Tragedy: Definition and Explanation

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      Drama as a genre is common in all literature: written or oral. However, most civilizations in representing human life through drama have insisted on looking at the latter’s comic aspect only. It is only in 5th century Greece that the tragic aspect of life came to the limelight of considerations amongst the litterateurs and playwrights under the nomenclature ‘tragedy’.

      Tragedy is a major form of drama dealing with the serious aspects of life. It presents man as groveling blindly towards an unhappy end. The word ‘tragedy’ appears to have its origin in the Classical Greek period. It comes from the Greek term tragdidia meaning ‘goat song’, which mainly derives from tragos ‘he goat’ and aeidein ‘to sing’. It is often suspected that this may be traced to a time when a goat was either the prize in a competition of choral dancing or was that around which a chorus danced prior to the animal’s ritual sacrifice in honor of the Greek wine-god Dionysus. Another etymological view behind the origin of the term is that according to Athenaeus of Naucratis (2nd to 3rd century CE), the original form of tragedy was trygodia from trygos (grape harvest) and ode (song), because those events were first introduced during grape harvest.

      So, to speak of the evolution of tragedy in literature from the classical period, we should refer to the City Dionysia in Greece which possibly grew out of earlier fertility festivals where plays used to be performed, and a goat ritually sacrificed to Dionysus - the god of wine, fertility, and crops. The idea was that the sacrificial goat would rid the city-state of its sins, much like the later Judeo-Christian concept of the scapegoat. Tragedy, then, was designed to have a sort of purging effect upon the community and this is even encoded within the word tragedy itself, which probably comes from the Greek word for egoat song’. However, tragedy is, perhaps surprisingly, not the earliest of all literary genres, nor is comedy. Instead, a third genre of drama, known as the satyr play, is thought of by some critics (such as Oscar Brockett in his History of Theatre) to have been the first of all literary genres, from which comedy and tragedy both eventually developed. Satyr plays were bawdy satires or burlesques which featured actors sporting large strap-on penises - the phallus being a popular symbol of fertility and virility, linked with the god Dionysus. Only one satyr play survives in its entirety written by the great tragedian Euripides. This is Cyclops which centers on the incident from the story of Odysseus when the Greek hero found himself a prisoner in the cave of Polyphemus, the one-eyed monster.

      In literature, Tragedy is a form of drama based on miserable human sufferings often with an ultimate fate of death of the leading characters. It invokes an accompanying feeling of pity and fear in the audience. One of the most celebrated tragedies of the ancient Greece was Oedipus Rex - Sophocles’ play about the Thebe an king who unwittingly had killed his father and married his mother. Tragedy is more universal in its appeal, and must be regarded as the highest form of dramatic art. The tragic conflicts are always deeply serious. Perhaps the most tragic of all conflicts is the losing battle that the good in man takes up against the evil and the latter triumphs eventually. Tragedy flourished in an age when society was outgrowing its older associations though the latter was not well prepared to accept a newer state of things. Tragedy thus holds up the mirror to the moral disintegration in the life of the individual, who, whether resisting the emergence of the new order, or trying to initiate it, is often crushed out of existence by the force to which he is opposed. Tragedy presents a poetic cosmology. It is committed to a metaphysical attitude. The tragic playwrights encourage a metaphysical frame of mind. In other words, tragedy is concerned with the broadest possible questions. A tragic artist will contemplate on issues like - “What kind of world do we live in? How are we to judge man’s life? Are man’s values those of his world?” Such preoccupations are basically metaphysical. If the metaphysical enterprise is a wasted effort, tragedy can tell us nothing about the world.

      While many cultures have developed forms that provoke this paradoxical response, the term tragedy often refers to a specific tradition of drama that has played a unique and important role historically in the self-definition of western civilization. The origin of tragedy is found in the theatre of ancient Greece 2500 years ago as in the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. The works of those great masters are also found to influence the works of Shakespeare, Lope de Vega, Racine, Schiller, Strindberg, Beckett, Miller, and Joshua Oppenheimer amongst some others. Besides these great artists, tragedy was analyzed and criticized by many great philosophers of time unbound like Plato, Aristotle, Saint Augustine, Voltaire, Hume, Diderot, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Freud, Benjamin, Camus, Lacan, Deleuze and few others.

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