Tragedy, like comedy, first began in ancient Greece at play festivals in honour of the god Dionysus. The origin of the word has been disputed through the ages, but is probably from the Greek word tragoidia, meaning ‘goat-song’.
Common to all works of the genre was a protagonist at the centre of the drama, known as the hero. In the 5th Century BC, subject matter for dramatic pieces was sourced from history and myth, popular among them the contents of Homer’s the Odyssey and the Iliad. A tragic work from this period is known as Classical Tragedy. The hero is usually flawed with one or more weaknesses. Throughout the course of the drama, the hero struggles to achieve his objectives, which involves overcoming obstacles placed in his path. The hero is normally defeated and as a result of this, the play ends in unfortunate circumstances. The great tragic playwrights of ancient Greece were Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of all time was Sophocles’ Oedipus The King (otherwise known as Oedipus Rex or King Oedipus).
Greek tragedies usually followed a well-known formula set down by the philosopher Aristotle in his work The Poetics (330 BC). Aristotle demanded the tragedy must be formal, complete with resolution at the end of the play and be of great moral significance for the people of Greece. He insisted all the action of the tragedy occurs within a single day in the plot. Conflict was also to be an essential ingredient. Aristotle saw tragedy in drama as an important benefit to society, as was catharsis, the release of human emotions that occurs when witnessing such action on stage.
Following the Greeks were the Romans, who tried in vein to emulate the great Greek tragedies. The best Roman tragedian was Seneca, who wrote nine plays. Whilst much Roman drama copied the Greeks without the same degree of quality, Seneca’s works did influence Renaissance playwrights William Shakespeare and John Webster when writing revenge tragedies.
Hundreds of years passed before tragedies of any significant merit were revived in playwriting. It was not until the time of Queen Elizabeth I in the 1500’s that tragic works were once again written on a similar scale to the Greeks. The tragic hero became a popular figure with Shakespeare in famous plays such as Romeo and Juliet (1597). Some of Shakespeare’s best tragedies were first published in the Jacobean period, after the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603. During this time, history witnessed the masterpieces Hamlet (1603), King Lear (1608), Othello (1622) and Macbeth (1623). Many theatre historians argue tragedies of this standard have never been equalled since.
*Dates in ( ) are ‘first published’ dates and in the case of Macbeth, up to two decades after the play was written.