What is Tragedy?
Tragedy – an overused word that has been variously applied to describe the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York, famines in Africa, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, car accidents, cot death, divorce, flooding, the election of certain leaders to power, a failed exam, the fall of someone great, and bad fashion sense. But what is tragedy? What constitutes a tragic event?
Tragedy is a form of art based on human suffering that offers its audience pleasure. While most cultures have developed forms that provoke this paradoxical response, tragedy refers to a specific tradition of drama that has played a unique and important role historically in the self-definition of Western civilization.
Introduction to Greek Tragedy
Tragedy was a public genre from its earliest beginnings at Athens; that is, it was intended to be presented in a theater before an audience. Epic originally was also a public genre. Homer chanted the Iliad and Odyssey to the accompaniment of a stringed instrument called a kithara before an audience. Epic continued to be recited by rhapsodes at festivals like the Panathenaia, but it gradually became more of a private genre to be read from a manuscript at one’s leisure. This happened in part also to tragedy. In the fourth century Aristotle in his Poetics points out that it is possible to experience the effect of tragedy without public performance (i.e., by private reading).
The Tragedy of Existence: Shakespeare’s “Troilus and Cressida”
by Joyce Carol Oates
Troilus and Cressida, that most vexing and ambiguous of Shakespeare’s plays, strikes the modern reader as a contemporary document—its investigation of numerous infidelities, its criticism of tragic pretensions, above all, its implicit debate between what is essential in human life and what is only existential are themes of the twentieth century.
The Tragedy of Imagination: Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra”
by Joyce Carol Oates
Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra shares with Troilus and Cressida the obsessive and self-consuming rage of the tragic figure as he confronts and attempts to define “reality.” But, more extravagantly than Troilus and Cressida, this reality is layered with masquerade; forms that are often as lyric as brutal shift and change and baffle expectation.
Suicide on Stage
Shakespeare’s Life and Times
Most of the suicides which appear in Shakespeare’s plays don’t conform to a single moral viewpoint or tradition. A tragic hero who unwaveringly follows the code of “death before dishonor” would show little of the inner conflict and self-doubt which make for compelling tragedy. Shakespeare’s plays demonstrate the versatility of suicide as a dramatic device. Since suicide was such a controversial — and sometimes /paradoxical — a particular character’s suicide could provoke a wide range of emotions: from horror and condemnation to pity and even respect.
Is Hedda Gabler a Tragedy?
Lou Salome believes Hedda Gabler’s death is tragic and that Hedda Gabler is a tragedy. Carolyn W. Mayerson doesn’t. What do you think of their interpretations? Do you think this play is a tragedy?
The Tragic Vision
In tragedy, life goes on; in comedy, life goes onward and upward. In the tragic vision, the possibility of a happy ending is unrealized, although it is sometimes suggested, as when Lear is briefly reconciled to Cordelia. When tragedy pauses to look at comedy, it views such a happy ending as an aborted or by-passed possibility. At best, it acknowledges “what might have been” as an ironic way of magnifying “tragic waste.” Tragedy tends to exclude comedy. In the tragic vision, something or someone dies or lapses into a winter of discontent.
Romeo & Juliet
Between tragedy and comedy the transition is often but slightly marked. Thus Romeo and Juliet differs but little from most of Shakespeare’s comedies in its ingredients and treatment–it is simply the direction of the whole that gives it the stamp of tragedy. Romeo and Juliet is a picture of love and its pitiable fate in a world whose atmosphere is too sharp for this, the tenderest blossom of human life.
The Romance of Lancelot and Guinevere
During the Middle Ages, the concept of courtly love was extremely popular among the European aristocracy. This popularity was fueled by the circulation of intriguing works such as Ovid’s Amores, Boccaccio and Chaucer’s versions of Troilus and Creseyde and Boethius’ exploration of the dynamics of cosmic love. Although Thomas Malory in Book XIV of Le Morte D’ Arthur extols the transcendent virtues of courtly love between Lancelot and Guinevere during the glorious Arthurian age, close examination of the text reveals many problematic elements of their love: it is arguably lecherous; its obsessive and dysfunctional elements lead to Lancelot’s madness; its scandalous nature is a catalyst for the final conflicts that destroy the great fellowship of knights.
Abelard and Heloise
Abelard and Heloise are one of the most celebrated couples of all time, known for their love affair… and for the tragedy that separated them. In a letter to Abelard, Heloise wrote: “You know, beloved, as the whole world knows, how much I have lost in you, how at one wretched stroke of fortune that supreme act of flagrant treachery robbed me of my very self in robbing me of you; and how my sorrow for my loss is nothing compared with what I feel for the manner in which I lost you.”
Tristan and Isolt
University of Rochester
Tristan and Isolt’s conflict of love and loyalty is one of the classic tales of Western literature; in the Arthurian tradition, their tragic tragectory rivals and complements that of Lancelot and Guinevere. The basic story is one of mis-directed love.
The Laxdaela Saga
The Laxdaela Saga is one of the Icelanders’ sagas. Written in the 13th century, it tells of people in the Breiðafjörður area of Iceland from the late 9th century to the early 11th century. The saga particularly focuses on a love triangle between Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir, Kjartan Ólafsson and Bolli Þorleiksson. Kjartan and Bolli grow up together as close friends but the love they both have for Guðrún causes enmity between them and, in the end, their deaths.
Second only to Njáls saga in the number of medieval manuscripts preserved, Laxdæla saga remains popular and appreciated for its poetic beauty and pathetic sentiment.
Bonnie & Clyde: Romeo & Juliet in a Getaway Car
by Joseph Geringer
Bonnie and Clyde were meant for each other. And they clung to each other while they fought back against the elements. These elements were destitution and a government they took for its face value. They were children of a nationwide economic depression that not unlike France in the late 1700s had its upheavals — and those who tried to keep small the size and impact of the upheavals.
The Lady of Shalott
by Ed Friedlander MD
The Lady of Shalott is a magical being who lives alone on an island upstream from King Arthur’s Camelot. Her business is to look at the world outside her castle window in a mirror, and to weave what she sees into a tapestry. She is forbidden by the magic to look at the outside world directly. The farmers who live near her island hear her singing and know who she is, but never see her. The Lady sees ordinary people, loving couples, and knights in pairs reflected in her mirror. One day, she sees the reflection of Sir Lancelot riding alone. Although she knows that it is forbidden, she looks out the window at him. The mirror shatters, the tapestry flies off on the wind, and the Lady feels the power of her curse.