The Difference Between a Classical & a Modern Tragedy in Literature

The word “tragedy” traditionally refers to a genre of serious, dramatic work in which a heroic individual meets with or causes terrible and awe-inspiring events. We can broadly distinguish classical tragedy, a dramatic form that directly developed from these rituals and was performed in ancient Greece, and modern tragedy, a dramatic form written and performed today.

The Origins of Tragedy

Tragedy has its roots in the Bacchanalia, religious rituals to the god Dionysus held in ancient Greece. Scholars believe that the earliest forms of these rituals may have been fertility feasts featuring dancers to celebrate the new harvest. Over time, other elements were added: a speaker, then dialogue between the speaker and the dancers. The playwright Aeschylus is often credited as the first to add a second speaker, and thereby create the form of tragedy.

Classical Tragedy

In his “Poetics,” Aristotle identifies the elements of classical tragedy, based primarily on the work of the playwrights Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles. Classical tragedy is the imitation of a single action, in which a hero of high status falls from fortune to misfortune. The fall must occur because of a “tragic flaw,” or some error or shortcoming in an otherwise good protagonist, and not by vice or depravity. The purpose of tragedy, in Aristotle’s view, is to provoke pity and terror in the audience, leading to a catharsis, or cleansing of these emotions.

From Classical to Modern Tragedy

Between classical and modern tragedy, we find the medieval and Renaissance forms of tragedy. Medieval tragedy mostly took the form of narratives, rather than plays, and focused on the fall of great men caused, not by a tragic flaw, but instead the spinning of fortune’s wheel. Renaissance tragedy took its inspiration from classical tragedy, while changing the form in important ways, by including subplots, comic relief and expanding the possibilities for the tragic hero. Christopher Marlowe’s "Edward II," who is driven by vice which causes his downfall, could not have featured as a protagonist in classical tragedy.

Modern Tragedy

Whereas in classical tragedy, the protagonist is of noble or prestigious standing, modern tragedy is more likely to focus on the “common man.” A modern audience is expected to relate to, rather than look up to, the protagonist; and while the classical tragic hero’s death is an event to be collectively mourned onstage, the modern tragic hero often dies unrecognized as a hero. The modern tragedy is also more likely to focus on society, rather than fate or fortune, as that which oppresses the hero. However, the modern tragedy retains a highly solemn tone and focus on matters of grave and ultimate importance, features common to tragedy throughout its history.

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