In a sentence, you could say that Tragedy concerns itself with the fall
of a great man
due to his own mistakes
As a genre, tragedy is Older Than Feudalism
. It has changed quite a bit since its conception in ancient Greece, and nowadays is a dying genre... how tragic! Soon it will be just as dead as Irony
As you can guess from the above facetiousness, Tragedy is also as clingy as Irony and as difficult to define and apply. It's not enough to be on the deep cynical end
and have a Twist
or Downer Ending
with plenty of artsy angst
along the way, or have the hero's happy home life destroyed
with a girlfriend raped
and a dead little sister
; it has to be of an epic scope with inexorable and self-inflicted pain brought about for past sins. And despite all that, it also has to give the viewer closure.
This last one is perhaps the hardest to capture correctly. After all is said and done, the audience should not feel impotent rage, denial
, confusion or having been cheated
. They should feel that the ending is a natural outcome to the hero's actions, and that in having faced punishment for those actions they [the audience] are purged of anxiety and worry. The world does
make sense, the guilty are
Aristotle's guidelines form the basis of Tragedy, as outlined in Poetics; here they are much abbreviated:
- Have a hero of great status and prosperity (which is why many tragic main characters are nobles or royalty), who suffers a terrible fall, usually death.
- The fall is brought on by his own Fatal Flaw and past mistakes. His character should be consistent and unchanging to make his fall inevitable, such as being Prideful or stubborn, or so good and persistent such that fixing his mistakes destroys him.
- The audience has to feel catharsis at his death, an emotional "purging" where the audience should feel relief and cleansing. Whether this catharsis is due to the schadenfreude, relief at having it better off than the character, or generally releasing pent-up anxiety is debated to this day.
- While you do not need The Reveal and reversal of fortune stemming from it, Aristotle considered those tragedies superior to those without it.
To borrow a simplifying example from Educating Rita
is generally considered a tragedy in literary terms because throughout the play, Macbeth is warned time and time again by numerous parties that his actions will bring nothing but doom and misery upon himself and his family, but he ignores these warnings and proceeds regardless until it is much too late; Macbeth's fate is inevitable because his own character flaws have made it so. On the other hand, a man who suddenly and unexpectedly gets hit and killed by a falling tree while going about his daily business isn't
usually considered a tragedy in the literary sense (although it will likely be tragic for his family), because the man's fate isn't preordained or a result of his own character flaws; if he'd known that being at that precise spot at that precise moment in advance would have killed him, he'd have chosen to take a different route. In the first example, the main character cannot escape his fate due to the circumstances he exists in and his own flaws, while in the second the main character's fate would have been entirely avoidable and likely avoided had he known about it in advance.
(On the other hand, "tragedy" in Greek times did not need to be soul-crushingly pessimistic and have a Downer Ending
; Aristotle thought the best tragic plot had The Reveal
in time for him to refrain and therefore not have the downfall. In fact, the opposite of a tragedy originally was not a comedy, but rather an epic. Whereas an epic typically unfolds and "opens up" to a world of unknown horrors and delights for the hero to explore, a tragedy "closes down" on the hero, prohibiting him from anything else he may think to try until at the climax of the story he is forced into one all-important decision on which everything good or bad that may follow ultimately hinges. The story of Oedipus is a tragedy in this sense not because its ending is so horrible, but because every hope Oedipus had for escaping his cruel fate was ultimately thwarted, and because everything ultimately hinges on what he decides to do when the Awful Truth
is finally made known to him. Other tragedies from the time might present a better decision to the hero, and might end well if he chooses wisely. Eventually, however, the meaning of the term shifted
; such a potentially Happy Ending
precludes a work's being a tragedy nowadays.)
a tragedy is complex. It's not enough to try for Grand Guignol
and stuff it up with Satire
and dead babies
, tack on a happy ending, or pull on heartstrings with dead babies
. To subvert tragedy for real, you have to get into the cycle of catharsis
and break one of the literary elements of greatness, hubris
or change. Or, just make it a Comedy
, which is basically the whole thing Played for Laughs
. Though that's not really a subversion, just an interesting detail about comedy.
