1 very sad; especially involving grief or death or destruction; "a tragic face"; "a tragic plight"; "a tragic accident" [syn: tragical]
2 of or relating to or characteristic of tragedy; "tragic hero"
From Ancient Greek τραγικός (tragikos), “related to male goat, related to tragedy”, from τράγος (tragos) “male goat”, a reference to the goat-satyrs of the theatrical plays of the Dorians.
- /ˈtrædʒɪk/, /"tr
In a figurative sense a tragedy (from Classical Greek , "song for the goat", see below) is any event with a sad and unfortunate outcome, but the term also applies specifically in Western culture to a form of drama defined by Aristotle characterized by seriousness and dignity and involving a great person who experiences a reversal of fortune (Peripeteia). (Aristotle's definition can include a change of fortune from bad to good as in the Eumenides, but he says that the change from good to bad as in Oedipus Rex is preferable because this effects pity and fear within the spectators.) According to Aristotle, "the structure of the best tragedy should be not simple but complex and one that represents incidents arousing fear and pity--for that is peculiar to this form of art." This reversal of fortune must be caused by the tragic hero's hamartia, which is often mistranslated as a character flaw, but is more correctly translated as a mistake (since the original Greek etymology traces back to hamartanein, a sporting term that refers to an archer or spear-thrower missing his target). According to Aristotle, "The change to bad fortune which he undergoes is not due to any moral defect or flaw, but a mistake of some kind." It is also a misconception that this reversal can be brought about by a higher power (e.g. the law, the gods, fate, or society), but if a character’s downfall is brought about by an external cause, Aristotle describes this as a misadventure and not a tragedy.
EtymologyThe word's origin is Greek tragōidiā (Classical Greek ) contracted from trag(o)-aoidiā = "goat song" from tragos = "goat" and aeidein = "to sing". This meaning may have referred to horse or goat costumes worn by actors who played the satyrs, or a goat being presented as a prize at a song contest and in both cases the reference would have been the respect for Dionysus.
OriginThe origins of tragedy in the West are obscure, but the art form certainly developed out of the poetic and religious traditions of ancient Greece. Its roots may be traced more specifically to the dithyrambs, the chants and dances honoring the Greek god Dionysus, later known to the Romans as Bacchus. These drunken ecstatic performances were said to have been created by the satyrs, half-goat beings who surrounded Dionysus in his revelry.
Phrynichus, son of Polyphradmon and pupil of Thespis, was one of the earliest of the Greek tragedians. "The honour of introducing Tragedy in its later acceptation was reserved for a scholar of Thespis in 511 BC, Polyphradmon's son, Phrynichus; he dropped the light and ludicrous cast of the original drama and dismissing Bacchus and the Satyrs formed his plays from the more grave and elevated events recorded in mythology and history of his country.", and some of the ancients regarded him as the real founder of tragedy. He gained his first poetical victory in 511 BC. However, P.W. Buckham asserts (quoting August Wilhelm von Schlegel) that Aeschylus was the inventor of tragedy. "Aeschylus is to be considered as the creator of Tragedy: in full panoply she sprung from his head, like Pallas from the head of Jupiter. He clad her with dignity, and gave her an appropriate stage; he was the inventor of scenic pomp, and not only instructed the chorus in singing and dancing, but appeared himself as an actor. He was the first that expanded the dialogue, and set limits to the lyrical part of tragedy, which, however, still occupies too much space in his pieces."
Later in ancient Greece, the word "tragedy" meant any serious (not comedy) drama, not merely those with a sad ending.
There is some dissent to the dithyrambic origins of tragedy mostly based in the differences between the shapes of their choruses and styles of dancing. A common descent from pre-Hellenic fertility and burial rites has been suggested.
Tragedy depicts the downfall of a noble hero or heroine, usually through some combination of hubris, fate, and the will of the gods. The tragic hero's powerful wish to achieve some goal inevitably encounters limits, usually those of human frailty (flaws in reason, hubris, society), the gods (through oracles, prophets, fate), or nature. Aristotle says that the tragic hero should have a flaw and/or make some mistake (hamartia). The hero need not die at the end, but he or she must undergo a change in fortune. In addition, the tragic hero may achieve some revelation or recognition (anagnorisis--"knowing again" or "knowing back" or "knowing throughout") about human fate, destiny, and the will of the gods. Aristotle terms this sort of recognition "a change from ignorance to awareness of a bond of love or hate."
