Elements of Tragedy EQ: what makes something Tragic?

All art has the same goal: catharsis. Catharsis is the purification of emotions first described by the ancient Greeks. The Greeks believed that if one did not purge their built up emotions by getting lost in an artistic work--be it a play, a poem, a painting, a book, a film, or a sculpture--that person would become unhealthy. Specifically, modern psychologists know that bottling these emotions causes one to either have a breakdown or a blow-up.

Different genres of art purify different emotions. Tragedy specifically caters to the emotion of sadness. The goal of all tragedy is to make an audience cry--this is what puts it in direct opposition to comedy. Tragedies are considered the first genre, as the earliest written dramas of ancient Greece were all tragedies performed at large outdoor festivals (as these became incredible downers for the audience, the Greeks soon created comedies to follow up each tragic cycle). To ensure an audience knows they are supposed to be crying and find a work tragic, tragedies use common tropes to define the genre and make the subjective nature of tragedy universally understood.

Good Intentions

The road to Hell, it is said, is paved with good intentions. The protagonist in a proper tragedy is an ethical person, someone with whom we can empathize as an audience. Oedipus the King is noble, Juliet is charming, Othello is celebrated, and Uncle Tom is kind and heartwarming. However, they are all hopeless. Tragedies are most effective when showing the fall of a good person. This ties into the classic tragic element of fate, the idea that the tragedy that befalls a person is unavoidable (which is, of course, a metaphor for the tragedy none of us can avoid: death).

Not every protagonist fits this bill--some are downright evil and unsympathetic. In these narratives, another character is the one whose good intentions destroy them. Agamemnon is vile, yet Cassandra's only sin is trying to prevent disaster with her clairvoyance. Prince Hamlet is insipid and lethargic, and his scheming manages to drive the pure Ophelia to madness. Tamburlaine is perhaps the worst villain in literary history, killing and raping pretty much everyone he encounters, yet tragedy is not his fall but the fall of his sons and Callapine, who try to match Tamburlaine's depravity in order to make him proud and defeat him, respectively.

These characters also prove the rule by showing its opposite: that completely awful characters usually succeed in tragedies (at least until the final act). Macbeth's brutality is only stopped by MacDuff falling to similar barbarism. Medea only frees herself from Jason's emotional abuse after killing her own children and Jason's new bride. In the end, Tamburlaine is the most powerful king of all and has to literally be killed by G-d.


So if tragic heroes are typically driven by a desire to do good, why are they brought so low? The Greeks believed that every person had a hamartia, or a severe flaw that defined their conflict. The way the hamartia was handled defined the genre the protagonist found themselves in. For example, if a character learned of their self-centered hamartia and tried to fix their flaw by enlisting the help of others, this defined comedy (which explains why some ancient comedies like Dante's Inferno aren't funny--comedy is more about the triumph of man).

However, all tragic heroes share the same fatal hamartia: hubris. Hubris is the pride that a person has in a character quality that is so excessive that it blinds them to reality and leads to their downfall. Creon's hubris in the Oedipus cycle is that he prides himself on his political will and never compromising, which leads to him not reversing terrible decisions that both alienate his people and cause his family to die. Amanda Wingfield's hubris is her pride in her Southern society upbringing, a pride that turns sour when she cannot conform to changing times and thus puts undue pressure on her children. The Evil Queen in Snow White is proud of her beauty, so much so that her vanity drives her to murder her stepdaughter when her status is threatened. Romeo is proud of his open mind and easy-going style, yet this leads him to act impulsively and let Tybalt slay Mercutio.


The hubris of a character fuels the tragedy, leading to what the Greeks called peripeteia, or a dramatic and sudden reversal in circumstances or fortune. Genres typically start in a place opposite of its cathartic response--this way, it can build up toward a climax. Comedies start with a problem or frustrated life. Romances start with a lack of love. Horror starts relatively peacefully and normally. Traditional tragedies start with joy, with the characters enjoying success and good fortune. Timon is the most wealthy man in Athens, sharing his bounty with his friends. Antigone begins at a celebration for the end of a war. Same goes for Macbeth and Othello. The Godfather literally starts with a joyous wedding.

Yet not all tragedies need to start with a happy protagonist who knows of no trouble or strife for peripeteia to work. Take Willie Lohman in Death of a Salesman: he starts struggling at his job, but then the peripeteia occurs when he then loses that same job. Instead of going from good to bad things go from bad to worse. A peripeteia can also just revolve around a character and not the whole plot. Hamlet starts the play sullen and disturbed by the death of his father, but builds his confidence slowly by justifying his actions against Claudius and playing his crazy games in court. However, this all changes when he kills Polonius--robbing himself of a father (technically, soon-to-be father-in-law) the same way Claudio robbed Hamlet of his father. The hero now no longer has the moral high ground as circumstances have changed--here, the peripeteia is less of a fall in fortune than a fall in grace. Regardless of the impact, there is always a fall in tragedy, often fueled by dramatic irony.

Dramatic Irony

Irony is the reversal of expectations and comes in three forms: dramatic irony, situation irony, and verbal irony.

  • Dramatic irony is where the characters think something will happen, but the audience knows something else will happen (e.g., an employee criticizes the boss without realizing the boss is standing behind her).
  • Situational irony occurs when characters act in a certain way and expect a certain result, but the result is actually unexpected (e.g., Wile E. Coyote pulls the string, and in spite of gravity, the rock doesn't crush the Road Runner.)
  • Verbal irony is also known as wordplay or wit. Wordplay is when someone says something other characters do not expect and plays against what a normal person would say in the situation.

