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The two main strands in the history of philosophical reflection on tragedy, as a genre of art, can both be seen as having their origins in Plato's critique of tragic poetry in the Republic and other dialogues. It is there that we find their first sustained philosophical treatment; and with respect to this small part of it, at least, Alfred North Whitehead's characterization of the history of philosophy as a series of footnotes to Plato is not too fanciful.

Tragedy and Emotion

One strand of thought focuses on the character and value of our experience of tragedy, and can be seen in Plato's charge that tragedy (and indeed mimetic poetry in general) "gratifies and indulges the instinctive desires with its hunger for tears and for an uninhibited indulgence in grief"; that "it waters [passions] when they ought to be allowed to wither, and makes them control us when we ought, in the interests of our own greater welfare and happiness, to control them" (1987, 606a). Plato's thought that the emotional dimension of our experience of tragedy is particularly significant has been taken up in a variety of directions by other philosophers.

In the Poetics, Aristotle argued that tragedy's capacity to arouse the emotions of pity and fear in its audience, so far from rendering it intellectually and morally damaging, is in fact a source of its value: Tragedy aims at emotional effect not for its own sake, or for the sake of gratifying or indulging its audience, he argued, but rather in such a way as to bring about a catharsis of the tragic emotions. Precisely what Aristotle meant by catharsis is far from clear, and has been the topic of much scholarly debate: The notion has been understood in terms of purgation (of excessive or pathological emotion), of purification, and of intellectual clarification, to mention only some of the most influential of the interpretations that have been offered. Whatever its precise meaning may be, however, it is clear that Aristotle took catharsis to be a process or experience that in one way or another is conducive to emotional health or balance, such that our emotional experience of (well-written) tragedy is not indulgently sentimental and opposed to "our better nature," as Plato argued, but is rather an essential element in a fully comprehending attitude to what a work depicts.

Aristotle linked catharsis with the pleasure that we take in tragedy: The fact that mention of the former comes at the end of his definition of tragedy suggests that he takes it to be in some sense the goal of works of this sort, and (an appropriate form of) the latter is said to be "what the poet should seek to produce." His defense of the value of our emotional experience of tragedy in terms of catharsis is thus at least implicitly a defense of it in terms of tragic pleasure; and a debate related to, and at least as extensive as that concerning the meaning of "catharsis," has its origins in his characterization of tragic pleasure as "the pleasure derived from pity and fear by means of imitation [mimesis]" (1967, 1453b). For how is it that one can derive pleasure from what Aristotle himself describes elsewhere (notably in the Rhetoric ) as painful feelings? This question is a more difficult relative of one prompted by Plato's reference to the fact that "when we hear Homer or one of the tragic poets representing the sufferings of a hero and making him bewail them at length even the best of us enjoy it" (1987, 605c-d): How is it that in engaging with a work of tragedy one is able, or is enabled by the work, to enjoy the depiction of human suffering?

Debate surrounding these and related questions was particularly prevalent in eighteenth-century British philosophy and criticism, attracting contributions from such figures as Lord Kames, James Beattie, and Joseph Priestley, as well as, more influentially, David Hume, Adam Smith, and Edmund Burke. Some contributors to the debate focus on the question of how one can respond with pleasure to what tragedy depicts: Edmund Burke, for example, in his A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, took the problem to lie in the "common observation" "that objects which in the reality would shock, are in tragical, and such like representations, the source of a very high species of pleasure" (1990, p. 41), and thus in effect construed the problem as one concerning the consistency of one's patterns of response. (As, in a sense, did Plato, though he took the inconsistency between our responses to depictions of suffering in tragedy and our responses to suffering "in reality" to lie not in the fact that the former involve pleasure and the latter "shock" or horror, but rather in that in the former we give vent to our emotions whereas in the latter we strive "to bear them in silence like men.")

Discussions that remain exclusively occupied with the pleasure that Plato holds that one takes in what tragedy depicts often proceed by attempting to resolve the apparent inconsistency in one's patterns of response by pointing to relevant differences between the contexts in question: for example, one's awareness of the fictional status of tragedy, the contribution of artistry, and "aesthetic distance" have all been cited as aspects of our experience of tragedy that are not involved in our experience of actual suffering, the functioning of which explains why pleasure is a characteristic element of the former while typically absent from the latter. However, such discussions risk missing the more difficult issue that arises from Aristotle's characterization of tragic pleasure. For if that characterization is right, the peculiarity of the latter is not simply that it occurs in response to the depiction of things that in other contexts do not give one pleasure, but rather that it is a variety of pleasure that is intimately bound up with painful feeling; as he put it, it is the pleasure "of," or "derived from," such feeling.

