Tragedy: what it is, meaning, function, characteristics, origin and more 


What is tragedy?

It is one of the most important literary subgenres of the dramatic genre, cultivated in antiquity and developed from a large number of exponents of Literature who will take their compositions to the stage representation basing their works on situations of fatal conflict that they must face irremediably as their destiny or the mandate of the gods, where many will end in death, exile or madness of the protagonist of the story.


Because of its origin, the term -tragedy-, has also been used to refer to a regrettable situation, unfortunate events and moments of great sadness that have the power to affect a person or a community in particular, whether natural disasters, tragic events, accidents, among others.

Meaning of the subgenre tragedy

The term -tragedy-, comes from the Greek tragoedia, which refers to “song of the goat”, it was a song that was sung in Athens in the festivals whose purpose was focused on the worship and honor of the god Dionysus with the offering of a goat that was sacrificed publicly.

Definition of the subgenre tragedy

Aristotle is going to define tragedy as one of the highest artistic manifestations and representations of literature, given that it exposed the situations to the public in a direct way, without the appearance of narrators, exalting what one really is and the irreparable fall into misfortune.

In this way the fall of the protagonist is progressively drawn in the tragedy and reprimanded, in many cases by the chorus as a representation of the voice of the people.

What is the function of tragedy?

Although the tragedy will be characterized by a set of elements in which the characters express passions and all kinds of feelings conditional to the human being, the truth is that the tragedy was used in the citizens of antiquity with a character of moral and ethical training, which allowed them to obtain these teachings from the representations, the mistakes of the characters and their inevitable destinies. It was considered that every citizen who came out of watching a play came out a better person.

Origin of tragedy

The birth of this literary subgenre appears in Ancient Greece by Thespis, a renowned poet of whom we have only fragments of his compositions. However, his importance was such for the development of tragedy that his legacy allowed other poets to continue working on it, among them Euripides, Aeschylus and Sophocles. Many of these works inherit episodes from myths and religious songs used at the time, which included adventures, victories and failures of Greek heroes during the most important wars. Thus, from them, Aristotle begins to set the structure of tragedy, establishing the first text of literary theory with this subgenre.

With the conquest of the Roman Empire in Greece, much of Greek culture is incorporated into Roman practice, including the development of compositions and tragedy. Thus, in Rome another series of poets will appear who will work the subgenre, such as Livius Andronicus, Seneca, Trasidas of Ennius, Marcus Pachuvius, among others.

Characteristics of tragedy

In order to know in depth this literary subgenre of the dramatic genre, let’s see its most important characteristics:

Central theme

Tragedy is dominated by content that relates conflicts or complex situations for human beings, which are largely influenced by human passions, an axis that will become the starting point for the execution of errors and subsequent correction from its fatal consequence. Thus, suffering will be a constant feature of tragedy.


Another important factor of tragedy is related to the type of language used in the composition of the text, since it uses a solemn language for each of the characters, especially for the heroes and key figures in the story, which are facing, little by little, an inevitable destiny.

Form of composition

In the beginning, tragedy was written in verse and handled a high tone in which the character could represent a situation that takes to the extreme his emotion from passion or fatality, so that, progressively by his fatal error he was led to physical or moral destruction, and even death, which will be one of the most representative aspects of tragedy.

Ending of the tragedy

Another of the characteristics of this subgenre, has to do with that usually come to an end from three specific situations; the death of one or more characters, the destruction and physical deterioration of the body, the exile of one of the characters, moral decadence or economic decline, among some others that are made in the form of punishment for a fatal error.

Parts that make up the tragedy

The composition and structure of the tragedy is established from Aristotle in his text “Poetics”, where he points out the parts that tragedies must have. These are:


It is considered to be what is found prior to the entrance of the chorus, where the location of space and time of the work is presented, linking the past with the present of the hero in particular. In the prologue three actors may be present, however one of them may not speak or express a monologue. In addition to this, the reason for the punishment the hero will face is explained to the audience.


These are the chants performed by the chorus for the entrance of the párodo made by a flute player who will do it from the left side. Sometimes in the párodo lyrical chants can be performed, as well as backward and forward dances, and the Doric dialect is usually used, which allows musicality with the chorus chants.


