Introduction to Drama: A Beginner’s Guide to Tragedy

Tragedy - 225px-Thomas_Keene_in_Macbeth_1884_Wikipedia_crop


Tragedy is a form of drama based on human suffering that invokes an accompanying catharsis or pleasure in audiences.

Tragedy begins in ancient Greece, of course, and the first great tragedies were staged as part of a huge festival known as the City Dionysia.  Because audiences were so vast, actors wore masks which symbolised their particular character.

Some Examples of Tragedies are:

  1. Antony and Cleopatra
  2. Coriolanus
  3. Hamlet
  4. Julius Caesar
  5. King Lear
  6. Macbeth
  7. Othello
  8. Romeo and Juliet
  9. Timon of Athens
  10. Titus Andronicus

Types of Tragedies

Greek Tragedy typically consisted of a protagonist of high rank who makes an error of judgement  and accepts his fall from grace. Other important elements include Gods, mythology, conflict, suffering and catharsis.

Roman Tragedy While many Greek tragedies were still being performed during Roman times, few genuine Roman tragedies survive. Those that have survived are mostly adaptations of Greek tragedies.

Elizabethan tragedies often include protagonists of high status (nobility, military rank, etc.) who are flawed, encounter a reversal of fortune and (usually) die at play’s end.

Revenge tragedies are dramatic works in which one character seeks revenge upon another character for an evil doing. Excellent examples of revenge tragedies include William Shakespeare’s Hamlet and John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi.

Tragicomedy A mixture of tragic and comic elements existing in a single dramatic work. Samuel Beckett’s absurdist play Waiting for Godot is a fine example of the form, where the comic elements are not necessarily noticeable at first glance.

Domestic Tragedy portraying the common man in a domestic setting as the tragic hero (as opposed to a character of nobility in a palatial setting). Excellent examples include Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh.

Characteristics of Shakesperean Tragedies

Tragic/Fatal Flaw

it is a personality trait that leads to the downfall of the protagonist. It can also be a wrong action performed by the protagonist that results in his own ruin. It is the most important element in the tragedy and almost every hero/heroine of a Shakespearean tragedy possesses a tragic flaw. Examples of tragic flaw in Shakespearean tragedy are: Macbeth’s obsession with power, Othello’s jealousy and Hamlet’s indecisiveness.

Supernatural Elements

Use of super-natural elements is a common characteristic of the Elizabethan drama, to which Shakespeare’s plays are no exception. Supernatural powers contribute to the fate of the protagonist. However, they are not solely responsible for the downfall of the hero, it still lies in the deeds/actions of the hero.

Internal and External Conflict

The external conflict, as we can easily make out, is the conflict between two people, the tragic hero and another main character of the story. It can also be the conflict between two parties one which is led by the tragic hero. The result of the external conflict is always in favor of the other party as it is the good party.

When talking about the inward struggle of the hero, the conflict represents the struggle of thoughts in his mind. The result of this struggle, many a time is that the hero goes insane (as in King Lear, the king becomes mentally ill). The inward struggle also includes the action of spiritual forces which work against the hero.


As the tragic hero/heroine is of high estate and is a public figure, his/her downfall produces a contrast which affects not only his/her personal life, but the fate and welfare of the entire nation or the empire. It reflects the powerlessness of human beings and the omnipotence of fate that a personal story of a peasant or a worker cannot produce.

The adverse effects of fate on the empire are evident in Macbeth, when Duncan’s sons Malcolm and Macduff are planning to defeat Macbeth and at the same time trying to support the collapsing kingdom. Macduff suggests that Malcolm take the throne, but Malcolm is not mature enough to hold the falling empire.


Any piece of literature is successful when it evokes pity, fear, and other such emotions in the audience. The audience feels sympathy for the character and empathize with his/her sufferings.

The Tragic Hero

Some characteristics of the tragic hero are:

  1. He must be a good man, though not absolutely virtuous.
  2. His sufferings, fall and death of an absolutely virtuous man would generate feelings of disgust.
  3. The hero should neither be a villain nor a wicked person for his fall, otherwise his death would please and satisfy our moral sense without generation the feelings of pity, compassion and fear.
  4. The ideal tragic hero should be basically a good man with a minor flaw or tragic trait in his character. The entire tragedy should issue from this minor flaw or error of judgment.
  5. The fall and sufferings and death of such a hero would certainly generate feelings of pity and fear.


Six Elements of Tragedy by Aristotle

The Plot is the most important part of a tragedy. The plot means the arrangement of the incidents. Normally the plot is divided into five acts, and each Act is further divided into several scenes. 

Characters are men and women who act. The hero and the heroine are two important figures among the characters.

Thought means what the characters think or feel during their career in the development of the plot. The thought is expressed through their speeches and dialogues.

Diction is the medium of language or expression through which the characters reveal their thoughts and feelings. The diction should be ‘embellished with each kind of artistic element’.

The song is one of these embellishments.

The Spectacle is theatrical effect presented on the stage and it also includes scenes of physical torture, loud lamentations, dances, colourful garments of the main characters, and appearance of the subordinate characters.


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