Student Question

What does the term "political tragedy" mean in literature?

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Political tragedies are a sub-category of tragedy as a whole.  A tragedy is a form of drama where the misfortunes of the protagonist are examined and presented to the audience.  Iliad and Odyssey are two of the classic Greek tragedies.  The focus is on the heroes of the respective poems, Achilles and Odysseus, and the tragic circumstances they face, largely through no fault of their own.

A political tragedy, as a working definition, is a tragedy whereupon the drama which unfolds poses a question of moral validity relevant to the audience. In his book The Political Shape of Tragedy, D.M. Carter defines a political tragedy as "a concern with human beings as part of the community of the polis." A political tragedy is one where the drama addresses some moral question to the audience.

Ajax, written by Sophocles around 442 BC, focuses on several moral themes surrounding Ajax as the main character. He believes he should wear Achilles's armor, but it was given to Odysseus. This provides the audience with the first conundrum; who should rightfully wear the armor? As retribution, Ajax goes on to slaughter many in the Greek army, including cattle and innocent civilians. Is revenge in this manner acceptable? Ajax eventually realizes his error and commits suicide. The third of the moral questions is developed here. Ajax's body is then fought over, posing the question of how enemies should be treated.

The political tragedy focuses on the hardships of Ajax, but each instance of despair is paired with a moral question upon which the audience may think. The political questions of the day are much the same then as they are today. Movies from Hollywood continue to introduce political tragedy by injecting various levels of morality into plot lines. The ancient Greeks also did this, developing the political tragedy as a way to dramatize the morally relevant questions posed on any society. 

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