It’s time to write yet another essay, and you’re looking for help so you can write a good definition essay. But how do you define “good”?
Both you and your instructor may have very different definitions of the word. That’s the inherent problem with defining terms that can be subjective. Each person can have a different idea of what the term means.
That’s where I come in. I’ve annotated two definition essays in this post to point out what makes them good (and in some cases, what makes some sections not so good).
If you’re looking for help writing your paper before you even look at definition essay examples, check out How to Write a Definition Essay with Confidence.
If you’re struggling to find a topic for your paper, here are 20 Definition Essay Topics That Go Beyond the Obvious.
And now, on with the show. Here are two definition essay examples that define it all.
2 Definition Essay Examples That Define It All
These two essays each use a subjective term as the focus and create an extended definition.
Notice that neither of these essays begins with the phrase, “According to Webster’s dictionary…” Yours probably shouldn’t start with this type of phrase, either.
In most cases, you’ll be defining terms that your readers will already have a basic understanding of. Thus, there’s no reason to include a dictionary definition.
For both definition essay examples, my commentary is below each paragraph. The specific text I’m discussing is notated with a bracket and a corresponding number [#]. When you see an asterisk in front of that at the end of a paragraph *[#], my comments apply to the preceding paragraph as a whole.
Now let’s get to those examples!
Definition essay example #1: Defining Beauty
 How do you judge if someone is beautiful for the first time you see them? By physical appearance is the most popular answer you may find.  To the majority of people, beauty is solely dependent on how a person looks on the outside. However, some might argue that inner beauty is more important than outer appearance. It is difficult to fully define beauty because everyone has their own views about beauty.  In my view, beauty has to deal with one’s self as the only rival.
 This essay opens with a rhetorical question to grab the reader’s attention. While using a rhetorical question is a good strategy, notice that the writer uses second person (you) in this question.
Second person isn’t usually accepted in academic writing, so check with your instructor to see if you’re allowed to use second person in your definition essay.
(Read: How to Read and Understand an Essay Assignment.)
Here, the writer establishes the focus of the essay: how people define beauty both by outward appearances and by inner beauty.
(Read: How to Make a Thesis Statement the Easy Way (Infographic).)
 This sentence begins with first person (my).
Third person is generally preferred in academic writing, so again, check with your instructor to see which point of view you should use in your essay.
(Read: Why Third-Person Writing Is Critical to a Great Essay.)
 The term “beauty” was originated from Anglo-French beute. It was first known used in the 14th century as “physical attractiveness,” and also “goodness, courtesy.” The meaning of beauty also came from several different places including: Old French biaute “beauty, seductiveness, beautiful person,” and Latin bellus “pretty, handsome, charming.” For the most part, beauty was originally associated with physical attractiveness. Therefore, many people use beauty as something to deal with outer appearance in today’s world. On the other hand, beauty could be meant as “goodness, courtesy,” and “charming” from its origins. For a long time, two different trends of thoughts about beauty as physical appearance as well as personality have been formed.
 The above paragraph provides background information to establish the origins of the word “beauty.”
By the writer defining the word’s origins, readers can better understand the current definition(s) of the word.
 The first and most popular interpretation of the word “beauty” is seen as outer appearance. On that perception, “beauty” and “attractiveness” have a significant difference even though they are word cousins. A beautiful looking person may be attractive, but an attractive person does not need to be beautiful. One person may look at someone beautiful with “deep satisfaction in the mind” because that person admire how beautiful the other is. Someone, who is not striking beautiful looking, may attract other people just by how they express their personalities. The others who are attracted to that particular individual because they feel connected, happy, and comfortable around that person.
 In the above paragraph, the writer begins to define the current meaning of beauty.
The writer also explains the difference between outward beauty and what personality traits might make someone attractive.
Again, these types of definitions help clarify the term and how it is defined in today’s culture.
While attractiveness may result in long lasting relationships, physical beauty only brings short term pleasant feeling in the mind. Yet, beauty as outer appearances conquers many societies around the world.  For instance, American culture tends to value the way a person looks. That value is transmitted from one generation to the next by families, peers, and media in the process of enculturation. Young children come to adapt ways of thinking and feeling about physical beauty from their families first.  The show Toddlers & Tiaras is an example because it follows families of young contestants in child beauty pageants. Contestants’ moms train and force their young girls closely resemble their adult counterparts including waxing eyebrows and wearing heavy makeup. Thus, these young girls are shaped to think that beautiful outer look is the only thing to get them to win and gives them what they want. Especially Daisey Mae, an 8-year-old pageant pro, said that “Facial beauty is the most important thing, in life and in pageants.”
 This sentence is the topic sentence of the paragraph and identifies America’s focus on outward beauty.