Common tragedies are: Greek Tragedy, Shakespearean Tragedy, and the more recent Bourgeois Tragedy. Tragedy is directly opposed to Comedy
A typical Tragedy includes:
- Being Good Sucks: The protagonist usually is trying to live like a good man, but past mistakes mean they have some heavy atoning to do that they can not dodge.
- Despair Event Horizon: The moment when it's already too late.
- Disproportionate Retribution: According to Aristotle, the protagonist must be punished for an error, but with the punishment spectacularly exceeding the crime.
- Downer Ending: Tragedies never end well for the protagonist.
- Dramatic Irony: The audience often knows crucial information that our protagonist does not.
- Fallen Hero: If they survive.
- Fatal Flaw: A key part of many tragic heroes, which leads them to commit their Tragic Mistake. Pride has been one of the most common since the Greeks.
- Foreshadowing: You know what they say about trusting too much in prophecies? Well, foreshadowing can be thought of as one...
- The Hero Dies: The protagonists in their plays were usually killed off in the end.
- Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Seriously, if the protagonists thought out their actions before attempting their heroism, then the situation wouldn't have gotten worse.
- Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: Many tragic heroes unwittingly bring about the very events that they were trying to avert.
- Star-Crossed Lovers: Many tragic romances involve two people who want to be together but are doomed to be kept apart.
- A Tragedy of Impulsiveness: Dammit, if the protagonists had thought things through before they acted, the tragedy could have been avoided.
- Tragic Dream: Oh, dear. Without that nagging dream driving them, the protagonists wouldn't have driven themselves and/or other characters into the ground.
- Tragic Hero: Frequently combined with heroic archetypes like Knight in Shining Armor.
- Tragic Mistake: Often called the hamartia, this is that one crucial mistake that sends everything crashing down.
- Tragic Villain: A villain who isn't meant to be a villain after all.
- Twist Ending: Surprise! It failed! Or, whatever the protagonists did, or even why they did it, was rendered utterly pointless. Or, it worked; but screwed something else up in some other, unforeseen way. Anyway, it's ended, whatever it was. Hitting the wall is an option.
- What the Hell, Hero?: The hero's tragic flaw often leads him to do rather...unheroic things.
- You Can't Fight Fate: A fairly common theme.
Greek tragedy in general is the Trope Namer
for Deus ex Machina
When adding examples, please remember that just because a work is dark and "tragic", it is not necessarily a tragedy. Tragedies need to be about a character being destroyed by their own character flaws and mistakes.
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Anime and Manga
- Code Geass has some Tragedy moments too. The first season's ending (him abandoning the Black Knights during their invasion and thus causing their defeat) due to main character's mistakes and his reliance on his Morality Chain. And the second season's ending (his own death, as the price to give the world peace but with none knowing for how long) due to his mistakes after losing his Morality Chain twice, at first due to her apparent death and then due to him having to go against her.
- Death Note can be interpreted as a tragedy if one simplifies the story to its essentials. The protagonist Light Yagami is someone of high social standing, and is a significant individual in that he is greater than most others. However, he has a flaw in that he's too proud. Because of this and the tragic coincidence that leads him to the Death Note, he enjoys some time of greatness. However, in the end he falls from grace and is killed because of his mistakes and flaws.
- Even interpreting it the other way, it can still be viewed as a tragedy. Even with the ultimate villain (Light) finally dying in the end, he still ultimately succeeded in killing almost all the heroes and protagonists and manipulating and using so many people before it happened.
- A lot of the individual arcs of Higurashi no Naku Koro ni fit the definition of a tragedy, with the Downer Endings often being due to the actions of one of the main characters, and the Fatal Flaw that causes it often being paranoia and lack of trust in their friends.
- Neon Genesis Evangelion can be seen as a modern anime tragedy. A cast of ...mostly normal characters are brought to the brink of ruin, but they're all so unable to overcome their personal demons and shadows, that they ultimately pay the price for it. Though the actual scale of the price paid is rather...extreme.
- Weiß Kreuz is a tragedy, set in a world of hell - implied by Hidaka Ken - where villains are free to get what they want at the expense of the innocent lives, and without getting punished by laws. The heroes, Weiss, are themselves bloody, murderous monsters as well, and are determined to live a life full of guilt in order to provide the innocent better tomorrows.