In a work like this there may be up to five episodes, where there are dialogues between the chorus and the characters, as well as dialogues between the characters themselves. The episodes are the most relevant section of the play, since they are where the ideas, emotions and thoughts of each of the characters or protagonists are expressed.

Within the episodes it is possible to find agons, a kind of passages in which the protagonist confronts another of the characters of the play dialectically.


This is the lyrical-dramatic section in which the poet has the possibility to express his ideas about religious, political, philosophical, social, etc. aspects. In this section also occurs the second entrance of the chorus, although the dance is dispensed with. Another function of the stanza is that it allows the division of the episodes, and these can be divided into strophes and antistrophes, always pronounced by the chorus.


It is the culminating zone of the tragedy in which the lyrical songs, as well as the dramatic songs, take place. In this section, the hero receives the corresponding punishment by the gods, however, he recognizes his mistake but he is not deviated from his fatal destiny, since sometimes he usually causes his own death. Exodus presents the moral teaching to the public through the chorus.

Elements that compose the tragedy

According to the form of composition, we can identify the following elements for its representation and writing:


It is one of the most important participants in tragedies, since they play a fundamental role, as they are the representatives of the voice of the people. Thus, the chorus is in charge of giving advice, explaining the dilemmas that arise, making clear the moral dilemma that arises as well as its consequences and other informative information about the story. Particularly they used to be present in three key moments: the strophe, the antistrophe and the párodo.


This is the director or conductor of the chorus. This figure has the possibility of leaving the chorus and can manage his own voice in which he can reprimand both characters within the chorus and other characters in the play.


Within the team of characters it is possible to identify both heroes and antagonists and other representative figures. Each of them will be represented by male actors, since at this time, women did not have any kind of participation in classical theater. Thus, men will be the ones who represent both male and female figures in the plays.

Parts that make up the tragedy

Types of tragedy

These are some of the ways in which tragedy is usually composed based on its setting, particular function or poet:

Classical tragedy

Also known as pure tragedy, it is the type that is closest to the definition of tragedy presented by Aristotle in antiquity. Classical tragedy is distinguished from the others not only from its date of composition, but also from the stylistics of composition, which includes aspects such as the tragic end without variations, the use of the noble language, absence of mixing genres, among others. French and Roman tragedy and some neoclassical forms are also linked to this type of tragedy.

Sublimation tragedy

In this type of tragedy, the protagonist of the story is exhibited as if he were a hero who is able to challenge the obstacles from the strength of each of his virtues, which allows him to win the admiration of the public.

Revenge tragedy

This is a type of tragedy whose bases are found in the style of tragedy written by Seneca, since in his works one could often see the central content linked to the revenge that the hero intended to kill the one who offended him or caused him evil. Thus, plays such as “Hamlet” or “The Spanish Tragedy” become faithful representatives of this type of tragedy.

Mixed tragedy

This type of plays are characterized because they preserve an atmosphere and style linked to the elements of classical or pure tragedy, however, they usually include another series of aspects linked to comedy or tragicomedy in which an intense language is used. Many of its fruits will be seen in works written by poets such as Hugo, Shakespeare, Musset and Giraudoux, who become great exponents of tragedy.

How to write a tragedy?

Now, after having seen all this about tragedy, let’s move on to see how to write a play with these characteristics, partially or totally linked to tragedy with Greek elements. Let’s see:

Choose the modality of tragedy

We know that with the passage of time the subgenre has developed a lot of elements that today can be applied not only to the representation of the theater, but the writer has the possibility of taking them to other scenarios such as the novel, writing a classic tragedy, a screenplay, and so on. So this first step focuses on the choice of the modality you are going to choose so that, from this point you can incorporate the necessary elements.

Establish the tragic plot 

The plot of a tragedy revolves around a heroic figure, although we know that its characteristics can easily vary given the originality and peculiarities that the writer wants to imprint on the work.