The more sophisticated treatments of our emotional experience of tragedy have attempted to address this. Burke, for example, suggested that the apparent inconsistency between one's responses to tragedy and one's responses to actual suffering is illusory; in fact, he held, we are just as disposed to take pleasure in actual sufferings as we are in depictions of suffering, and in both cases our response is based on sympathy, a psychological mechanism that involves pain at the distress of its objects, but also (in order to foster its occurrence) pleasure: "as our Creator has designed we should be united by the bond of sympathy, he has strengthened that bond by a proportional delight" (1990, p. 42). Adam Smith made a similar point when he argued that it is because of its social utility that the experience of sympathy, even when the emotions communicated sympathetically are painful, is naturally pleasurable to human beings.

This account of the matter, though clearly based on a Humean theory of the passions, was rejected by Hume himself, on the grounds that the operation of sympathy is not always pleasurable: If it were, he suggested in a letter to Smith, "an hospital would be a more entertaining place than a ball." (A point anticipated in its spirit if not its tone, by Burke, who suggested that people do indeed find public executions more compelling than "the most sublime and affecting tragedy we have.") Hume's own account of what he described as the seemingly "unaccountable pleasure which the spectators of a well-written tragedy receive from sorrow, terror, anxiety, and other passions that are in themselves disagreeable and uneasy" 1987, p. 216) is by far the most discussed by contemporary contributors to the debate, although it is more interesting as an application of his theory of the passions than it is as an account of our experience of tragedy.

Hume suggested that the spectators' pleasure and their "disagreeable and uneasy" emotions are initially responses to different aspects of a work of tragedy: their distress is a response to what the work depicts, their pleasure a response to the "eloquence" and "genius" with which it depicts it. To leave the matter at that would clearly miss the problem posed by Aristotle's characterization of tragic pleasure. But Hume went on to argue that these responses merge, as the pleasure, which is dominant, overpowers, and somehow "converts" the distress in such as way as to reinforce the former: "The impulse or vehemence, arising from sorrow, compassion, indignation, receives a new direction from the sentiments of beauty. The latter, being the predominant emotion, seize the whole mind, and convert the former into themselves, at least tincture them so strongly as totally to alter their nature" (1987, p. 220). Contemporary discussions of Hume's account have focused on just what this "conversion" of emotion is supposed to involve, for Hume himself was less than clear on the matter. Whatever it does amount to, however, it is clearly dependent on Hume's associationist psychology, and is unlikely to survive the rejection of this.

Philosophical discussion of tragic pleasure, or what scholars often refer to as "the paradox of tragedy," has continued on very much the lines established by eighteenth-century thinkers, though a new slant on the matter (and indeed on the nature of catharsis) has been introduced by philosophers and others influenced by the methods and findings of psychoanalytic theory. It remains a recurring theme in contemporary philosophy of art.

the profundity of tragedy

The second major strand in the history of the philosophy of tragedy is represented in Plato's discussion of the epistemic credentials of tragic poetry, so to speak, where he argued that the tragedian has neither knowledge nor true belief concerning that of which he writes, and (hence) that tragedy cannot be a source of knowledge. Plato's target here is the view that "the tragedians are masters of all forms of skill, and know all about human excellence and defect and about religion" (1987, 598d-e), or more broadly the thought that tragedy's distinctiveness has to do with its capacity to prompt, and to suggest authoritative answers to, questions of a distinctively ethical sort. Despite Plato's efforts, the appeal of this line of thought survived his critique, not least due to the support that some found for it in Aristotle's claim that "poetry is a more philosophical and more serious business than history" (1987, 1451b), a claim made in the context of his attempt to show that the tragedian's art is, despite Plato's arguments to the contrary, a technê, a productive activity that employs rational means or principles in the pursuit of a predetermined practical end. The thought that tragedy is an especially philosophical form of art received its most sustained treatment in nineteenth-century German philosophy and criticism, where versions of it were expounded by Gotthold Lessing, Friedrich Schiller, Friedrich Schlegel, August Wilhelm Schlegel, and Johann Goethe, as well as, and from a philosophical point of view more notably, by Georg Hegel, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Friedrich Nietzsche.

