T is for Tragedy

Written by Kerry E.B. Black

In “Poetics,” Aristotle says of tragedies “tragedy is an imitation of an action that is admirable, complex, and possesses magnitude…” The term tragedy comes from ancient Greece around the 5th century BC. It came to mean a specific form of play performed at festivals, dramas focusing on human suffering and corresponding terrible events in a dignified manner. Famous Greek play wrights include Aeschylus (525-456 BC), Sophocles (496-406 BC), and Euripides (480-406 BC).

There are differences between Greek and English tragedies. Greek tragedy dealt with a single theme, “great” characters, and ended with a note of dignity. English tragedy often incorporated several story lines, the characters come from all walks of life, and include comedy to temper and even heighten the experience.

In England in the 1560’s, the Elizabeth theatrical tastes moved from morality or miracle plays to works by such writers as Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville. They modelled their tragedies after Seneca and are credited as the first to author English tragedies. Christopher Marlow with his “Dr. Faustus” and “The Jew of Malta” and William Shakespeare picked up the pen. Shakespeare’s tragedies include “Antony and Cleopatra,” “King Lear,” Romeo and Juliet,” and “Antony and Cleopatra.”

In tragedy, the main character undergoes misfortunes that culminate in a disaster of “epic” proportions. The main characters usually own “tragic flaws” that ultimately lead to their undoing. “Oedipus Rex” sought to defy his destiny. “Julius Caesar’s” pride and belief of his infallibility, “MacBeth’s” ambition, and “Othello’s” jealousy destroyed them.

Tragedy explores the serious side of life. Its drama involves human suffering and terrible events. Most literary works of tragedy present stages that include happy times to act as a contrast to impending events, an introduction and escalation of a problem or dilemma, the take-over of the crisis, and a catastrophic ending with grave misfortune. They evoke pity and fear which might prove cathartic.

Other writers who explored tragedy include John Webster (“White Devil” and “Duchess of Malfi”), Henrick Ibsen (“Doll’s House” and “Hedda Gabler”), Arthur Miller (“Death of a Salesman” and “Hedda Gabler”), F. Scott Fitzgerald (“The Great Gatsby”), and Thornton Wilder (“Our Town). John Green introduces young adults to the genre with his “Fault in Their Stars” and other works.

Hollywood produces tragedies. Songs leave listeners in tears. Soap Operas dish out heaping bowls filled with tragedy, as do most country songs. (For a cry, listen to “Christmas Shoes” or “Alyssa Lies.”)

Tragedy sets into relief the experiences of our own lives, allowing us to keep our chins up. “It could always be worse.”

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