A precursor of tragic drama was the Roman poet Seneca (4 BC –
65 AD). His tragedies were recited rather than staged but they became
a model for English playwrights entailing the five-act structure, a
complex plot and an elevated style of dialogue.
This type of tragedy represented a popular genre in the Elizabethan
Age and made extensive use of certain elements of the Senecan tragedy
such as murder, revenge, mutilations and ghosts. Typical examples of
this sub-genre are Christopher
Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, Shakespeare’s
Titus Andronicus and Thomas
Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy. These plays were written
in verse and, following Aristotelian
poetics, the main characters were of a high social rank (the higher
they are, the lower they fall). Apart from dealing
with violent subject matters, these plays conventionally made use of
feigned or real madness in some of the characters, dumb shows
or play-within-the-play structures, that is, a play
was performed within the play.
In line with a changing social system where the middle class gained increasing importance and power, tragedies from the eighteenth century onward shifted their focus to protagonists from the middle or lower classes and were written in prose. The protagonist typically suffers a domestic disaster which is intended to arouse empathy rather than pity and fear in the audience. An example is George Lillo’s The London Merchant: or, The History of George Barnwell (1731).
tragedies such as Arthur
Miller’s The Death of a Salesman (1949) follow largely
the new conventions set forth by the domestic tragedy (common conflict,
common characters, prose) and a number of contemporary plays have exchanged
the tragic hero for an anti-hero, who does not display
the dignity and courage of a traditional hero but is passive, petty
and ineffectual. Other dramas resuscitate elements of ancient tragedies
such as the chorus and verse, e.g., T.S.
Eliot’s The Murder in the Cathedral (1935).
boundaries of genres are often blurred in drama and occasionally they
lead to the emergence of new sub-genres, e.g., the tragicomedy.
Tragicomedies, as the name suggests, intermingle conventions concerning
plot, character and subject matter derived from both tragedy and comedy.
Thus, characters of both high and low social rank can be mixed as in
The Merchant of Venice (1600), or a serious conflict, which
is likely to end in disaster, suddenly reaches a happy ending because
of some unforeseen circumstances as in John
Fletcher’s The Faithful Shepherdess (c. 1609). Plays
with multiple plots which combine tragedy in one plot and comedy in
the other are also occasionally referred to as tragicomedies (e.g.,
Middleton’s and William
Rowley’s The Changeling, 1622).