Hegel argued that the business of Classical tragedyits "essential basis"is to demonstrate "the validity of the substance and necessity of ethical life" (1975, Vol. 2, p. 1222). It achieves this first by showing the "collision" between different aspects of the ethical that occurs when the latter is fragmented and particularised in human social life: thus he claimed that Sophocles' Antigone dramatizes the collision between the authority of the state (represented by Creon) and family love (represented by Antigone). These aspects of ethical life collide because "each of the opposed sides, if taken by itself, has justification; while each can establish the true and positive content of its own aim and character only by denying and infringing the equally justified power of the other" (1975, Vol. 2, p. 1196). The task of tragedy is then to show the "resolution" of conflict of this sort, which it can do in a variety of ways. The most satisfying form of resolution, Hegel claimed, involves the destruction of the characters who embody "false one-sidedness," as happens in Antigone, but "the unity and harmony of the entire ethical order" may also be effected and exemplified by the surrender of the hero (as in Oedipus the King ), the reconciliation of opposing interests (as in the Eumenides ), or "an inner reconciliation" in the tragic hero himself (as in Oedipus at Colonus ).

Although he held that tragedy was at its most beautiful in the classical period, Hegel argued that it is in what he called Romantic tragedy that art is at its most philosophical, or, in his terms, comes closest to "bringing to our minds and expressing the Divine, the deepest interests of mankind, and the most comprehensive truths of spirit" (1975, Vol. 1, p. 7). The subject matter of tragedy by this stage of its development is "the subjective inner life of the character," and at its best, which Hegel thought was in Shakespeare's hands, these characters are "concretely human individuals," "free artists of their own selves" (Vol. 2, pp. 12271228). Tragedy at this stage represents not collision between particularised ethical powers, as did classical tragedy, but either (and, Hegel claimed, unsatisfactorily) collision between different aspects of a character's personality, or (in what he held are the finest examples of Romantic tragedy) between the character and external circumstances. Tragedy of the latter sort presents the "progress and history of a great soul, its inner development, the picture of its self-destructive struggle against circumstances, events, and their consequences" (Vol. 2, p. 1230).

Hegel's claim that the importance of tragedy lies in its capacity to reveal important truths about the human condition is echoed by Schopenhauer. Indeed, like Hegel, Schopenhauer saw the arts in general as engaged fundamentally in the same task as philosophy; both, as he said, "work at bottom towards the solution of the problem of existence" (1969, Vol. 2, p. 406). Tragedy, Schopenhauer held, is "the summit of poetic art," for in dramatising "the terrible side of life the unspeakable pain, the wretchedness and misery of mankind, the triumph of wickedness, the scornful mastery of chance, and the irretrievable fall of the just and the innocent," tragedy reveals to us more clearly than anything else the most important feature of reality: "the antagonism of the will with itself" and the fact that "chance and error" are "the rulers of the world" (1969, Vol. 1, pp. 252253). However, in Schopenhauer's view tragedy is significant not merely because of the importance of what it reveals to us concerning the nature of reality, but also because in the experience of tragedy one may come to recognize the only appropriate response to the terrible truth it presents. This is to adopt an attitude of "resignation": as Schopenhauer put it, "The horrors on the stage hold up to [the spectator] the bitterness and worthlessness of life, and so the vanity of all its efforts and endeavours. The effect of this impression must be that he becomes aware that it is better to tear his heart away from life, to turn his willing away from it, not to love the world and life" (Vol. 2, p. 435) The greatest tragedies, Schopenhauer said, are those in which this attitude of resignation is not only suggested by a work but also demonstrated by its characters.

