Even though you may think of all kinds of literary works as tragedies, the word “tragedy” originally referred to plays. A tragedy is a type of dramatic performance, like a play, that is usually about suffering. However, in more recent years, the term "tragedy" has come to mean any story that ends in sadness, so the term is now applied to books, movies and television shows as well as plays.
The real tragedy story definition is a little more complicated than a story that ends in heartbreak. The main character in a tragedy often experiences a tragic downfall brought on by their tragic flaw. Tragedies usually end in death, often the death of the main character or characters, and they are designed to help the audience experience catharsis, or the purging of negative emotions.
The concept of tragedy in Western literature dates back to Greek drama, but it has had different variations since then. Most historians think that the tragedy story dates back to around the fifth century B.C., when tragic plays were an integral part of ancient Greek religious festivals. Many of these plays were devoted to the god Dionysus, who was the god of wine and drinking as well as the god of theater.
The Greek Origins of Tragedy
Many famous tragedy stories throughout history take their cues from their predecessors, namely Greek dramas. Most of the plays in Greek drama borrowed their stories from the classic epics of Greek history, including "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey." You’ve probably heard of several of these tragedy stories examples, like "Antigone" and "Oedipus Rex" by Sophocles or "Prometheus Bound" and "The Oresteia" by Aeschylus.
Greek tragedies usually starred characters who were greater than mere mortals. They told of the struggle of kings and nobles, and they often included gods as lesser characters to contribute to the plot. The term deus ex machina, which means “god from the machine,” comes from Greek tragedy. When a Greek tragedian would employ a deus ex machina ending in his play, he would have a character playing a Greek god appear (sometimes flown in by a pulley system) to bring judgement on the characters and solve all of the problems in the plot.
However, the point of Greek tragedy isn’t just to pay homage to the Olympian gods. The ancient Greeks believed that attending plays was good for your soul because it offered catharsis, a purging of emotions. The best dramas, according to the ancient Greeks, would allow viewers to have feelings like lust, hatred, anger, pity and fear and use them up, thus restoring their spirit to go about their lives without the burden of such feelings.
The English Take on Tragedy
Almost a thousand years after the first ancient Greek tragedians put on their plays, dramatists in the English empire began to spin their takes on the traditional tragedy story definition. Before Shakespeare, playwrights Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville took up the tragic pen to write a tale of a British king and his two disobedient sons.
Before that, British plays had relied on stories of morality and mystery, designed more to teach than to entertain. However, after the switch to tragedy, English drama took on the elevated themes that are more recognizable to today’s audiences.
Greek tragedies also traditionally told the stories of gods and nobles, whereas English drama featured characters who ranged from exalted nobility to lowly peasants. English drama took some risks with subject matter as well. With Greek drama, the story was nothing but serious, but some English drama allowed comedic scenes into the mix.
Tragedy Stories Examples in British Literature
Some of the most well-known tragedy stories examples were penned by William Shakespeare, but there are other playwrights who composed plays in the tradition as well. Famous tragedy stories have been written by Christopher Marlow and John Webster too. Playwrights from beyond the British tradition such as Henrick Ibsen and Arthur Miller have written famous tragedy stories as well.
One of the most famous examples of tragedy breaks away from the traditional tragedy story definition. "Romeo and Juliet" by William Shakespeare does end in tragedy, but it doesn’t focus on gods or nobility. It’s about two star-crossed lovers whose story is fated to end miserably.
Shakespeare also penned several of the other most famous examples of tragedy in the English language. These include "Hamlet," "Othello," "King Lear" and "Macbeth." Shakespeare’s plays were for audiences that included everyone from peasants who stood in front of the stage (sometimes called “groundlings”) to the most important people in the country, including Queen Elizabeth herself.
A Complete List of Shakespeare’s Tragedies
A list of Shakespeare’s tragedies may include plays you’ve never heard of before. In addition to "Romeo and Juliet," "Hamlet," "Othello," "King Lear" and "Macbeth," Shakespeare’s tragedies also include these lesser-known plays:
- "Antony and Cleopatra"
- "Julius Caesar"
- "Timon of Athens"
- "Titus Andronicus"
- "Troilus and Cressida"
The Differences Between Greek and English Drama
Even though English drama took many of its cues and even some of its stories from Greek drama, the two historical modes of drama do have their differences. Overall, Greek tragedies offered a simpler, more streamlined worldview than English tragedies did. This was shown mostly in the dignity and seriousness of their subject matter and the use of a single unifying theme to command the plot.
English tragedies, on the other hand, often mixed comedic scenes into their stories, and themes were more complex as well. Many notable English tragedies have several themes and multiple subplots to support them. In some ways, the simplicity of Greek tragedy can be traced back to its purpose, which was to instruct viewers on aspects of religious philosophy and teaching. The purpose of English tragedy was to entertain, so it used more complex story lines to hold the viewers' attention as well as teach them a lesson sometimes.
The most important difference between Greek tragedies and English tragedies comes into play with the origin of the characters. The characters in Greek tragedies were of noble birth, closer to gods than mere mortals. However, the characters in the most famous English tragedies tend to be from lesser noble lines or even from the peasantry, making their struggles more relatable to the people watching their stories unfold on stage.
Other Famous Tragic Plays
The English by no means had a monopoly on tragedy. In fact, some of the best examples of tragedy come from outside British literature. Henrick Ibsen, a 19th-century Norwegian playwright and poet, is sometimes called the father of realism. His most famous works are to some the most well-written tragedies in history.
His best-known plays include:
- "A Doll’s House"
- "Hedda Gabler"
- "The Wild Duck"
- "Emperor and Galilean"
In the 20th century, American playwright Arthur Miller also put his hand to the genre. You may have read or seen at least one of his famous works. They include:
- "All My Sons"
- "Death of a Salesman"
- "The Crucible"
- "A View from the Bridge"
- "The Misfits"
Rebecca Renner is a teacher and college professor from Florida. She loves teaching about literature, and she writes about books for Book Riot, Real Simple, Electric Literature and more.