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tragedy, form of drama that depicts the suffering of a heroic individual who is often overcome by the very obstacles he is struggling to remove. The protagonist may be brought low by a character flaw or, as Hegel stated, caught in a “collision of equally justified ethical aims.”

See also drama, Western; comedy.

Ancient Tragedies

The earliest tragedies were part of the Attic religious festivals held in honor of the god Dionysus (5th cent. B.C.). The ritual entailed the presentation of four successive plays (three tragedies, one comedy). Each was based on situations and characters drawn from myth, and the tragedies ended in catastrophe for the heroes and heroines. The most famous ancient tragedies are probably the Oresteia (a trilogy) of Aeschylus, Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, and Euripides' Trojan Women.

In his definitive analysis of tragedy in the Poetics (late 4th cent. B.C.), Aristotle points out its ritual function as catharsis: spectators are purged of their own emotions of pity and fear through their vicarious participation in the drama. The plays of the Roman tragedian Seneca—including Hercules, Medea, Phaedra, and Agamemnon—were established on certain conventions, notably violence, revenge, and the appearance of ghosts.

Renaissance and Later Tragedy

Roman works are significant not for their intrinsic grandeur but for their usefulness as models for such Renaissance dramas as Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine (1587) and Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy (1594), often cited as the first revenge tragedy. These in turn served as models for the towering tragedies of the period, Marlowe's Dr. Faustus (1588); Shakespeare's Othello, Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear (1600–1607); and John Webster's Duchess of Malfi (1614). The tradition of the tragic hero was to continue for the next 300 years, reinforced not only by English dramatists but by such European playwrights as the Spaniards Lope de Vega and Calderón de la Barca; the Frenchmen Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine; and the Germans G. E. Lessing, Goethe, and Schiller.

Moral, Domestic, and Political Tragedy

Tragedy can also be a vision of life, one shared by most Western cultures and having its roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition. To reflect this wider sense of the human dilemma, where men feel compelled to confront evil, yet where evil prevails, a second dramatic tradition evolved. Its roots go back once again to religious drama, in this case the mystery and morality plays of medieval England, France, and Germany (see miracle play; morality play). Unlike classical drama, these plays, of which Everyman is the best known, emphasize the accountability of ordinary people. Even plays about the divine Christ stress human suffering and sacrifice.

The tragic lot of the common man and woman thus found its way into the dramatic repertory of later ages. George Lillo's London Merchant (1731) is an early example of domestic tragedy, as Georg Büchner's Danton's Death (1835) is of political tragedy. Henrik Ibsen's Doll's House (1879) and An Enemy of the People (1882) are also superb examples of the domestic and the political tragedy, respectively.

Twentieth-Century Tragedy

The cataclysmic events of the 20th cent.—two world wars, the destructive use of atomic power, the disintegration of family and community life—have caused a radical diminution of the vision of life embodied by the earlier domestic and political tragedy. Its shrinkage is evident in such plays as Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra (1931) and Long Day's Journey into Night (1956), Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage (1941), Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman (1949), and Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot (1953).

Each of the latter works can be labeled tragedy, if rather loosely. The pattern first seen by Aristotle is still discernible. The protagonist is, as always, defeated by opposing forces—Freudian behavior patterns, wartime attrition, loss of identity, drugs, or alcohol, if not pride, ambition, and jealousy. And still felt is the mysterious cathartic exaltation at the end of a powerful theatrical experience. Despite quibbling about the exact meaning and application of the word tragedy, most critics would agree in saying that some of the works of such 20th-century dramatists as Anton Chekhov, August Strindberg, Luigi Pirandello, Gabriele D'Annunzio, Ugo Betti, Michel de Ghelderode, Sean O'Casey, Jean Anouilh, and Tennessee Williams may be classed as tragedy.