If Schopenhauer was less concerned with particular works of tragedy than Hegel, Nietzsche was still less so. In The Birth of Tragedy, his infrequent references to particular works of Greek tragedy betray very little of the knowledge of this part of literary history that he surely had; and the Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides whom he discussed in that work figure not as artists in a history of a genre of art, but rather as symbols or personifications of different cultural points or tendencies in Nietzsche's working out of a genealogy of the tragic spirit. The main symbols in this genealogy are those of Dionysus and Apollo, Greek deities whom Nietzsche used creatively to stand for both metaphysical and artistic categories. The Apollonian spirit is that which is concerned with appearances, with the world as composed of individuals; what it offers us is "beautiful illusion" (1993, p.15). The Dionysian spirit is that through which this illusion is shattered, and what is revealed to us reality as it truly is: an endless and pointless struggle of things in flux. As its objects are illusory, the Apollonian vision is too fragile to sustain human beings indefinitely. But with its object of what Nietzsche described as a "witch's brew" of "lust and cruelty" (p. 19) the Dionysian vision is too terrible for human beings to survive. The "supreme goal" of art, Nietzsche claimed, is to allow us to escape this dichotomy.

Art, at its highest, does not attempt to evade the Dionysian truth but rather, by somehow (and in a way that Nietzsche is never very clear about) mediating it through the Apollonian, renders it bearable and even something to be exulted in. Nietzsche suggested that the tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles, in which, as he put it, "Dionysus speaks the language of Apollo, but Apollo finally speaks the language of Dionysus" (p. 104) are instances of such art. But he also held that the tragic spirit was almost immediately extinguished in tragedy (in the literary-historical sense), snuffed out by Euripides' rejection of Dionysiac wisdom in favor of Socratic rationality. Nor, he held, is the tragic spirit to be found in post-Renaissance tragedy, in which music, through which the Dionysian wisdom is expressed, plays no substantial role. In fact, Nietzsche believed, at least at the time when he wrote The Birth of Tragedy, if not for long afterward, the only art capable of rediscovering the spirit of tragedy is the music-drama of Richard Wagner, the dedicatee of The Birth of Tragedy.

The concern with tragedy as a source of insight into problems that are in the broadest sense problems of ethics, which is exhibited in different ways by Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche, has been taken up distinctively in contemporary Anglo-American philosophy by Stanley Cavell, who has shown how Shakespearean tragedy can be read as working out problems of skepticism, and as occupied with "how to live at all in a groundless world"; by Martha Nussbaum (1986), who has taken up Hegel's concern with the ethical dilemmas posed in classical tragedy; and by Bernard Williams (1993), who finds in classical tragedy an exploration of the nature of necessity which challenges Kantian conceptions of the voluntary, of obligation, and of responsibility. Here, as in contemporary discussion of the so-called "paradox of tragedy," Plato's fascination with tragedy, though not his condemnation of the art form, lives on.

See also Aristotle; Beattie, James; Burke, Edmund; Cavell, Stanley; Emotion; Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von; Greek Drama; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Home, Henry; Hume, David; Katharsis; Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Nussbaum, Martha; Plato; Priestley, Joseph; Schiller, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von; Schlegel, Friedrich von; Schopenhauer, Arthur; Smith, Adam; Whitehead, Alfred North; Williams, Bernard.


Aristotle. Poetics. Translated by Gerald F. Else. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1967.

Beistegui, M., and S. Sparks. Philosophy and Tragedy. London: Routledge, 2000.

Budd, M. Values of Art. London: Allen Lane, 1995.

Bungay, Stephen. Beauty and Truth: A Study of Hegel's Aesthetics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry, edited by Adam Phillips. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Carroll, N. The Philosophy of Horror, or Paradoxes of the Heart. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Cavell, Stanley. Disowning Knowledge in Six Plays of Shakespeare. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Eaton, Marcia. "A Strange Kind of Sadness." Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 41 (1) (1982): 5163.

Feagin, Susan. "The Pleasures of Tragedy." American Philosophical Quarterly 20 (1) (1983): 95104.

Hegel, G. W. F. Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art. 2 vols. Translated by T. M. Knox. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.

Hume, David. "Of Tragedy." In Essays Moral, Literary and Political, edited by Eugene F. Miller. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Classics, 1987.

Kuhns, R. Tragedy: Contradiction and Repression. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Lamarque, P. "Tragedy and Moral Value." Australasian Journal of Philosophy 73 (1995): 239249.

Levinson, J. "Horrible Fictions." Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 49 (1991): 253258.

Levinson, J. "Music and Negative Emotion." Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 63 (1982): 327346.

Morreall, John. "Enjoying Negative Emotions in Fiction." Philosophy and Literature 9 (1) (1985): 95102.

Neill, A. "Hume's 'Singular Phænomenon.'" British Journal of Aesthetics 39 (1999): 112125.