Thus, the plot includes a previous exposition of important information presented by the characters, a moment of tension that appears as a consequence of a conflict, the maximum point or climax of the story where the tension increases its level and examines two possible paths and finally the denouement, in which the tension is released with the closing of the play, be it death, madness or destruction.

Build the characters

Now it is up to you to write each of the characters that will take place within the play, each of them must be identified with their own name. In addition to this, it is not enough just their name, but we must also give them a personality from their origin or history, that is, a short biography that allows you to identify them and from where the actor can work their own particular dyes.

All this information is key to determine the personality, the reaction and ways of acting in front of the circumstances that will be presented to the characters in each of the situations.

Identify the tragic hero

This figure is fundamental for the development of the story, since the whole sense of tragedy lies in him. Often the tragic heroes are heroes of wars of the time, people who belonged to royalty or people with relevant positions in the political world.

Some of the key characteristics are: the hero must face a tragic mistake or ruin, an insight or point at which he recognizes his tragic destiny, as well as being pitiful, as he must represent the pain caused by his inevitable fate and generate an awakening to eliminate the negative emotions of the spectators.

Develop the fall of the tragic hero 

With the construction of the plot and the descriptions about the tragic hero, you may already have an idea of what will happen to him and the inevitable fate he will have to face, an overview of the events that will occur as a result. It is important that in the course of the story, as it is being written, the events of the hero’s ruin expand and contain the elements we seek to consolidate the tragedy.

Remember that you have several options for writing the denouement of the story, but these should always be clear to the viewers. That is, if you choose that the hero is going to take revenge on the villain, then the audience must not only witness it, but must also have understood the reasons that led him to make that decision from the scenes presented, the expression of feelings and so on.


When you have this first writing, it is convenient to review it several times to examine possible modifications or changes that you want to make to it to facilitate its understanding or to add other events that you consider relevant to enrich the story.

Remember: before you start writing, we recommend that you review several references to representative works of tragedy so that you can identify changes, jumps, forms of composition or other elements that may be key to add to your story. Many of them may be like the fragment you will see in a moment.

Most important authors and works

Its main exponent was Thespis, later in the course of its evolution appear other poets among which are Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles within Greece. Other later authors will also appear such as Pacuvio, Accio, Seneca, the work Sofonisba by Gian Giorgio Trissino, other poets such as Jodelle, Robert Garnier, Alexandre Hardy, Jean Mairet, Corneille, Racine, Lope de Vega with works such as “El caballero de Olmedo”, Pedro Calderón de la Barca with “El príncipe constante”, Quintana, Cienfuegos, Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos, Vicente Antonio García de la Huerta, Francisco Martínez de la Rosa, Benito Pérez Galdós, Manuel Tamayo, Miguel Unamuno, Federico García Lorca with the play “La casa de Bernarda Alba”, Antonio Buero Vallejo, Voltaire, among others.

In other countries such as Italy and England, authors such as Metastasio, Alfieri, D’Annunzio, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Otway, Dryden, Addison, as well as Goethe, Schiller and Grillparzer in Germany and Austria, as well as Sergio Magaña, Héctor Azar and Rodolfo Usigli in Mexico, among many others, will appear.

Example of the subgenre tragedy

The following is an excerpt from one of the most important plays of classical tragedy, entitled “Antigone” and written by Sophocles:

Chorus: Many things are portentous, but none so portentous as man; he, who aided by the tempestuous noto reaches to the other end of the foaming sea, crossing it in spite of the roaring, mammoth waves; he who wearies the sublimest divine earth, inconsumable, inexhaustible, with the coming and going of the plow, year after year, traversing it with his mules. With his traps he captures the tribe of birds incapable of thinking and the people of the wild animals and the fish that live in the sea, in the meshes of his braided nets, the ingenious man who with his ingenuity dominates the savage wild animal; able to yoke with a yoke that his neck on both sides holds the horse with a bushy mane and the bull also tireless of the mountains; and the word by himself has learned and the thought, quick as the wind, and the character that regulates the life in society, and to flee from the unpleasant weather under the darts of snow and rain: resources he has for everything, and, without resources, in nothing he ventures into the future; only death he has not succeeded in avoiding, but he has secured ways of evading the inevitable diseases.