- Grave Of The Fire Flies is a tragedy written to not only reflect the cruelty of war, but also reflect the author's guilt for not being able to save his own sister from starvation.
- Boys Love Genre Ai no Kusabi has a tragic ending which is either a Bittersweet Ending or a Downer Ending depending on the viewer. Regardless, Riki and Iason died for their forbidden love at the end.
- Puella Magi Madoka Magica fits this to a T. Every main character is brought down as a result of their own flaws. Their mistakes are made with the best of intentions. Any diversion away from their fates would require outside intervention. Also worth noting is a couple of the characters do realize their mistake in time to do something, but only at the cost of their lives.
- The Golden Age Arc of Berserk is very much a tragedy. Two of the prevailing themes of the story is how one fateful decision can turn the tides of destiny with horrible consequences and how the love that the three main characters have for one another can potentially cause more pain than happiness.
- The new Star Wars prequel trilogy are a rare modern mainstream example. Though kind of badly written and a rather Narmish example concerning Anakin Skywalker's heroic nature, the tragedy is in the way he fulfills Yoda's Self-Fulfilling Prophecy about his possessive love towards Padmé Amidala and cause his fall to The Dark Side.
- Akira Kurosawa's film Ran, being King Lear IN SENGOKU-ERA JAPAN!, does tragedy to a T.
- In Requiem for a Dream, all of the main characters succumb to their addictions. Harry's arm is infected by repeated use of the needle and he has to have it amputated, Tyrone gets thrown in jail for dealing drugs, Marion becomes a crack whore to support her drug habit and Sara gets reduced to a living wreck due to the combined effect of the weight-loss drugs and the electroshock therapy administered to kick the habit.
- American History X seems to avert this until the literal Chekhov's Gunman returns.
- The Godfather saga is another example of classical mafia tragedy. Michael Corleone's ruthlessness and vengeful ways eventually lead to his alienation from his family and his ultimate ruin.
- Chronicle fits the tragic mold almost exactly, as it is the protagonist's hostility and hubris that leads to his downfall and death.
- Chinatown While technically Neo-Noir ends tragically it's all Jake Gittes' fault, for trying to do the right thing.
- The central character of Citizen Kane ends up dying alone and unloved thanks to his narcissism.
- Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance
- The fifth Hellraiser movie Hellraiser: Inferno is one of the few examples crossing over with Horror. Fundamentally it is the story of a man who receives unimaginable punishment due to his own sins and his abuse of everyone around him.
- Tolkien's The Children of Húrin is a textbook example: Half of Túrin's problems come from him being impulsive, letting his anger cloud his judgement, and his unwillingness to swallow his pride and listen to advice. The other half comes from Morgoth himself being out to get him. In the end, all of Túrin's plans fail, he ends up either killing or leading all his friends to his deaths, and finally kills himself, having achieved nothing but destruction.
- Almost anything by John Steinbeck.
- Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart was imagined from the very beginning as a classical tragedy. The hero, Okonkwo, is a strong and prosperous man in his Igbo village, with big fields of big yams and a big, well-maintained compound and three wives. He is very proud of his achievements and of his manliness—but his manliness and pride cause him to act rashly, eventually getting him exiled for manslaughter (when his Firing in the Air a Lot kills someone), lead his son to abandon him, and ultimately causes his suicide.
- Pretty much any retelling of the King Arthur myth is this by default. Le Morte Darthur and The Once and Future King are probably the best examples.
- Several of Thomas Hardy's novels are borderline examples, but The Mayor of Casterbridge unquestionably qualifies, to the extent that it's been read as a reworking of Aristotle's principles in nineteenth-century rural England. The novel begins with Michael Henchard selling his wife and child in a drunken rage, after which he gives up drinking and manages to turn his life around for a few years. Ultimately, though, his pride and quick temper cause him to lose everyone he cares about, and he dies alone.
