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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 HegelHegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich
, 1770–1831, German philosopher, b. Stuttgart; son of a government clerk. Life and Works

Educated in theology at Tübingen, Hegel was a private tutor at Bern and Frankfurt.
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 stated, caught in a "collision of equally justified ethical aims."

See also drama, Westerndrama, Western,
plays produced in the Western world. This article discusses the development of Western drama in general; for further information see the various national literature articles.
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; comedycomedy,
literary work that aims primarily to provoke laughter. Unlike tragedy, which seeks to engage profound emotions and sympathies, comedy strives to entertain chiefly through criticism and ridicule of man's customs and institutions.
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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 AeschylusAeschylus
, 525–456 B.C., Athenian tragic dramatist, b. Eleusis. The first of the three great Greek writers of tragedy, Aeschylus was the predecessor of Sophocles and Euripides.

Aeschylus fought at Marathon and at Salamis. In 476 B.C.
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, SophoclesSophocles
, c.496 B.C.–406 B.C., Greek tragic dramatist, younger contemporary of Aeschylus and older contemporary of Euripides, b. Colonus, near Athens. A man of wealth, charm, and genius, Sophocles was given posts of responsibility in peace and in war by the Athenians.
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' Oedipus Rex, and EuripidesEuripides
, 480 or 485–406 B.C., Greek tragic dramatist, ranking with Aeschylus and Sophocles. Born in Attica, he lived in Athens most of his life, though he spent much time on Salamis. He died in Macedon, at the court of King Archelaus.
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' Trojan Women.

In his definitive analysis of tragedy in the Poetics (late 4th cent. B.C.), AristotleAristotle
, 384–322 B.C., Greek philosopher, b. Stagira. He is sometimes called the Stagirite. Life

Aristotle's father, Nicomachus, was a noted physician. Aristotle studied (367–347 B.C.
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 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 SenecaSeneca,
the younger (Lucius Annaeus Seneca) , c.3 B.C.–A.D. 65, Roman philosopher, dramatist, and statesman, b. Corduba (present-day Córdoba), Spain. He was the son of Seneca the elder.
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—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 MarloweMarlowe, Christopher,
1564–93, English dramatist and poet, b. Canterbury. Probably the greatest English dramatist before Shakespeare, Marlowe, a shoemaker's son, was educated at Cambridge and he went to London in 1587, where he became an actor and dramatist for the Lord
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's Tamburlaine (1587) and Thomas KydKyd or Kid, Thomas,
1558–94, English dramatist, b. London. The son of a scrivener, he evidently followed his father's profession for a few years. In the 1580s he began writing plays.
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'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); ShakespeareShakespeare, William,
1564–1616, English dramatist and poet, b. Stratford-upon-Avon. He is widely considered the greatest playwright who ever lived. Life
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's Othello, Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear (1600–1607); and John WebsterWebster, John,
1580?–1634, English dramatist, b. London. Although little is known of his life, there is evidence that he worked for Philip Henslowe, collaborating with such playwrights as Dekker and Ford.
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'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 VegaLope de Vega Carpio, Félix
, 1562–1635, Spanish dramatic poet, founder of the Spanish drama, b. Madrid. Lope, born a peasant, was orphaned at an early age. He wrote the first of his nearly 1,800 plays at 12, and by 25 he was an established playwright and a
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 and Calderón de la BarcaCalderón de la Barca, Pedro
, 1600–1681, Spanish dramatist, last important figure of the Spanish Golden Age, b. Madrid. Educated at a Jesuit school and the Univ. of Salamanca, he turned from theology to poetry and became a court poet in 1622.
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; the Frenchmen Pierre CorneilleCorneille, Pierre
, 1606–84, French dramatist, ranking with Racine as a master of French classical tragedy. Educated by Jesuits, he practiced law briefly in his native Rouen and moved to Paris after the favorable reception of his first play, Mélite
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 and Jean RacineRacine, Jean
, 1639–99, French dramatist. Racine is the prime exemplar of French classicism. The nobility of his Alexandrine verse, the simplicity of his diction, the psychological realism of his characters, and the skill of his dramatic construction contribute to the
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; and the Germans G. E. LessingLessing, Gotthold Ephraim
, 1729–81, German philosopher, dramatist, and critic, one of the most influential figures of the Enlightenment. He was connected with the theater in Berlin, where he produced some of his most famous works, and with the national theater in Hamburg.
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, GoetheGoethe, Johann Wolfgang von
, 1749–1832, German poet, dramatist, novelist, and scientist, b. Frankfurt. One of the great masters of world literature, his genius embraced most fields of human endeavor; his art and thought are epitomized in his great dramatic poem Faust.
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, and SchillerSchiller, Friedrich von,
1759–1805, German dramatist, poet, and historian, one of the greatest of German literary figures, b. Marbach, Württemberg. The poets of German romanticism were strongly influenced by Schiller, and he ranks as one of the founders of modern
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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 playmiracle play
or mystery play,
form of medieval drama that came from dramatization of the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church. It developed from the 10th to the 16th cent., reaching its height in the 15th cent.
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; morality playmorality play,
form of medieval drama that developed in the late 14th cent. and flourished through the 16th cent. The characters in the morality were personifications of good and evil usually involved in a struggle for a man's soul.
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). 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 LilloLillo, George,
1693–1739, English dramatist. The son of a prosperous jeweller, he was for many years his father's partner in the trade. He is chiefly remembered as the author of The London Merchant; or, The History of George Barnwell
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's London Merchant (1731) is an early example of domestic tragedy, as Georg BüchnerBüchner, Georg
, 1813–37, German dramatist. He was a student of medicine and a political agitator. He died at the age of 24, leaving a powerful drama, Danton's Death (1835, tr.
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's Danton's Death (1835) is of political tragedy. Henrik IbsenIbsen, Henrik
, 1828–1906, Norwegian dramatist and poet. His early years were lonely and miserable. Distressed by the consequences of his family's financial ruin and on his own at sixteen, he first was apprenticed to an apothecary.
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'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'NeillO'Neill, Eugene (Gladstone),
1888–1953, American dramatist, b. New York City. He is widely acknowledged as America's greatest playwright. Early Life

