Tragedy has always played an important role in English literature. Tragic stories help readers uncover relevant themes such as suffering, death, sorrow, isolation and loss. High school teachers should include tragedies in their English language arts curriculum, so their students will learn to recognize common elements in tragic tales. Choose stories that were written by renowned authors such as William Shakespeare, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
"Romeo and Juliet"
Incorporate the play "Romeo and Juliet" by Shakespeare into your unit on tragedies. The story is about star-crossed teenaged lovers, who unsuccessfully strive to overcome barriers between their families so they can stay together. In your lesson, discuss the story's tragic themes such as forbidden love, fate, suicide and the struggle between individual dreams and society. For an educational classroom activity, have your students choose a sonnet from the play that they will paraphrase, using present-day vernacular. Encourage creativity and allow your students to use humorous dialogue and slang, where it fits with the translation -- but no inappropriate language. Read the original sonnets aloud and also have each student share his version of the text with the class.
"The Great Gatsby"
Discuss Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" and explain that authors continued to write tragic stories well into the 20th and 21st centuries. This novel is about misguided love between two socialites -- Gatsby and Daisy -- as they realize the American Dream isn't as glamorous or as long-lasting as society suggests. Present tragic themes from the story such as disappointment, materialism, dishonesty, greed and death. Ask your students to write a love letter from Gatsby to Daisy that expresses his intentions or a letter from Daisy to Gatsby after she married Tom, and what she might say about her decision and what she regrets.
"Of Mice and Men"
Introduce the novel "Of Mice and Men" by John Steinbeck to help your students see that tragedy isn't always about a single specific event, but often stems from flaws in human nature. Two immigrant workers, George and Lennie, find employment on a farm and face difficulties as they struggle to maintain their friendship. Introduce tragic themes such as isolation, the lack of genuine human connection, dissatisfaction and misfortune. Tragedy affects people in all walks of life, from the richest -- such as the characters in "The Great Gatsby," to the poorest -- such as the characters in "Of Mice and Men." Divide your class into groups of three or four students and ask each group to make a two-column chart -- listing the healthy attributes of George and Lennie's friendship in one column and negative features in the other column.
"The Scarlet Letter"
Use "The Scarlet Letter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne as an example of a tragic story that isn't a fatalistic story simply because two lovers commit adultery, it is also tragic because society refuses to respond compassionately. Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale strive to overcome the shame, but hypocrisy leaves little room for survival or reconciliation. Discuss dark, complex tragic themes such as the nature of evil, humiliation and perverted love. Read the first paragraph of chapter one aloud twice and ask your students to draw a picture that depicts the scene. Encourage your students to include as much detail as possible and to focus on important symbols. Tell them not to worry about how well they can draw, because the goal for the drawing exercise is artistic expression, not drawing talent.