See B. H. Clark, ed., European Theories of the Drama (rev. ed. 1947); R. B. Sewall, The Vision of Tragedy (1959); R. Williams, Modern Tragedy (1966); G. Brereton, Principles of Tragedy (1968); O. Mandel, A Definition of Tragedy (1982); C. Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy (1985); H. A. Mason, The Tragic Plane (1986); T. Eagleton, Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic (2002); R. Scodel, An Introduction to Greek Tragedy (2010).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a dramatic genre based on the tragic conflicts of heroic personages; its outcome is tragic and impassioned. The tragedy is opposed to the comedy and is marked by austere seriousness; it depicts reality as a knot of acute inner contradictions and reveals profound conflicts in a highly intense and concentrated form that acquires a symbolic significance. It is not by chance that most tragedies are in verse.

Historically, the tragedy has existed in various manifestations. The essence of the tragedy, as well as the aesthetic category of the tragic, were established for European literature by ancient Greek tragedy and poetics. According to Aristotle, a tragedy is “a representation of an action which is important [and] complete ... it is enacted, not recited; and by arousing pity and fear it gives an outlet to emotions of this type” (Poetics, 1449b; Russian translation, Moscow, 1957).

The Greek tragedy developed from religious rituals associated with the god Dionysus and remained religiously oriented throughout its history. The Greek tragedies were dramatic recreations of myths about conflicts between generations, as represented by gods or heroes. Greek tragedy brought spectators in contact with a reality that was common to all of the people and their history. This is why Greek tragedies were perfect and completely harmonious works of art, as exemplified by the tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles. Owing to the complete realism of the events it depicts, Greek tragedy has a profound psychological and physiological impact on the spectator, making him experience intense inner conflicts and then resolving these conflicts harmoniously by means of catharsis.

Later Greek tragedy no longer expressed this unity of life and art, of reality and myth, and of the immediate and the symbolic. In the tragedies of Euripides, this unity was destroyed by an assertion of man’s individuality and a separation between the fate of the individual and that of the people. From the time of Euripides, the tragedy became a literary genre that for many centuries was subject to the rules of rhetoric; this can be seen in Roman tragedy (in the plays of Seneca), and in medieval Byzantine and Latin tragedy.

The tragedy has developed unevenly. It flowered again during the critical epoch of the late Renaissance and baroque, when drama again dealt with contemporary conflicts and became part of the living tradition of the popular theater. Reality was again interpreted as tragic action and was presented on the stage as tragedy. The prevailing sense of crisis and disintegration were expressed in Spanish tragedy from Lope de Vega to Calderón and, most brilliantly, in English tragedy, first and foremost in the tragedies of Shakespeare.

The Shakespearean tragedy differs greatly in form from the classical tragedy. Shakespearean tragedy depicts the endless reality of life, which cannot be confined within a single conflict occurring in one critical instant of tension and resolution. The potential for crisis in tragedy is infinite, and the writer of tragedies can only trace the unfolding of a crisis in an epic and unhurried manner, revealing this crisis in diverse ways. By means of irony and comedy, the writer of tragedies gives different shades of meaning to tragedy and intensifies what is tragic. Shakespeare’s sense of the tragic transcends individual conflicts and heroes; it embraces everything, for like reality itself, Shakespeare’s heroes are not static and can change, even drastically.

In the mid-17th century, particularly in Germany, social contradictions were expressed in a generalized form in the tragedies of A. Gryphius. In these tragedies, life is portrayed as a cruel and bloody series of deeds performed on the eve of the end of the world; the tragic hero must make a final choice between eternal happiness and damnation.

In France, a rationalist interpretation of the rhetorical tradition and the use of this tradition to resolve ethical conflicts in the spirit of rationalist psychology and philosophy gave rise to the brilliant classical tragedies of Corneille and Racine. These tragedies, written in what is known as the high style, observed the classical unities of time, place, and action. The literary merit of the tragedies of Corneille and Racine resulted from the playwrights’ deliberate restrictiveness and their masterful formulas for depicting life’s conflicts.

