What is Tragedy? Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

What is Tragedy?

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A list of Shakespeare's Tragedies, surrounded by tear drops.

Tragedy - an overused word that has been variously applied to describe the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York, famines in Africa, Shakespeare'sHamlet, car accidents, cot death, divorce, flooding, the election of certain leaders to power, a failed exam, the fall of someone great, and bad fashion sense. But what is tragedy? What constitutes a tragic event?

May as Well Start at the Beginning...

The word 'tragedy' comes from the Greek for 'goat song', it is unclear exactly why this is1. In ancient Greece, tragedy developed out of the dithyramb, a hymn sung in honour of the God Dionysis (God of wine, ecstasy, orgies and irrationality, the ultimate all-round good-time guy). In the 6th Century BC Thespis separated off the chorus leader and later the Ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus added one, and then two, individuals or actors. The Hymn became plays made up of a chorus of no more than 15 singers, plus two or three actors, that were performed twice a year in Athens.

In Poetics (written in the late 4th Century BC) Aristotle said that for a play to be a tragedy there had to be a change in circumstance for the central figure. Obvious enough at first glance, but Aristotle went on to postulate that not only could this be a change from good fortune to bad fortune (peripeteia) but also from bad fortune to good. Aristotle added that the central figure should not be good or bad but one who has committed an act of 'hamartia' (not as Shakespearean scholars would have it 'a fatal character flaw' but an involuntary mistake or sin). Aristotle argued that the object of tragedy is to arouse a feeling of awe and wonder (sometimes bizarrely translated as 'pity' and 'fear') in the audience and have a cathartic affect, to purge the audience of these emotions.

Keep Going...

This idea was popular for the next couple of centuries. The Monk in Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales (c. 1387) defines tragedy as:

Tragedie is to seyn a certeyn storie,
As olde bookes maken us memorie,
Of hym that stood in greet prosperitee,
And is yfallen out of high degree
Into myserie, and endeth wrecchedly.
And they ben versified communely,
Of six feet, which men lepen examertron.
(Tragedy is, as the old books inform us, a kind of story
concerning someone who has enjoyed great prosperity
but has fallen from its high position
into misfortune and ends in wretchedness.
Tragedies are commonly written in verse with
six feet, called hexameters.)

This view of tragedy continued until Shakespeare and other dramatists of the Elizabethan era evolved new tragic conventions.

Revenge Tragedy

This genre developed in the Elizabethan period and is often referred to as 'the tragedy of blood'. The most famous example of a revenge tragedy is Shakespeare's Hamlet. The common ingredients include a quest for vengeance (often at the, sometimes repeated, prompting of the ghost of a loved one), scenes involving real or feigned madness, scenes in graveyards and scenes of carnage or mutilation (as Vendice in The Revenger's Tragedy put it 'When the bad bleeds, then is the tragedy good'). This code produced counter-attacks, such as Hamlet, where the heroes refuse or hesitate to follow the convention.


The word 'tragicomedy' sounds at first like a joke, an addition to Polonius' pompous and amusing list in Hamlet:

The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral...

It is in fact a critical term of ancient origin, coming from the Latin tragicomoedia, and can be briefly described as drama that mixes elements and styles of tragedy and comedy. This definition, though, results in more questions than it answers and as such is not very helpful. Part of the problem is that there are no concrete definitions of tragedy and comedy. The main concern of tragicomedy is to explore the relationships between man and supernatural agencies (be they Gods, fate, providence, fortune and so on). Tragedy and comedy also do this but tragicomedy differs from these, partly by having both gods and peasants in the same work and through the mixing of farce and humour with moments of sadness, but mostly in the way that this relationship between humans and forces beyond our understanding is more central than the actual actions of the play.

Examples of tragedy are Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot and Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

And Then?

After this, the process of redefining, manipulating and expanding the term 'tragedy' really took off. Various examples include:

  • Stalin: 'A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.'

  • Goethe: 'The conflict on which a tragedy is based must ideally be one where there is no possible resolution.'

  • Miguel De Unamuno: (In San Manuel Bueno) '...the essence of tragedy is killing eternity.'

  • The Bee Gees: 'When the feeling's gone, and you can't go on...'

  • Tom Stoppard: 'The bad end unhappily, the good unluckily. That is what tragedy means.'

  • Thomas Hardy: 'A plot, or tragedy, should arise from the gradual closing in of a situation that comes of ordinary human passions, prejudices and ambitions, by reason of the character taking no trouble to ward off the disastrous events produced by the said passions, prejudices and ambitions.'

  • Jean Racine2: 'Bloodshed and death are not absolutely indispensable to a tragedy. It is enough if the action is impressive, if the characters are heroic, if the passions are aroused, and if everything charged with that feeling of majestic sadness which constitutes the true pleasure of tragedy.'

  • Mel Brooks: 'Tragedy is when I cut my finger, comedy is when you fall down an open sewer and die.'

Tragedy in Literature

In the end it has become fairly clear that tragedy in literature is concerned with the fortunes and misfortunes, and disasters that befall people of power or position (or, since the late 18th Century, a representative of either a psychological or social type). For a tragic figure to be effective they have to have qualities of excellence that lift them above normal people but in the end are not enough to save them from (or sometimes are the factors that prompt people into) the self-destruction or general destruction that is brought upon them. Lack of hope is a crucial, and often overwhelming, element in most tragedies: as the playwright Anouilh3 wrote in Antigone(1944), 'Tragedy is restful; and the reason is that hope, that foul, deceitful thing, has no part in it'.

Tragedy in literature is a protest against the 'petty pace' of life, against God, chance, fate or circumstance, against 'bad things happening to good people'.

Tragedy in 'Every Day' Life

So how are we to take Aristotle's declaration that tragedy is incidents 'arousing awe and wonder (pity and fear)' in the every day descriptions of the tragic? The Oxford English Dictionary describes tragedy as 'a sad event, serious action or calamity', so that covers the events of September 11, 2001 (the shedding of innocent blood will always be a tragedy, indicative of the failure of society, the failure of culture), but perhaps not a person failing yet another exam. A 'sad event' depends entirely on perspective – As Schopenhauer wrote, you can tell how difficult a person's life is by asking them how they are, if they complain about plumbing, their job etc, then their life is going pretty well, they focus on the mundane problems because they don't have life threatening problems facing them. If you can call failing a driving test for the third time a 'tragedy', then you can't have any overwhelming problems facing you.

1The Roman poet Horace says that it was because the winner at choral competitions received a goat as a prize. It may alternatively be a reference to the goat-satyrs of Peloponnesian plays.2Jean Racine (1639 - 99) was a French tragic dramatist whose plays were often drawn from Greek and Roman literature ( Andromaque) and Roman and Turkish history (Britannicus and Bajazet)3Jean Anouilh (1910 - 87) was a French dramatist and, from the 1930s, one of the most popular playwrights in France.

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