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  • Straight Talking English

What is a Tragedy?

Updated: Mar 13, 2019


Nowadays, we use a ‘tragedy’ to mean a sad event. Losing the back of an earring? A tragedy. The landslide at Bexleyheath that meant no trains were running for a week? Tragic. Run out of Soy Milk at Starbucks so you face a black coffee or an evening in the bathroom? That’s the tragedy I faced today (Curse my allergies!).


However, this isn’t the literary definition of tragedy, which started out as a main feature of Ancient Greek theatre. A character displayed HUBRIS, or thinking they were special enough to go against what the gods wanted, which led to their downfall or HARMARTIA. We can modify that a little bit since the worship of Zeus and his seemingly millions of spontaneous illegitimate children is no longer fashionable. To keep it simple: it’s a tragedy if the bad things that happen are the main character’s own fault due to a flaw in their personality. Shakespeare’s ‘Tragedies’ are a little different too; it’s normally the ones which are sad and not set in the past.


Discussing the idea of a tragedy in your exams or assessments is the easy way to get the big marks as it’s actually a really high level idea. Feel free to disagree at any point, but below are my answers to the age old question of whether a text is a tragedy:


1.  Romeo and Juliet

Yep. If it wasn’t for Romeo and Juliet’s impulsiveness, they would have never set in motion the chain of events and that was the flaw in their personalities. However, as a counterpoint, the long standing feud and violence between the families could lead you to decide it wasn’t a tragedy, since even if they were perfect beings the feud would have prevented them being together and driven them to extreme measures.


2. Macbeth

Maybe. One one hand, Macbeth is ambitious and easily led by his wife and the witches, and were he not so corruptible then he would have told Lady Macbeth to do one and reported the witches to the nearest Witchfinder. Then he and Banquo would have a pint and laugh about how silly that episode was.

In my mind at least, Macbeth’s corruption by the supernatural is the moral message of the play and what makes it interesting, and absolves him of carrying the full blame himself.

The religious angle does support the idea of hubris though. He went against God’s natural order of the world and decided that the witches were better advisors, when he knew full well that they were bad. The line ‘Fair is Foul and Foul is Fair’ tells us that we’re already in a situation where the unnatural is occurring.


3. Othello

Yep. While Othello is corrupted by Iago and he doesn’t go against the will of the gods in marrying Desdemona, his insecurity and jealousy is the flaw that Iago can play on. Without that, we don’t have a plot or a downfall.


4. Of Mice and Men

Maybe. On one hand, we can argue that Lenny’s uncontrolled and unintentional violence means he would always go for a human eventually. George’s decision to look after him alone is also a flaw, meaning he’d always have to deal with a situation alone.

On the other hand, there’s always an action that causes Lenny’s reaction. Curley tries to fight him. Curley’s wife insists he feels her hair. Other than deciding to go to the ranch everything else is decided by others.


5. A View from the Bridge

Oh my gosh, yes. Miller wrote this to be an updated tragedy. The other feature of a Greek tragedy is the CHORUS, a vague set of figures providing a social commentary on the actions of the main character. In the play explicitly the role is played by Alfieri, who is outside the action and presents society’s views on Eddie’s actions.


6. An Inspector Calls

Nope. Eva Smith’s death was not caused by her flaws. If the Birlings face a downfall, which they might or might not as the ending of the play is ambiguous, then yes, it will be as a result of their irresponsible attitudes.


7. Jekyll and Hyde

It's very likely. Jekyll went against the laws of nature by trying to seperate the dual sides of his personality and turning to science instead of faith (according to nineteenth century logic). He thought it would solve his problem, but instead it ended in his death and at least one murder. However, if we count Hyde as a seperate personality, then no. Hyde did all the evil, not Jekyll, and his flaw was, well, pretty much everything, and his downfall was caused by Jekyll.


8. Frankenstein

Yep. Look at the subtitle: ‘The modern Prometheus’. Prometheus went against the wishes of the gods to bring fire to humanity, according to ancient greek mythology, and Frankenstein’s work to create life is, again according to nineteenth century logic, against all the laws of God. His downfall, arctic trek, deaths of all his family… all of this would not have happened if he hadn’t created the Monster.


9. Titanic

Nope. Jack and Rose were not overconfident, and the only way you might be able to argue that it is a tragedy is if you blame the captain’s aim to keep going to New York when there were clearly icebergs. Even then, he had faulty information, so…..no.


10. Birdbox

Nope. The tragedy was caused by whatever those mysterious beings were. Maybe Charlie was right and human actions caused these spirits to cleanse the Earth, but other than that, absolutely no way.

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