Types of Tragedy in Literature

Types of Tragedy in Literature

Types of Tragedy in Literature

Tragedy , in the Aristotelian tradition serves the purpose of purging the soul by arising ‘pity and fear’ (catharsis). But in the course of time the essence of tragedy has been constantly changing, which gives birth of different types of tragedy.  In this article we are going to discuss on types of tragedies in literature.

Greek Tragedy

In Greek, tragedy means a ‘goat song’. It got this name because of the sacrifice of a goat. People sang choric songs in the skins of goats and appeared as wood land deities in human form, so the Greek tragedy originated from the religious worship of Greek. Tragedy and Comedy there arouse out of their worship. In the beginning dithyrambic odes or songs of revelry were sung by group of villagers and dialogues were also begun. The three Greek tragic artists were: Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides.


The Persians, The Suppliants and Prometheus Unbound are famous tragedies of Aeschylus. In all these plays, the dramatic scenes and situations are of great importance. But the plot is not much developed. Dramatic action is over shadowed by lyrics, elegiac and narrative passages. There is exposition, foreshadowing, crisis and denouement. Only two or three scenes of conflict are there. The crisis in the play is treated hurriedly. Aeschylus poured all the rich art in later trilogy: Agamemnon, Libation-Bearers and Eumenides. These plays represent his great art of play writing Drama and suspense go hand in hand there. Aeschylus laid a firm foundation of tragedy on which Sophocles and Euripides could build their building.


According to Aristotle, he introduced scenery on the Greek stage. He decorated the stage unsuccessfully to present different themes of temples, palaces and forests. He also increased the number of actors from three to two. His tragedies were more human and less heroic. Antigone is one of his earliest plays representing the tragedy of human life. His other two tragedies Ajax and Woman of Trachis introduce more than action in Greek tragedy. His Oedipus Rex is Greek masterpiece. In his last play Philoctetes, Sophocles has made his conflict entirely human Greek tragedies contained problems but they were designed in such a form in which the dramatist aimed to demonstrate a thesis. The chief attraction of his plays was that the characters did not understand the situation till the end of the play.


Euripides marked a new history in the development of dramatic art. He was the youngest and the most modern dramatist. Everyday life is at best represented in his tragedies. His Eldra is a prologue of the modern sense and his Medea is a fascinating and baffling study of a strange woman. His another tragedy Hecuba presents facts which are initially necessary to understand a drama. In Ion and Bacchantes, prologue is considered necessary to understand a drama perfectly.

Only in Hippolytus, prologue foretells the event without doubt. His Orestes is a tragedy turned into a melodrama which is more theatrical than tragic.

Thus, Greek tragedy was a harmonious antithesis of all arts Aristotle considered plot and character the most important, music and spectacle the least important of the elements of synthesis. In one hundred years, the Greek created a full bloomed art from which all beauty of modern theater is derived. All great plays, serious or comic, every dramatic art owes its existence directly or indirectly to Greek tragedy.

Roman Tragedy

Romans faithfully followed the Greek tragedy and Ennius, Pacuvius and Accius won great acclaim in the field of tragedy. They added virility, dignity and energy to Greek drama. The tragedies of Seneca failed to give us a desired impression because of their emphasis on horror and external melodramatic action. Senecan tragedies are often false, tawdry, with ample hyperbole and epigram.

The oratorical and the horrible become the aim of serious drama in the hand of Seneca. From one point of view, it is unjust to apply the usual standard of criticism to Senecan tragedy, because Seneca’s aim was to produce a poem in dialogue form in which he could describe with an amazing flood of words and brilliancy of diction, scenes and deeds which he thought were tragic but which at most, give one, a creeping thrill. But Senecan tragedy became a play of supreme importance for many years.

Revenge had been a lofty motive for plays but it became the chief motif for Senecan tragedy. Thyestes and Agamemnon and Eumenides are the plays of revenge tragedy. The action moves in a jerky fashion here. It is quite different from Greek tragedy.

Elizabethan Tragedy

Early Elizabethan produced tragedies which had diverse form in England. The first tragedies were written by Shakespeare who owed much to his predecessors. In England too, drama came out of the religion of the people and gradually it moved to mystery and miracle plays and morality plays and then saplings turned into true dramatic shape and grafted human sentiments and developed a marvelous flourish of Elizabethan stage. Almost all the tragedies of this time contained the fall of great and it usually had five acts. The classicists held here for three unities

“with Sidney regarded tragic comedy as a ‘mongrel’ creation, the popular dramatist, looking back to the crude admixture of sadness and mirth in the mysteries, patronized this form above all others.”

Christopher Marlowe

Marlowe was the person who established the tragic type of drama in England. His tragedies were a conscious ‘striving to reach a form of tragedy that should not be amorphous and purposeless. His tragedies make him a writer who forms a type of tragedy as hardly touched by any other writer in its purest form which includes Tamburlain, Dr. Faustus, The Joy of Malta and Edward II. Because of his utmost independent rebellious attitude towards life, he was the first to embrace its doctrines. Marlowe had some egoistic powers that made him cling to his first three tragedies.