Aristotle is very clear in his Poetics that tragedy proceeded from the authors of the Dithyramb.
P.W. Buckham writes that the tragedy of the ancients resembled modern operatic performance, and that the lighter sort of Iambic became Comic poets, the graver became Tragic instead of Heroic. Exactly what constitutes a "tragedy", however, is a frequently debated matter.
In ancient India, the writer Bharata Muni in his work on dramatic theory Natya Shastra recognized tragedy in the form of several rasas (emotional responses), such as pity, anger, disgust and terror.
G.W.F. Hegel, the German philosopher most famous for his dialectical approach to epistemology and history, also applied such a methodology to his theory of tragedy. In his essay "Hegel's Theory of Tragedy," A.C. Bradley first introduced the English-speaking world to Hegel's theory,which Bradley called the "tragic collision", and contrasted against the Aristotelian notions of the "tragic hero" and his or her "hamartia" in subsequent analyses of the Aeschylus' Oresteia trilogy and of Sophocles' Antigone. (Bradley, 114-156). Hegel himself, however, in his seminal "The Phenomenology of Spirit" argues for a more complicated theory of tragedy, with two complementary branches which, though driven by a single dialectical principle, differentiate Greek tragedy from that which follows Shakespeare. His later lectures formulate such a theory of tragedy as a conflict of ethical forces, represented by characters, in ancient Greek tragedy, but Shakespearean tragedy the conflict is rendered as one of subject and object, of individual personality which must manifest self-destructive passions because only such passions are strong enough to defend the individual from a hostile and capricious external world:
"The heroes of ancient classical tragedy encounter situations in which, if they firmly decide in favor of the one ethical pathos that alone suits their finished character, they must necessarily come into conflict with the equally [gleichberechtigt] justified ethical power that confronts them. Modern characters, on the other hand , stand in a wealth of more accidental circumstances, within which one could act this way or that, so that the conflict which is, though occasioned by external preconditions, still essentially grounded in the character. The new individuals, in their passions, obey their own nature...simply because they are what they are. Greek heroes also act in accordance with individuality, but in ancient tragedy such individuality is necessarily... a self-contained ethical pathos...In modern tragedy, however, the character in its peculiarity decides in accordance with subjective desires...such that congruity of character with outward ethical aim no longer constitutes an essential basis of tragic beauty..." (Hegel, ed. Glockner, vol XIV pp567-8).
Hegel's comments on a particular play may better elucidate his theory: "Viewed externally, Hamlet's death may be seen to have been brought about accidentally ...but in Hamlet's soul, we understand that death has lurked from the beginning: the sandbank of finitude cannot suffice his sorrow and tenderness, such grief and nausea at all conditions of life...we feel he is a man whom inner disgust has almost consumed well before death comes upon him from outside."(Hegel, ed. Glockner,XIV,p572)
Nietzsche in Twilight of the Idols, What I Owe to the Ancients, 5: had this to say: "The psychology of the orgiastic as an overflowing feeling of life and strength, where even pain still has the effect of a stimulus, gave me the key to the concept of tragic feeling, which had been misunderstood both by Aristotle and even more by modern pessimists. Tragedy is so far from being a proof of the pessimism (in Schopenhauer's sense) of the Greeks that it may, on the contrary, be considered a decisive rebuttal and counterexample. Saying Yes to life even in its strangest and most painful episodes, the will to life rejoicing in its own inexhaustible vitality even as it witnesses the destruction of its greatest heroes — that is what I called Dionysian, that is what I guessed to be the bridge to the psychology of the tragic poet. Not in order to be liberated from terror and pity, not in order to purge oneself of a dangerous affect by its vehement discharge — which is how Aristotle understood tragedy — but in order to celebrate oneself the eternal joy of becoming, beyond all terror and pity — that tragic joy included even joy in destruction"
Renaissance and 17th century tragedyThe classical Greek and Roman tragedy was largely forgotten in Western Europe from the Middle Ages to the beginning of 16th century, and public theater in this period was dominated by mystery plays, morality plays, farces and miracle plays, etc. As early as 1503 however, original language versions of Sophocles, Seneca, Euripides, Aristophanes, Terence and Plautus were all available in Europe and the next forty years would see humanists and poets both translating these classics and adapting them. In the 1540s, the continental university setting (and especially – from 1553 on – the Jesuit colleges) became host to a Neo-Latin theater (in Latin) written by professors. The influence of Seneca was particularly strong in humanist tragedy. His plays – with their ghosts, lyrical passages and rhetorical oratory – brought to many humanist tragedies a concentration on rhetoric and language over dramatic action.
