Definition of Tragedy
Tragedy is a literary device signifying a story or drama that presents an admirable or courageous character that confronts powerful forces inside and/or outside of themselves. These characters do so with a dignity that reveals the nature of human spirit in the face of failure, defeat, and even death. In a tragedy, a protagonist is undone or brought to ruin by a critical character flaw or by the cruelty of fate. Literary tragedies recount a tragic hero’s downfall in that the protagonist typically begins in “high” position or esteem and ends “low,” in despair, ruin, or destruction.
One of the most famous classical tragedies is Oedipus Rex. This Greek drama by Sophocles presents the dramatic story of Oedipus who, unknowingly, kills his father and marries his mother. Oedipus Rex meets all criteria for tragedy as a literary device. Oedipus is considered admirable due to his noble birth. His tragic flaw is his pride, demonstrated in denying the will of the gods and attempting to change his destiny by fleeing Corinth. Oedipus’s continued pride, and refusal to acknowledge the truth of his circumstances until it is too late, leads to his downfall and remorse. Oedipus blinds and exiles himself.
Common Examples of Classic Greek Tragedy
As a literary device, tragedy originated in ancient Greece with religious rituals and performances. Aristotle identified the elements of classical tragedy in his work Poetics, indicating that classical tragedy is the representation of a single action in which a hero of high status or prominence falls from fortune to misfortune due to a tragic flaw. In classical tragedy, the tragic flaw that causes the character’s fall must be a misjudgment or shortcoming in the hero, not a vice or impurity. Aristotle also stipulated that the purpose of tragedy is to evoke fear and sympathy as a result of the hero’s fall, leading to catharsis or healthy emotional purge for the audience.
Here are some common examples of classic Greek tragedy:
- Oedipus Rex
- Prometheus Bound
- The Persians
- The Trojan Women
William Shakespeare helped revive the Greek tradition of tragic heroes brought down by their own flaws. However, Shakespeare revolutionized the literary device of tragedy by creating more “ordinary” tragic heroes and protagonists, as well as enhancing their tragic stories with interesting subplots and additional characters.
Here is a list of well-known Shakespearean tragedies:
- King Lear
- Romeo and Juliet
- Julius Caesar
- Antony and Cleopatra
- Troilus and Cressida
- Timon of Athens
Famous Examples of Modern Tragedy
As a literary device, tragedy has evolved since classic Greek literature into modern literary works in which the tragic hero is more of a “common man,” with complex flaws and vices. Here are some famous literary examples that can be considered modern tragedy:
- The Great Gatsby
- One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
- The Catcher in the Rye
- Madame Bovary
- Hedda Gabler
- The Picture of Dorian Gray
- Flowers for Algernon
- Things Fall Apart
- Death of a Salesman
- Moby Dick
- Crime and Punishment
- The Scarlet Letter
- Wuthering Heights
Difference Between Tragedy and Comedy
Many readers assume that, as literary devices, tragedy and comedy are opposites. There are significant differences between the two; however, they are not directly opposed to each other. In terms of plot, the events in a comic work do not have a sense of inevitability. Instead, the resolution of a comedy is typically festive once characters realize their true connection to each other. Tragic plots stem from suffering and result in dark and dramatic reflections.
In terms of audience and/or reader experience, comedy evokes laughter as a shared experience and a sense of human likeness. Tragedy often evokes suffering and estrangement. However, this is not to say that the audience/reader does not identify with a tragic hero. In fact, most tragic protagonists are complex, engendering respect and compassion for their falls and defeats. Traditionally, comic protagonists are not as full-fledged and therefore remain at somewhat of an emotional distance from the audience/reader.
It’s important for writers to understand the difference between tragic circumstances and tragedy as a literary device. Tragic circumstances, such as an illness or accident, can result in interesting writing. However, these circumstances would not constitute a literary tragedy.
For a literary work to be considered tragedy, it must feature a protagonist that is brought down by a character flaw, societal restrictions, or the oppressive conditions of fate. In addition, tragedies are characterized by their serious and often solemn tone. Tragic literary works are also centered around subject matters that are considered serious and important.
