Quilt: Drama

VCCS Litonline Introduction to Literature
English 112 (English Composition II)

page 3 of 20


Defining Tragedy

Objective for this Page: To define tragedy in Aristotle's terms .

"Tornado Brings Tragedy to Texas Town"

"Tragic Plane Crash Kills Seventy"

"The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark"

"Melissa failed her math final. How tragic!"

Tragedy . . . a word used to describe the death of Princess Diana, starvation in Korea, massacres in Algeria and Bosnia, hurricane damage, traffic accidents, divorce, plant closings and layoffs, low SAT scores, even cancelled rock concerts.

What do all these events have in common? Well, at least to some extent, they all involve human suffering. And that's what tragedy is all about.

Our primary objective in this module is to understand the meaning of the word "tragedy" as it applies to literature. We will find that--like so many other words--this one comes from ancient Greece. We will also find that its literary meaning is quite different from its more general, popular meaning and that in literature there is an important difference between "tragedy" and "pathos."

A secondary objective is to determine whether or not the term "tragedy" still applies. (Some critics and writers claim that tragedy is impossible in the

It All Starts With Aristotle

(That's Greek for "It All Starts with Aristotle.")

Let's start with the ancient Greek philosopher who first sat down and tried to define what had become a popular form of writing during his time. Click on the book below to go to a page of definitions and then scroll down to "Tragedy." Note, especially, the definitions of hubris and hamartia; in fact, you might want to bookmark this site; it includes some other information that could be helpful in your study of literature. When you have finished looking at what Aristotle has to say, use your "Back" button to return to this page:

Assessment: Aristotle's definition was based mainly on Oedipus Rex, a play we will look at in more detail shortly. But first, let's try a short quiz to see how his main points apply.

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