The emergence of a bourgeois society undermined the existence of the tragedy. Life became infinitely fragmented and was dominated by commonplace everyday realities. The classical literary canons disintegrated, as did the classification of style in terms of high, middle, and low. The middle style triumphed, expressing itself in dramaturgy as the victory of the drama, a genre midway between tragedy and comedy. Tragic tension and generalization were achieved obliquely, and even by means of comedy.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Schiller’s tragedies revived the classical style. The romantic tragedy, on the other hand, was the reverse of the classical tragedy; it presented not the world but the individual and his soul, as seen in the tragic dramas of Hugo, Byron, and M. Iu. Lermontov. In Austria, F. Grillparzer contrasted the harmonious baroque vision of the world with the spiritual vacuum of his own time. In Germany, C. F. Hebbel attempted to revive the heroic tradition by means of tragedy.

Russian realism produced convincing tragic dramas based on a comprehensive and profound portrayal of actual life; examples were A. N. Ostrovskii’s The Thunderstorm and L. N. Tolstoy’s The Power of Darkness. The historical dramas of A. S. Pushkin and A. K. Tolstoy were akin to the genre of tragedy.

Beginning in the late 19th century, many stylized dramas revived the classical tragedy and the high-style tragedy. These included the plays of H. von Hofmannsthal, Viach. Ivanov, G. Hauptmann, T. S. Eliot, and P. Claudel, and later of J. P. Sartre and J. Anouilh. However, these aesthetically justified and historically inevitable dramatic experiments attest to a crisis in modern drama. The pessimism and despair that permeate many Western plays preclude the possibility of tragedy; the playwrights feel a sense of having passed beyond tragic events, which leave man no scope for action and which by virtue of their very nature cannot be transmitted by means of art.

The literature of socialist realism, on the other hand, represents a continuation of dramatic traditions and is foreign to historical pessimism. Consequently, the dramas of socialist realism are able to express the tragic conflicts of our time, which are based on an irreconcilable clash of inimical historical forces. Literary scholars have called even the most tragic Soviet revolutionary drama—Vs. Vishnevskii’s An Optimistic Tragedy—a heroic drama. This appraisal is justified, since the play depicts the victory of heroism, death resulting not from a personal flaw or error (the tragic flaw of classical tragedy), and a tragic catastrophe represented not as a resolution but as a frontier being conquered. Other Soviet heroic dramas include V. N. Bill’-Belotserkovskii’s The Gale, L. M. Leonov’s Invasion, and I. L. Sel’vinskii’s Eagle on His Shoulders. These dramas embody the tragic principle in the revolutionary, antifascist, and social struggle.


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Aristotle. Ob iskusstvepoezii. Moscow, 1957.
Lessing, G. E. Gamburgskaia dramaturgiia. Moscow-Leningrad, 1936.
Hegel, G. W. F. Estetika, vol. 3. Moscow, 1971.
Russkie pisateii o literaturnom trude, vols. 1–4. Moscow, 1954–56.
Nietzsche, F. “Rozhdenie tragedii iz dukha muzyki.” Poln. sobr soch., vol. 1. Moscow, 1912.
Anikst, A. A. Teoriia dramy ot Aristotelia do Lessinga, vol. 1. Moscow, 1967.
Anikst, A. A. Teoriia dramy v Rossii ot Pushkina do Chekhova. Moscow, 1972.
Zingerman, B. “Problemy razvitiia sovremennoi dramy.” In the collection Voprosy teatra. Moscow, 1967.
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Tragedy: Modern Essays in Criticism. Edited by L. Michel and R. B. Sewall. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1963.
Schöne, A. Emblematik und Drama im Zeitalter des Barock, 2nd ed. Munich, 1968.
Kommereil, M. Lessing und Aristoteles [4th ed.]. Frankurt am Main, 1970.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


1. (esp in classical and Renaissance drama) a play in which the protagonist, usually a man of importance and outstanding personal qualities, falls to disaster through the combination of a personal failing and circumstances with which he cannot deal
2. (in later drama, such as that of Ibsen) a play in which the protagonist is overcome by a combination of social and psychological circumstances
3. any dramatic or literary composition dealing with serious or sombre themes and ending with disaster
4. (in medieval literature) a literary work in which a great person falls from prosperity to disaster, often through no fault of his own
5. the branch of drama dealing with such themes
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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