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Nearly every story has a hero, but some are better off by the end of the story than others.

In this video, we learn what is so tragic about the hero in a tragedy.

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Tragedy in Drama

When most of us think of the theatre, we usually picture the two masks representing comedy and drama. Regardless of whether the play qualifies as one or the other, almost every play is an attempt to bring chaos to order, to solve a problem. The way the problem or the conflict is solved can determine whether a piece is a comedy or a tragedy. The comedy ends with some sort of an, ‘And they all lived happily ever after.

‘ Tragedies, on the other hand, typically end badly for the main character.

Tragedy: Origins and Definition

A tragedy is a type of drama where the characters go through some form of suffering. Most definitions of tragedy that we use today come from some parts of the work The Poetics written by the philosopher Aristotle. In the simplest terms, Aristotle defined tragedy as a form of drama whose plot is centered on human suffering for the purpose of evoking feelings of pity and fear in the audience. This feeling, which Aristotle called catharsis, helps the audience move beyond the feelings of pity and fear to find peace by the end of the play.

Characteristics of Tragedy

But, a tragedy is more than just a play about suffering.

In The Poetics, Aristotle explains that the plot in a tragedy is more than just the story itself; it is the arrangement of the incidents, or chain reaction of cause-and-effect events, that happen in the story. The plot is the most important piece of the tragedy and, according to Aristotle, should be whole, with a beginning, middle and end. But, he also believed that the plot must have unity of action, where all of the events are dependent on the previous and lead to the next. Because they are all tied together, and usually to the same person, this creates unity.This plot is slightly different than what we see in a standard plot diagram.

  • We start with the incentive moment, or the moment that begins the cause-and-effect chain of events.
  • The reversal, sometimes called peripeteia, is a reversal of circumstances for the worst.
  • The climax, as in a standard plot, is the highest point of action.
  • Recognition, also called anagnorisis, is when the character makes an important discovery and gains insight to his life.
  • The catastrophe marks the hero’s ultimate suffering, which sometimes includes his death.

  • The resolution only comes when the other characters can mourn the loss of the hero, but see the good that has come with his passing.

The tragic hero is the focus of the tragedy and holds special characteristics of his own. Aristotle believed the tragic heroes all possessed similar qualities, an idea that is still taught in literature courses today.

And, while there are variants and debates surrounding specific characters in tragedies, the tragic hero is usually a man with the following characteristics:

  1. He comes from a place of importance; he is likely a noble or even a king.
  2. While he’s a great guy, he’s not perfect. The tragic flaw, or the mistake the hero makes, leads to his downfall. Even though the gods, or some other supernatural force, have set his fate, the hero makes a choice that results in his own suffering.
  3. Even though the hero suffers, in the end, he learns something about himself and his place in the world.

    Unfortunately, he sometimes dies after his discovery and the play ends, leaving the audience reflective on the significance of the hero’s life.

Sophocles’ Oedipus the King is an excellent example of the tragedy plot with the tragic hero. The story begins with the incentive moment. There is a plague in Thebes and Oedipus vows that he will take care of it. Thus begins the cause-and-effect events.Oedipus learns that if he is to stop the plague, he must find out who murdered King Laius, who was killed many years ago.

A blind prophet, Teiresias, accuses Oedipus of killing Laius. Jocasta, Oedipus’ wife, who at one time had a kid with Laius, tells him not worry. She explains that sometimes prophets are wrong because it had been predicted that Laius’ son would kill him and they had the baby killed to avoid that happening. Oedipus freaks out a bit and asks her to tell the story of Laius’ murder at a crossroad.

The reversal comes when Oedipus is obsessed with finding out more. He is questioning everyone and it’s taking its toll on him. At the climax of the story, Oedipus finally realizes he killed his father, Laius, and is now sleeping with his mother, Jocasta.

At the recognition, Oedipus goes home to find that Jocasta has hung herself now that she also realizes what has happened. He is devastated.With the puzzle complete, Oedipus knows that he is cursing Thebes and is the cause of the plague. While he does not die for the catastrophe, he does gouge out his eyes and begs to be exiled. Of course, the resolution is that Thebes is now plague-free.

Changes to Tragedy Over Time

The tragic hero fuels the plot of the tragedy and that image of the hero has changed over time.

Like the origin of many aspects of drama, the creation of the tragedy is debatable. According to most sources, the Greeks are attributed as the founders of tragedy in drama.The first tragedies, which were often based on myths, with the intermingling of gods and humans, are attributed to the Greeks who wrote them for the festival of Dionysus. Most sources explain that as part of the festival, which celebrated wine and fertility, a goat was sacrificed to purify the city of its sins.

The word ‘tragedy’ comes from the Greek ‘goat song.’ This also falls in line with Aristotle’s idea of catharsis, which is the purification of emotion. So, not only did these tragedies have a hero who was able to better himself by reaching new understandings, they served as a means of purification for the audience, too.By the time of the English Renaissance, the tragedy had become more complex and dark.

While the Greek tragedies did not always end with the death of the hero, the tragedies of the Renaissance usually found the hero dead. Additionally, the hero was not always mostly good. Take Shakespeare’s Macbeth, for example. Macbeth becomes a sort of villain by the end of the story, and though he does learn something about himself by the end of the play, he is also responsible for the deaths of many, including the king and his wife.The Neo-classical period, which was dominant in France, returned to the rules that Aristotle had established. There was less originality in the writing since they, in general, did not seek to make new ideas, but to value the truths that had already been discovered. This form never quite made it to England and was quickly overshadowed by the bourgeois tragedy that turned everyday people into heroes.

This shift from finding heroes in the upper social classes to finding heroes in the everyday man has fueled the modernist view of tragedy. Arthur Miller, famous for his tragedy Death of a Salesman, wrote an essay called ‘Tragedy and the Common Man’ in 1949. In his essay, he argues that tragedies can show ordinary people in everyday situations. The debate on what qualifies as a tragedy continues as writers experiment with new plots, characters and dramatic forms.

Lesson Summary

In conclusion, a tragedy is a type of drama that focuses on human suffering. The main character, the tragic hero, suffers through the story, but in the end, learns something about himself and his place in the world, a lesson that makes the suffering worth his while. A classical example of the tragedy is Oedipus the King, the story of a man who kills his father and marries his mother. In a series of cause-and-effect events, we see Oedipus collapse under his discovery at the catastrophe, or the point in the plot when the tragic hero falls.Over time, the definition of the tragic hero has changed.

Classically, the tragic hero was one of noble birth who, because of a tragic flaw or mistake, must suffer. Through his suffering, the audience would experience catharsis, or a purification of emotions. Today, some critics and authors argue that while the tragic hero was made to suffer, we do not have to look to royalty or the elite to find him. Instead, we can see the tragedy in the common man and the everyday world, and find peace from pity and fear.

Learning Outcomes

After watching this lesson, you may be able to:

  • Comprehend the meaning of tragedy and describe its origin
  • Particularize the pieces of a tragedy according to Aristotle, as well as the characteristics that make up the tragic hero
  • Discuss how the tragic hero has changed over time
  • Pinpoint a classical example of the tragedy according to Aristotle’s views

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