- William Shakespeare wrote quite a few: Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Titus Andronicus (just to name a few). Romeo and Juliet, though commonly labeled as one, isn't actually a tragedy per se, as the ultimate unhappy ending comes as a result of bad luck. It is often classified a tragicomedy or a problem play, because, while it has a tragic conclusion and the title characters' youthful impulsiveness contributes to their demise, it more closely follows the comedic form.
- A textbook classical tragedy would be Oedipus the King. The hero, Oedipus (of the famous complex, though he does not necessarily possess it), is a heroicnote and generally admirable man who ruled Thebes wisely. However, it is struck by a strange drought that no one can explain. Sages say that since the land and king are one, the king has done something to poison the land, and only he can ferret out that mistake. Despite warnings from sages and wise men that Oedipus won't like what he discovers, he learns that the previous king heard a prophecy that his son would kill him and marry his mother, so the king had his son bound and abandoned in a forest and he went into hiding to avoid being killed. However, the son survived and killed him for cutting him off in traffic, and afterward killed the Sphinx (of the riddles) and was rewarded with the kingship of Thebes, including the widowed queen. ... Yep. His mother-wife commits suicide in shame, and he blinds himself in sorrow.
- Antigone: The children of Oedipus and Jocaste didn't fare much better.
- The Oresteia, a dramatic trilogy by Aeschylus, consisting of Agamemnon, Choephoroi and Eumenides) and Electra are classic (indeed quite literally) tragedies. The theme of fatal flaws and dramatic irony is applied to heroic men, such as Agamemnon and Orestes, but also to the house of Atreus as a whole. Apparently the Oresteia is also one of the first examples of Nightmare Fuel as during the premiere of the play the haunting song of the furies caused a pregnant woman to promptly miscarry and die in the process. One could probably write a tragedy about that too.
- Many classical revenge stories, such as the above-mentioned Hamlet, were tragedies. The avenger usually succeeded in destroying the villain responsible for whatever awful crime set him on his vendetta, but he all too often destroyed himself and/or everything he cared about in the process. See also the Nietzschean concept of "He Who Fights Monsters".
- Moira is what happens when Sound Horizon decides that classical Greek tragedy would make for one hell of a Symphonic Metal Rock Opera.
- Miss Saigon, a Setting Update of Puccini's Madame Butterfly; most of his other works were tragic as well.
- Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, the story of a Byronic Hero fated to go down to the path of darkness, only trying to save his childhood sweetheart from death and never succeeding - and his offsprings, fated to fight against him himself.
- God of War has tragic elements, at least in Kratos' backstory.
- Archer's entire backstory in Fate/stay night is just one big tragedy, having once been the incredibly idealistic protagonist before his ideals betrayed him.
- Spec Ops: The Line is a classic tragedy, and it stands out due to drawing comparisons between the protagonist and the player as the story unfolds.
Anime and Manga
- Princess Tutu is postmodern in nature, but none of the characters are familiar with postmodernist conventions, instead believing that they're living through a classic tragedy. Much of the story's conflict comes from characters trying to find ways to fulfill their goals without making the same mistakes that normally doom tragic heroes (or, in a few cases, giving up on goals that would lead to an unhappy ending.)
- Hard Core Logo is a variation on the Greek tragic formula, disguised as a Black Comedy and set in the Canadian punk scene rather than among the social elite. Joe Dick's arc fits the tragic hero model best, but really, the band is such a Dysfunction Junction that it's hard to pin the ensuing trainwreck on any single member's single major character flaw.
- Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Despite their flashes of Genre Savvy and occasional (dark) comedy, the ending features a complete lack of awareness on the character's part. The futility of their project is laid bare, they die accomplishing nothing except discover their names (and that's still iffy). The downfall being external (but necessary). The minor status of the protagonists to "incidental" characters like Hamlet.
- Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children, as well as Measures Taken. Catharsis is withheld in order to demand revolutionary action from the audience.
- Waiting for Godot is a low and existential tragedy.
- Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman is a middle-class indebted salesman who delusionally believes that the right attitude and personality can spell success. This leads to disaster in his life and the lives of his children, especially Biff, and Willy Loman is never able to understand the cause of his misfortune and dies unaware. Miller subverts a classical tragedy by making a middle class man the subject of his play and making the protagonist never understand reality because of his blind spot at any point which ultimately leads to his death.