By Muhammad Faseeh ul Hassan


Tragedy is also called as the “Goat Song”. It is also regarded as the most sublime form of drama in English literature. Tragic dramas utilize darker subjects, for example, disaster, agony and death. Protagonists often have a Hamartia (tragic flaw) which leads them to their downfall. The conclusion of tragic dramas is dreadful and leaves a message for rest of the society.

In the first place it almost certainly denoted a form of ritual sacrifice accompanied by a choral song in honour of Dionysus, the god of the fields and the vineyards. Out of this ritual developed Greek dramatic tragedy.

In his Poetics, Aristotle defined tragedy as: ” The imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself; in language in pleasurable accessories, every kind acquired separately in the pieces of the work; in a dramatic , not in a narrative structure; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions”.


There is a little note between Aristotle and the writers of the Renaissance period. Diomedes (4th c.A.D.) for example , remarks that tragedy is a narrative about fortunes of heroic or semi-divine characters. Isidore of Seville (6-7th CE) observes that the tragedy comprises sad stories about the commonwealths and kings. John of Garland (12th CE) describes tragedy as a poem written in the grand style about shameful and wicked deeds; a poem which begins in joy and ends in grief. And chaucer, in the prologue to The Monk’s Tale, gives a representation medieval view:

Tragedie is to seyn a certeyn storie,
As olde bookes maken us memorie,
Of hym that stood in greet prosperitee
And is fallen out of high degree
Into myserie, and endeth wrecchedly.

In the Middle ages Classical drama was not known; nor were Aristotle’s theories. In that period tragedy was a story of a kind that Chaucer described in his prologue to The Monk’s Tale. The greatest tragedy of all (namely the passion and death of Christ) had been played in real life. From it grew the richly complex, symbolic drama of church ritual. In the absence of drama this works of, for example , quite a talented dramatist like James Sheridan Knowles (1784-1862), whose best tragedy was Caius Gracchus (1815), and in plays by Keats, Tennyson, Browning and Swinburne.

During the latter part of the 16th CE and until approximately 1640, dramatists paid less attention to the classical rules and conventions and worked out what was suitable for their individual needs. Infact we find a large number of tragedies in this period whose form and structure show considerable variations. Some of the most famous and notable works are: several major works of Shakespeare; Romeo and Juliet (1595), Hamlet (1603-04), Othello (1604), King Lear (1606), Macbeth (1606), Antony and Cleopatra (1606-07) and Coriolanus (1608); Thomas Preston‘s Cambyses (1569); Marlowe‘s Dr Faustus (1588); Thomas Heywood‘s A Woman Killed With Kindness (1603); Ben jonson’s Sejanus (1603) and many other notable plays.

Near the end of the 19th CE two Scandinavian dramatists brought about a wholly unexpected revolution of the tragic form and subject. Their works displayed the tragedy of disease, of eccentricity, of bad heredity, of madness and more less psychotic and emotionally morbid states. Their tragic vision revealed a society that was diseased; spiritually and morally corrupt. In Ibsen’s case the vision gave great and bitter offence. what he exposed was too near the truth for almost anybody’s comfort. Some of the major works in the tragic mode were: Henrik Ibsen‘s A Doll’s House (1879), Brand (1885) and Hedda Gabler (1891); Strindberg‘s The Father(1887), and Miss Julie (1889).

Essentials of a Tragedy

  • Plot
  • Characters
  • Language
  • Unity
  • Hamartia

Plot is a main idea or theme of the drama. It depends upon the writer that how perfectly he knits the plot. According to Aristotle, the plots of the Tragedy are either simple or complex, Since the actions they represent are naturally of this twofold description. The action proceeding in the way defined, as one continuous whole, I call simple, when the change in the hero’s fortunes takes place without Periptery or Discovery- and complex, when it involves on or the other or both. These should each of them arise out of the structure of the plot itself, so as to be consequence, necessary or probable, of the antecedents.

Characters, According to Aristotle the number of characters should be limited and should be selected from the society and be well represented. But Shakespeare doesn’t follow the number of characters and armies of characters are observed in his plays.

