Tragedy in Drama: Classical to Modern

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  • 0:05 Tragedy in Drama
  • 0:35 Tragedy: Origins and…
  • 1:07 Characteristics of Tragedy
  • 5:05 Changes to Tragedy Over Time
  • 7:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Heather Carroll

Heather teaches high school English. She holds a master's degree in education and is a National Board Certified Teacher.

Nearly every story has a hero, but some are better off by the end of the story than others. In this video, we learn what is so tragic about the hero in a tragedy.

Tragedy in Drama

When most of us think of the theatre, we usually picture the two masks representing comedy and drama. Regardless of whether the play qualifies as one or the other, almost every play is an attempt to bring chaos to order, to solve a problem. The way the problem or the conflict is solved can determine whether a piece is a comedy or a tragedy. The comedy ends with some sort of an, 'And they all lived happily ever after.' Tragedies, on the other hand, typically end badly for the main character.

Tragedy: Origins and Definition

A tragedy is a type of drama where the characters go through some form of suffering. Most definitions of tragedy that we use today come from some parts of the work The Poetics written by the philosopher Aristotle. In the simplest terms, Aristotle defined tragedy as a form of drama whose plot is centered on human suffering for the purpose of evoking feelings of pity and fear in the audience. This feeling, which Aristotle called catharsis, helps the audience move beyond the feelings of pity and fear to find peace by the end of the play.

Characteristics of Tragedy

But, a tragedy is more than just a play about suffering. In The Poetics, Aristotle explains that the plot in a tragedy is more than just the story itself; it is the arrangement of the incidents, or chain reaction of cause-and-effect events, that happen in the story. The plot is the most important piece of the tragedy and, according to Aristotle, should be whole, with a beginning, middle and end. But, he also believed that the plot must have unity of action, where all of the events are dependent on the previous and lead to the next. Because they are all tied together, and usually to the same person, this creates unity.

This plot is slightly different than what we see in a standard plot diagram.

  • We start with the incentive moment, or the moment that begins the cause-and-effect chain of events.
  • The reversal, sometimes called peripeteia, is a reversal of circumstances for the worst.
  • The climax, as in a standard plot, is the highest point of action.
  • Recognition, also called anagnorisis, is when the character makes an important discovery and gains insight to his life.
  • The catastrophe marks the hero's ultimate suffering, which sometimes includes his death.
  • The resolution only comes when the other characters can mourn the loss of the hero, but see the good that has come with his passing.

The tragic hero is the focus of the tragedy and holds special characteristics of his own. Aristotle believed the tragic heroes all possessed similar qualities, an idea that is still taught in literature courses today. And, while there are variants and debates surrounding specific characters in tragedies, the tragic hero is usually a man with the following characteristics:

  1. He comes from a place of importance; he is likely a noble or even a king.
  2. While he's a great guy, he's not perfect. The tragic flaw, or the mistake the hero makes, leads to his downfall. Even though the gods, or some other supernatural force, have set his fate, the hero makes a choice that results in his own suffering.
  3. Even though the hero suffers, in the end, he learns something about himself and his place in the world. Unfortunately, he sometimes dies after his discovery and the play ends, leaving the audience reflective on the significance of the hero's life.

Sophocles' Oedipus the King is an excellent example of the tragedy plot with the tragic hero. The story begins with the incentive moment. There is a plague in Thebes and Oedipus vows that he will take care of it. Thus begins the cause-and-effect events.

Oedipus learns that if he is to stop the plague, he must find out who murdered King Laius, who was killed many years ago. A blind prophet, Teiresias, accuses Oedipus of killing Laius. Jocasta, Oedipus' wife, who at one time had a kid with Laius, tells him not worry. She explains that sometimes prophets are wrong because it had been predicted that Laius' son would kill him and they had the baby killed to avoid that happening. Oedipus freaks out a bit and asks her to tell the story of Laius' murder at a crossroad.

The reversal comes when Oedipus is obsessed with finding out more. He is questioning everyone and it's taking its toll on him. At the climax of the story, Oedipus finally realizes he killed his father, Laius, and is now sleeping with his mother, Jocasta. At the recognition, Oedipus goes home to find that Jocasta has hung herself now that she also realizes what has happened. He is devastated.

With the puzzle complete, Oedipus knows that he is cursing Thebes and is the cause of the plague. While he does not die for the catastrophe, he does gouge out his eyes and begs to be exiled. Of course, the resolution is that Thebes is now plague-free.

Changes to Tragedy Over Time

The tragic hero fuels the plot of the tragedy and that image of the hero has changed over time. Like the origin of many aspects of drama, the creation of the tragedy is debatable. According to most sources, the Greeks are attributed as the founders of tragedy in drama.

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