A Level English Literature: Aspects of Tragedy (Key Terms and Concepts)

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the moment when a character makes an important discovery, usually the realisation or recognition of their hamartia
Greek philosopher from 4th century BCE, who first described, in his treatise ‘Poetics’, the characteristics of tragic drama that he had seen performed. The aspects of tragedy he defined have continued to provide the framework through which tragedy has been considered. (However, it is important to note that tragedy does not have to conform to Aristotle’s definition; it is a tool, not a rule!)
the feeling of pleasure or emotional release produced (through pity and fear) in the audience. Aristotle likened this to a kind of purging or cleansing of the passions in the audience. He believed that tragedy served a function in society by ridding the community of possibly dangerous ‘passions’, by imitating them and their consequences on the stage
(Greek: peripeteia) – an event causing great and sudden damage or suffering, usually a reversal of fortune
chain of events
a series of actions and effects that are linked. In tragedy, we can consider how far events can be conceived as consequences of a preceding action, particularly a tragic hero’s hamartia (or error)
In Greek theatre, a group of actors would offer commentary on the action directly to the audience. They represented citizens and a more ‘common sense’ approach, and did not intervene in the action on stage.
contemporary tragedy
plays written in the late twentieth or twenty-first centuries
classical tragedy
plays written in ancient Greece or Rome, or in a similar style
in the sense in which Aristotle uses it, this means the composition of the verse
the inversion or destruction of the normal order in a society
domestic tragedy
a drama set in a household, apparently without grand or ambitious themes
the loss or decline from an initial position of high status
epic tragedy
plays with a grand or ambitious theme. (different to Epic theatre!)
Freytag’s Pyramid
The structural pattern that narratives usually follow. It resembles an inverted ‘v’ shape, with the climax occuring at the highest point.

Exposition – Inciting Incident – Rising Action – Complication – Climax – Falling Action –
Resolution – Dénouement.

an error or series of errors, such as an error in judgement
excessive pride (the most common form of hamartia) usually shown in the behaviour of the protagonist, which leads to their downfall
the quality of being amusing or comic.

Who provides humour and when?
How does this affect how we, the audience or reader, respond to that character?

in Aristotle’s theory, this means acting like or being like the real world
inversion of the natural order
lyric poetry
the medium in which classical drama is written
the presence of the ambition in tragedy to deal with an event that is sufficiently serious
main plot
the events, scenes and actions concerning the protagonist, that make up the narrative
greatness of soul (Aristotle)
mix of good and evil
for Aristotle, a protagonist should not be wholly good or bad, but should be a mix of good and evil
modern tragedy
plays written in the late nineteenth or twentieth century (for example, ‘Death of a Salesman’)
moments of happiness
moments in a play or narrative where one or more characters’ tragic circumstances or experiences are interrupted by brief moments of happiness.

How are moments of happiness are used in the narrative or play you are studying. What is their effect on the audience/reader?

For example:
– Do they serve as a contrast to the earlier/later tragic events, throwing the suffering or downfall into relief?
– Do they prepare us for tragic events later in the play?
– Do they offer an alternative to a tragic ending, thereby heightening our sense of pity and fear when the tragic events unfold?

Aristotle’s term for a reversal of fortune
pity and fear
feelings evoked in the audience (pity for the protagonist and fear in the audience for themselves). As the theatre in ancient Greece was seen as a form of education, this ‘fear’ served to help teach citizens about moral and social codes, by showing them the disastrous consequences of errors
in dramatic terms, the first major character who offers a particular view. The protagonist is often seen in opposition to the antagonist
the place or time of the action
structural pattern: climax
the highest point of interest in the narrative. See, Freytag’s Pyramid
structural pattern: complication
an event or circumstance that complicates the action of the narrative. See, Freytag’s Pyramid
structural pattern: dénouement
(also, resolution) the part of the story when the action resolves itself. See, Freytag’s Pyramid
an additional or second plot that often parallels events of the main plot of the tragedy
tragic flaw
(a.k.a. fatal flaw) Literary critic A. C. Bradley proposed that a flaw or fault within a protagonist’s personality is what sets in motion the chain of events that leads inevitably to their downfall.

[Note: Although some do erroneously refer to this fatal/tragic flaw as ‘hamartia’, it is a distinct concept from Aristotle’s hamartia, which refers to a protagonist’s error. In ancient Greek society, there was no concept of personality separate from a person’s actions. You ‘were’ what you ‘did’. The concept of ‘personality’ came much later in the history of human thought.]

tragic hero
for Aristotle, the protagonist is a man or woman or high rank, power or fortune. They can be noble (of noble birth) or show wisdom (by virtue of their birth). Aristotle believed they should be neither wholly good nor bad, so that the audience could identify with them
unities, the (classical)
Aristotle stated that the action of a tragic drama occurred according to three unities: time, place and plot.

Unity of plot: one plot only, no subplot
Unity of place: the action should take place in one place only
Unity of time: the action should take place on a single day

Categories: English Literature