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The original definition was given by Aristotle in his treatise On Tragedy, a Greek document from “classical” times; thus, classical tragedy is Greek drama fulfilling all the requirements set forward by Aristotle: a character falls from a high place because of a “tragic” flaw, resulting in a catharsis (“cleansing”) in the audience, etc. Oedipus Rex by Sophocles is the most commonly used example. (Note: Aristotle also wrote On Comedy, but that manuscript has been lost through history.) Shakespearean tragedy, a product of Elizabethan drama during the Renaissance (rebirth) of classical criteria on stage (and not used exclusively by Shakespeare), followed Aristotle’s rules, but with Elizabethan settings and structure – Othello, for example, is the drama of a man who falls from a high place (he is a well-respect general in the army) due to his tragic flaw (jealousy). Modern tragic drama uses a broader definition of the word, referring to very unhappy circumstances in which a main character falls or dies, making the audience feel badly. The “character who falls from a high place” is replaced by a “character whose fate we watch unfolding toward a bad end.” Thus, in “modern tragedy," the fate of such a character as Willie Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, hardly a character “in a high place,” can be considered “tragic” because the audience follows the path of his downfall and feels “powerless.” The problem arises when a student or scholar treats any serious, non-comic, play as a modern tragedy. Absurdist plays, for example, are not tragedies.
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