DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M042-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 23, 2024, from

Article Summary

Tragedy is primarily a type of drama, though non-dramatic poetry (‘lyric tragedy’) and some novels (for example, Moby Dick) have laid claim to the description. As a genre, it began in ancient Greece and forms a part of the western European tradition. Historically, it has carried prestige for playwrights and actors because it dealt with persons, generally men, of ‘high’ or noble birth, who, by virtue of their stature, represented the most profound sufferings and conflicts of humanity, both morally and metaphysically. The history of the genre is part of the history of how art and culture reflect views about class and gender.

Tragic theory has concentrated primarily on how to define the genre. A persistent feature is the tragic hero, who begins by occupying a position of power or nobility, but comes to a catastrophic end through some action of his own. According to the Aristotelian tradition, the audience is supposed to experience pity and fear in response to the sufferings of the tragic hero, and perhaps pleasure from its cathartic effects. Hegel initiated a paradigm shift in tragic theory in proposing that tragic plots essentially involve conflicts of duty rather than suffering.

Greek tragedy and Shakespearean tragedy provide two different exemplars of the genre. The tradition inspired by Greek tragedy emphasized a rigidly defined genre of dramatic poetry; French neoclassic tragedy is part of this tradition. Shakespearean tragedy, on the other hand, is written partly in prose, and includes comic elements and characters who are not nobly born. Lessing and Ibsen also resisted restraints imposed on the genre in terms of its representation of social class and gender in favour of drama that was more realistic and relevant to a bourgeois audience. Twentieth-century criticism has questioned the viability of the genre for modern times.

    Citing this article:
    Feagin, Susan L.. Tragedy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M042-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
    Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

    Related Articles