Tragedy

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"Tragedy! When the feeling's gone and you can't go on, it's tragedy!"

In a sentence, you could say that Tragedy concerns itself with the fall of a great man due to his own mistakes and/or flaws.

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 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 protagonist'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 punished.

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 tragedy 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.

(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.)

To subvert 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, downfall 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:


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.

Examples of Tragedy include:


Anime[edit | hide | hide all]

  • Code Geass has some Tragedy moments too. The end of season 1 is a good example, as the hero is undone by his own flaws. In fact it's conceivable that Code Geass could end as a tragedy, depending on how the series works out.
    • It does end pretty much like a classic tragedy in that Lelouch purposefully makes himself universally reviled then has himself publicly killed by Suzaku--disguised as Zero--all for the sake of uniting the world.
      • Actually, no. Because he willingly sacrificed himself and it is implied he succeeded in his goal, it's transform him into a Christ Figure instead of a Tragic Anti-Hero.
  • Death Note also has some tragic elements going on.
    • Arguably it's a stronger example of Tragedy in the classical sense than Code Geass; it is the story of the protagonist's rise to power and the simultaneous destruction of all his morals and ethics, culminating in spectacular failure. Lelouch Lamperouge ultimately succeeds in his goal at the cost of his own life; by contrast, Light Yagami dies in obscurity, the fate of Kira left as a mystery to the world, and while he succeeded at being revered as a deity after his death, the world returns more or less to normal without the fear of Kira keeping everyone in line.
      • Light is almost a perfect example of a tragic protagonist - he is trying to do what's right, but is let down by his personality flaws and ends up doing terrible things.
  • 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 Complete Monsters 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 Fireflies 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.

Comics[edit | hide]

Film[edit | hide]

  • The new Star Wars prequels are a rare modern mainstream example. Though kind of badly written concerning Anakin Skywalker's heroic nature, the tragedy is in the way he fulfills Yoda's Self-Fulfilling Prophecy about possessive love 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.
  • Scarface features Tony Montana rising to the top by his reckless courage and ambition, but his need for more power combined with his recklessness end up getting him killed.
  • In Requiem for a Dream, all of the main characters succumb to their addictions. Harry loses his infected arm, Tyrone gets thrown in jail, Marion becomes a crack whore 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 Jakes fault, for trying to do the right thing.
  • The central character of Citizen Kane ends up dying alone and unloved thanks to his narcissism.

Literature[edit | hide]

  • Tolkien's The Children of Hurin is a textbook example: Half of Turin'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 Turin'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.

Theater[edit | hide]

  • 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, not any particular character's flaw.
    • No character flaws? Romeo was a teenage boy who had just broken up with a girl who he chased into chastity with his obsessive love, when he met 13-year-old Juliet, who needed to pick a husband soon by her mother's pressure. The entire point of the play is the folly of rushed love and rushed action.
    • Of course, the ending probably could have been prevented if the titular characters were not quite so impulsive, especially Romeo committing suicide right after Juliet's supposed death before thinking things through. Even if she was dead, life still goes on.
      • But then would the play have been half as interesting or merely pointless?
        • It's not so much a question of whether his lack of flaws would make the play interesting. A Tragedy isn't a Tragedy if its tragic hero doesn't have a tragic flaw. Romeo's was his impulsiveness. His immediate love for Juliet, and immediately wanting to marry her and being willing to die for her drives the whole story of the play. And his impulsive murder of Tybalt for killing Mercutio leads to his downfall in his banishment. He even comes close to killing himself in front of Friar Lawrence when he hears this news. And then, of course, his suicide when he's heard Juliet is dead. Had he waited even a day to think about things, he would've been spared his and Juliet's death and they would've lived happily in Mantua. While the play does have the message of not being able to escape fate and tragic coincidence, Romeo drives the story through being brash and impulsive, his fatal flaw.
    • Romeo and Juliet is often classified a tragicomedy or a problem play, because, while it has a tragic conclusion, 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 heroic[1] 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.
  • Hamilton weaves tragedy into its own plot. Alexander Hamilton is a gifted and voluminous writer who is almost compulsively honest, wearing his feelings on his sleeve like embroidery, and prefers to act rather than waiting on opportunities. These gifts catapult him into the center of his new nation ... but they also bring about his downfall. In order to clear his name of whispered charges of embezzlement, he decides to "write his way out," creating a lengthy pamphlet where he confesses to his actual sin -- an adulterous affair -- in vivid detail. This sets off a chain of events that includes the destruction of his political career, a lengthy estrangement from his wife and the death of his son in a duel defending Alexander's name. One last bit of honesty, when he calls out Aaron Burr's lack of values in the election of 1800, finally leads to his own death on the same dueling ground.

Video Games[edit | hide]

  • Mafia II
  • Castlevania: Lords of Shadow definitely qualifies as a tragedy - of a Byronic Hero destined to go down on the path of darkness, only trying to save his childhood sweetheart from death and never succeed.
  • God of War has tragic elements, at least in Kratos' backstory.
  • Archer's entire backstory is just one big tragedy, having once been the incredibly idealistic protagonist before his ideals betrayed him.

Web Original[edit | hide]

Subversions[edit | hide]

Anime and Manga[edit | hide]

  • 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.)

Film[edit | hide]

  • 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.

Theater[edit | hide]

  • Brecht's Mother Courage, 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.

Notes

  1. when used by the Greeks, "heroic" does not describe a character's morality but rather their Power Levels. Anyone demi-human, transhuman or superhuman was a "hero"--Medusa, for instance.
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