Studying tragedy in the drama classroom is not only essential for a student’s understanding of theatre, but can also encourage powerful and stirring student performances. Simple tragedies may be suitable for junior drama students, while heavier tragic forms will appeal to senior students of theatre.
Greek philosopher Aristotle defined tragedy in his work The Poetics, the very first example of dramatic theory:
Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete,
and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind
of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts
of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity
and fear effecting the proper purgation (catharsis) of these emotions.
Below I have compiled a variety of tragic forms with my own descriptions, suggested year levels at which to study them in drama, plus links to relevant published articles on The Drama Teacher.
|Tragedy||Tragic plays normally focus on misfortunes surrounding a hero, usually the protagonist, and often a flawed one. Tragedies typically include serious subject matter or themes, and sometimes end in the downfall or death of one or more characters.||All|
|Greek Tragedy||Ancient Greek tragedies typically consisted of a protagonist of high rank who makes an error of judgement (flawed) and accepts his fall from grace. Other important elements include Gods, mythology, conflict, suffering and catharsis. The great Greek tragedians were Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus. Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex is often considered the perfect tragedy.||Middle
|Roman Tragedy||While many Greek tragedies were still being performed during Roman times, few genuine Roman tragedies survive. Those that have survived are mostly adaptations of Greek tragedies. Nine plays written by Roman philosopher Seneca survive today, some of which are considered revenge tragedies, adopted by Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.||Senior|
|Elizabethan and Jacobean Tragedy||Elizabethan tragedies (not all written by William Shakespeare) often include protagonists of high status (nobility, military rank, etc.) who are flawed, encounter a reversal of fortune and (usually) die at play’s end. Jacobean tragedies are mostly characterised as being revenge tragedies (see below).||Middle
|Revenge Tragedy||Revenge tragedies are dramatic works in which one character seeks revenge upon another character for an evil doing. Most often associated with the Jacobean era, these revenge tragedies were actually a revival from Roman times. Excellent examples of revenge tragedies include William Shakespeare’s Hamlet and John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi.||Senior|
|Tragicomedy||A mixture of tragic and comic elements existing in a single dramatic work. Samuel Beckett’s absurdist play Waiting for Godot is a fine example of the form, where the comic elements are not necessarily noticeable at first glance.||All|
|Domestic Tragedy||These dramas originated in the Elizabethan period, but broke from previously established conventions, instead portraying the common man in a domestic setting as the tragic hero (as opposed to a character of nobility in a palatial setting). Excellent examples include Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh.||Senior|