Roman Tragedy: Definition & Explanation

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      Roman tragedy started by about 249 BCE, the time span in which the name of Livius Andronicus is generally mentioned as the beginner of the tradition of Roman tragedies. In 245 BCE, Gnaeus Naevius also started writing tragedies along with his appreciable comedies. But the matter of great sadness is that no complete early tragedy of the Roman culture survives. Although, tragedies in that time also were well established, the names of only three tragedians have been recorded by the historians. They are Quintus Ennius, Marcus Pacuvius and Lucius Accius. On the other hand, from the time of Roman Empire, the works of only two playwrights survive. Of these the name of one is unknown and another is the stoic philosopher Seneca, who has written nine tragedies all of which are based on the Greek tragedies originally. For instance, Senaca’s Phaedra was based on Euripides’ Hippolytus. Historians do not know who wrote the only extant example of the fabula praetexta (tragedies based on Roman subjects), Octet via, but in former times it was mistakenly attributed to Seneca due to his appearance as a character in the tragedy. Seneca’s tragedies rework those of all three of the Athenian tragic playwrights whose works have survived. Probably, meant to be recited at elite gatherings, they differ from the Greek versions in their long declamatory, narrative accounts of action, their obtrusive moralizing, and their bombastic rhetoric. They dwell on detailed accounts of horrible deeds and contain long reflective soliloquies. Though the gods rarely appear in these plays, ghosts and witches abound. Senecan tragedies explore ideas of revenge, the occult, the supernatural, suicide, blood and gore.

      Although the concept of tragedy in European literature was inherited from the Classical Greek tragedy, in the 16th century Europe the medieval theatre was controlled by mystery plays, morality plays, farces and morality plays. In the later middle ages, the European theatre followed Roman culture; especially the works of Seneca was recalled in the works of several artists. Thus, not only the works of Seneca, but also the tragedies of Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides appear to dominate over the tragic writings of European tragedians. The influence of Seneca was particularly strong in its humanist tragedy. His plays, with their ghosts, lyrical passages and rhetorical oratory, brought a concentration on rhetoric and language over dramatic action to many humanist tragedies. The most important sources for French tragic theatre in the Renaissance were the works of Seneca and the precepts of Horace and Aristotle, and plots were taken from classical authors such as Plutarch, Suetonius, the Bible, contemporary events and so on. Shaped on the models of Seneca, the first English tragedy (Gorboduc) appeared in 1561, written by Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville. The play chose the story of a British king and his sufferings at the hand of his two disobedient sons as a subject matter. The importance of the play lies in the fact that it transformed the style of English drama from morality and mystery plays to the writing of tragedies in the Elizabethan era.

      By the middle of the 17th century the tragic works of Greek authors seriously influenced European writers, as we note in the tragedies of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Some of the tragedies based on the Greek culture in this time are mentioned below:

Antony and Cleopatra
Julius Caesar
King Lear
Romeo and Juliet
Timon of Athens
Titus Andronicus

Christopher Marlowe:
The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus
Tamburlaine the Great

John Webster:
The Duchess of Malfi
The White Devil

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