Guide to Literary Terms Tragedy


Tragedy - a serious play in which the chief figures, by some peculiarity of character, pass through a series of misfortunes leading to the final catastrophe. In contemporary theater, tragedy often has the evils of society as the cause of this downfall, especially in Theater of the Absurd. In literature, tragedy refers to any composition with a somber theme carried to a disastrous conclusion. Sometimes, the word is used to refer to an actual calamity, disaster, or fatal event.

The term is from the Greek tragoidia formed by combining tragos, meaning “he-goat,” and oide, meaning “song.” (A tragoidos was a tragic poet and singer; probably called “a goat singer” because he wore goatskins or because a he-goat was the prize in a competition among tragoidos.)

The form was developed by the Greeks from a ritual sacrifice accompanied by a choral song in honor of Dionysus, the God of the Fields and Vineyards. There seem to have been no tragedies written between Seneca (c. 4 B.C. – A.D. 65) and the Middle Ages. Tragedy was a popular form in Renaissance drama with Marlowe, Shakespeare, and others producing powerful plays depicting and pain and adversity of living.

In “The Monk’s Tale” of his Canterbury Tales, Chaucer defines it as:

Tragedie is to seyn a certeyn storie,
As olde bookes maken us memorie,
Of hym that stood in greet prosperitee
And is yfallen out of heigh degree
Into myserie, and endeth wrecchedly.

lines 249 – 253

see: absurd, antagonist, catharsis, comedy, drama, hubris