Tragedy 01: Defining Tragedy cover

Tragedy 01: Defining Tragedy


Tragedy has been around for over 2500 years, from its earliest manifestations in the huge open-air gathering-places of Athens and other Greek city-states, to the theatres of Renaissance England, Spain and France, right through to the twentieth century with its cinematic tragedies, and the disturbing works of Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett. In four dialogues, Oliver Taplin, Emeritus Professor, and Joshua Billings, a graduate student in the Oxford Classics Faculty, ask and discuss what tragedy is, what tragedy does for people, whether tragedy teaches, and if tragedy is still alive today.

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Tragedy 01: Defining Tragedy

The Experts

This NoteStream is taken from the first dialogue in a series of four between experts:

Oliver Taplin, a professor at Oxford University, who, for much of his career, has worked on Ancient Greek Tragedy and Joshua Billings, a graduate student in Classics at Oxford, who is writing his dissertation on the history of ideas around tragedy, and particularly about the 18th and 19th century .

Here, we’re going to explore the question of “What is Tragedy?” So this isn’t an encyclopedic survey, it’s much more a kind of personal response to some key issues to do with Tragedy, which inevitably includes some pretty old chestnuts.

Dramatic Tragedy

Dramatic Tragedy

"TragicComicMasksHadriansVillamosaic" by antmoose, 4June 2005; Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons


So it makes sense that we start with defining tragedy.

Can we give it a definition – what does the word mean? Well the word is a very common one – we see it in the newspapers every day. Distressing stories, especially stories involving death, whether they’re accidents, whether they’re natural disasters, whether people were to blame or were not to blame - these are all called tragedies. And you can see this in the news the whole time – this use of the word tragedy.

Or you get peoples’ lives described as a tragedy, or even as a Greek Tragedy: “the career of Marlon Brando was a Greek tragedy.” “Bill Clinton was inevitably enacting a Greek Tragedy.”

The Canon of Classics

I think it’s quite interesting – that journalistic use of Greek Tragedy - because it points to two things.

It puts the centrality of drama, of theater, to the core notion of tragedy, and it points to ancient Greece where this kind of theater was developed.

Initially in Athens, in the years and decades following about 500 BC, it remained an obsession with the Greeks, and then the Romans for the best part of a thousand years. And the Greek plays remain a kind of touchstone, or at least a point of comparison, for all other discussions of tragedy and tragic theater.

And it makes the point that theater is core to defining tragedy. Tragedy was invented for performance in front of an audience. And just to remind you of some of the canonical names from Greek tragedy: the Oresteia of Aeschylus, the Oedipus, and the Antigone of Sophocles, the Medea, and The Bacchae, (or Bacchan Women) of Euripedes. These are classics in more than one sense of the word.


Now, that might make it sound as though tragic theater has been continuous or stable ever since the Ancient Greeks.

It certainly went through the Roman Empire, which gave us the plays of Seneca –the tragedies of Seneca-- which were hugely influential in the 16th and 17th centuries, and are still performed. But it shouldn’t obscure the fact that for about a thousand years, between about 400 CE or AD as it’s also known, between about 400 and 1400, tragedy more or less died out, and tragic theater more or less died out.

It was reborn during the Renaissance, which rediscovered Seneca, and gradually rediscovered the Greeks. Tragedy continues to be, ever since the Renaissance, an obsession.

So confronted with such a long history, one that goes back 2,500 years, the question obviously arises: with so much variation, with so much change, has there any core definition remained? Is there anything we can call the core of tragedy or the canon of tragedy?



A marble relief of a poet, perhaps Sophocles

"Sophocles CdM Chab3308" by Jastrow (2006). Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Ever Evolving

Well, when we think about a canon of tragedy, we think about a set of works that are immutable, that have been played again and again over time.

But the fact of the matter is that a canon changes over time as new works are written and as works fall out of taste, so the canon today looks very different than the canon 100 years ago. Not only because we have another 100 years more literary history, but because we’re 100 years different readers and viewers of tragedy.


So since the Renaissance, we could think not only of the English tragedies that we’re most familiar with,

Shakespeare, Marlowe, Johnson, Middleton and dozens of lesser tragedians, but we could also think of French works, Jean Racine and Pierre Corneille. Through the 18th century, there was a flourishing and incredibly fruitful tradition of tragedies that are practically never performed today, with a couple of exceptions, in English or even in French for the most part.

And we could also think of the Spanish Renaissance, with the works of Calderone and Lope de Vega. These are similarly the fruits of an incredibly active tradition, but a tradition that in Anglophone countries has largely died out, and it is even pretty rare to see them performed in Spaniphone countries.


The renaissance also created opera, one of the maybe most lasting legacies of Greek tragedy.

From the time of the Florentine Camerata, around 1600, we’ve had a genre of musical works that approximate some aspects of Greek Tragedy much better than spoken drama, precisely because they are sung and danced just like Greek tragedies were. The opera L’Orfeo, by Monteverdi, actually made a conscious attempt to reconstruct Greek Tragedy.

And every couple of hundred years, opera composers have to go back to the Greeks, when they feel that opera has become decadent. If you think of Bruch or Wagner, that’s a constant resort in opera to go back to the Greeks and look for tragedy.

Verona Opera

Verona Opera

Performing Aida, by Verdi

"20110719 Verona Arena Opera Aida 2972" by Jakub Ha?un; Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The Introduction of Normal

Then, since the Renaissance we have a major change in simply who gets depicted in tragedies.

From the 18th century to today, tragedy can depict relatively normal people- bourgeois- tragedies, and it can depict them speaking relatively normal speech.

