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What Are the Characteristics of the Tragedy Genre?

By Alan Rankin
Updated May 23, 2024
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The tragedy genre is one of the oldest literary structures. The word “tragedy” is not used here in its usual sense of a real-world catastrophe that brings misery or loss of life, but rather dramas, often revolving around a character who is brought to personal ruin and destruction, often through his or her own actions or failings. The genre was established by ancient Greek playwrights and philosophers during the creation of the stage drama, and later writers such as Shakespeare created masterworks using tragedy’s distinctive characteristics.

Stage drama was created by the ancient Greeks during public festivals more than 2,500 years ago. The word “tragedy” means “goat song,” and refers to the goats that were used as prizes or sacrifices during these festivals. At the time, there were only two genres for drama — comedy or tragedy — that inspired the comedy and tragedy masks that still symbolize drama in modern times. Early Greek masters of tragedy included Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus.

Aristotle wrote an early analysis of the tragedy genre in his book Poetics in the third century BC. According to Aristotle, a tragedy always centers around a high-ranking person, such as a noble or king. During the course of the play, this person faces loss of status, loved ones, and even his life, usually as the result of personal weaknesses or failings. Often this failing is hubris, an inflated sense of a person’s own importance and infallibility. Aristotle believed such tragedies provided positive emotional and moral effects to the audience, a process he called catharsis.

Later playwrights added new characteristics to the genre. In Shakespeare’s tragedies, the protagonists could be ordinary people, such as Romeo and Juliet, and their tragic ends were often brought about by circumstance rather than personal faults. A strong moral undercurrent was also present. Tragedy befell characters who had committed great wrongs, such as Brutus from Julius Caesar or Macbeth, both of whom assassinated national leaders. Shakespeare’s Hamlet fulfills all the classic characteristics: he is a well-born hero whose quest for revenge against a king, even if justified, brings about a tragic end.

Some characteristics of the tragedy genre have changed in modern times. Playwright Arthur Miller wrote two of the 20th century’s greatest stage tragedies, Death of a Salesman and The Crucible. In the hands of Miller and other contemporary writers, the tragedy often contains subtle comments about the failings of society rather than, or in addition to, the weaknesses of the central characters. Many modern writers have adapted Shakespeare’s timeless tragedies to their own purposes. Filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, for example, moved Shakespeare’s King Lear to the Japanese samurai era for his 1985 film Ran, adding epic battle scenes to the tragic tale.

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Discussion Comments

By Monika — On Nov 28, 2012

@ceilingcat - I agree with you. I do like the modern tragedy different myself. However, I'm also entertained by the origins of the word: goat song. Goats don't exactly sound musical, and in fact, having to listen to the bleating of goats is almost a tragedy by either definition!

By ceilingcat — On Nov 27, 2012

I definitely prefer the later definition of tragedy, where the tragedy can be brought on by the failings of society instead of just by characters flaws of the main character. It's nice to think that everyone gets what they deserve, but in reality, life is far more complicated than that.

Sometimes good people are put in bad situations, or bad things happen to good people for no reason. I think tragedies are a lot more believable when they're partly caused by the failings in society.

By Pharoah — On Nov 27, 2012

@LoriCharlie - The original characteristics of a tragedy genre story definitely are kind of comforting. Unless you're on the wrong side of the conventional morality. I wonder how many people saw Shakespeare's tragedies and tried to change their evil ways before it was too late?

By LoriCharlie — On Nov 26, 2012

I think there is something really comforting about a classic Greek tragedy where people come to ruin because of their own failings. When watching a tragedy like this, it almost seems like the world makes sense. Good things happen to good people, and bad people are punished.

I can definitely see why tragedy became such a popular genre originally. I feel like in the past (much more so than now) people really liked to see morality plays where good wins and evil is punished.

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