Marlowe introduced a tragic aim in his tragedies. His aim did not lie in falling of a hero and the moral concept had gone too far from his tragedies. Now, the whole interest of spectators centered on the single personality and its greatness and novelty. Dr. Faustus is such character in whose hand all infinite knowledge has been put. Marlowe has also used most poetical language in his plays. In Doctor Faustus, we can see the inner conflict and union of morality with new Renaissance ideals. His drama lacks female characters while woman figure tends to make the atmosphere of the play more natural and general. The comic portion of Marlowe’s dramas is dull because of the lack of woman characters. On the other hand, because of the lack of structural power and want of subtle character, his tragedies fall below the level of true tragedy.

William Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s tragedies have vast concepts which found many imitators and influenced the form of the tragic drama to a great extent. We can discuss his four tragedies as follows:

Romeo and Juliet– Experimental and stand apart as being a tragedy of fate and circumstance.

Hamlet– One figure of tragic magnitude, transforming hero into villain. Struggle between emotions of love and revenge.

Othello– Formed on a peculiar plan and deals largely with intrigue. Passionate love warring against jealously.

King Lear– Reverting technically to chronicle history tradition adopting an action less hero. Pretty pride warring against a tender sympathy.

In Shakespearean tragedies, one thing is common that is unseen and largely affecting supernatural elements. The relationship of the hero with his surroundings is the marked quality of Shakespearean tragedies.

The characters here are placed in such situations that they are incapable of dealing with them. If we had put Othello in place of Hamlet or Hamlet in place of Othello, there would have occur no tragedy of any kind. Later, confronting of hero with forces beyond his control is the hallmark of Shakespearean tragedies.

Heroic Tragedy

Heroic tragedies of Restoration period are an exaggeration of many elements of Shakespearean tragedy but they lack the fatal relationship between hero and his surroundings. We can make a diagram of the plus and minus points of heroic tragedy.

Characteristics of Heroic Tragedy

  • Lofty Nature of Hero
  • Struggle between Emotions and Intellect
  • Supernatural Elements
  • Relation between Hero & his Surroundings

Heroic tragedy is the development of earlier tragedies and is of great critical and historical value. The impression of the grandeur is chiefly stressed in heroic tragedies. Their admiration has led them astray because they have not conceived such higher personal qualities to raise the lofty impression. They force their heroes to speak bombastic speeches that fail to conceive us. They go further in love motif because they think that if a great hero forsake passion, it makes us wonder and admire. One thing is noteworthy here that howsoever false and ridiculous these emotions may be, they are the exaggeration of the qualities of Shakespearean tragedies.

Heroic Tragedy Examples

Dryden’s The Conquest of Granada, The Indian Queen, William D’Avenant’s The Siege of Rhodes

Horror Tragedy

Webster and Ford patronized the horror tragedy. A close scrutiny of this kind of tragedy brings him much close to the comedy of intrigue because in both the tragedies appeal to the audience is made by no means of the dramatis personae, but by means of incidents on the stage. It is not separate species of drama but it stands an in having all or most of the stress on the outward element with whatsoever close interwoven and depending on the stage sensationalism.

Horror from situation and incidents dominates the Duchess of Malfi, Vittoria Corombona and The Broken Heart. These dramas have the inner struggle and disastrous end but these dramas do not have these points as of the prime importance. But the development of the plot of these tragedies catch the attention of the readers. In these tragedies, thrill of awe and of majesty hardly comes from direct words or phrases but it comes from the incidents and situations in which the characters are working.

Domestic Tragedy

Domestic tragedy is quite a different genre of tragedies, not because of the stress laid on one element or other, but owing to its subject matter that is special one. It is the amalgam of true tragedy and sentimental drama. The domestic tragedy takes one or two lines of development, the first leading to true tragedy and the second descending to a position similar to that of sentimental drama. Actually, tragedy needs an atmosphere of majestic grandeur and in several domestic plays, it is completely lacking The London Merchant cannot be called a tragedy of any age of literary history because it has low and uninspiring tone.

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Many domestic dramas of Nineteenth century have a special note which raises them above the level of the workmanship of Lillo’s plays. In the history of theatrical productivity, sentimental dramas are at an honourable place but these domestic dramas of lowered tone have attempted to achieve something which is outside the purview of tragedy to treat. So, the types of high drama includes:

  1. Plays of the true tragic spirit, majestic and awe-inspiring
  2. Plays of the true comic spirit, fanciful and witty.
  3. Serious happy ending plays of a lowered tone.


But, those domestic dramas, which attempt to gain the night of tragedy have actually lost the sternness and grandeur of tragedy. In the art of dramatic productivity, there is one rule that there are certain laws and characteristic in all great dramas which no dramatist may transgress with impunity. Each tragedy and each comedy has an aim proper to serious drama and if the dramatist attempts to lead one aim in the drama of another type, it leads to failure of the drama or to mediocrity.

A few examples of domestic tragedies include A Yorkshire Tragedy, A Woman Killed with Kindness, Othello  etc.

Problem Play or Drama of Ideas

The Problem Plays or Play of Ideas usually has a tragic ending. The driving force behind the play is the exploration of some social problems, like alcoholism or prostitution; the characters are used as example of the general problem. Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, for example shows the exploitation and denigration of middle class woman by society and in marriage.

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