Tragedy in Literature: Definition, Characteristics & Examples

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Angela Janovsky

Angela has taught middle and high school English, Business English and Speech for nine years. She has a bachelor's degree in psychology and has earned her teaching license.

In this lesson, you will focus on the literary tragedy, its characteristics, and how it moves the reader. You'll also examine some examples of tragedies, both ancient and modern.

Types of Literature

The types of literature that exist are as varying as types of movies or television shows. There is truly something for everyone. There are even specific categories depending on what mood the reader may be in at the time. Want to laugh? Read a comedy. Want a love story? Read a romance.

Perhaps one of the most widely used styles in literature is the tragedy. The adjective 'tragic' can describe any number of sad or depressing incidents that plague everyday life. However, in literature, tragedy has a much more specific definition. A literary tragedy is a written piece that consists of courageous, noble characters who must confront powerful obstacles, external or from within. These characters are the epitome of bravery. They show the depth of the human spirit in the face of danger, defeat, and even death.

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

Coming up next: What is Plot? - Examples & Definition

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 0:01 Types of Literature
  • 0:52 Characteristics
  • 5:02 Lesson Summary
Save Save Save

Want to watch this again later?

Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course.

Log in or Sign up

Speed Speed

Characteristics of a Tragedy

The tragedy became a popular type of drama starting with the ancient Greeks. In this era, tragic protagonists were not everyday people. Tragedies at the time had powerful and influential protagonists, with happy and fulfilling lives. During the course of Greek plays, the protagonists' lives are turned upside down and they suffer the deepest agony. This fall from a high status to the lowest is essential to the tragedy, since it makes the suffering all the more distressing.

In addition, the protagonist usually has a tragic flaw, or some weakness that is the reason for his downfall. For an example, let's look at Sophocles' play Oedipus the King. In this drama, Oedipus is a great king and a strong leader. He is beloved by the people and lives a grand life. However, his tragic flaw is his pride. This tragic flaw led him to unknowingly murder his own father and marry his mother. This leads to Oedipus' downfall, in which he gouges out his own eyes.

Another characteristic of the literary tragedy is more obvious: a heartbreaking ending. Some tragedies end in death, some in destruction, and some in chaos, but whatever the situation, the protagonist almost always accepts responsibility for his mistakes and fights for a larger cause. Witnessing this greatness of character often leads to something called catharsis. Catharsis is known for possibly being the reason why so many people want to read or watch a tragedy.

Seeing a character suffer the worst and lose everything might leave most people hopeless. However, seeing the character take responsibility and retain his goodness through everything he suffers, often causes relief in audiences. This is a catharsis, which is the purging of emotions, specifically pity and fear. The audience feels compassion for the protagonist, and whatever the ending, is left with an affirmation of human values, which prevents feeling despair. Yes, the reader is sad, but still has hope for mankind.

Some more common characteristics of tragedy can be seen in many of Shakespeare's plays. Like the ancient Greeks, Shakespeare wrote dramas with great, noble characters with tragic flaws that led to suffering and their downfall. Shakespeare shows another characteristic of tragedies, which is how the protagonist becomes estranged from the world around them. For example, in Romeo and Juliet, the two title characters slowly lose everyone else they are close to. Romeo's best friend, Tybalt, dies as a result of a confrontation with the Capulets. And Juliet can tell no one in her family about her romance with Romeo. In fact, it is the isolation of the two characters that causes the misunderstanding of their plan and leads to each one committing suicide rather than having to live without the other. This isolation from the rest of the world can be seen in most prominent tragedies.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it now
Create an account to start this course today
Used by over 30 million students worldwide
Create an account