In this case, the topic sentence doesn’t appear as the first sentence of the paragraph, yet it is well-placed to identify the paragraph’s focus.
(Read: Here Is the Right Way and the Wrong Way to Write Topic Sentences.)
 An example from pop culture is included here to help support the idea that America is focused on outward beauty.
This example works well as it even includes a quote from an 8-year-old beauty contestant who feels that “facial beauty is the most important thing in life and in pageants.”
Beside families, the media plays a significant role in influencing people to view beauty as having good faces and sexy bodies. According to “The Wound in the Face” by Angela Carter, images from women’s magazines give women the ideas of what beautiful faces and bodies are “supposed to be looking like.” To achieve beauty like models and celebrities, women usually waste tons of money in fixing themselves because they think their bodies are ugly and in need of a makeover.  Carter refers to “the burden of having to look beautiful” which many women and even men today suffer. This burden is wearing heavy makeup masks to conceal their imperfect naked face, undergoing strict diets and painful plastic surgery. In some extreme cases, women even lose their own lives. Another example is the impact of television in changing the idea of beauty in small areas. There was no television in Fiji, a South Pacific nation, before 1995. The “thin” idea did not affected them yet because “skinny legs” was used in order to insult someone. After television was introduced, girls in Fiji began dieting and showing in signs of anorexics. This was a response to the beautiful, tall, and skinny woman on the TV. *
 Quotes from a source are used in the above paragraph to further define beauty and illustrate how media emphasizes the importance of outward beauty.
While using a quote is an excellent strategy to help support claims, the writer should also include a proper in-text citation and a corresponding Works Cited (MLA) or References page (APA).
(Read: The Stress-Free Guide to MLA Essay Format (8th Edition) or The Stress-Free Guide to APA Essay Format.)
* The goal of this paper is to define beauty.
This paragraph, however, strays from the focus as it discusses the media’s influence across the world.
In order to use the information in this paragraph, the writer should make a stronger connection to the paper’s focus by explaining more about Fiji’s definition of beauty.
This would allow the writer to create a more detailed discussion about how people in various parts of the world define beauty.
(Read: How to Narrow a Topic and Write a Focused Paper.)
 Even though outer beauty is dominant, it does not mean that everyone has to agree with that idea. There are people who believe that inner beauty is more important. Sadly, societies nowadays have narrowed down the appreciation of beauty to only visual sense, but we forget that the inside of a person can also determine their true beauty. We tend to judge others’ quickly and harshly merely based on their appearance.  For example, a guy with black skin, thick beard, and big muscles is considered violent and fiery. Another guy is seen as cute and trustworthy because he has white skin and a baby face. Those judgments are not often true because we do not get to know their real inner side. A beautiful looking person with an ugly heart is truly ugly. Time will soon age his or her outer look. They cannot reserve their youth forever even if they ask for the knife helps. That person’s ugly personality chases away the people around him or her. As a result, he or she will end up being ugly from inside out.
 Here, the writer successfully transitions to the second component of the paper: how beauty is defined by inner beauty.
(Read: 97 Transition Words for Essays You Need to Know.)
 This paragraph includes several examples of how people are judged by outward appearances and how people should take time to understand the beauty within.
Though the ideas in these examples are on track, the actual examples are weak because they are generalized.
To improve this paragraph, the writer should include more specific examples and perhaps evidence and quotes from sources.
(Read: 3 Types of Essay Support That Prove You Know Your Stuff.)
In contrast, a not good looking person with a beautiful heart is beautiful. Inner beauty is considered as personality and morality. They express their inner self by caring and loving other people. Their inner beauty attract and create long lasting bonds with others. Inner beauty is always young, so it covers a person’s aged looking. Despite of being old, a person with beautiful personality will always feel beautiful and happy because there are people who are willing to love and care for them in return. There are people who are perfectly beautiful because not only they own good looking bodies but also have kindness within their hearts. They use their success to do charity work in order to return back to the community.  Namely, Taylor Swift has an ideal body and is a successful singer at a young age. She does not let her outer appearance to cover up her inner beauty. She received the Ripple of Hope Award for donating $4 million to the Country Hall of Fame Museum and topped many lists as most charitable celebrity for her work with children who have cancer. Many of her fans around the world admire her not just her talents but by her personality.
 At the end of this paragraph, the writer uses a specific and effective example to define inner beauty.
Besides the two traditional meanings of beauty, the thinking about beauty has been altered and extended more overtime. Beauty is not necessary being felt and appreciated by other people because it can be formed within one’s self. To me, beauty is to overcome your bias against your body, learn to appreciate and love what you’re naturally created with. Alice Walker is the one who shapes my idea of the term “beauty.” In “Beauty: When the Other Dancer is the Self,” Walker explains her journey to find the love for her right eye.