While comedy tends to rely on situational and verbal irony for humor, tragedy relies on dramatic irony to bring about the heartbreak. Why? The audience needs to feel a sense of dread approaching in order for the tragedy to unfold. Tragedy doesn't really work too well if it's a surprise--a work should embody its genre or genre blend through the entire work, after all. Dramatic irony provides this dread because the audience can already see where the tragedy is heading but can't stop it. This is typically done by having the tragedies be told from a third-person perspective, with an omniscient narrator revealing to the audience things the main characters don't know. In ancient Greek tragedies, this was the chorus. In Hadestown, this is Hermes who tells us that the story will end in heartbreak. In Romeo and Juliet, the prologue lays out that the two star-crossed lovers will die before a word of the play is spoken.

Ignored Omens

Beyond a third person narrator, a good tragedy sets up the expectations of dread for an audience through omens, an event that portents future evil or loss. There are many classical omens that have transcended many cultures, like seeing a raven, a ghost, a morning storm, an eclipse or shooting star, or seeing a doppelganger in a crowd. Superstitious people would see these events in real life and connect them to unrelated tragedy, and since literature reflects life, these symbols made it into the literary traditions.

Yet this element isn't about omens but ignored omens. The ones to suffer the tragedy get this early warning and, sure of themselves because of their hubris, ignore the warning and proceed to tragedy. When Tiresias warns Oedipus to stop investigating the murder of Laius and his parentage, he refuses and ends up regretting what he finds. Kent warns King Lear not to divide his kingdom while still alive, and although Kent is banished, his predictions come true.


While a character's hubris forces them to ignore signs that all is not well, it also blinds them to the collateral damage of their actions. Take the Greeks of the Iliad--they are so focused on winning Helen back that they don't realize they have destroyed many of their own lives by invoking the wrath of the gods and, in forcing the flight of Aeneus, have brought about their own eventual destruction. Or look at Romeo and Juliet--Romeo is so blinded with love that he doesn't take Tybalt's threats seriously and Mercutio ends up dying for it.

These losses set up guilt in the protagonist, and guilt becomes the main or secondary motivation for tragic characters, especially those left standing at the end who must live with the consequences of the plot. Tom brings Jim home to court Laura because he's guilty that he hasn't done much for his sister beyond giving her glass animals to add to her menagerie. Macbeth becomes so wracked with guilt after killing Banquo that he keeps seeing Banquo's ghost. Romeo feels guilty for Mercutio's death, so he takes revenge and kills Tybalt.

Notice here that "revenge" is a common motivation in tragedy, but what ultimately fuels revenge? Guilt. Jason promises to hunt down Medea over his guilt of letting her kill his new wife and children. Orpheus wanders the earth playing sad songs (until he's torn apart by angry fans) out of guilt for looking back at Eurydice. Hamlet only quells his indecision about whether to kill Claudio or not when pushed by his guilt over murdering Polonius and Ophelia's suicide. Regardless of how it's used, guilt is key in tragedies, as it teaches the audience that one must feel the weight of the consequences of their actions.


The lasting feeling that audiences get after watching a great tragedy is the sense that all of the terrible things could have been avoided. If only the main character would have set their pride to the side instead of doubling down when challenged. If only they didn't ignore the omens. If only they valued their loved ones before losing them, or at the very least could process the guilt in a healthy way.

Even though fate governs the most ancient of all tragedies, tragedies are a human endeavor--they are caused by people making decisions that negatively affect themselves and others. While a pandemic striking, losing a home, or the death of friend may be a loss, these are not necessarily tragic--The Last Man on Earth starts with a pandemic, The Odd Couple starts with Felix losing his house, and The Big Chill starts with a gathering for the funeral of a friend that committed suicide--and all of these are comedies. What makes a work tragic is that people fuel the tragedy with their decisions, consciously or unconsciously.

And why? Because they want to be in a comedy.

Comedies are about winning, being victorious, and everyone living happily ever after. This is the goal of nearly everyone in real life, so of course the tragic heroes see themselves in the role of hero or "good guy" until its too late. Hamlet thinks he is doing the right thing in avenging his father until he has to fight and kill Laertes because of his previous poor decisions. Creon thinks he's saving the republic until, with Antigone's death, he loses his family to suicide. They are under the delusion that they will make everything right.

The tragic delusion is not just for protagonists either, as madness is a common trait in tragic characters. Ophelia goes mad to cope with her father's death and continual abuse from Hamlet. Edgar goes crazy when exiled by his bastard brother and only regains sanity by defeating him. The Glass Menagerie is full of delusions: Tom with his delusion that the Spanish Revolution is glorious, Amanda that her family has not dipped in social status, and Laura that she has friends in her glass animals. These delusions trap a character in only seeing one way out of a problem--with their rose-colored glasses on, they can't make out any of the red flags. Thus, while we as the audience may hope they stop before it's too late, they definitely won't, as their delusion of the happy ending won't let them.


Ultimately, a tragedy results in death. The protagonist finds that they simply cannot overcome their obstacles and lose or, worse yet, they succeed at something the now regret which came at a terrible cost. In classic tragedy, this loss was represented in one funeral or many (like in Hamlet or Antigone), the ultimate symbol of death and mourning. Yet not every tragedy ends with a literal death--consider that death is ultimately a loss of life. There are lots of different ways to lose a life--through madness, through imprisonment, through an incapacitating accident, or even through seeing dreams die and settling for an unfulfilled life. Tragedies remind the audience that life is full of sorrow that makes our joys feel richer by comparison.

Tragic Subgenres
Created By
Brandon Coon


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