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  ‘Tragedy’ is Greek for ‘goat-song’, and no one has satisfactorily explained how the word came to have its more (or perhaps less) technical meaning. Whatever the origin of the word, tragedy is one of the two main groups into which Aristotle divided drama in his Poetics of the 4th century  BCE. (The other was comedy.) These groups are not apparent in non-Western drama, and hardly cover the range of plays written in Europe since Aristotle\'s time. Nonetheless, Aristotle\'s account of the form and purpose of Greek tragedy (his notes on comedy are lost), and his comments on the complex of beliefs which underlie it, have crucially influenced Western drama. For Aristotle, tragedy was the imitation of reality, intended to purify its spectators by arousing ‘pity and terror’. (For more on this, see entry on drama.) Basing his analyses on a few plays by Sophocles, notably King Oedipus, he said that the central character of a tragedy should be a noble person who is brought low because of some flaw in his or her own nature. (In Oedipus\' case the flaw is persisting in seeking out a truth which he knows will destroy himself.) The hero\'s fall (peripeteia) is the nub of tragedy, and is the chief means of achieving catharsis (purification). At some point in the action, there should be recognition (anagnorisis) by the hero of his or her flaw, and of the inevitability of suffering; this is the turning-point of the play. The action of the play is structured to articulate these themes.

Although these ideas apply to only a fraction of surviving Greek tragedies—for example, they are relevant neither to Aeschylus\' extant plays nor to the greatest surviving works of Euripides—they influenced the writing of Western drama for two millennia. However, epistemological shifts brought about by historical, social and religious change meant that by the Renaissance, Aristotle\'s idea of tragedy had become somewhat blurred and remote from practice. (It was closer to opera, the art form invented in the late 16th century to reconstruct the methods and practices of ancient tragedy.) Renaissance tragedy still sometimes dealt with the fall of kings and princes (as in Shakespeare\'s King Lear), but was equally concerned with the effect its theatrical strategies might have on audiences (Calderón\'s plays are excellent examples.) One of the main concerns behind this idea was the ‘pity and terror’ which Aristotle claimed the tragic action evoked in the spectator. The main distinction in ideas is between the religious basis for Greek tragedy and the increasingly secular nature of tragedy from the Renaissance onwards: even the auto da fé, the principal philosophical and stylistic influence on Calderón, was secularized in what he made of it. Increasingly, the dilemmas and suffering of ordinary human beings were seen to be possible subjects for tragedy and by the 19th century (in the naturalistic plays of such writers as Ibsen) they had become a far more potent subject than the downfall of the mighty. Nonetheless, and although cross-cultural forms such as those from Asian theatre practice, are beginning to be used and adapted by Western play-wrights, the ‘rules’ postulated by Aristotle for the structure of Greek tragedy, and said by him to be intrinsic to the plays\' original religious function, continue to dominate much theatre practice, and to underlie most scholarly analysis of the nature and function of tragedy, and of ‘literary’ theatre of every kind. TRG KMcL SS

Further reading Aristotle, Poetics; C. Leech, Tragedy; , J. Orr, Tragic Drama and Modern Society.



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