Tragedy In Literature: a Quick Overview

Tragedy is a branch of drama that treats sorrowful or unfortunate events experienced by a heroic individual in a serious, dignified manner, and where the story culminates into a disaster of “epic proportions.” It’s usually used for describing any type of disaster or misfortune, but the term more accurately refers to a work of art probing questions about the role of humans in the universe.

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Among the Greeks of Athica, the ancient state with Athens as its chief city, tragedy was first used in 5th century BCE to describe a particular type of play presented in the country’s festivals. Those events approximated the mood of religious ceremonies, where there were altars to the gods and priests in attendance, along with tragedies around myth and history as the subject.

A tragedy is typically built up in five stages: (1) happy times, (2) introduction of a problem, (3) worsening of the problem into a crisis or dilemma, (4) the characters’ inability to prevent the onset of the problem, and (5) the problem resulting in a catastrophic ending.

English tragedy, first appearing in 1561 with the writings of Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville, includes examples such as the famous works of Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, John Webster, Henrick Ibsen, and Arthur Miller. English tragedies differ from Greek tragedies in that they have several story lines developing at the same time, versus Greek tragedies’ focus on a single theme and plot. Their heroes also come from all walks of life, and the tragic is mixed with the comic.

Not to be ignored are the tragic plays of Shakespeare, esteemed as the most popular of all playwright. He had used a number of Greek themes but modified them to his specific purpose. His works of tragedy include Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and Troilus and Cressida.

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John Eilermann from St. Louis, Missouri is a student of comparative literature. Growing up, he fell in love with literature, beginning with the works of Roald Dahl, C.S. Lewis, and other authors of their time. Learn more about comparative literature on this website.


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