Tragedy in literature is a composition that describes a series of misfortunes in the lives of the main characters that bring to them to ruin as a consequence of a tragic flaw, a weakness of character or adverse circumstances. As a literary genre it could be a novel, although generally it refers to a branch of drama along with comedy, tragicomedy and melodrama.
Tragedy has its origins in ancient Greek theater and reached its peak in the fifth century BC through the work of the three important playwrights of the time - Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. A comprehensive analysis of the classical tragedy can be found in Aristotle's work Poetics (350 BC), which was a great influence on Renaissance playwrights. According to the ancient philosopher, what distinguishes tragedy from the other dramatic forms is the feelings of pity and fear that suffering arouses and the purging of those feelings, or the so-called catharsis.
Aristotle (384 BC-322 BC) believed that disproportionate suffering was not an end in itself and argued that the tragic character or the audience must come to some revelations of fate and human limitations. In order to provoke empathy, the protagonist should not be too virtuous or too evil but must be someone the audience can identify with. The plot presents a reversal of fortune in the life of a renowned person, usually a king or queen, caused by hamartia, a term originating from the Ancient Greek which refers to a mistake that is often the result of error in judgment. This is also referred to as a "tragic flaw."
The classical tragedy went into oblivion in the Middle Ages. Its revival as high order drama began in Elizabethan England with William Shakespeare (1564-1616) and his contemporaries Christopher Marlow (1564-1593) and John Webster (1580-1634) depicting pain and the adversity of living. The principles of Aristotle's Poetics played a guiding role in building the tragic characters. However, some of the elements of the classical tragedy were not strictly followed, such as the unity of time, place and action, the concepts of elevated poetry and high status of the tragic figure.
Shakespeare in his romantic tragedies King Lear (1608), Macbeth (1623) and Hamlet (1603) mixed tragedy and comedy, poetry and prose and intensified action and sensation. The Elizabethan playwrights and their Jacobean successors showed on stage the violence that the Greeks narrated. Although the plays of that period were lacking in restraint and regularity they revealed a rich and vivid picture of human suffering and moral disaster which folly and evil can bring.
The next significant development in tragedy occurred in France in the 17th century. Great tragedies were written by two dramatists of that time, Pierre Corneille (1606-1684) and Jean Racine (1639-1699). However, they did not draw much on the achievements of the English tragedians but tried to emulate the classical models of antiquity. They based their plots on Greek and Roman myths and tried to observe the classical conventions for unities, noble rank of characters, refined language and decorum. Corneille's masterpiece The Cid (1637) was regarded as the first classical French tragedy because of its strong emotional focus on a moral dilemma, that of love and loyalty, and the revelations his characters achieve. Corneille was criticized for the happy ending of the story. Racine gained popularity with his elegant poetry, realistic characters and plots, as in Phaedra (1677) and Andromache (1667), violent passions and tragedy based on emotional crises.
The modern tragedy of the 19th and 20th century rejected the concept of the high status of the main character as the audience of ordinary people had to find familiar grounds with the tragic victims. Norwegian dramatists Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) addressed the tragic perspective of the middle-class, while American dramatists Eugene O'Neill (1888-1953), Tennessee Williams (1911-1983), Arthur Miller (1915-2005) and Englishman John Osborne (1929-1994) portrayed working-class tragic heroes and heroines.
Often modern dramatists attempt to make people aware of the failures and injustices of the social system and guide them towards a better life. German dramatist Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) challenged the idea of catharsis. Brecht wanted to break away from showing empathy and make the audience question a play. In this kind of drama, characters do not speak in verse, which classical playwrights believed was an ideal way of expressing profound emotions. Instead, modern writers focus on non-verbal expression as they believe that gestures, sound and light get messages across better than words.