The tragic form is perhaps the noblest dramatic expression of the human predicament. Conventions of tragedy differ from age to age, but at its core is the conflict of the hero or heroine against overwhelming odds, a conflict that ends in catastrophe. Part of the struggle of these extraordinary characters is an attempt to find meaning in existence, but the answers to questions about the nature of suffering or the origin of evil remain beyond understanding, and the death of the tragic protagonist is the inevitable price of challenge and failure. Nevertheless, the battle itself so elevates these figures that their efforts dignify all of humankind.
The term Shakespearean tragedy covers a wide variety of plays and characters, and to establish one all-encompassing definition is impossible. Certainly the works do not conform to a set of principles such as those proposed by Aristotle as the ideal for Greek tragedy. Yet most of the plays here share several qualities we can delineate. We should note, however, that even the choice of plays that should be deemed "tragic" is controversial, and that various critics would include in their own lists works such as Richard II, Richard III, or Troilus and Cressida. The ten selected here are generally accepted as forming the body of Shakespearean tragedy, and in the discussion of those other plays I shall consider why I have not designated them as "tragic."
One essential part of Shakespearean tragedy is that the primary conflict of the central figure is with aspects of the social order. In this respect Shakespeare's figures differ from the tragic heroes and heroines of Greek drama, who battle against divine forces. For instance, in Sophocles' Oedipus the King , the title character is condemned by the gods to kill his father and marry his mother, and no actions he takes can change this destiny. He is not, however, fated to discover that he has committed these actions, and thus the tension in the drama emerges from two directions: one, Oedipus's own character, which drives him to learn that he is the man whose sins have brought a plague on Thebes; and two, his gradual realization of what he has done and his acceptance of how he will live the rest of his life under the burden of that knowledge.