Definition of Tragedy

In literary terms, tragedy is a form of drama in which there is a display of human suffering and often catharsis for the audience. Tragedy, as we know it in Western culture, has its foundation in ancient Greece about 2,500 years ago. It has evolved over the millennia and had an important role in many different cultures and eras, such as in the time of the Roman Republic, in Elizabethan England, and including up until the present day.

There is some dispute over the origins of the term “tragedy.” Generally it is understood that the word comes from the the Classical Greek word trag(o)-aoidiā, meaning “goat song.” There are a few different reasons posited for what role the goat played in the first iterations of tragedy. Some say that a goat was given as a prize to whomever sang the best tragic song in a competition, while others argue that a goat was sacrificed while choral dancing occurred. Yet one more possible etymological root is from the Greek work trygodia, meaning “ode of the grape harvest,” as these events may have occurred during that harvest.

Common Examples of Tragedy

We refer to many large and small events as tragedies in daily life, whether it’s losing a loved one or a catastrophic natural disaster such as an earthquake that leads to many deaths. However, the literary definition of tragedy generally demands that the downfall of the protagonist does not come chiefly from external forces, but instead from the character’s own errors and flaws.

Here are some examples of tragedy from everyday life (in order, perhaps, of least to most serious):

  • Losing out on a promotion due to making a fatal error
  • Breaking off a relationship through a misunderstanding and pride overshadowing the truth
  • A patient dying at a hospital because a doctor is too arrogant to admit he or she made a mistake

Significance of Tragedy in Literature

The definition of tragedy has also changed over time; Aristotle was the first to fully define it in his work Poetics. He wrote that tragedy must involve the reversal of fortunes of a powerful person from good to bad, due to the hamartia of the protagonist. He also wrote that tragedy must create a sense of fear and pity in the viewer, which can then lead to catharsis. More modern dramatists, such as Arthur Miller, have written that tragedy can also be written about the common person; in fact, the viewer may more easily relate to this type of tragedy and thus feel a greater sense of fear and pity.

Examples of Tragedy in Literature

Example #1

People of Thebes, my countrymen, look on Oedipus. He solved the famous riddle with his brilliance, he rose to power, a man beyond all power. Who could behold his greatness without envy? Now what a black sea of terror has overwhelmed him. Now as we keep our watch and wait the final day, count no man happy till he dies, free of pain at last.

(Oedipus Rex by Sophocles)

Oedipus the King is one of the few full surviving tragedies from ancient Greece. In true Greek fashion, this example of tragedy involves a powerful man—a king—who ignores the fates and casts a curse on himself. His downfall serves as a lesson to everyone else not to envy those in power.

Example #2

PRINCE: A glooming peace this morning with it brings.
The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head.
Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things.
Some shall be pardoned, and some punishèd.
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.

(Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare)

Shakespeare is one of the leading authors of tragic plays in all of English. His play Romeo and Juliet is perhaps the most famous tragedy of all time, exploring the doomed loved between, as he called them, “star-crossed lovers.” Romeo and Juliet go against their families’ mutual hatred to marry each other in secret, which ultimately leads to their downfalls.

Example #3

NORA: I have been performing tricks for you, Torvald. That’s how I’ve survived. You wanted it like that. You and Papa have done me a great wrong. It’s because of you I’ve made nothing of my life.

(A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen)

Henrik Ibsen is often considered “the father of modern drama,” and he wrote many examples of tragedy. In A Doll’s House, the character of Nora has spent her entire life trying to please the men in her life. At the end of the play, she comes to the tragic realization that she has made nothing of her life for herself since she was trying to make everything right for everyone else.

Example #4

MARY: (Bitterly) Because he’s always sneering at someone else, always looking for the worst weakness in everyone. (Then, with a strange, abrupt change to a detached, impersonal tone). But I suppose life has made him like that, and he can’t help it. None of us can help the things life has done to us. They’re done before you realize it, and once they’re done they make you do other things until at last everything comes between you and what you’d like to be, and you’ve lost your true self forever.

(A Long Day’s Journey into Night by Eugene O’Neill)

The matriarchal character of Mary in Eugene O’Neill’s tragedy A Long Day’s Journey into Night recognizes that there are certain things that happen in life which ultimately embitter many people and make them lose sight of their true dreams and selves. Though this might seem like she is blaming external forces, O’Neill brilliantly shows how the family has brought the majority of their own misery down on themselves.

Example #5

LINDA: Forgive me, dear. I can’t cry. I don’t know what it is, I can’t cry. I don’t understand it. Why did you ever do that? Help me Willy, I can’t cry. It seems to me that you’re just on another trip. I keep expecting you. Willy, dear, I can’t cry. Why did you do it? I search and search and I search, and I can’t understand it, Willy. I made the last payment on the house today. Today, dear. And there’ll be nobody home.

(Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller)

Linda, the matriarch in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, has the final line in the play as she is lamenting her husband’s death. The tragedy is that Willy Loman was always searching for the American Dream outside his house, and yet in this final scene Linda reveals that they had achieved it after all in a sense, yet it is too late to save Willy.

Test Your Knowledge of Tragedy

1. Which of the following statements is the best tragedy definition?
A. A song sung during the grape harvest.
B. A work that dramatizes human suffering and may provide catharsis for the audience.
C. A catastrophe that is caused by external forces.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]
Answer: B is the correct answer. C is not correct, because in the literary understanding of tragedy, the reversal of fortunes occurs due to a character’s own failings.[/spoiler]

2. Which of the following quotes from Shakespeare’s plays would you guess comes from a tragedy example?

What hands are here! Ha, they pluck out mine eyes.
Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.


Love all, trust a few,
Do wrong to none: be able for thine enemy
Rather in power than use; and keep thy friend
Under thy own life’s key: be check’d for silence,
But never tax’d for speech.


Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind,
And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.

[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]
Answer: A is the correct answer. This quote comes from Macbeth. B comes from All’s Well that Ends Well and C is from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, both of them comedies.[/spoiler]

3. Consider the following quote from Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello (spoken by the eponymous main character):

Then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely but too well,
Of one not easily jealous but, being wrought,
Perplexed in the extreme; of one whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes,
Albeit unused to the melting mood,
Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees
Their medicinable gum. Set you down this,
And say besides that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turbaned Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by th’ throat the circumcised dog
And smote him thus.

What about this makes it an example of tragedy?
A. Othello was too trusting of the wrong people
B. Othello killed himself at the end of the play
C. Othello loved Desdemona “too well,” but killed her when he thought her false
D. All of the above
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]
Answer: D is the correct answer.[/spoiler]