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Tragedy: the word evokes connotations of sadness, death, and irony. Contemporary American culture overuses the word; every occasion for grief becomes, in the lexicon of the evening news, “a tragedy.” We have misused the word so completely and so often that most Americans have no idea what it really means.
In literature, a tragedy is a plot in which the protagonist, because of some inherent flaw in his/her character, dies. Thus Hamlet is a tragedy. Julius Caesar is a tragedy. Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy. (The destruction of the World Trade Center is an outrage, and is sad, but it is not a tragedy no matter how often CNN says that it is.) In each of these plays the protagonist is either a great man or a man of great promise; instead of fulfilling his potential, however, each one succumbs to his tragic flaw and ultimately dies. Caesar’s flaw is ambition, Hamlet’s is the inability to take action, and Romeo’s is his tendency to love too much.
It might seem, from this highly simplified definition, that character and resolution are the keys to a tragedy. But tragedy also implies a central action, a crisis which tests that flawed part of the protagonist’s character. In Julius Caesar, the test comes when Marc Antony presents Caesar with the crown. Hamlet’s test comes in the chapel, after witnessing his uncle’s reaction to the play. Mercutio’s death tests Romeo. In all three cases the protagonists are found wanting: Caesar accepts the crown after refusing it twice; Hamlet sheaths his sword instead of executing Claudius; Romeo murders Tybalt in a vengeful rage. Without the test, the flaw might never surface.
In the Poetics, Aristotle wrote that the purpose of Tragedy is to evoke a wonder born of pity and fear, the result of which is cathartic. As audience members we should sympathize with the protagonist, possibly recognizing in him/her our own human weaknesses. This quality of seeing ourselves, wholly or in part, in a fictional character is called identification; without this sort of identification, we cannot achieve what Samuel Taylor Coleridge* called “a willing suspension of disbelief” necessary to enjoy the work of fiction, whether it be on stage or in a book. Because tragedy is built around an internal conflict of character, identification with the protagonist is crucial to success. If we cannot understand Romeo’s naïve, unsophisticated notion of love, for example, what poignancy does his death have?
*Biographia Literaria, Chapter 14--thanks to Steven Storer for correcting my error here.