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Domestic tragedy is a subgenre of tragedy that focuses on the lives of ordinary people and the personal and familial issues that lead to their downfall. Unlike classical tragedies, which often involve noble or high-born characters and grand themes of fate, destiny, and the gods, domestic tragedies are rooted in the everyday experiences and struggles of middle or lower-class individuals. This genre brought the tragic form into a more familiar, everyday setting.

The roots of domestic tragedy can be traced back to the late 16th and early 17th centuries in England. Early examples include Thomas Heywood’s A Woman Killed with Kindness (1603) and Thomas Dekker and William Haughton’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday (1600). During the English Renaissance, playwrights moved away from the classical themes of Greek and Roman tragedy, focusing instead on the lives of ordinary people. This shift reflected the growing interest in humanism and the complexities of everyday life. Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights, such as William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, influenced the development of domestic tragedy by incorporating elements of realism and exploring the psychological depth of their characters. Domestic tragedy continued to evolve in the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly in the works of playwrights like George Lillo, whose play The London Merchant (1731) is a notable example of the genre. The Industrial Revolution and changing social dynamics provided new material for domestic tragedies.

Themes in Domestic Tragedy

Infidelity and Betrayal

Many domestic tragedies revolve around themes of marital infidelity and the betrayal of trust within families. These themes drive the emotional and moral conflicts in the plays.

Social and Economic Pressures

Social and economic pressures often exacerbate the characters’ struggles. Financial difficulties, societal expectations, and class distinctions play significant roles in the unfolding tragedy.

Moral Failings and Redemption

Characters in domestic tragedies frequently grapple with their moral failings, such as greed, pride, or lust. The possibility of redemption, often left unresolved, adds complexity to their stories.

Gender Roles and Family Dynamics

Domestic tragedies frequently explore the roles and expectations of men and women within the family and society. Conflicts arise from the tension between individual desires and societal norms.

Focus on Ordinary People

Domestic tragedies centre on ordinary people rather than nobility or royalty. The characters are typically members of the middle or lower classes.

Realistic Settings and Situations

The settings, such as homes, workplaces, or small communities, are usually mundane and familiar. The situations depicted are relatable and grounded in everyday life.

Personal and Familial Conflicts

The primary conflicts in domestic tragedies arise from personal relationships, family dynamics, and individual moral failings. Themes often include marital strife, infidelity, financial difficulties, and social pressures.

Moral and Social Issues

These plays often explore ethical dilemmas and social issues, reflecting the time’s moral concerns and societal norms. They usually dealt with social problems relevant to the time, such as poverty, crime, family conflicts, and ethical dilemmas. They highlight how ordinary people are affected by broader societal forces. These plays often aim to teach moral lessons or warn against vices and societal ills.

Emotional Intensity

Despite their focus on ordinary lives, domestic tragedies are characterised by intense emotional drama. The characters’ struggles and moral choices lead to devastating consequences.

Tragic Endings

True to the nature of tragedy, domestic tragedies typically end in sorrow, loss, or death. The resolution often emphasises the inevitability of the characters’ downfall due to their flaws or circumstances.


Unlike classical tragedies, domestic tragedies often use more colloquial language to reflect the characters’ social status.

Based on True Events

Many domestic tragedies were inspired by or loosely based on real-life incidents, often sensationalised for dramatic effect.


    • Democratised tragedy by making it relevant to a broader audience.
    • Explored social issues and moral dilemmas in a more immediate, relatable context.
    • Helped pave the way for later realistic and naturalistic drama.
    • Challenged the classical notion that tragedy should only deal with the affairs of the great and powerful.
    • Reflected changing social structures and the rising importance of the middle class.

Notable Examples

    • A Woman Killed with Kindness by Thomas Heywood (1603)
    • The London Merchant by George Lillo (1731)
    •  Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen (1879)
    • All My Sons by Arthur Miller (1947)

While the genre of domestic tragedy, as it existed in the 16th and 17th centuries, eventually fell out of favour, its influence can be seen in later works that focus on ordinary people’s trials and tribulations. Modern plays and films that deal with family drama, social issues, and the struggles of everyday life can be seen as descendants of this theatrical tradition.