Shakespeare's Plays: Tragedy
The genre of tragedy is rooted in the Greek dramas of Aeschylus (525-456 B.C., e.g.
the Oresteia and Prometheus Bound), Euripides (ca. 480?-405 B.C., e.g. Medea and
The Trojan Women) and Sophocles (496-406 B.C., e.g. Oedipus Rex and Antigone).
One of the earliest works of literary criticism, the Poetics of the Greek philosopher
Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), includes a discussion of tragedy based in part upon the plays
of Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles. While Shakespeare probably did not know
Greek tragedy directly, he would have been familiar with the Latin adaptations of Greek
drama by the Roman (i.e. Latin-language) playwright Seneca (ca. 3 B.C.-65 A.D.;
his nine tragedies include a Medea and an Oedipus). Both Senecan and Renaissance
tragedy were influenced by the theory of tragedy found in Aristotle's Poetics.
Classical Tragedy: According to Aristotle's Poetics, tragedy involves a protagonist
of high estate ("better than we") who falls from prosperity to misery through a series
of reversals and discoveries as a result of a "tragic flaw," generally an error caused by
human frailty. Aside from this initial moral weakness or error, the protagonist is basically
a good person: for Aristotle, the downfall of an evil protagonist is not tragic (Macbeth
would not qualify). In Aristotelian tragedy, the action (or fable) generally involves
revolution (unanticipated reversals of what is expected to occur) and discovery (in
which the protagonists and audience learn something that had been hidden). The third
part of the fable, disasters, includes all destructive actions, deaths, etc. Tragedy evokes
pity and fear in the audience, leading finally to catharsis (the purgation of these
Medieval tragedy: A narrative (not a play) concerning how a person falls from high
to low estate as the Goddess Fortune spins her wheel. In the middle ages, there
was no "tragic" theater per se; medieval theater in England was...