Neill, A. "'An Unaccountable Pleasure': Hume on Tragedy and the Passions." Hume Studies 24 (1998): 335354.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy. Translated by Shaun Whiteside and edited by Michael Tanner. London: Penguin Books, 1993.

Nussbaum, Martha. The Fragility of Goodness. Cambridge, U.K., Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Packer, M. "Dissolving the Paradox of Tragedy." Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 47 (1989): 211219.

Peckham, M. Beyond the Tragic Vision. New York: George Braziller, 1962.

Plato. The Republic. Translated by Desmond Lee. London: Penguin Books, 1987.

Ridley, A. "Tragedy and the Tender-Hearted." Philosophy and Literature 17 (1993): 234245.

Schier, Flint. "The Claims of Tragedy: An Essay in Moral Psychology and Aesthetic Theory." Philosophical Papers 18 (1) (1989): 726.

Schier, Flint. "Tragedy and the Community of Sentiment." In Philosophy and Fiction: Essays in Literary Aesthetics, edited by Peter Lamarque. Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1983.

Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Representation. 2 vols. Translated by E. F. Payne. New York: Dover, 1969.

Williams, Bernard. Shame and Necessity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Alex Neill (2005)

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Origins. The origins of tragedy were much debated by the ancient Greeks themselves. The Greek word tragôidia means literally “goat-song.” Some scholars believe this term was used because tragedy originally involved a competition for the prize of a goat, or that tragedy was originally performed by humans who dressed as goatlike creatures. The latter explanation seems to be the one favored by Aristotle, who implies that tragedy began as a dithyramb (a type of choral song) sung by men dressed as satyrs. Mere choral singing, however, could never be equated with drama as such, and while there is some evidence that these choirs began in the Peloponnese, it was in Athens that the decisive move was made which established European drama. Tradition gives the name of the first individual actor, who stood out as separate from the chorus, as Thespis, and ascribes his first success to around 534 b.c.e. Thespis remains an extremely shadowy figure, but his status as the first actor was taken for granted in the ancient world; the Greek word for actor, hupokritês (hypocrite), indicates either “interpreter” or “answerer,” thus showing that the actor was a feature added to something—a chorus—already there. The common question “What was the chorus in a Greek tragedy for?” wrongly approaches ancient drama from the modern practice and treats the actors as the essence of it; it is rather the presence of actors on the ancient stage that needs to be explained.

Essential Features. Not until about sixty years after Thespis’ successful debut was there any real knowledge of the form of tragedy. The oldest surviving Greek tragedy is Aeschylus’ Persians, produced in 472 b.c.e. Remarkably for a tragedy, this play takes as its subject matter not mythology, but recent history—the defeat of the Persian expedition sent against Greece a mere eight years before. Yet, its setting in the Persian capital, far remote from Athens, arguably gives it a distance from the audience that is usually accomplished by a story set in mythical times in Greece itself. Aeschylus’ Persians shows already all of the features that we regard as typical of Greek tragedy, but this is perhaps not surprising, as all of the surviving Greek tragedies were written within a period of one man’s lifetime (less than seventy years), and all were written by Athenians.

Structure. Tragedies typically begin with a prologos (prologue), which includes everything up to the entry of the chorus. The initial choral ode was called the parodos (entry). Subsequent choral odes were called stasima (standing songs)—not that the chorus stood still for these, but because they were sung after the chorus had reached their positions in the theater. The parts of the play between these stasima were called epeisodia— whence our word episode—which means “additions.” The final part of the tragedy, that is everything between the last stasimon and the exit of all performers was called the exodos (exit). Two final pieces of terminology relate to singing by actors rather than the chorus. A monoidia is a solo song, and a kommos is literally a dirge but is used more generally in a loose sense of singing that is shared between the chorus and an actor.

Relationship. Formally, the most striking thing about Greek tragedy is the relationship between the chorus and the actors. The chorus typically represents a community over which one of the actors has power, invariably of a political kind. In Persians choruses naturally represent the citizens left behind when the army marched against Greece, and their defeated king, Xerxes, is the main actor of the tragedy. In Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, the chorus stands in the same relationship of subjects to the protagonist, while in his Ajax the chorus represents the sailors serving under the eponymous hero’s command. In some of Euripides’ plays such as

Alcestis (438 b.c.e.) and Bacchae (after 406 b.c.e.) the chorus is the political subordinate of one of the main characters, but many have felt that his essentially domestic interest in the heroes of mythology renders this political relationship less organically connected to his tragedies.

