Plays are one of the oldest literary forms in the world. Playwrights create plays to evoke an emotional response in the audience. The type of response depends on the genre. Tragedies help us purge ourselves of negative emotions while comedies make us laughs at our own ineptitudes, pretensions, foibles and errors.
Tragedy depicts the suffering and downfall of a heroic figure often overcome by the very forces he is struggling against. Tragic heroes are often brought down by their own internal flaws or caught up in the clash of equally compelling and justified aims. Tragedy is one of the oldest forms of drama. The first tragedies developed in the 6th century B.C. at the ancient religious festivals held in Athens in honour of the god Dionysus.
The ancient Greeks based their tragedies on myths and legends. The philosopher Aristotle described the characteristics of tragedy in his essay "Poetics." Aristotle believed that the main the purpose of the tragedy was to allow the audience members to rid themselves of feelings of fear and pity. According to Aristotle, the tragic hero shouldn't be all good or all evil but someone to whom the audience could relate even if they were depicted as superior in some way, such as being a king. In Greek tragedies, the hero's downfall was brought about because of a mistaken decision fuelled by a fatal flaw. The most common fatal flaw was "hubris" or excessive pride, which drove the hero to ignore a divine warning or moral law. Famous Greek tragedies include Sophocles' "Oedipus Rex," Euripides' "Trojan Women" and Aeschylus' "Oresteia" trilogy.
Elizabethan and Shakespearean Tragedy
The English playwrights of the late 16th and early 17th centuries, or Elizabethan era, modelled their works on tragedies by the Roman writer Seneca, whose works typically featured revenge, violence and ghosts. Christopher Marlowe was best known for his use of blank verse or unrhymed iambic pentameter and his characters whose reach exceeded their grasps. His most famous plays include "Doctor Faustus" and "Tamburlane." Ben Jonson argued for creating plays following the classical concept of unity of action, time and place, in which all of the action occurred in one place and in one day. His only tragedies are "Sejanus: His Fall" and "Catiline." William Shakespeare's tragedies such as "Hamlet," "Othello" and "Macbeth" combined tragedy and comedy and featured complicated subplots, action, violence and spectacle.
Comedy developed from the boisterous choruses and dialogues performed at ancient Greek fertility rites for Dionysus. Unlike tragedy, comedy has a happy ending and is primarily concerned with entertaining and provoking laughter by mocking human customs, foibles and institutions. Comedy requires a nimble wit and a sense of elegance and leisure. What people consider funny varies from place to place and time to time. Many plays that were popular in their own time are now largely forgotten. Important comedic playwrights include the ancient Greeks such as Aristophanes and Menander; Renaissance playwrights such as Ben Johnson, William Shakespeare and John Heywood; and 20th century playwrights including Noel Coward, S. N. Behrman, James M. Barrie, George S. Kaufman and Neil Simon.
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- Rachel LePell, Theater Instructor; Chabot College; Hayward, California
- "The Concise Oxford Companion to the Theatre"; Tragedy; Phyllis Hartnoll, Peter Found; 1996
- Brooklyn College: Tragedy
- "The Columbia Encyclopedia"; Tragedy; 2008
- "The Concise Oxford Companion to the Theatre"; Comedy; Phyllis Hartnoll, Peter Found; 1996
- "The Columbia Encyclopedia"; Comedy; 2008