The popular notion is that tragedy is a play that ends sadly and involves the suffering or even death of the principal character or characters. That is to say, tragedy represents some sad or sorrowful spectacle, relating to the story of human life. This is, however, a very crude form of definition, and does not indicate fully the nature of a tragic play. Particularly, it fails to interpret the most important element of tragedy, that is, its emotional effect which even produces a sense of pleasure in its sad ending.

Tragedy, in fact, is concerned with human action, resulting in human fall, suffering and even death. The story here is generally of an exceptional calamity that is brought about by the action of different characters, including the hero, heroine, or both. This action comprises conflicts, errors, omissions, misunderstanding in relationship, the visitation of evil and the hostility of circumstances. All these factors inspire and communicate spontaneously a moral note or understanding, which, like the catharsis, has an elevating and edifying effect.

The spectacle of suffering is the universal feature of tragedy. Sophocles’s Oedipus, Aeschylus’s Orestes, Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Galsworthy’s Falder, Ibsen’s Dr. Stockmann and Synge’s Maurya suffer. The nature of their suffering, no doubt, differs, yet implies, to a great extent, the moral of their tragedy.

Each of these characters is involved in some action, faces a certain situation, hostile enough, and suffers and even dies, not always however. Of course, the severity of calamity and the extent of suffering may vary in each case. But the ultimate effect is the same revelation of the inevitability of man’s sad destiny that is, indirectly at least, didactic enough. This didactic aspect of the tragedy determines much of its effect and impression.




Tragi-comedy implies a sort of happily ending tragedy. As the very term signifies, ‘tragi-comedy’ is both tragedy and comedy, padded together into one new form. It is in essence a tragedy in its very atmosphere, but has a happy comic ending. It, in fact, is a type of comedy that flourished in England, with the romantic plays of the Elizabethan masters. In it, the happy comic ending is found intimately blended with events and situations, quite serious, tragic, or painful.

Tragi-comedy lies in the borderline between tragedy and comedy. It does not strictly conform to the idea of comedy, although it is a comedy in its happy end. This tragi-comedy includes, in some cases, the history play also as seen in the tragic padding in the highly comic scenes of Flastaff in Henry IV.

Tragi-comedy is, however, to be distinguished from the comic relief in tragedy. The latter actually serves to intensify the tragic note by contrast, rather than to relieve this. The porter’s speech in Macbeth may appear comical, but it is a grim sort of comedy that merely makes the awful deed of murder inside the castle more terrible. It does not actually alleviate, but rather increases the tragic tenseness of the dramatic action. In the same way, the fool’s prattle in King Lear has the effect of adding poignancy to the profound tension to the hero’s situation.

The gravediggers scene in Hamlet indirectly emphasises the tragic despair, inherent in the play, by the play of ghastly witticism on dead bones and mouldering skulls. But tragi-comedy has the ultimate effect to spare the tragic sense by avoiding death and unhappiness at the end. It comes close to pain and death, not permissive in comedy, but patches up the situation to have a happy conclusion which is contrary to a tragic ending.



One of the fundamental tasks of a dramatist is to reveal the inner world of a character. This is no easy task. At the same time, it is essential to the understanding of a play and different characters. The task was particularly difficult in the earlier age. The property of the stage was then extremely inadequate. The background music, as a revealer of the thought or feeling of a character, was yet to develop. Consequently, the old dramatist had the immense difficulty in the matter of revealing the psychology of his men and women.

The dramatist’s only resource to reveal a character in order to bring out his mental mechanism is the use of dialogue as a substitute for the direct analysis as well as commentary of the novelist. But the scope of the ordinary dialogue is rather inadequate to bring out the hidden recesses and secret springs of the conduct of a person, particularly of a complex character, whose motive or objective may well be concealed from other characters.

To comprehend fully and clearly the motive of action of such a person, the knowledge of the interior of his or her character is necessary. The dramatist is to dissect his men and women, but he has not the easy means of the novelist. What he does here is to allow them to do the work of dissection themselves. Those men and women think aloud to themselves, and their expressed thought is overheard by the audience.