Role of the Chorus. Given this position of the chorus members, it is not surprising that their usual role is to react and to comment on their superiors; it is unusual for them to initiate action, and their helplessness is one of the things which marks out Greek tragedy as a nonrealistic medium. This essentially reactive and emotional role of the chorus is also expressed in performance by the restriction of united choral utterance to the sung (or at least chanted) rather than the spoken word. The sung/spoken dichotomy by no means corresponds with a simple chorus/actors one, for actors themselves sometimes sang monodes, but all utterances of the chorus as such were sung or at least chanted to music. Their participation in the less elevated poetry of spoken drama was achieved usually through a single representative speaker, the koruphaios. The same situation occurs with dance— individual characters seem to have performed occasional dances in Greek tragedy, but this form of expression was far more commonly used by the chorus. The regular choral odes that punctuate every Greek tragedy were delivered by a chorus that danced as well as sang, although we have no knowledge of the choreography and hardly any of the music. Only the words of these songs survive, but they can be distinguished from the spoken dialogue of the plays by several signs. They are arranged, for instance, in quite different metrical patterns, they allow some features from the Doric dialect, and they also allow greater grammatical freedom than the spoken poetry. However, it is essentially a matter of degree: the spoken poetry of tragedy itself was already quite distinct from the language of prose and everyday conversation. The conventions of Greek tragedy allow situations to be presented from two quite different perspectives—the emotional, lyric perspective of the sung word, and the more rational medium of what was spoken. In fact, many passages show just this contrast, and it is a mistake to think that a character’s change of mood is always due to a realistic representation by the poet of fickleness in the character; often, what has been presented is the character’s own reaction to a situation, first emotionally (through lyric), and then rationally (through speech).

Interaction. Distinctive as the relationship between chorus and actors is, nevertheless, the interaction between the actors dominates the action in tragedy from the second half of the fifth century, that is to say, the tragedy of Sophocles and Euripides. Deeply imbued with contemporary philosophy and rhetoric, these playwrights produced dramas which opened themselves up as foci for debate about urgent issues which still matter to us today—above all questions of family obligation, of justice in the state, and of humans’ relationship to the supernatural. The format of tragedy allowed exactly balanced speeches to be presented, arguing opposite sides of a particular case. So interested were the tragedians in these abstract debates that what we regard as considerations of character are often ignored: the challenge seems to have been to write the most convincing speech possible, not to make its utterance by any particular person believable. At a more basic level, considerable doubt has been thrown on the idea that our modern notion of character really corresponds to ancient Greek perceptions of human behavior.

Production and Finance. In the fifth and fourth centuries b.c.e. in Greece, the production of tragedy formed part of a regular cycle of religious festivals; there were never more than a few days a year, even in Athens, when one could attend the theater. The most important dramatic festival in Greece, for which all the surviving Greek tragedies were written, was the Great Dionysia in Athens. Held over a few days in early spring, the festival involved production of tragedies, comedies, and of choral songs for dithyrambs. The tragedians produced three tragedies each, as well as a satyr play (a sort of comic postlude with a chorus of satyrs), and the plays did not need to be narratively related to each other. The festivals were intensely competitive, and tragedians were judged by a panel of citizens on the basis of their four works, not for any particular one of them. Prizes for the playwrights were paid for by the state, as was the cost of the actors; the more significant cost of equipping and training the chorus, however, would be met as a form of taxation by a wealthy citizen, who stood to gain kudos and (importantly in a democracy like Athens) popularity for successful productions.

Outdoor Theaters. The actual productions had many features distinguishing them from their distant descendants in today’s theaters. The theaters were often vast (for instance, tens of thousands could fit into the main theater at Athens), always outdoors, and only used when daylight permitted. In the great age of drama in the fifth century b.c.e., Athens did not have a stone theater, and the audiences sat on wooden benches, surrounding a circular orkhestra (dancing area). Here the chorus performed during the plays. The actors themselves must have used the orchestra as well for at least some of the time, although there may have been a slightly raised stage for them on the other side of the orkhestra from the audience; it is certainly out of the question that there was any high stage at this point in history. Behind the actors was a wooden stage building with at least one door, usually representing a palace, through which actors (perhaps also the chorus on occasion) could enter and exit the acting area.

