Here are several formal definitions of tragedy:
In ancient Greek, tragedy is literally “goat song,” from tragos (goat) and oide (song). A form of ritual sacrifice that involves chloral song, paying respect to Dionysus, the god of fields and vineyards. Some scholars claim Greek dramatic tragedy developed out of this ritual.
In Poetics, Aristotle formally defined tragedy as:
“The imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself; in language with pleasurable accessories, each kind brought in separately in the parts of the work; in a dramatic, not in a narrative form; with incidents arousing pity and fear where with to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions.”
According to Diogenes (4th century), tragedy is a narrative about the fortunes of heroic or semi divine characters. More prosaically, the archbishop Isidore of Seville claimed that tragedy comprises sad stories about the commonwealths and kings. The grammarian John of Garland defined tragedy as a poem written in the grand style about shameful and wicked deeds, one that begins in joy and ends in grief. The ever magniloquent Sir Phillip of Sidney said “high and excellent tragedy” opens the severest wounds and displays the ulcers covered with tissue, that it caused kings afraid to become tyrants, and shows how tyrants “manifest their tyrannical humors.” Tragedy “stirs the affects of admiration and commiseration, teacheth the uncertainty of this world and upon how weak foundations the gilden roofs are build.”
In both theory and practice, tragedy is typically a form of drama that is concerned with the (mis)fortunes, and ultimately, the disasters that happen to people.
Besides the aforementioned Oedipus, in the canon of tragic works we find Agamemnon, Antigone, Hecuba, Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, Hamlet, Duchess of Malfi, Samson Agonistes, Phedre, Jaffier and Belvidera, Cato, Don Carlos, Brand, Deirdre.
Some of the common traits of the characters in tragedies account for their tragic situation: they possess virtues of excellence, nobleness, passions, and other gifts and virtues that separate them from the rest of the people. However, those virtues aren’t worth a hill of beans – they make no difference as the characters sink in self-destruction or are destroyed by external forces. The most stark element of tragedy is its message of sheer hopelessness or the inevitability of fate. Even though there is no hope for them within the tragedy, perhaps there is hope, afterwards. For the audience, tragedies do show a limited reprieve from the inevitability of fate, once the failure of the tragic character is understood as an epiphany – that there is an unalterable and eternal law of existence, the way the world is in which men must obey.
The Chorus in the beginning of Anouilh’s play Antigone express this best:
“…the machine is in perfect order, it has been oiled ever since time began, and it runs without friction. Death, treason, and sorrow are on the march and they move in the wake of the storm of tears, of stillness… tragedy is clean, it is restful, it is flawless… in tragedy nothing is in doubt and everyone’s destiny is known. That makes for tranquility. There is a sort of fellow-feeling among characters in a tragedy he who kills is as innocent as he who gets killed. It is all a matter of what part you are playing. Tragedy is restful and the reason is that hope, that foul and deceitful thing, has no part in it.”
The early principal writers of tragedy
Phrynicus, Pratinas, Choerilus, Thespis (6th century BC).
Historians attribute Thespis with the innovation of introducing a protagonist into tragic performances and gave him a role that used to be the task of the chorus, which in turn, gave birth to acting.
Aeschylus (525-436 BC), Sophocles (496-406), Euripides (480-406)
Aeschylus added a second actor (deuteragonist), and Sophocles added a third (tritagonist). Euripides, much to Nietzsche’s chagrin, replaced the chorus with rational dialogue. These three tragedists produced hundreds of plays in the fifth century AD, an unmatched corpus of tragedy in history. However, by 400 BC Greek tragedy was completely exhausted. With the exception of Seneca, Roman tragedy left much to be desired, and for the next 1,500 years tragedy utterly vanished. Scholars offer reasons why Byzantine civilization failed to produce drama, and the popular one is the Church Liturgy was sufficient to satisfy the dramatic and histrionic needs of people. The great tragedians inspired the symbolic drama of Church ritual, and the mystery plays (Passion and Death of Christ) in turn inspired secular drama. During the Elizabethan period, tragedy was revived and based on the 5-act model of Seneca, in a rhetorical style.
At the end of the sixteenth century AD, the Spanish writers of tragedy were Cope de Vega (1562-1635), Molina (1571-1648), and Calderon (1600-1681). Corneille and Racine hailed from France, and in the 17th century, tragedy made a brief cameo in England in Dryden’s “All For Love,” 1678, Milton’s “Samson agonistes” (1671), Thomas Otway’s “Venice Preserved” (1682), and Southerne’s “Fatal Marriage” (1699). However, after 1700, very little of tragedy has aged well or survived long enough to sustain interest.
Whence then the death of tragedy?
Some blame the decline of verse drama as the culprit behind the disappearance of tragedy. Dramatic prose worked pretty well, but verse seemed too close to an unconscious parody or deliberate imitation of Elizabethan and Jacobean blank verse. These flaws are obviously manifest in even the talented dramatists like Knowles, Keats, Tennyson, Browning, and Swinburne.
If tragedy is analyzed as the reflection or expression of the inner nature of man, how he views the universe, his role in society or era, then the concept of tragedy has dramatically changed from the sixteenth century. The tone and the scope of tragedy has changed – where you usually had the king or queen, you now have the grief or misery of the ordinary person: the mother, the peasant, the tramp, and etcetera. There are elements of tragedy in existentialism, where tragedy is an authentic experience (Jean Paul-Sartre’s plays). Moreover, the modern-day dramatist often tries to express the wretchedness of man in understatements, sometimes by silence. In the place of articulate, deep and self-conscious farewell speeches of an Othello, we get the nearly inarticulate rambling of Davies in Pinter’s “The Caretaker,” where he falls into a protracted silence.