Here are three elements that writers should consider when utilizing tragedy as a literary device:
In classical tragedy, the protagonist is typically a “hero” of noble or prominent standing. However, for writers of modern tragedy, the protagonist is much more likely to be “common man.” This allows modern readers to relate to the protagonist rather than revere them.
The tragic flaw of a classical tragic hero is generally a misjudgment or deficiency in character, yet it does not take away from the distinguishable “heroic” nature of the protagonist. When writing modern tragedy, the protagonist’s tragic flaw(s) is much more complex and modern tragic heroes are often unrecognized as heroic. This can enhance the reader’s understanding and appreciation of the modern tragedy.
Though classical tragedies often end in oppressive circumstances of fate or fortune, writers of modern tragedy typically focus on the constraints and conventions of society. This, combined with the protagonist’s tragic flaw, is what generally causes the negative outcome or “fall” of a modern tragic hero.
Examples of Tragedy in Literature
Tragedy is a classic and effective literary device that has developed across time. From ritualistic portrayals in ancient Greece of noble or prominent tragic heroes meant for a wide audience to modern works featuring a more “common” protagonist meant for individual reflection, tragic literary works express human flaws and the potential cruelty of fate. Here are some examples of tragedy and how it enhances the meaning of literature:
Example 1: Doctor Faustus (Christopher Marlowe)
Nay, thou must feel them, taste the smart of all:
He that loves pleasure must for pleasure fall:
And so I leave thee, Faustus, till anon;
Then wilt thou tumble in confusion.
Christopher Marlowe was a contemporary of William Shakespeare and also revived classic tragedy as a literary device. His play, Doctor Faustus, is considered a Renaissance/Elizabethan literary tragedy due to the main character’s flaws and ultimate fall. Faustus, the protagonist, is vain and possesses an unlimited desire for fame. This drives him to learn magic of the dark arts, by which he summons Mephistopheles, a demon, to make a deal with the devil. Faustus bargains his soul for twenty-four years of infinite power.
Faustus’s pride and blindness towards faith and his fate lead to his downfall and ultimate damnation. Though Marlowe’s tragic character is given opportunities to repent and be forgiven, he denies this choice due to a lack of faith in God and himself for redemption. Faustus finally asks for mercy as his twenty-fourth year expires, but it is too late and his soul is carried by devils to hell. Marlowe’s use of tragedy as a literary device in this work is effective in that the reader/audience is led to confront their own faith in God and personal redemption.
Example 2: Antigone (Sophocles)
All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong, and repairs the evil. The only crime is pride.
As Sophocles presents in his tragic play, pride (or Hubris) is one of the most common and serious of classic tragic flaws. In Antigone, pride leads to the downfall of two tragic characters: Antigone and Creon. Antigone, the title character and protagonist, suffers a tragic fall due to her pride. She disobeys King Creon’s law that no citizen of Thebes can bury Polyneices’ body because he is considered a traitor. Antigone defies her uncle, King Creon, and buries her brother Polyneices out of love. This results in Creon sentencing Antigone to death.
King Creon’s own pride and steadfastness in his law and rule leads him to condemn his niece with no exception for her in the burial of her brother. This results in the subsequent loss of Creon’s son Haemon, who is in love and betrothed to Antigone. Creon also loses his wife Eurydice out of grief for the loss of their son Haemon. Therefore, pride is the tragic undoing of both Antigone and King Creon, leading to death and ruin as outcomes of this tragedy.
Example 3: Anna Karenina (Leo Tolstoy)
He looked at her as a man might look at a faded flower he had plucked, in which it was difficult for him to trace the beauty that had made him pick and so destroy it.
Tolstoy’s novel is a modern tragedy in which the title character becomes a “fallen” woman due to complex flaws in her character, combined with the conventions of fate and society by which she is bound. Anna is torn between the social contract of marriage and being loyal to her husband and the passion and romance she feels for her lover. Though Anna has virtuous qualities, her choice to give in to adultery, and the resulting consequences, leads her to shame, regret, and self-destruction.
Tolstoy crafts a careful modern tragedy in his novel in that the protagonist is complex in her flaws. She does give in to passion for her lover, however the reader can relate to her situation and recognize the societal constraints put upon her as a woman. It is as much due to the limits of Anna’s position in society as it is her adulterous behavior that leads to her downfall.