Face Masks. Both chorus and actors wore full face masks. Whatever their origin, masks had several practical advantages for ancient drama. They rendered the identity of characters more visible from a distance, and above all they allowed an actor to play more than one role. For Greek tragedy restricts itself to the use of three actors—that is to say, there are never more than three speaking actors on stage at any point in the drama, but one actor may well play several roles in any particular play. No masks survive from this period, but contemporary vase illustrations indicate that tragic masks were simple and unexpressive.

Stage Machinery. The general and unsurprising lack of technical sophistication in the production of Greek tragedy in the Classical Period (480-323 b.c.e.) is also illustrated by the stage machinery involved. Foremost were the mêkhanê (crane), sometimes used for the appearance of deities from on high, and the ekkuklêma (trolley), which was used to display corpses, the result of violent action offstage. It is a peculiarity of Greek tragedy that violent death is hardly ever portrayed in front of the audience; rather, the convention is for violence to be reported (sometimes in gruesome detail) by a messenger, and then for the resultant corpses to be displayed to the audience. With such limited means at their disposal, modern readers may well wonder how moving and entertaining were the performances of ancient tragedy. The truth seems to be that their real power lay in the scripts themselves, written in the one form of poetry in which Athens really excelled. The scripts of the plays were studied intensively for centuries after any thought of performing them had disappeared, and even during the Classical Period Aristotle, who must have witnessed countless performances himself, declared that the proper effect of tragedy could be experienced just through reading.


He rips off her brooches, the long gold pins
holding her robes—and lifting them high,
looking straight up into the points,
he digs them down the sockets of his eyes, crying, You,
you’ll see no more the pain I suffered, all the pain I caused!
Too long you looked on the ones you never should have
blind to the ones you longed to see, to know! Blind
from this hour on! Blind in the darkness—blind!
His voice like a dirge, rising, over and over
raising the points, raking them down his eyes.
And at each stroke blood spurts from the roots,
splashing his beard, a swirl of it, nerves and clots—
black hail of blood pulsing, gushing down.

Source: Sophocles, Oedipus Rex, 1268-1279 (translated by Robert Fagles)


John Ferguson, A Companion to Greek Tragedy (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1972).

Arthur Wallace Pickard-Cambridge, The Dramatic Festivals of Athens (London: Oxford University Press, 1968).

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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. BC). 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. BC), 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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tragedy Form of drama in which a noble hero (the protagonist) meets a fate inherent in the drama's action. Oedipus Rex by Sophocles is an early example, which was unmatched until the tragedies of Christopher Marlowe. Aristotle's Poetics systematized tragedy and introduced such ideas as anagnorisis (recognition) and catharsis (purging of pity). See also Aeschylus; Euripides; Greek drama; Shakespeare

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trag·e·dy / ˈtrajidē/ • n. (pl. -dies) 1. an event causing great suffering, destruction, and distress, such as a serious accident, crime, or natural catastrophe: a tragedy that killed 95 people| his life had been plagued by tragedy. 2. a play dealing with tragic events and having an unhappy ending, esp. one concerning the downfall of the main character. ∎  the dramatic genre represented by such plays: Greek tragedy. Compare with comedy.

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tragedy dramatic piece (†earlier, tale) having a disastrous ending XVI; calamitous event XVI. — (O)F. tragédie — L. tragœdia — Gr. tragōidíā, usu. taken to be f. trágos goat + ōidé ODE.
So tragedian tragic poet XIV; tragic actor XVI. — OF. tragediane, F. tragédien. tragic XVI. — F. tragique — L. tragicus — Gr. tragikós, f. trágos, but assoc. with tragōidíā. tragical XV. f. L. tragicus; see -AL1. tragicomedy XVI. — F. tragicomédie or It. tragicommedia — late L. tragicōmœdia, for tragicocōmœdia.

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tragedy in classical and Renaissance drama, a serious verse play (originally a Greek lyric song), written in an elevated style, in which the protagonist (usually a political leader or royal personage) is drawn to disaster or death by an error or fatal flaw. Later, a drama of a similarly serious nature and unhappy ending but typically dealing with an ordinary person or people. Recorded from late Middle English, the word comes ultimately via Old French and Latin from Greek tragōidia, apparently from tragos ‘goat’ + ōidē ‘song’.