Language, In Plays the level of the language should be good and should belong to the respective class of the society. But Shakespeare used the high language for all classes; either he is king or the salesman, and according to Sir Samuel Jhonson this is a fault in Shakespeare.

Hamartia is a Greek word also called as the Tragic Flaw. Traditionally that defect in the tragic hero or heroine which leads to their downfall. And arouses the emotions of pity and fear among the audiences.

Unity, There should be Unity of Time, Unity of Place and Unity of Action.

Types of Tragedy

Some of the major tpes of tragedy are as follows;

  • Heroic Tragedy
  • Revenge Tragedy
  • Senecan Tragedy
  • Tragicomedy

Heroic Tragedy is a drama in the epic mode which is grand, rhetorical and declamatory; at its worst, bombastic. The theme of the Heroic Tragedy are love and honour and it was considerably influenced by the French classical drama, especially with the work of Corneille. This form of tragedy had some vogue at the beginning of the Restoration Period. Two primary early works were by Sir William Davenant who was basically the pioneer of English drama. His The Siege of Rhodes (1656) and The Spaniards in Peru (1658) helped to establish Heroic Drama.

Revenge Tragedy is a form of Tragic drama in which someone (usually a hero or villain) rights a wrong. In their treatment of the revenge themes the emphasis is on the point on honour and the conflict between love and duty. English revenge tragedy owed much to the Senecan tragedy. The Elizabethan dramatists took Senca as the model and the Roman stoic’s influence can be seen considerable body of drama between 1580 and 1630. One of the earliest English Senecan type tragedies were Gorboduc (1561) in which there is a revenge element: Porrex, one of the sons of King Gorboduc and Queen Videna, kills his brother Ferrex. The mother revenges murderer by killing Porrex.

Shakespeare’s first attempt at the genre was Titus Andronicus (1594). This is similar to the construction of The Spanish Tragedy and deeply under its influence. It is one of the bloodiest and the most horrific of all plays. Later, Shakespeare was to raise the genre to the highest level with Hamlet. Other major works of this type are: George Chapman’s The Revenge of Bussy D’ Ambois (1607); Tourneur’s The Athiest’s Tragedy (1611); Webster’s The White Devil (1612); John Fletcher’s The Bloddy Brother (1616); and Arthur Miller’s A view from the Bridge (1955).

Senecan Tragedy, The closet dramas of the Roman Seneca (4 B.C.-A.D. 65) had a considerable influence on the Elizabethan tragedies who accepted them as a stage plays. the themes of the Seneca’s plays Hercules Furens, Medea, Troades, Phaedra, Agamemnon, Oedipus, Hercules Oetaeus, phoenissae and Thyestes were taken from the whole field of Greek drama and contained little or no action in the true sense of the word.

The plays had a five-act structures with a chorus marking the end of each act. The subject matter of these choric speeches, often little more than mythological catalogues, was often remote from the action of the play. In these plays the theme of revenge, usually introduced by the ghost of a wronged person(obvious Shakespearean parallels are Hamlet’s father and Banquo’s ghost in Macbeth); the messenger figure whose speeches usually report the culminating activity or disaster and fall into a stereotyped pattern, e.g. the bleeding captain in Macbeth; and a striving extract the utmost effect from the spoken words.

Tragicomedy,  is a genre that is a compound of  both tragic and comic forms. Most commonly seen in dramatic literature, the term can describe either a tragic play which contains enough comic elements to lighten the general mood or a significant play with a cheerful ending. Tragicomedy, as its name implies, invokes the intended response of both the tragedy and the comedy in the audience, the former being a genre based on human suffering that conjures catharsis  or pleasure  and the former  being a genre intended  to be humorous  or entertaining by inciting laughter .

The term derives from a reference by Plautus (254-184 B.C.) to the conventional mixtures of kings, gods, and servants in his own play Amphitruo as a tragico-comedia. However, the idea of tragicomedy was not new even then since Euripides’s Alcestis and Iphigenia (both tragedies) had happy endings. The tragicomedies from the Shakespeare are all different from each other and from anything that preceded them: namely, Troilus and Cressida , All’s Well That Ends WellMeasure for measureThe winter’s TaleCymbeline and The Tempest.

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