Tragedy is a form of drama which can be traced as far back as the Greek theatre. The word is derived from the Greek language, and the original meaning is "goat-song", though it is not known how this applies to the dramatic form with which we are familiar. It probably dates back to the rites and dramatic enactment of tales of the gods in the early Greek religion and mythology. A major feature or purpose of Greek tragedy was catharsis (emotional cleansing)

The hallmarks of a tragedy are:

  • that the play's denouement is catastrophic
  • that the play's denouement is inevitable
  • the hero's suffering is disproportionate to his guilt
  • the hero's anguish appears to the audience as unjust and unfair
  • the hero's pain appears to be beyond human endurance
  • the hero's pain is to some extent redemptive

Greek literature boasts three great writers of tragedy: Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus. The Roman theatre does not appear to have had the same tradition of tragedy writing, but Seneca was one of those who adapted Greek stories, such as Phaedra, into Latin for the Roman stage.

One of the greatest specialist writers of tragedy in modern times was Jean Racine, who towered over his greatest rival, Pierre Corneille, in terms of talent, and brought a new face to the genre. When his play, Berenice, was criticised for not containing any deaths, Racine disputed the conventional view of tragedy.

In the English language, the most famous and most successful are the tragedies of William Shakespeare and his Elizabethan contemporaries:

A contemporary of Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, also wrote examples of tragedy in English, notably:

John Webster (1580?-1635?), also wrote famous plays of the genre:
  • The Duchess of Malfi
  • The White Devil

In modern literature, the definition of tragedy has become less precise. A Doll's House (1879) by the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen is an example of a more contemporary tragedy. Like Ibsen's other dramatic works it has been translated into English. It has enjoyed great popularity on the English and American stage.

The rarity of tragedy in the American theater is probably due to the American ideal, that man is captain of his fate and that justice inevitably rules the affairs of men. However, Arthur Miller stands out as a successful writer of tragic plays. Among them:

See also

Greek tragedy,
tragicomedy, classicism