledge either of classical tragedies or of Aristotle’s Poetics.
1. Medieval tragedies are simply the story of a person of high status who is brought from prosperity to wretchedness by an unpredictable turn of the wheel of fortune. The short narratives in “The Monk’s Tale” of The Canterbury Tales are all “tragedies” of this kind. With the Elizabethan era came both the beginning and the acme of dramatic tragedy in England. The tragedies of this period owed much to the native religious drama, the miracle and morality plays, which had developed independently of classical influence, but with a crucial contribution from the Roman writer Seneca, whose dramas got to be widely known earlier than those of the Greek tragedians.
2. Senecan tragedy was written to be recited rather than acted; but English playwrights thought that these tragedies had been intended for the stage and they provided the model for an organized five-act play with a complex plot and an elaborately formal style of dialogue. The earliest English example was Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton’s Gorboduc (1562).
3. Revenge tragedy, or the tragedy of blood is derived from Seneca’s favorite materials of murder, revenge, ghosts, mutilation, and carnage. Elizabethan dramatists usually represented them on stage to satisfy the appetite of the contemporary audience for violence and horror. Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (1586) established this popular form; its subject is a murder and the quest for vengeance, and it includes a ghost, insanity, suicide, a play-within-a-play, sensational incidents, and a gruesomely bloody ending. Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (c. 1592) and Shakespeare’s early play Titus Andronicus (c. 1590) are in this mode; and from this came one of the greatest of tragedies, Hamlet, as well as John Webster’s fine horror plays of 1612–13, The Duchess of Malfi and The White Devil.
Shakespeare’s Othello is one of the few plays which accords closely with Aristotle’s basic concepts of the tragic hero and plot. The hero of Macbeth is not a good man who commits a tragic error, but an ambitious man who knowingly turns great gifts to evil purposes and therefore, although he retains something of our sympathy by his courage and self-insight, deserves his destruction at the hands of his morally superior antagonists. Shakespeare’s Richard III presents first the success, then the ruin, of a protagonist who is thoroughly malign, yet arouses in us a reluctant admiration by his intelligence and imaginative power and by the shameless candor with which he glories in his ambition and malice. Most Shakespearean tragedies also depart radically from Aristotle’s paradigm by introducing humorous characters, incidents, or scenes, called comic relief, which were in various ways and degrees made relevant to the tragic plot and conducive to enriching the tragic effect. There developed also in this age the mixed mode called tragicomedy, a popular non-Aristotelian form which produced a number of artistic successes. And later in the seventeenth century the Restoration Period produced the curious genre, a cross between epic and tragedy, called heroic tragedy.
Until the close of the seventeenth century almost all tragedies were written in verse and had as protagonists men of high rank whose fate affected the fortunes of a state. A few minor Elizabethan tragedies, such as A Yorkshire Tragedy (of uncertain authorship), had as the chief character a man of the lower class, but it remained for eighteenth-century writers to popularize the bourgeois or domestic tragedy, which was written in prose and presented a protagonist from the middle or lower social ranks who suffers a commonplace or domestic disaster. George
Lillo’s The London Merchant: or, The History of George Barnwell (1731), about a merchant’s apprentice who succumbs to a heartless courtesan and comes to a bad end by robbing his employer and murdering his uncle, is still read, at least in college courses.
The great and highly influential Norwegian playwright, Henrik Ibsen, wrote in the latter part of the nineteenth century tragedies in prose, many of which (such as A Doll’s House, Ghosts, An Enemy of the People) revolve around an issue of general social or political significance. One of the more notable modern tragedies, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949) is representative of the ordinary man whose aspirations reflect the false values of a commercial society. The protagonists of some recent tragedies are not heroic but antiheroic while in some recent works, tragic effects involve elements that were once specific to the genre of farce.
Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra (1931) is an adaptation of Aeschylus’ Oresteia, with the locale shifted from Greece to New England and the tragedy of fate converted into a tragedy of the psychological compulsions of a family trapped in a tangle of Freudian complexes. T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral (1935) is a tragic drama written in verse and has a chorus, but also incorporates elements of two early Christian forms, the medieval miracle play (dealing with the martyrdom of a saint) and the medieval morality play.