Greek Tragedy


Although we often use the word tragedy to refer to any movie, novel or play with a sad ending, the word actually has a much more precise definition.


The First Tragedies:

Greek Tragedy originated in 500 – 400 BC in Athens. Every year the city used to hold a 5 day drama festival called the Dionysia where the playwrights would compete against one another. The most famous Ancient Greek playwrights were called Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides.  Each playwright would submit three serious plays, which became the tragedies, and one comedy. When performed these tragedies would have had a chorus (originally a group of 12 – 15 people but later only one person) whose job it was to interact with the characters on stage, to fill the audience in on events that were happening off-stage and heighten the dramatic impact of the play through song, speech and dance.


Aristotle’s Definition:

In 400 – 300 BC the philosopher Aristotle looked back on all the great tragic plays that had been written and tried to work out what they all had in common. In his book ‘Poetics’ he listed the ‘rules’ that he believed he had found. They include the following:

·         A tragedy depicts human frailty in the face of powerful / insuperable forces – God, Fate, Society

·         The main character (or protagonist) of a tragedy is a hero who is in some way superior to the average man – of higher status, more wealthy or just morally better

·         The hero is fatally flawed or has made a mistake but is punished too harshly for this. This flaw or mistake is called a ‘hamartia’ in Greek and a classic example of a flaw is called ‘hubris’ – which means being overly proud or arrogant.

·         There is often a sense of inevitability or inescapability – whatever the hero may do he ends up bringing his doom closer. As such many tragedies often feature a prophet or oracle who can see the future but is powerless to change the course of events.

·         There is often a moment of realisation (the Greek word is ‘anagnorisis’) when the hero suddenly realises that he is doomed and, even worse, that he has brought his own doom upon himself

·         Most importantly a tragedy should evoke the feelings of fear and pity in the audience. They should pity the people who are suffering in the play and fear that the same thing could happen to them


Oedipus Rex

One of the ‘best’ tragedies according to Aristotle was ‘Oedipus Rex’ written by Sophocles, which tells the story of the king Oedipus who, through a series of twists of fate and unfortunate coincidences, ends up killing his father and marrying his mother. Incest is a favourite theme of the Greek playwrights.


Miller’s Definition:

Miller, however, disagreed with a number of Aristotle’s points. Most importantly he argued that you don’t have to be a hero in order to have tragic things happen to you: tragic things can happen to normal people too. Miller argued this point of view in an essay called ‘Tragedy and the Common Man’ which can be found on this webpage.


Eddie’s Fatal Flaw:

Eddies hamartia (flaw), however, seems simpler at first sight: he breaks social rules by lusting after Catherine who is essentially his daughter and thus beyond his reach. However, a closer examination suggests that, in fact, Eddie’s flaw is not his sexual desire in itself. Rather it is Eddie’s inability to recognise or admit to himself that he desires Catherine. It is this refusal to acknowledge the truth that results in his death at the end of the play. If Eddie could have come to terms with his attraction to Catherine he would at least have been able to understand why he was jealous of Rodolpho and this could perhaps have prevented him from turning Rodolpho over to the authorities. Eddie’s mistake, therefore, is not being fully aware of himself.`