LitCrit: Tragedies

As someone who wants to study classics, i have read a few classical tragedies. And as someone whose favourite genre of play is tragedies, i have read some renaissance tragedies, which i will be referring to as Shakespearean tragedies, as well.

Tragedies came about in the Athenian drama scene in the late 6th century BCE. Towards the beginning of the 4th century BCE, greek philosophers started analyze it’s content and formulate its structure. One of the best known criticisms and analyses of athenian tragedies is Poetics by Aristotle. Aristotle defines tragedy as:

An imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions.

This quote summarizes many of the ways in which Aristotle defines Tregedy in Poetics,:

  • Tragedies are representations of human actions
    • These actions have dire consequence.
  • The plot is complete, and lasts long enough for a reversal in the hero’s fortune.
  • Tragedies employ tropes, heightened or unusual uses of speech as well as a mixture of different poetic meters.
  • Arouses pity and fear in the viewer and induces catharsis .

Aristotle also formulated the Six Elements of Tragedy:


Plots can be both complex and linear. The plot should elicit pity and fear in the minds of audiences. The plot provides the outline like in a painting and help lends meaning to the character. It requires a logical and ordered sequence.


The tragic hero is not perfect as he struggles to balance his virtues with his demons. He is an ordinary man who aspires to become richer in terms of courage, morality, and strength, as it is only such an admirable character who will be able to get pity and fear from the audiences. The tragic hero’s eventual downfall will be brought on by his hamartia or his fatal flaw.

All the characters must represent true human nature and be loyal to the mythical or historical personalities they are modeled on.


The thought is the faculty to enunciate something as important and rational, a condition or circumstance. It represents the ideational or intellectual element of a tragic drama. This also includes the various themes depicted in the tragedy which are expressed through speech. These speeches are employed to reveal and unravel characters.


Diction is the selection of words or vocabulary used by the dramatist. It is used to portray emotions through the instrument of words.


Music in tragedy is a tool used to educate the audience about the event, which do not take place on stage, for example the chorus songs. They enhance the emotional and cathartic values in the tragedy.


Stagecraft is the organization of the stage. It enhances the viewers engagement in the dramatic and emotional values in the play. Stagecraft is also important in conversing written word into a sensorial experience.

Another way to look at tragedies is through the “tragic vision” which consists of:

  • The conclusion is catastrophic.
    • The ending is perceived as the concluding phase of a downward movement. And the ending is  unhappy as it results in the hero’s or heroine’s fall from fortune and consequent isolation from society.
  • The catastrophic conclusion will seem inevitable.
    • To the audience of a tragedy, the catastrophe will seem inevitable. Whether grounded in fate or nemesis, accident or chance, the operating forces assume the function of a distant power.
  • It occurs, ultimately, because of the human limitations of the protagonist.
    • Ultimately, the instances that we find in tragedy happen because of powerlessness, of undeniable human limitations.
  • The protagonist suffers terribly.
    • It is because of the human limitations that suffering becomes basic to the tragic vision and the tragedies testify to suffering as an enduring.
  • The protagonist’s suffering often seems disproportionate to his or her culpability.
    • It is because of the human limitations that suffering also becomes basic to the tragic vision
  • Yet the suffering is usually redemptive, bringing out the noblest of human capacities for learning.
    • Despite the inevitable catastrophe, the human limitation, the disproportionate suffering, the tragic vision implies that suffering can call forth human potentialities, can clarify human capacities, and that often there is a learning process that the experience of suffering induces.
  • The suffering is also redemptive in bringing out the capacity for accepting moral responsibility.
    • Tragic protagonists more frequently have an active role, one which exposes not only their errors of judgment, their flaws, their own conscious or unwitting contribution to the tragic situation, but which also suggests their potentialities to endure or survive suffering, and to attain a complex view of moral responsibility

Another popular type of tragedy apart of the Grecian ones are Shakespearean tragedies. Shakespearean tragedies duffer from classical tragedies mainly in the sense that they were created for a different audience. They still contained many of the same elements in term of composition as the greek tragedies, but the messages were altered to fit that of renaissance England. The general elements of a Shakesperean tragedy are:

  • The Tragic Hero
  • Good vs Evil
  • Hamartia
  • Tragic Waste
  • Conflict
  • Catharsis

As you can see some of the element are the same as the elements seen in the Grecian tragedy, but some of them have also changed, to fit another audience in a different time.

Some of my favourite tragedies are:

King Lear, growing old and too tired to reign, decides to divide his realm amongst his three daughters, leaving the largest share to the one who loves him the most. His two eldest daughters, Goneril and Regan, foolish and deceitful children, are rewarded for their insincere flattery. His youngest daughter, Cordelia, however, speaks honestly and truthfully, which enrages the old king. He disinherits Cordelia, and then drives himself to madness, left to wander the heath with only his Fool, his servant Caius, and the madman Tom O’Bedlam for company. Once reunited with Cordelia, Lear is too late repents his rashness, and must face the tragic consequences of his choices.

When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools.

Euripides’ classic drama about the often mortifying consequences of the unbridled–and frequently hysterical–celebration of the feast of Dionysus, the God of wine.

You don’t know what your life is, nor what you’re doing, nor who you are.

One of the most durable myths in Western culture, the story of Faust tells of a learned German doctor who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge and power. Early enactments of Faust’s damnation were often the raffish fare of clowns and low comedians. But the young Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) recognized in the story of Faust’s temptation and fall the elements of tragedy.

What art thou Faustus, but a man condemned to die?

Prometheus Bound is the starkest and strangest of the classic Greek tragedies, a play in which god and man are presented as radically, irreconcilably at odds. It begins with the shock of hammer blows as the Titan Prometheus is shackled to a rock in the Caucasus. This is his punishment for giving the gift of fire to humankind and for thwarting Zeus’s decision to exterminate the human race. Prometheus’s pain is unceasing, but he refuses to recant his commitment to humanity, to whom he has also brought the knowledge of writing, mathematics, medicine, and architecture. He hints that he knows how Zeus will be brought low in the future, but when Hermes demands that Prometheus divulge his secret, he refuses and is sent spinning into the abyss by a divine thunderbolt. To whom does humanity look for guidance: to the supreme deity or to the rebel Titan? What law controls the cosmos?

I gave them hope, and so turned away their eyes from death

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s