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Introduction to Drama: A Beginner’s Guide to Tragedy

Tragedy - 225px-Thomas_Keene_in_Macbeth_1884_Wikipedia_crop

Definition and History

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. In Latin, the word for such a mask was persona.

While Greek tragedy continued to be performed throughout the Roman period, the year 240 BCE marks the beginning of regular Roman drama. Livius Andronicus began to write Roman tragedies, thus creating some of the first important works of Roman literature.

Classical Greek drama was largely forgotten in Western Europe from the Middle Ages to the beginning of the 16th century.

Types of Tragedies

Greek Tragedy typically consisted of a protagonist of high rank who makes an error of judgement (flawed) and accepts his fall from grace. Other important elements include Gods, mythology, conflict, suffering and catharsis. The great Greek tragedians were Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus. Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex is often considered the perfect tragedy.

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. Nine plays written by Roman philosopher Seneca survive today, some of which are considered revenge tragedies, adopted by Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Senior Elizabethan and Jacobean Tragedy.

Elizabethan tragedies (not all written by William Shakespeare) 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. Jacobean tragedies are mostly characterised as being revenge tragedies.

Revenge tragedies are dramatic works in which one character seeks revenge upon another character for an evil doing. Most often associated with the Jacobean era, these revenge tragedies were actually a revival from Roman times. 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 originated in the Elizabethan period, but broke from previously established conventions, instead 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, or any art form for that matter, is successful when it evokes pity, fear, and other such emotions in the audience. It is known as catharsis, where the audience feels sympathy for the character and empathize with his/her sufferings. If the play has the capacity to move the audience by its plot, people who are reading the play or watching it in the theater can identify with the characters and feel that they have similar experiences in their life.

The Tragic Hero

Further, the hero should not only be eminent but also basically a good man, though not absolutely virtuous. The sufferings, fall and death of an absolutely virtuous man would generate feelings of disgust rather than those of ‘terror and compassion’ which a tragic play must produce. 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. Therefore, 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.  The fall and sufferings and death of such a hero would certainly generate feelings of pity and fear. So, Aristotle says: “For our pity is excited by misfortunes undeservedly suffered, and our terror by some resemblance between the sufferer and ourselves.” Finally, Aristotle says: “There remains for our choice a person neither eminently virtuous nor just, nor yet involved in misfortune by deliberate vice or villainy, but by some error or human frailty; and this person should also be someone of high-fame and flourishing prosperity.” Such a man would make an ideal tragic hero.

True or False

Mark if the statements are true or false by writing a “T” or an “F”

The ideal hero should be a bad man  (      )

The ideal should be virtuous in every way possible (       )

The ideal should be a villain or a wicked man  (           )

The ideal hero should be a man with many flaws  (          )

The death of  the ideal hero should bring joy and peace  (           )

The ideal hero should be  famous   (        )

Frailty means a weakness in character or morals (              )

Six Elements of Tragedy (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. The dramatist’s main skill lies in dividing the plot into Acts and Scenes in such a way that they may produce the maximum scenic effect in a natural development.

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 decoration of the stage is the major part of the spectacle. The Spectacle is theatrical effect presented on the stage. But spectacle also includes scenes of physical torture, loud lamentations, dances, colourful garments of the main characters, and the beggarly or jocular appearance of the subordinate characters or of the fool on the stage. These are the six constituent parts of tragedy.


The 10 plays generally classified as tragedy are as follows:

  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

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