Along with their work as translators and adaptors of plays, the humanists also investigated classical theories of dramatic structure, plot, and characterization. Horace was translated in the 1540s, but had been available throughout the Middle Ages. A complete version of Aristotle's Poetics appeared later (first in 1570 in an Italian version), but his ideas had circulated (in an extremely truncated form) as early as the 13th century in Hermann the German's Latin translation of Averroes' Arabic gloss, and other translations of the Poetics had appeared in the first half of the 16th century; also of importance were the commentaries on Aristotle's poetics by Julius Caesar Scaliger which appeared in the 1560s. The 4th century grammarians Diomedes and Aelius Donatus were also a source of classical theory. The 16th century Italians played a central role in the publishing and interpretation of classical dramatic theory, and their works had a major effect on continental theater. Lodovico Castelvetro's Aristotle-based Art of PoetryŔ (1570) was one of the first enunciations of the "three unities". Italian theater (like the tragedy of Gian Giorgio Trissino) and debates on decorum (like those provoked by Sperone Speroni's play Canace and Giovanni Battista Giraldi's play Orbecche) would also influence the continental tradition.
Humanist writers recommended that tragedy should be in five acts and have three main characters of noble rank; the play should begin in the middle of the action (in medias res), use noble language and not show scenes of horror on the stage. Some writers attempted to link the medieval tradition of morality plays and farces to classical theater, but others rejected this claim and elevated classical tragedy and comedy to a higher dignity. Of greater difficulty for the theorists was the incorporation of Aristotle's notion of "catharsis" or the purgation of emotions with Renaissance theater, which remained profoundly attached to both pleasing the audience and to the rhetorical aim of showing moral examples (exemplum).
The precepts of the "three unities" and theatrical decorum would eventually come to dominate French and Italian tragedy in the 17th century, while English Renaissance tragedy would follow a path far less behoving to classical theory and more open to dramatic action and the portrayal of tragic events on stage.
English Renaissance TragedyIn the English language, the most famous and most successful tragedies are those of William Shakespeare and his Elizabethan contemporaries. Shakespeare's tragedies include:
A contemporary of Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, also wrote examples of tragedy in English, notably:
John Webster (1580?-1635?), also wrote famous plays of the genre:
French Tragedy in the 16th and 17th centuriesIn France, the most important source for tragic theater was Seneca and the precepts of Horace and Aristotle (and modern commentaries by Julius Caesar Scaliger and Lodovico Castelvetro), although plots were taken from classical authors such as Plutarch, Suetonius, etc., from the Bible, from contemporary events and from short story collections (Italian, French and Spanish). The Greek tragic authors (Sophocles, Euripides) would become increasingly important as models by the middle of the 17th century. Important models for both comedy, tragedy and tragicomedy of the century were also supplied by the Spanish playwrights Pedro Calderón de la Barca, Tirso de Molina and Lope de Vega, many of whose works were translated and adapted for the French stage.
After an initial period of emulation of highly rhetorical humanist tragedy in the late 16th century, the early years of the 17th century saw the creation of a baroque theater of action and tragedy (murders, rapes), before slowly adapting to the precepts of "Classicism" (the "three unities", decorum). French writers of tragedy from the late 16th century and early 17th century include: Robert Garnier, Antoine de Montchrestien, Alexandre Hardy, Théophile de Viau, François le Métel de Boisrobert, Jean Mairet, Tristan L'Hermite, Jean Rotrou.
For much of the 17th century, Pierre Corneille, who made his mark on the world of tragedy with plays like Medée (1635) and Le Cid (1636), was the most successful writer of French tragedies. Corneille's tragedies were strangely un-tragic (his first version of "Le Cid" was even listed as a tragicomedy), for they had happy endings. In his theoretical works on theater, Corneille redefined both comedy and tragedy around the following suppositions:
- The stage -- in both comedy and tragedy -- should feature noble characters (this would eliminate many low-characters, typical of the farce, from Corneille's comedies). Noble characters should not be depicted as vile (reprehensible actions are generally due to non-noble characters in Corneille's plays).