This was a change from verse tragedy, to prose tragedy. And that genre begins with Lillo, with Diderot, with Lessing, in the 18th century, and continues straight through Ibsen, even arguably Chekov, to Arthur Miller’s tragedies, one of which just re-opened on Broadway in a very popular production.

The 20th Century

And then in the 20th century we have even further transformations.

The political works of Brecht, and Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty, and maybe most importantly, Samuel Becket’s plays which mix tragedy and comedy in quite fascinating and unusual but, I would say, still tragic ways.

So what you think of as the tragic Canon depends on a definition of tragedy, but at the same time, the definition of tragedy depends on what we consider a tragic Canon.

Elusive Definition

We’re going to have to face the fact that maybe, we’re not going to find any way of defining tragedy in such ways as to include all this extraordinary variety, and this richness and difference.

And yet, it’s a fact isn’t it, that there’s been a persistent desire to try and find a core; to try and find a definition. Some ages have found it in one way, and others in another. And some ages have seen the essence of tragedy in the shape of the plot - in its very form – in the tragic fall, and the ending in death. And they have tended to combine that with following formal constraints.



Roman copy in marble of a Greek bronze bust of Aristotle by Lysippus, c. 330 BCE.

The alabaster mantle is modern.

"Aristotle Altemps Inv8575" by Copy of Lysippus - Jastrow (2006). Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons


At this point, we have to introduce Poetics: the most influential work of criticism of drama ever written.

One might say it’s overly influential, but its importance just can’t be underestimated. Aristotle was just the most amazing mind studying everything, and among the things he studied were how does poetry work, how does drama work, how do you do it best? We have his Poetics as the foundation text in the theory and practice of theater.

What comes through above all is The Unities – with a big U – which are, I think, an overly rigid interpretation in the renaissance of Aristotle. But these Unities would lay down that there must be Unity of time; that this must all happen within 24 hours; that it must all be set in a single place, and that there must be a Unity in action, although quite what that is is not clear. This all seems rather remote to us now, but that was regarded at one time, as the core essential.


For a couple of hundred years that was the way people tried to define tragedy,

and it led to lots of debate about whether the Unity of time could be stretched to more than 24 hours, or whether the Unity of action could include a sub-plot , or even two sub-plots, and just how far those Unities went. It led to a huge amount of debate in France particularly, but also in England and in Germany, and yet there was something unsatisfying about it, as people looked to works of tragedy that did not obey the unities, but were never the less, incredibly powerful, moving and in some sense, tragic: Shakespeare, most of all.


Shakespeare is, in some ways, the key here.

It’s an interesting question isn’t it, to what extent was Shakespeare aware of the neo-Aristotelianisn Unities? I always think of the part in the prologue of Henry the 5th, when the prologue says we’re going to scatter things all in time and place, and asks the audience to give it their thoughts, and to carry the characters here and there, jumping over times. That seems to be Shakespeare saying, “look, I’m not going to obey the Unities of time and place”.

At any rate, the fading out the Unities as a central notion does synchronize with the great rediscovery of Shakespeare at the end of the 18th century, and the beginning of the 19th century. Perhaps not so much as a new discovery, but as promoting him from being this kind of wild, barbarian genius, into being the central figure in the history of tragic theater.

William Shakespeare, 1609

William Shakespeare, 1609

The "Flower portrait" of Shakespeare.

(A 2005 investigation of the portrait led to the conclusion that it was a forged artwork painted in the 19th century!)

"William Shakespeare 1609" by Unknown - The Washington Times. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The Effect

And that’s also the time that people start thinking about tragedy in different terms,

because if tragedy does not mean a following of a certain set of rules, there must be something that connects Shakespearean tragedies and Greek tragedies. One of the ways to understand that and to describe it, is by saying that Shakespearean tragedies create some kind of effect that Greek tragedies also create. And we might think of the same thing today: that watching Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler makes us feel in some way not so differently from the way we feel watching Shakespeare himself. If we’re going to describe tragedy, and define tragedy, we could think of doing it based on tragedy’s effect, rather than on tragedy’s form.

The Audience

And I suppose the audience then becomes the central defining feature, the experience of the audience confronted with the tragedy, rather than the form of the tragedy itself.

And for me, that all makes sense. It’s an approach through the audience, and what the tragedy means to the audience is something the many of us still want to maintain. Tragic theater somehow has quintessentially to do with the emotions aroused in the audience: if it doesn’t make you cry, then it’s not going to be good tragedy. And that goes right back to the Greeks, who did put a lot of emphasis on weeping.

To return, as one has to, whether one likes it or not, to Aristotle, there’s the pity and fear which are picked out by Aristotle and his Poetics, as central emotions in the audience.

Laughing and Weeping

I would take a step further back and say there’s something essential to humanity - to being human – in the ability to feel for, and to feel with fellow humans.

It’s said – and I’d love to know whether this is really true – that weeping and laughing are activities only done by humans. One can see analogies in animals, but to be actually laughing and weeping, and laughing and weeping with, are specific to humans.

I certainly want to say that the range of emotions in the audience is well beyond pity and fear. There’s a huge range of anger and indignation, nostalgia, and desire and anticipation. I would want to say that tragedy arouses a complicated mixture of emotions, and a complicated sequence of emotions.

Emotional Experience

It does lead us to the question, “does this make tragedy a purely emotional experience”

– is that what tragedy is all about… just the feelings, the emotions of the audience? Is it a kind of a “bath” of emotions; is it a total immersion experience? That, I think is a question that will lead us nicely into our second NoteStream, which is to do with “What does tragedy do for people?” So we’ll end this first one, on this note: Is Tragedy essentially to do with the emotional experience of the audience, or is it only an emotional experience?