Definition of Tragedy

Definition of Tragedy

Tragedie is to seyn a certeyn stories,
As olde bookes maken us memorie,
Of hym that stood in greet prosperitee,
And is yfallen out of heigh degree
Into myserie, and endeth wrecchedly
(Geoffrey Chaucer, The Monk's Tale; late 14th century)


The following definitions of tragedy from early modern dictionaries were included in a lecture given to the 2004 RSC Ensemble by Jonathan Bate, Professor of Shakespeare and Renaissance Literature at the University of Warwick.

Tragoedia, A tragedie, being a loftie kind of poetrie, and representing Personages of great estate, and matter of much trouble, a great broyle or stirre.
THOMAS, Latin dictionary, 1587.

Tragedie: a solemne plaie
COOTE, 'hard word list', 1596.

Trag├ędia, a tragedie or moornefull play being a loftie kinde of poetrie, and representing personages of great state and matter of much trouble, a great broile or stirre: it beginneth prosperously and endeth vnfortunatelie or sometimes doubtfullie, and is contrarie to a comedie.
FLORIO, English-Italian dictionary, 1598

tragedie, a solemne play, describing cruel murders and sorrowes
CAWDREY, 'hard word list', 1604

Tragedie. A play or Historie ending with great sorrow and bloodshed.
Tragedian. A Player or Writer of Tragedies.
Tragicall. Mournefull, lamentable, deadly, which endeth like a Tragedy.
BULLOKAR, earliest English dictionary, 1616.

Tragedie [tragoedia] is a lofty kind of poetry, so called from [Greek tragos], a goat; because the actors thereof had a goat given them as a reward. The differences between a Tragedy and a Comedy are these; First, in respect of the matter, because a Tragedy treats of exilements, murders, matters of grief, &c. a Comedy of loves toyes, merry fictions and petty matters; in a Tragedy the greatest part of the actors are Kings and Noble persons…
BLOUNT, English dictionary, 1656.


In the first week of rehearsal for the RSC 2004 Tragedies Season, the acting company were divided into four groups asked to define tragedy. Here are their definitions:

A story in which a noble protagonist's actions have disastrous consequences, for which they are not entirely to blame.
Tragedy is the change from high to low state.

Tragedy is about the punishment of tyrants, the turn of fortune's wheel.
Tragedies act as a warning to people in positions of power not to abuse their power.

Michael Boyd, Artistic Director of the RSC, talks about TRAGEDY:

Tragedy, to begin with, was a form of theatre. Now we use the word to describe all manner of sad events that happen in our world - events we hear about, read about, watch on television. But is tragedy something that happens to other people or is it an experience we go through? And if so, are we changed by it?


Shakespeare's Tragedies take us on a journey:

They confront our greatest hopes and fears, our best and worst of actions.
They probe the extremities of what it means to be human.
They expose the suffering we inflict and the suffering we bear.

Despite being written hundreds of years ago, the dilemmas of Shakespeare's tragedies are dilemmas that still rule our public arena and our private lives; family relations, power struggles, obsessions and betrayals.


What can we learn from seeing terrible events played and replayed? How can we uplifted by seeing tragedies on stage? Tragedy explores the human capacity for cruelty but also for endurance. Tragedy heals by showing us what we are capable of.


Whilst Comedies are about ordinary people, Tragedies are about kings, gods and demi-gods. Comedy is the oldest form of theatre; it goes back to the dawn of time. Tragedy only emerged when we a got hierarchical structure. When people began to raise themselves up and gain power and positions of greatness, we began to judge their rights and wrongs.


There are four parts to the tragedy (theorists argue the same structure applies to comedy too):

Part one - protasis, the setting up the situation
Part two - epitasis, the complication of the action
Part three - catastasis, the main body of the action
Part four - catastrophe, the ending or unwinding

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