- Tragedy deals with affairs of the state (wars, dynastic marriages); comedy deals with love. For a work to be tragic, it need not have a tragic ending.
- Although Aristotle says that catharsis (purgation of emotion) should be the goal of tragedy, this is only an ideal. In conformity with the moral codes of the period, plays should not show evil being rewarded or nobility being degraded.
Corneille continued to write plays through 1674 (mainly tragedies, but also something he called "heroic comedies") and many continued to be successes, although the "irregularities" of his theatrical methods were increasingly criticized (notably by François Hédelin, abbé d'Aubignac) and the success of Jean Racine from the late 1660s signaled the end of his preeminence.
Jean Racine's tragedies -- inspired by Greek myths, Euripides, Sophocles and Seneca -- condensed their plot into a tight set of passionate and duty-bound conflicts between a small group of noble characters, and concentrated on these characters' double-binds and the geometry of their unfulfilled desires and hatreds. Racine's poetic skill was in the representation of pathos and amorous passion (like Phèdre's love for her stepson) and his impact was such that emotional crisis would be the dominant mode of tragedy to the end of the century. Racine's two late plays ("Esther" and "Athalie") opened new doors to biblical subject matter and to the use of theater in the education of young women. Racine also faced criticism for his irregularities: when his play, Bérénice, was criticised for not containing any deaths, Racine disputed the conventional view of tragedy.
For more on French tragedy of the 16th and 17th centuries, see French Renaissance literature and French literature of the 17th century.
Modern developmentIn modernist literature, the definition of tragedy has become less precise. The most fundamental change has been the rejection of Aristotle's dictum that true tragedy can only depict those with power and high status. Arthur Miller's essay 'Tragedy and the Common Man' exemplifies the modern belief that tragedy may also depict ordinary people in domestic surroundings. British playwright Howard Barker has argued strenuously for the rebirth of tragedy in the contemporary theatre, most notably in his volume Arguments for a Theatre. "You emerge from tragedy equipped against lies. After the musical, you're anybody's fool," he observes.
A Doll's House (1879) by the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, which depicts the breakdown of a middle-class marriage, is an example of a more contemporary tragedy. Like Ibsen's other dramatic works, it has been translated into English and has enjoyed great popularity on the English and American stage.
Although the most important American playwrights - Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller - wrote tragedies, the rarity of tragedy in the American theater may be owing in part to a certain form of idealism, often associated with Americans, that man is captain of his fate, a notion exemplified in the plays of Clyde Fitch and George S. Kaufmann. Arthur Miller, however, was a successful writer of American tragic plays, among them The Crucible, All My Sons and Death of a Salesman.
Contemporary postmodern theater moves the ground for the execution of tragedy from the hamartia (the tragic mistake or error) of the individual tragic hero to the tragic hero's inability to have agency over his own life, without even the free will to make mistakes. The fate decreed from the gods of classical Greek tragedy is replaced by the will of institutions that shape the fate of the individual through policies and practices.
Tragedy often shows the lack of escape of the protagonist, whereby he or she cannot remove themself from the present environment.
- Aristotle, Poetics.
- August Wilhelm von Schlegel, Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature, 1809. http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/7148
- P.W. Buckham, Theatre of the Greeks, 1827.
- J.A. Symonds, Studies of the Greek Poets, 1873.
- Lewis Campbell, (A Guide to) Greek Tragedy (for English Readers), 1891.
- Hegel, G.W.F., ed. Hermann Glockner. "Vorlesungen uber die Asthetik." "Samlichte Werke," Vol 14. Stuttgart, Fromann, 1927.
- Bradley, A.C., "Oxford Lectures on Poetry." London, Macmillan, , 2d ed., 1960.
- Xavier Riu, Dionysism and Comedy, 1999. http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/bmcr/2000/2000-06-13.html
- Justina Gregory (ed.), A Companion to Greek Tragedy, 2005.
- Felski, Rita (ed.), Rethinking Tragedy (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008). Pp. viii, 368.
tragic in Afrikaans: Tragedie
tragic in Bosnian: Tragedija
tragic in Bulgarian: Трагедия
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tragic in Czech: Tragédie
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tragic in Modern Greek (1453-): Τραγωδία
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tragic in French: Tragédie
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tragic in Latin: Tragoedia
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tragic in Norwegian: Tragedie
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tragic in Russian: Трагедия
tragic in Simple English: Tragedy
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tragic in Chinese: 悲劇
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