Tragedies in literature aren't just sad stories. Tragedy is a specific form that was made popular by the Greeks and given definition by the philosopher Aristotle. Both fate and character can contribute to the fall of the tragic hero, though some tragedies focus on one more than the other. Many examples of both tragedy of fate and tragedy of character are available from the ancient Greek era through to modern times.
Definition of Tragedy
Aristotle defined tragedy as having six elements: It must imitate reality, concern an action that has serious implications, have a complete narrative arc, include appropriate language such as a chorus for a play, show the story through action rather than narration and include catharsis of some kind. Catharsis is the purging of the emotions invoked by the tragedy, such as fear. Catharsis can take place in the characters or in the audience. Tragedies also include a tragic hero who suffers a downfall because of a character flaw or moral failing.
Fate vs. Character
Though the tragic hero is brought down by some deficiency in character, fate often plays a role in the downfall -- especially in the Greek tragedies. The tragic hero usually tries to outwit fate, with his character flaw being his pride in thinking that outwitting fate is possible. Therefore, tragedies of fate are usually focused on a moral message about not trying to outrun destiny. Tragedies of character minimize the role of fate and focus instead on human choice and moral accountability.
Tragedy of Fate
Many examples of tragedy of fate can be found in classic literature. "Oedipus the King" is one of the most often cited examples. In this play by Sophocles, an oracle tells Oedipus that he will murder his father and marry his mother. He tries to outwit fate by leaving his home and the people he believes to be his parents; he doesn't know he was adopted. During his travels, Oedipus kills a man who turns out to be his biological father, then marries the woman who turns out to be his biological mother. His mother hangs herself when she learns the truth, and Oedipus blinds himself. In "Romeo and Juliet" by William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet are said to be brought together by fate, yet their feuding families keep them apart. The price of this human pettiness is the death of the young lovers.
Tragedy of Character
Because character is so often linked to fate in narrative, scholars often debate whether a story is a true tragedy of character. "Macbeth" by William Shakespeare can be considered a tragedy of character, because Macbeth becomes blinded by his ambition and allows his wife to persuade him to commit an evil act, leading to his own eventual downfall. The witches told Macbeth he would be king but his descendents would not be, so the story includes an element of the hero trying to work against fate. In "Death of a Salesman" by Arthur Miller, Willy Loman is a proud man who cannot bear the reality of his own failure, and his flaw costs him his family and his life. Though Loman is not a noble man or king like most tragic heroes, the play has many elements of tragedy of character.