This expression of the inner thought, which is overheard by the audience, is known popularly as the soliloquy. This may be generally defined as thinking of himself or herself by one dramatic character. It is the device which a dramatist may well employ to analyse and scrutinise, like a novelist, a character. The soliloquy is the only exception to the use of dialogue for the purpose of revealing the basic nature of a man or woman. Of course, the term “soliloquy here includes the soliloquy proper as well as one of its particular variants—aside’; which is, in fact, a short soliloquy .


The Supernatural in Tragedy


The introduction of the supernatural is found in plays, classical as well as modern, as a part of universality in dramatic conventions. In Aeschylus’s trilogy-Agamemnon, Chaepharae and Eumenides—the sense of the supernatural is presented visibly as well as intellectually. Seneca, the great Italian master, has introduced into his tragic world the spectacle of fear and suspense, through the suggestion of ghosts and supernatural sensations.

The supernatural appears as a part of the dramatic device to stir and rouse theatrical sensations in the Senecan tragedy. The romantic tragedies of the Elizabethan England, which are found to have their inspiration from Seneca, have also the same supernatural machinery, to heighten tragic effects.

In Aeschylus, ghosts are found and Euripides introduces them and develops them into spirits. This tradition is found followed by Seneca and the Elizabethan masters. “The ghost of Hamlet’s father is”, as finely observed by Nicoll, “therefore the direct descendant, with a clearly traceable genealogy, of the ghost of Clytemnestra in the Eumenides.




Aristotle’s definition of tragedy in the Poetics includes the element of the emotional effect of tragedy. While describing the nature of tragedy, he claims that the action of the tragedy has a healthy impact on the mind and arouses pity and fear wherewith to accomplish the catharsis of such emotions.

The implication here is that a tragic action, as it is represented, liberates the mind of a spectator from the selfish narrowness of his mundane existence and elevates him to a sublime, though somewhat mysterious, meaning of life. This has a significant moral purpose to purge out of his mind what are the elements of pity and fear. The purging of the emotions of pity and fear from the mind is characterised as the catharsis by Aristotle.

Catharsis is a medically flavoured term which indicates an internal cleansing by means of an aesthetic purgative, just as there may be the physical cleansing by the use of the material purgative. What he contends is that the tragic spectacle or action has a moral effect on the mind of the spectator and cleanses it from all grossness and selfishness, and as a result, the cathersis of pity and fear is effected spontaneously.


Poetic Justice


Poetic justice implies the even distribution of prosperity and adversity in proportion to the merits of different agents or doers. This is, however, in a flagrant contradiction to the facts of life, and it is absent in any great tragedy. There is no poetic justice in a great tragedy. In the cases of both Hamlet and Othello, poetic justice is simply absent in the tragic world, where good natured Cordelia is hanged, soft Ophelia is drowned, innocent Desdemona, murdered and this is because of the kinship between human action and circumstances, resulting in disaster for human characters.

After all, drama is the mimesis of the story of human life. In human life poetic justice is seldom present. So this is generally absent in drama,too.




The best tragic action, in Aristotle’s viewpoint, conceives a change in fortune not from misery to prosperity, but just the reverse, from prosperity to misery. This change is due, not to the depravity of the tragic character, but to some great error in his or her judgement or action. In Chapter 13 of the Poetics, Aristotle further enunciates wherefrom the tragic suffering ensues and the nature of the tragic character to have the required purgation of the tragic emotions of pity and fear.

“There remains, then, the intermediate kind of personage, a man not preeminently virtuous and just, whose misfortune, however, is brought upon him not by vice and depravity, but by some error of judgement, of the number of those in the enjoyment of great reputation and prosperity, that is, Oedipus, Thyestes and the men of note of similar families.” (Bywater’s rendering) This is taken as a tragic flaw, instrumental to misfortune and suffering, the degree of which may vary from age to age, from character to character

Macbeth’s vaulting ambition, Othello’s thoughtless credulity and Edward’s senseless infatuation for his favourites are definitely their tragicflaw that subscribes remarkably to their misfortune and fall.




The question of the hubris is implied in Aristotle’s contentionabout the error of judgement, or what is called the hamartia. The Greek term ‘hubris’ signifies ‘pride’, a sort of ‘insolence as also an egoistic sense of vanity about the personal ability or security. Pride for one’s dignity or heroic quality is no crime, but it is definitely an infirmity, when it grows excessively and defies all cares and codes. This then pre-supposes a fall and the effect of the hamartia becomes operative. Hubris, indeed, is related to the hamartia and a strong element in the operation of the latter.

