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The Development of Tragedy Through the Ages

Updated on April 9, 2014

Development of Tragedy

Tragedies have gone through time from Greece through the middle eastern and western cultures into contemporary forms of English. Tragedies are defined as a serious play (or other literary work) that depicts the disastrous downfall and death of a central character, the protagonist.

Tragedy - Ancient Greece

In Greece, tragedies were based on a heroic and legendary person. They were preformed in competition each spring at the festival of Dionysus (Greek God of wine and inspiration). Every role in these plays were preformed by male actors who wore masks and large costumes with platform shoes. There were usually large choruses narrating and commenting on the action.

The Theatre of Dionysus in Athens held approx. 18,000 viewers, and desperately needed the large costumes to help the audience see. Three playwrights (people who write plays) were chosen per year to have their plays preformed over several days of competition.

Aristotle and Literary Criticism

Aristotle studied under Plato, and taught Alexander the Great. He wrote poetics, a description of the three different kinds of literature that existed at that time. His main description surrounded the ideas of how drama worked, and its effect on an audience. Poetics described tragedy as, ' an action that is serious and complete'. Tragedy achieves a catharsis (purification of purgation of the audience's emotions) through incidents which arouse pity or terror.

Aristotle observed that the protagonist is led into a fatal calamity by an error(hamartia) which usually takes the form of excessive pride (hubris)leading to nemesis(retribution or punishment).

Poetics is the only extended critical and theoretical record to survive from the civilization that produced the Greek tragedies. Aristotle recorded what he considered to be valuable about the best literature of his time.

Tragedies- The Romans

After the Greek had created the tragedies, the Romans were next to take over. A Roman philosopher, Seneca wrote nine tragedies based on Greek tragedies. Seneca involved ghosts and horrible crimes in his dramas to make them more interesting.

Tragedies- The English

After the Romans fell, the people of Europe regrouped and became small countries and communities. Many waves of invaders and immigrants entered the British Isles over the next eight centuries, and together, the many dialects slowly formed the English language. The poet Chaucer began writing in this dialect and so did many other writers to follow. By the sixteenth century, the language was set. The three forms of English tragedies to form were revenge, Shakespearean, and domestic tragedies.

Tragedies- Revenge

The new-speaking English writers were not familiar with Greek tragedies and Aristotle's poetics. They were though, familiar with the plays of Seneca, whose tragedies influenced the development and growth of revenge tragedies ( Tragedies of blood/ Jacobean Tragedies). These plays were the first 'horror movies' of their time. These plays often included things such as a hero searching for vengeance, often asking for help from a ghost, scenes of real of feigned insanity; a play within a play; scenes of graveyards, severed limbs, and carnage.

Tragedies- Shakespearean

Shakespearean tragedies are much different than those of the pre-defined tragedies. They developed their own definition because of the difference.

Tragedies- Renaissance Neoclassical

During the Italian Renaissance, which began before the English Renaissance, Aristotle's Poetics were rediscovered and translated into Italian. The man, Castelverto, who translated the poetics did not comprehend that Aristotle was offering description of tragedy, not a set of rules to be followed by playwrights. This misconception developed the 'Aristotelian Rules' about the 'dramatic unities' of time, place, and action. Castelverto believed that the audience lacked the imagination to cope with scene changes, subplots, and dramatic time spans that lasted longer than the time of the play's performance.

Neoclassicism went beyond establishing rules about tragedy to include rules about all literature. Neoclassicists studied the forms in which authors wrote and developed ways to write perfect novels.


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    • epigramman profile image


      6 years ago

      ...are you sure you're a Canadian, eh? lol

    • 17Bree profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Southern Ontario

      Quite a lovely snowfall I must say! I'm enjoying it to say the least.

    • epigramman profile image


      6 years ago

      ...well my fellow Canadian you have such a nice assortment of hub presentations to offer and each one (that I've read) shows you to be well informed, passionate, sincere and intelligent - and that makes for an enlightening and educational read for people like myself - sending you warm wishes and good energy from lake erie time ontario canada 8:30am with coffee and bagel and our first snowfall here by the lake - scary eh! lol


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