Tragedies present tales of suffering and calamity, often involving violence and death; though in Greek tragedy, the violence and death always occur offstage, in Shakespearean tragedy, the deaths sometimes take place on stage.
Tragedies lead to the deaths of “exceptional” people such as royalty, nobility, etc. The idea is that the higher a person is in rank, the greater the tragedy is (the rich and powerful have more to lose), which is why tragedies before the 19th century never focus on the lives of common people.
Tragedies include misfortunes that arise from the protagonist’s hamartia, which is a major flaw or weakness in personality that results in his/her downfall, or an act or omission for which the hero is responsible: a tragic flaw in character. In other words, the tragic hero/ine does things s/he shouldn’t do, or doesn’t do things s/he should be doing. The sin of hubris is a common form of hamartia; it is excessive pride that results in characters breaking divine or moral laws. Sometimes the protagonists can’t help their hamartias.
Tragedies convey the sense of causal connection (cause and effect) of character, actions, and catastrophe. Things happen for a reason because there is always the dominant theme of fate in the play as the governing force controlling the cosmos. Everything that the characters do is predetermined and destined to be; everything is “written in the stars” and there is nothing anyone can do to change it.
Often in tragedies there is peripeteia or an ironic reversal of fortune; that is, one who starts at the top of the metaphorical wheel of fate/fortune often ends up at the bottom, and vice versa. For instance, the rich and powerful who are at the centre of tragedies frequently suffer death or a terrible loss by the end.
Tragedies depict external conflicts (wars, killing, etc.), but readers are also caught up in the internal moral struggle/conflict going on within protagonists. The tragic hero is usually isolated or alienated from others and suffers a personal, emotional, and/or psychological crisis.
Tragedies include grave threats that are posed to the natural order by the “evil” characters; these grave threats must be eliminated. For example, killing one’s brother and then marrying his wife means that one deserves to die, because this act is against “natural” law (the laws of the gods and the universe). When an “evil” character is punished this constitutes retributive justice or nemesis (that is, “evil” characters get punished). Nemesis is the Greek goddess of revenge who metaphorically pursues the tragic hero and sets things right.
There are contrasts in action and in character (foils) throughout tragedies. Nemesis can also mean a character’s foil; that is, one character who is the complete opposite of another in personality/actions, and yet is somehow similar as well. Foils are often structural in a tragedy—for example, one scene is like another and yet a little different—and foils may be very different characters who nevertheless share traits in common. Foils are often a facet of the motif of doubling in tragedies. The doubling motif is used because it reflects the dual or ambiguous nature of existence: good/evil, success/failure (peripeteia), etc.
Tragedies always contain an anagnorisis: the moment of recognition/discovery on the part of the tragic hero/ine when s/he realises mistakes s/he has made. This signals a change from being ignorant and not understanding to a state of knowledge and understanding. The protagonist realises the error, but it is always too late—this is what makes it a tragedy.
Tragedies involve catharsis: that is, feelings of pity and fear for characters—particularly for the tragic hero/ine—on the part of readers/the audience. Pity is experienced in that readers feel sorry for or empathetic towards the character(s), and they experience fear because they recognize the lesson(s) to be learned even though the protagonist realizes the lesson too late.
In other words, the audience is fearful that they could also suffer the same fate: being too proud, not recognizing the truth until it’s too late, not compromising when it’s the right thing to do, etc. Tragedies are “cathartic” in that the evil/curse present at the beginning of the play has been “purged” by the end; the world is rid of it and temporarily safe, and therefore the good characters who remain living at the end have an opportunity to make things right and start over.
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