Tragedy, in the New Oxford Dictionary of English is defined as "a serious play with a sad, ending, especially one in which the main character dies".
In drama, especially classical drama, the definition is much more specific. We have a dramatic defin
ition of tragedy which comes from the great ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. He said,"Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its katharsis of such emotions. . . Every Tragedy, therefore, must have six parts, which parts determine its quality—namely, Plot, Characters, Diction,Thought, Spectacle, Melody.” (1)(Translated by S. H. Butcher)

Aeschylus 524BC~456BC

Greek Tragedy: Prometheus Desmotes by Aeschylus, Oedipus the King and Antigone by Sophocles
Shakespearean Tragdy: Richard II, Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear
A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen


Origin of Tragedy and Greek Tragedy

The word "tragedy" is from Greek word. And it is the combination of tragos and ode, which actually means" goat song" because at that time goats would be sacrificed in a festival. A person would sing and dance at that sacrificial rite. The dance and song which only had one actor were brought to Athens in around 560AD. After several decades, the dance and song gradually developed into tragedy.
Aeschylus is famous as the father of tragedy as he added one actor into the dance, this made it possible to have a conversation during the dance and laid the foundation of the birth of tragedy. Aeschylus has written more than 70 or 90 comedies and tragedies, but only seven left, which included Prometheus Desmotes. There were two others great Greek tragedy playwrights in fifth century. They were Sophocles469AD~406AD), Euripedes (485/480AD~406AD).

Aristotle's Definition of Tragedy

Aristotle's definition of tragedy is the earliest full definition of tragedy in history of western aesthetics. Despite the definition that can be found in Part VI of Poetic, which I have quoted before, he has many other important theories that we can find in Poetic.
For instant in Part II, he mentioned that "The same distinction marks off Tragedy from Comedy; for Comedy aims at representing men as worse, Tragedy as better than in actual life." In Part XIII he said:"A perfect tragedy should, as we have seen, be arranged not on the simple but on the complex plan." In a word, Aristotle's Poetic has contributed a lot to the development of tragedy.

The Renaissance and Shakespeare's Tragedy

Although during the Roman period did have some famous playwrights like Plautus and Terence, but it is hard for them to exceed the achievement of Greek tragedy. The birth of Shakespeare's tragedy push tragedy into a new height.
W. William Shakespeare (1564~1616) has written a lots of famous tragedies included Richard II, Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear. Shakespeare emphasized the discovering the conflict mind of the tragic hero and made the play more lively.
During that period, we also have some other well-known playwrights like Thomas Middleton and Christopher Marlowe.

Further Development of Tragedy

After Shakespeare, there are several great classical and bourgeois tragedies written by people like Pierre Corneille, Racine, Voltaire, Lessing and Goethe. When comes to the later 19th century, novels instead of dramas started to express the new concept of tragedy. Henrik Ibsen (1828~1906)'s A Doll's House is a good example of that period.

Classical and Modern Senses of Tragedy

Lots of famous philosophers including Plato, Nierzsche, Freud has discussed the definition of Tragedy. And the most well-known definition is from Aristotle. From Aristotle's definition we can see that his definition for Tragedy is actually quite strict. According to Aristotle's definition in Part XIII of Poetic, "There remains, then, the character between these two extremes- that of a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty. He must be one who is highly renowned and prosperous- a personage like Oedipus, Thyestes, or other illustrious men of such families," he believes a basic element of the tragedy is that there must be a tragic hero who is noble. While the author of The Death of a Salesman, Arthur Millerargue that "we no longer live in an era dominated by kings and queens- and so maybe our definition of tragedy should change, too." I agree with Arhur Miller very much and I also believe that the definition of tragedy can be widen. In China, the famous author Lu Xun has said: "Tragedy is to show people ruining the beautiful." Just like the main character Willy in the book The Death of a Salesman who is simply an ordinary salesman, but his vanish of hopes and his death at last did have a strong emotional impact on every reader. That is a tragedy. That is to say, tragedy can happen everywhere, on every person with different position and experience.


(1) Aristotle. 1974. "Poetics". Trans. S.H. Butcher
(2) 程孟辉.1994."西方悲剧学说史".北京:中国人民大学出版社.ISBN7-300-01832-7/B.214


Poetics By Aristotle Translated by S. H. Butcher
Outline of Aristotle's Theory of Tragedy in the POETICS
Classical Drama and TheatreGreek Tragedy
Introduction of Tragedy
Shakespeare's play