Tragedy and Tragic Theory: An Analytical Guide

Tragedy and Tragic Theory: An Analytical Guide

Tragedy and Tragic Theory: An Analytical Guide

Tragedy and Tragic Theory: An Analytical Guide


Comprehending tragedy has been a major philosophical and critical preoccupation in Western thought. In an effort to bring order to the multiple and often conflicting perspectives, Palmer lucidly analyzes the principal ideas about tragedy from Plato to the present. Critically surveying the similarities and differences among major theories, Palmer analyzes features associated with tragedy, such as the tragic hero, katharsis, and self-recognition; develops a working definition of tragedy; and applies these ideas to a sampling of plays that present special interpretive problems. He incorporates and explores the ideas of such eminent thinkers as Aristotle, Hegel, Nietzche, Schopenhauer, Schiller, Kierkegaard, and Freud, as well as contemporary theorists.


Tragic drama and the idea of the tragic experience have been among the most persistent forms of Western thought since the fifth century B.C. Because tragedy probes the most serious aspects of the human predicament, we place a proportionately high value on the positive compensation it provides for its journey into pain. Our response to the plays in this dramatic tradition depends on assumptions about how tragedy works, and our experience of tragedy, which is based on this understanding, aids our efforts to address painful areas of the human condition: failure, suffering, and death.

In spite of the apparent centrality of tragedy to our cultural experience, the word tragedy suffers, on the one hand, from the depreciation of common usage and, on the other, from confusion resulting from 2400 years of disagreement regarding its basic meaning. At one extreme, the journalistic jargon that labels an automobile accident "tragic" equates tragedy with any disaster, and at the other, proponents argue for specific concepts of tragedy that exclude all but a handful of plays or even argue whether tragedy can exist in a modern society without commonly accepted philosophical or religious standards. Are specific social or cultural conditions necessary for the writing of great tragic drama? Can tragedy still be written today? Why do we seek and enjoy a form of art that depicts painful experience?

Oversimplification of its meaning and uncertainty as to exactly what the idea of tragedy embodies imperil our understanding of one of the world's great art forms. How do we recognize tragedy when we see it?

Pat definitions exist, but does tragedy really depend on a fatal flaw? Does tragedy require a protagonist's recognition of culpability for the tragic fall? What do we do with so-called tragedies that lack a catastrophic conclusion? Can tragedy exist without free will? Reductive definitions equate tragedy . . .

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