In literature, what is the definition of a tragedy?

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belarafon's profile pic

belarafon | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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In literature, a Tragedy is a story which "treats in a serious and dignified style the sorrowful or terrible events encountered or caused by a heroic individual" (Encyclopedia Britannica) and shows the universal role of Man within these events.

The tragedy is a common and popular form of storytelling, with examples stretching back thousands of years. The first instances of tragedies occurred in Ancient Greece, around the 5th Century BC, and were complex song-and-dance plays performed to honor the god Dionysos. The term "Greek Tragedy" is still used today. The tragedy evolved over the course of the years; Aristotle defined a tragedy as: enactment of a deed that is important and complete, and of [a certain] magnitude... and through pity and fear [for the hero] it effects relief to such emotions.
(Aristotle, Poetics, VI 1449b 2-3)

The tragedy today rejects the upper-class mentality (kings, nobility) that permeates most classical tragedy to focus on the ordinary citizen, who is often beaten down by society, larger events, and the knowledge that one may be an unimportant cog in the greater scheme of things. Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman is an example of a modern tragedy.

One of the best-known examples of a tragedy is Shakespeare's play Hamlet, (full title: The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark) which concerns the doomed Prince of Denmark  and the various schemes and events which lead him and many others to their deaths. The play is thematically and historically dense, filled with allegory and symbolism, and shows the necessity of Man to understand or accept mortality while still striving to live. Hamlet's famous soliloquy demonstrates these themes:

But that the dread of something after death
The undiscover'd country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
(Shakespeare, Hamlet, eNotes eText)


squirrelgirl86's profile pic

squirrelgirl86 | Student, Undergraduate | (Level 1) eNoter

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Though the word is often used for any sort of misfortune, a tragedy is a literary work in which the main character is destined for death because of some flaw or force that cannot be overcome. Tragedy's are designed to make the audience reflect on the role of man and his suffering in the universe. The genre was developed by the ancient Greeks (ex. Oedipus Rex), though regained popularity in Elizabethian England (ex. Hamlet), as well as 17th century France.

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