O'Neill's father was James O'Neill, a popular actor noted for his portrayal of the Count of Monte Cristo.
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's Mourning Becomes Electra (1931) and Long Day's Journey into Night (1956), Bertolt BrechtBrecht, Bertolt
, 1898–1956, German dramatist and poet, b. Eugen Berthold Friedrich Brecht. His brilliant wit, his outspoken Marxism, and his revolutionary experiments in the theater made Brecht a vital and controversial force in modern drama.
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's Mother Courage (1941), Arthur MillerMiller, Arthur,
1915–2005, American dramatist, b. New York City, grad. Univ. of Michigan, 1938. One of America's most distinguished playwrights, he has been hailed as the finest realist of the 20th-century stage.
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's Death of a Salesman (1949), and Samuel BeckettBeckett, Samuel
, 1906–89, Anglo-French playwright and novelist, b. Dublin. Beckett studied and taught in Paris before settling there permanently in 1937. He wrote primarily in French, frequently translating his works into English himself.
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'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 ChekhovChekhov, Anton Pavlovich
, 1860–1904, Russian short-story writer, dramatist, and physician, b. Taganrog. The son of a grocer and grandson of a serf, Chekhov earned enduring international acclaim for his stories and plays.
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, August StrindbergStrindberg, Johan August
, 1849–1912, Swedish dramatist and novelist. He was a master of the Swedish language and an innovator in dramatic and literary styles.
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, Luigi PirandelloPirandello, Luigi
, 1867–1936, Italian author, b. Sicily. One of the great figures in 20th-century European theater, Pirandello was awarded the 1934 Nobel Prize in Literature.
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, Gabriele D'AnnunzioD'Annunzio, Gabriele
1863–1938, Italian poet, novelist, dramatist, and soldier, b. Pescara. He went to Rome in 1881 and there began his literary career. Considered by some to be the greatest Italian poet since Dante, he expressed in many of his works the desire to live in
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, Ugo BettiBetti, Ugo
, 1892–1953, Italian dramatist and poet. He was a judge by profession. His earliest published works were two volumes of poetry (1922 and 1932), but he is remembered for his dramas. He wrote 27 plays.
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, Michel de GhelderodeGhelderode, Michel de
, 1898–1962, Belgian dramatist. He wrote in French and is noted for his colorful and avant-garde plays. He lived in obscurity until 1949, when he gained prominence with the production of Fastes d'enfer (1929).
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, Sean O'CaseyO'Casey, Sean
, 1884–1964, Irish dramatist, one of the great figures of the Irish literary renaissance. A Protestant, he grew up in the slum district of Dublin and was active in various socialist movements and in the rebellions for Irish independence.
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, Jean AnouilhAnouilh, Jean
, 1910–87, French dramatist. Anouilh's many popular plays range from tragedy to sophisticated comedy. His first play, L'hermine, was published in 1932.
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, and Tennessee WilliamsWilliams, Tennessee
(Thomas Lanier Williams), 1911–83, American dramatist, b. Columbus, Miss., grad. State Univ. of Iowa, 1938. One of America's foremost 20th-century playwrights and the author of more than 70 plays, he achieved his first successes with the productions of
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 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).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2013, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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.


Marx, K., and F. Engels. Ob iskusstve, vols. 1–2. Moscow, 1967.
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.
Vol’kenshtein, V. M. Dramaturgiia, 5th ed. Moscow, 1969.
Benjamin, W. Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels. Frankfurt am Main, 1963.
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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