IntroductionIs tragedy the result of excessive pride, or is it the result of a cruel twist of fate? Ever since it emerged in the theater of ancient Greece more than 2,500 years ago, tragedy has sparked countless scholarly debates over that very question. Many look to one of the earliest writings on tragedy, Aristotle’s Poetics, for answers. The work, which explains tragic poetry in great detail, introduces the somewhat ambiguous term hamartia. For many years, this notion was translated as “tragic flaw,” implying that tragic heroes were ultimately undone by their own shortcomings. Yet a reevaluation of the term has interpreted it as “missing the mark,” an idea that suggests tragedies occur when characters simply misunderstand their place in the world. Whatever the case, works labeled as tragedies—Oedipus Rex, Hamlet, and King Lear—are some of literature's most profound explorations of the human condition.
- The word tragedy originally meant “goat song.” Since tragedies were first performed at a festival honoring gods, it is speculated that the term refers to animal characters portrayed by actors or satyrs, mythical creatures who were half-man and half-goat.
- Roman theater, which is directly derived from its Greek counterpart, took tragedy to even more violent extremes, as exemplified by the bloody plays of Seneca.
- Shakespeare’s tragedies were part of a larger movement that helped redefine the genre and separate it from its Greek origins, removing out-of-date devices such as the chorus.
- An important later development was the domestic tragedy, which emerged in the seventeenth century. Rather than focus on kings and gods, these plays documented the everyday tragedies of common people.
- In contemporary writing, tragedy has become a much looser, more flexible term, often simply referring to a story where some of the characters’ lives or story arcs end badly.
Did this raise a question for you?