The tragedy is a classic and effective literary device that has developed over time. From ritualistic portrayals, in ancient Greece of noble or prominent tragic heroes, to modern works featuring a more “common” protagonist meant for individual reflection, tragic literary works express human flaws and the potential cruelty of fate. The tragedy is a literary device signifying a story or drama that presents an admirable or courageous character that confronts powerful forces inside and/or outside of themselves. These characters do so with a dignity that reveals the nature of the human spirit in the face of failure, defeat, and even death. In a tragedy, a protagonist is undone or brought to ruin by a critical character flaw or by the cruelty of fate. Literary tragedies recount a tragic hero’s downfall in that the protagonist typically begins in a “high” position or esteem and ends “low,” in despair, ruin, or destruction.

As a literary device, tragedy originated in ancient Greece with religious rituals and performances. Aristotle identified the elements of classical tragedy in his work Poetics, indicating that classical tragedy is the representation of a single action in which a hero of high status or prominence falls from fortune to misfortune because of his mistaken choice of action, to which he is led by his hamartia- his “error of judgement”, his tragic flaw. In classical tragedy, the tragic flaw that causes the character’s fall must be a misjudgment or shortcoming in the hero, not a vice or impurity. Aristotle also stipulated that the purpose of tragedy is to evoke fear and sympathy as a result of the hero’s fall, leading to catharsis or healthy emotional purge for the audience.“Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in the 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 and similar emotions.” (Poetics, P.10)

In any tragedy, we start with the tragic hero, usually in his prime. The hero is successful, respected, and happy. But he has some tragic flaw that will ultimately cause his downfall. Usually, the plot of the story follows a gradual descent from greatness to destruction. The hero must end up isolated from all of his friends and companions. In the end, we feel deep sadness and pity (also called pathos) for the hero. But we also feel a sense of understanding – the story warns us to guard against the ordinary flaws that brought down the hero. One of the most famous classical tragedies is Oedipus Rex. This Greek drama by Sophocles presents the dramatic story of Oedipus who, unknowingly, kills his father and marries his mother. Oedipus Rex meets all criteria for tragedy as a literary device. Oedipus is considered admirable due to his noble birth. His tragic flaw is his pride, demonstrated in denying the will of the gods and attempting to change his destiny by fleeing Corinth. Oedipus’s continued pride, and refusal to acknowledge the truth of his circumstances until it is too late, leads to his downfall and remorse. Oedipus blinds and exiles himself.

Tragedies might be the oldest form of storytelling in Western tradition. The earliest known Greek plays are all tragedies, and many Greek philosophers believed that tragedy was the highest form of literary art. The most well-known theory is Aristotle’s idea of catharsis. Aristotle argued that tragedies give us a feeling of catharsis or the release of pent-up emotions. As we go through life, we store up negative emotions, “bottling them up” as we might say now. Aristotle believed that a good tragedy was a productive, safe way to release those negative emotions. A tragic hero can have all kinds of flaws. But the most common is hubris, a Greek term meaning an excess of confidence, ambition, or defiance toward the gods. Once you learn to recognize hubris, you’ll see it everywhere in both literature and real life. William Shakespeare helped revive the Greek tradition of tragic heroes brought down by their flaws. However, Shakespeare revolutionized the literary device of tragedy by creating more “ordinary” tragic heroes and protagonists, as well as enhancing their tragic stories with interesting subplots and additional characters. The well-known Shakespearean tragedies are Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear. As a literary device, tragedy has evolved since classic Greek literature into modern literary works in which the tragic hero is more of a “common man,” with complex flaws and vices.

As literary devices, tragedy and comedy are opposites, there are significant differences between the two; however, they are not directly opposed to each other. In terms of plot, the events in a comic work do not have a sense of inevitability. Instead, the resolution of a comedy is typically festive once characters realize their true connection to each other. Tragic plots stem from suffering and result in dark and dramatic reflections. In terms of audience and/or reader experience, comedy evokes laughter as a shared experience and a sense of human likeness. Tragedy often evokes suffering and estrangement. However, this is not to say that the audience/reader does not identify with a tragic hero. Most tragic protagonists are complex, engendering respect and compassion for their falls and defeats. Traditionally, comic protagonists are not as full-fledged and therefore remain at somewhat of an emotional distance from the audience/reader. Though classical tragedies often ended in oppressive circumstances of fate or fortune, writers of modern tragedy typically focus on the constraints and conventions of society. This, combined with the protagonist’s tragic flaw, is what generally causes the negative outcome or “fall” of a modern tragic hero.

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δάσκαλος (dáskalos) means the teacher in Greek. Devika Panikar has been teaching English Language and Literature since 2006. She is an Assistant Professor with the Directorate of Collegiate Education under the Government of Kerala. She teaches at the Government Colleges coming under this directorate and is now posted at the Department of English, Government College for Women, Thiruvananthapuram. This website is a collection of the lecture notes that she prepared by referring to various sources, for her students’ perusal. It has been compiled here for the sake of future generations.

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