Sophocles’s Oedipus is definitely insolent and has a strong ego about his own purity which he declares with pride. That proves fatal for him. By his own action he brings upon himselfs the impact of the blemish that he committed ignorantly. Chorus One of the fundamental aspects of the classical Greek tragedy is perceived in the presence of the chorus.

The chorus is a part of the traditional origin of the Greek drama, and it is essentially an incidental feature. It, in a classical Greek play, usually implies a single singer or a band of singers or dancers. In fact, the chorus appears to be the first element in tragedy and at first one actor, then two and then three actors are found to share performance with this.

The rus, however, is found to perform a very sacred and important function in the classical tragedy. Aristotle characterises it as a sharer in the action of the play. “The Chorus, too, should be regarded as one of the actors, it should be an integral part of the whole, and take a share in the action.” 


Three Unities


The celebrated principle of three unities is a marked characteristic of the classical tragedies of Greece. These three unities refer to the unities of time, place and action. They are ultimately related to the presence of the chorus throughout the action of the classical Greek tragedy.

The fundamental concept of the ‘three unities’ of the Greek tragedies is finely stated in the following lines quoted by Hudson (from the translation of Boileau) “Let the stage be occupied to the end by a single completed action, which takes place in one spot, in one day.” The unities of time, place and action are here emphasised as the inviolable principleof the dramatic art.

Dramatic Irony

The dramatic irony, in fact, consists of the difference between what is said and done on the stage by different characters and what is understood and felt from their knowledge by the spectators who are watching the play. The difference is produced whenever the characters act or speak in ignorance of certain important events or facts of which the spectators are well conscious.

The dramatic irony is classified under two heads–the irony of situation or incident and the verbal irony. Of course, the distinction between these two types can hardly be maintained always, and they are often found to occur in combination.

The dramatic irony, in both forms, is found effective to heighten the tragic impressiveness, as seen in Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Julius Cæsar in particular.


Comic Relief


In the evolution of tragedy, the need for some relief from the tenseness of the tragic atmosphere was badly felt. In the Greek play, the chorus serves to offer some relief to the tragic terror by its lyrical beauty. This is popularly designated as the relief, and is found operative to give relief to the audience from the continued pressure of the tragic atmosphere and the tension of the tragic action,

In the romantic tragedy, this relief comes through what is popularly called comic relief. The romantic dramatists, led by Shakespeare, have ignored the principle of the classical dramatists and brought some comic scenes or clownish characters to give relief to the tensely tragic situation. This relief, however, is found afforded in a two-fold way.

First, some incident or situation is introduced to evoke comic fun or farcical laughter. Second, some funny or clownish person or persons serve to provide the audience with entertainment. The Porter Scene in Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a classic specimen of this. Conflict Some conflict is the essential feature of a dramatic story, tragic or comic. The action of a play arises out of this conflict, and is led to its culmination through its changes and fluctuations.

Broadly speaking, the dramatic conflict appears in two forms—the external conflict and the internal. The former conflict implies a struggle between two individuals, powers, or forces. The other conflict lies in the mind of the man who is at war with himself. The plot of a play is generally dependent on the external conflict, whereas the internal conflict serves to attain a high degree of characterisation. Shakespeare’s tragedies are rich in conflicts, extemal as well as internal .


The Revenge Tragedy


The revenge tragedy owes its origin to Seneca, a Roman dramatist of the time of the Roman Emperor, Nero. In fact, the machinery of the Senecan tragedy is found to repose on a three-fold plinth-revenge, blood and supernatural dread.

In the revenge tragedy, the motive force of tragic action is revenge. The dramatic action is steered by the motive of taking revenge for an act wrong, such as usurption, murder, abduction, and so on, done to the hero or heroine, or someone related to him or her. The act of revenge leads to bloodshed, accompanied with the supernatural dread.

There is not the least doubt that the fineness of the classical Greek tragedy is much missed in the theatrical and melodramatic action and of ending of the revenge play. Of course, the revenge motive is evident in the classical Greek tragedies, including Aeschylus’s Agamemnon and Euripides’s Medea.

The first English tragedy Gorboduc is a revenge tragedy. Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy is a masterpiece of this type. Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta and Shakespeare’s Hamlet belong to the same revenge tradition in the English tragedy.








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