Types of Tragedy

Senecan Tragedy

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.

Revenge Tragedy/Tragedy of Blood

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.

Domestic/Bourgeois Tragedy

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).

Modern 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).


The 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 Shakespeare’s 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., Thomas Middleton’s and William Rowley’s The Changeling, 1622).



Senecan tradegy
revenge tradegy
dumb show
play-within-the -play
domestic tradegy