DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M042-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2010
Retrieved June 23, 2024, from

Article Summary

Tragedy began in ancient Greece as a type of drama and has become an important part of the literary and critical tradition in Europe and the United States. Nondramatic poetry (‘lyric tragedy’) and some novels (for example, Moby Dick) have laid claim to being tragedies, or at least to being tragic, explicated as a type of plot or as a way of seeing the world. In general, concepts of tragedy reflect the ways humans think about and try to manage some of the most important features of human life – family, moral duty, suffering, and the noble heights and barbaric depths of human experience – in an unpredictable or intractable world.

Greek and Shakespearean tragedy provide two different exemplars of tragedy as a dramatic genre. The tradition inspired by the former typically emphasizes more formal constraints; French neoclassic tragedy is part of this tradition. Shakespearean tragedy, in contrast, is written partly in prose and includes comic scenes and characters who are not nobly born. Lessing and Ibsen also favoured drama that was more realistic and relevant to a bourgeois audience. Arthur Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman’ has been the centre of much debate in the twentieth-century over the viability of the genre for modern times.

The philosophy of tragedy also has two exemplars: Aristotle and G. W. F. Hegel. In the Aristotelian tradition, protagonists bring suffering as an unforeseen consequence of their actions. Hegel proposes that tragic plots essentially involve a protagonist’s struggle with conflicting duties rather than with unintended or unforeseen consequences. A persistent though not universal feature is a protagonist who comes to a catastrophic end, bringing others down in the process. In general, philosophies of tragedy have attempted to define the genre and elucidate how it depicts human action in relation to reason, morality and emotion. In what follows, I provide a glimpse of the state of the genre for a particular time or place, and then describe the main theories about its potential and purposes.

    Citing this article:
    Feagin, Susan L.. Tragedy, 2010, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M042-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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