Theories of Tragedy

Written by michael brent
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Theories of Tragedy
There is more than one theory that defines the dramatic form known as tragedy. (Jupiterimages/liquidlibrary/Getty Images)

A tragedy is a form of theatrical drama first introduced in ancient Greece. The polar opposite of comedy, a tragedy should cause the audience to feel fear and pity for the protagonist. An audience watching a tragedy should experience a feeling of emotional catharsis, as if going through the same experiences as the characters onstage.


To the Greeks, drama was meant to be performed in front of an audience, and was clearly divided into two distinct categories, comedy or tragedy, which both followed a fairly rigid structure. In its original iteration, tragedy is a form of dramatic performance that follows a specific set of literary rules. The earliest examples of tragedy include plays such as "Agamemnon" and "Medea." Tragedies were typically about a noble or important individual, such as a king. As its name implies, a tragedy never has a happy ending.

Aristotle's Tragedy

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle was the first to define tragedy, which he described as "an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude." Aristotle further noted that a tragedy must include "incidents arousing pity and fear," which would result in an emotional catharsis for the audience. Aristotle outlined six key elements that must be present in a tragedy: plot, characters, diction, thought, spectacle and melody, the latter referencing the Greek chorus that was a part of every ancient Greek drama. In Aristotle's definition of tragedy, the hero must be an essentially good, decent person who possesses a tragic flaw that causes him to make an action that ultimately results in his own demise.

Hegel's Tragedy

In the 19th century, German philosopher George Willhelm Friedrich Hegel put forward his own theory of tragedy. Hegel's view differs significantly from Aristotle's definition, as Hegel saw tragedy as a contest between two opposing forces, with the tragic drama formed by the ensuing collision. According to Hegel, tragedy results when these opposing forces cause one side to give way. An example of Hegelian tragedy can be seen in the events that occurred when boxer Muhammad Ali was drafted to the army but refused to serve in Vietnam. His strongly held religious beliefs would not allow him to intentionally kill another person, while his obligations as an American citizen dictated that he do just that. Ali was sentenced to five years in prison for draft evasion and banned from boxing.

Revenge Tragedy

Revenge tragedy originated in ancient Greece, became popular in Renaissance London and remains a staple of 21st-century film and television. In a revenge tragedy, a hero is wronged, but can only ensure justice is done by taking matters into his own hands. A popular modern example is the 1974 film "Death Wish," in which an architect's wife is murdered, but the killers go free due to a legal technicality. As a result, he becomes a vigilante who hunts down the killers and any other criminals he encounters.

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