- noun an event in life that evokes feelings of sorrow or grief
- noun a serious play with a tragic theme, often involving a heroic struggle and the downfall of the main character
- noun a literary work that deals with a tragic theme
- noun the genre of plays or other literary works that deal with tragic themes
- A serious play with an unhappy ending. The word means, literally,a goat-song (Greek: tragos, goat; ode, song), though whythe form should be so called is not clear.
It was Aristotle (in his Poetics) who said that tragedyshould move one "by pity and terror" (see catharsis):The plot ought to be so constructed that, even without theaid of the eye, he who hears the tale told will thrill with horrorand melt to pity at what takes place.The genre developed in ancient Greece, where tragedies wereexpected to follow a fairly strict form. Tragic protagonists weredrawn only from deities, royalty, and the upper classes, and theirinevitable suffering and downfall was brought about by a combinationof fate and their own hubris. The three great authors ofclassical tragedy were Aeschylus, Sophocles, andEuripides, all of whom wrote in the 5th century BC.
The rules of classical tragedy were rediscovered at the Renaissance,as were many of the Greek and Roman texts. The gory tragedies of theRoman Seneca proved particularly influential on the playwrightsof the time. Typically, the tragedies of the Elizabethan and Jacobeaneras combined violent and sensational action with acute psychologicalinsight and intense poetry. The great tragedies of Shakespeareare usually considered the pinnacle of world drama. In the 17th centurythe Frenchmen Corneille and Racine led a returnto the stricter Greek forms of tragedy.
Thereafter the tradition of serious tragic writing declined,being largely displaced by sentiment and melodrama. It didnot revive until the late 19th century, when such writers as Ibsen,Strindberg, and Chekhov managed to combine the sombrethemes and moral seriousness of tragedy with a realistic depictionof contemporary life. Perhaps the only modern writer to attempt theclassic tragic form was the US dramatist Eugene O'Neill.