ETYM Old Eng. tragedie, Old Fren. tragedie, French tragédie, Latin tragoedia, Greek, a tragic poet and singer, originally, a goat singer.
Drama in which the protagonist is overcome by some superior force or circumstance; excites terror or pity.
In the theater, a play dealing with a serious theme, traditionally one in which a character meets disaster as a result either of personal failings or circumstances beyond his or her control. Historically the classical view of tragedy, as expressed by the Greek tragedians Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles, and the Roman tragedian Seneca, has been predominant in the Western tradition. In the 20th century tragedies dealing with exalted or heroic figures in an elevated manner have virtually died out. Tragedy has been replaced by dramas with “tragic” implications or overtones, as in the work of Ibsen, O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Osborne, for example, or by the problem plays of Pirandello, Brecht, and Beckett.
The Greek view of tragedy was developed by the philosopher Aristotle, but it was the Roman Seneca (whose works were probably intended to be read rather than acted) who influenced the Elizabethan tragedies of Marlowe and Shakespeare. French classical tragedy developed under the influence of both Seneca and an interpretation of Aristotle which gave rise to the theory of unities of time, place, and action, as observed by Racine, one of its greatest exponents. In Germany the tragedies of Goethe and Schiller led to the exaggerated melodrama, which replaced pure tragedy. In the 18th century attempts were made to “domesticate” tragedy, notably by Lessing, but it was the realistic dramas of Ibsen that confirmed the transformation of serious drama.