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Characteristic of Tragedy and Richard III

Updated on November 24, 2014

Greek Theater and Shakespeare

In ancient Greece, one of the most celebrated traditions was the one of theater. Greeks believed that “Tragedy was the highest form of drama” (University of Chicago). Based on this belief, Aristotle developed a philosophy about the ideal Tragedy. According to Aristotle, a tragedy should be “...the imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself; in appropriate and pleasurable language;... in a dramatic rather than narrative form; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish a catharsis of these emotions” (University of Chicago). As many other writers did, Shakespeare was inspired by Aristotle's philosophy of tragedy. Shakespeare's play The Tragedy of Richard III bears this title rightfully, because it deals with a serious issue, has the presence of a tragic hero, uses hamartia, and a catharsis of emotions is accomplished, thus it falls under the description of a tragedy.

Tragedy and the villainous Richard III

The first sign that the play of Richard III is a tragedy is that it deals with a serious issue of magnitude. From the beginning of the play, the audience is informed that England has just started to enjoy peaceful times in the reign of King Edward IV after a civil war. Richard duke of Gloucester, and King Edward's younger brother, wants to overthrow his brother and take his place in the kingdom. This is a serious issue since this means the death of the King and many other members of the royal family, and a drastic change for England. The fact that the play deals with a serious issue of magnitude is the first proof that it can be categorized as a tragedy.

The next characteristic that allows the play to be called a tragedy is the presence of a tragic hero. Even if the main character is villainous, Richard is the tragic hero of the story. According to Aristotle, a tragic hero is a noble man ̶ as in a man of royal blood ̶ with outstanding qualities and capabilities, whose destruction is for a greater cause (Lucyinthesky). Being King Edward's younger brother, Richard is a noble man. He possesses an outstanding quality and capabilities. Richard is deformed and has the great ability to be “subtle, false, and treacherous” (I.1.11). Also his destruction is for a greater cause. He dies in a fight against Richmond, who is crowned King Henry VII after Richard's death. This ends the War of the Roses. Even if he is a villain, Richard possess all the qualities and characteristics of a tragic hero, and this allows the play to be called a tragedy.

Another characteristic of the play that distinguishes as a tragedy is the use of hamartia, or tragic mistake. Hamartia can be defined as a fatal mistake that a character makes, which ultimately leads to his demise. Richard makes a mistake that leads to his death. After he is crowned King, he decides to kill the young princes, sons of Edward IV. This decision is the first step he takes towards destruction. He asks his allied Buckingham to get rid of the children, and since he hesitates to do so, Richard does not grant him the promised title of earldom of Hereford. Buckingham and many other allies turn against him, and join Richmond to fight Richard. The use of hamartia in the play is another reason to call it a tragedy.

The last trait of the play that makes it tragic is the fact that a catharsis of emotions is accomplished. A catharsis is a “... cleansing of emotions [or] a release of tension” (University of Chicago). The play allows the audience to experience a wide variety of emotions. At the beginning of the play, the public might side with Richard. He uses his deformity as a way to sympathize with the audience. As the play progresses, the spectators discover how dangerous and evil Richard really is, so they root for his defeat. At the same time, the public feels sorry for the rest of the royal family that died by Richard's hand. The variety of emotions that the play gives the audience provides a catharsis of emotions, and allows the play to be called a tragedy.


In conclusion, since Shakespeare based his idea of a tragedy in Aristotle's teachings, his play The Tragedy of Richard III possess many of the characteristics that the ideal tragedy should have. The play presents the audience with a serious issue of magnitude, a tragic hero, who makes fatal mistake, and in the end allows the public to reach an emotional cleansing. For these reasons, even if the main character and hero of the story is a villain, the play is rightfully called a tragedy.


University of Chicago. “Aristotle's Ideas About Tragedy”. Poetics. Web. 09 Apr. 2014.

Lucyinthesky. “Elements of a tragic hero in literature”. LearnHub. Nuvvo. Web. 09 Apr. 2014.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Richard III. New York: Washington Square, 2004. Print.


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