 The conclusion wraps up the essay by asserting a final definition: how individuals define beauty within themselves.
This works well to not only wrap up ideas but to also leave readers thinking about their own definition(s) of beauty.
(Read: 12 Essay Conclusion Examples to Help You Finish Strong.)
Definition essay example #2: Swimming Up Mainstream: The Hipster Culture
 Every generation has had its movements and fads among young people. After women got the right to vote, they experienced new, scandalous freedoms in the 1920s in which they strove to be modern and fashionable. After World War II, disgruntled young people were magnetized toward movements like civil rights and women’s liberation. Their hair became longer and views more radical when they were called “hippies” in the 1970s. In the 1990s, style was edgier and grungier. What fad has dominated the twenty-first century?  The rebels of the 2010s are the hipsters: the thrift-store shoppers, indie music junkies, and do-it-yourselfers. In the past few years, this movement has grown from a passing fad to an entire subculture among millennials. So how has the hipster culture become so popular?
 This essay effectively opens with background information about subcultures throughout history.
This strategy starts the paper broadly to grab the reader’s interest, then narrows to the focus of the paper: hipsters.
(Read: How to Write an Essay Introduction in 3 Easy Steps.)
 These lines identify the focus of the paper: the hipster subculture and its definition.
(Read: How to Write a Thesis Statement in 5 Simple Steps.)
First, the term “hipster” is not clearly defined. One person might say a hipster is someone who follows all the latest trends, while another might think it is someone who has his own unique style. The term “hipster” can define a wide spectrum of people; therefore, what makes a hipster a hipster is ambiguous. Does a “true” hipster follow the latest trends, or does he invent his own, unconventional fashion? Since the hipster style has become fashionable among younger people, a hipster can be someone who follows popular trends; however, a hipster can also be someone who has his own unique, if not odd, style, in thought, appearance, and overall lifestyle. The more the term hipster is used, the broader its definition becomes. An individual who still follows the nineties grunge style might still be considered a hipster because of his unique style, even though he does not fit into the twenty-first century hipster stereotype. Since the definition of who a hipster really is is unclear, there are different hipster subcultures making the culture broader and more diverse. *
* The writer uses the above paragraph to provide a broad and generally accepted definition of hipster.
This establishes a basic definition to work from and allows the writer an opportunity to then define the word in more specific terms.
Mainstream culture, especially music, has also played a part in popularizing the hipster lifestyle. The stereotypical hipster would find this ironic since he tends to live outside of the mainstream – or at least he likes to think he does. For example, folk and indie music became popular in the early 2010s when bands like Mumford & Sons, The Lumineers, and The Civil Wars released platinum albums and chart-topping singles. Indie rock bands like Imagine Dragons suddenly rose to stardom and entered the mainstream culture. This is an almost seismic shift compared to the rap and hip-hop that was popular less than ten years ago. What is difficult to determine is whether the music inspired the hipster or the hipster inspired the music. There is no way to truly find out how the movement came so suddenly into the mainstream except that it was propelled by the public. *
*The above paragraph discusses the origins and influences of the hipster lifestyle but focuses only on music.
In order to develop this discussion, the writer should also include other cultural influences, such as other social or political movements.
This would also be a great place to add evidence from outside sources to help support the definition.
Additionally, because this paragraph discusses the origins of the movement (background information), it might be better placed as paragraph two.
(Need help with organization? Read: What Is a Reverse Outline and Why Should You Use One?)
 The hipster mentality is very independent and inventive, which is a change from American’s thought patterns in the past. Instead of doing things the way he has always done it, a hipster asks, “Why have we always done it that way when this way is so much easier?” The “do-it-yourself”, or DIY, mentality comes mainly from the progressive beliefs of hipsters. The movement stresses what makes someone unique. Hipsters pursue what they are passionate about without fear of judgment or failure. Americans are becoming even more independent and individualistic, so it is easy for them to feed off of this belief. A person thinks he is special when he listens to a band his friend has never heard of, or wears drastically different clothes than his classmates. In a world of seven billion people, one wants to somehow feel important. By deviating from the norm, hipsters have inspired this individuality and new way of thinking.
 Here, the writer attempts to define a hipster as someone who is “independent and inventive.” While this definition is appropriate, the writer also states that this is “a change from American’s thought patterns in the past.”
This statement contradicts the introductory paragraph, which explains that previous subcultures were also independent and inventive.
The hipster culture has become popular because it has not been clearly defined, has been influenced by popular culture, and stresses the importance of the individual. The modern hipster has not been around for a long time, but most of them are young and are emerging as leaders and activists in the modern world. Their culture encourages uniqueness and creativity, a welcome change for millennials who feel that tradition has become too harsh and rigid.  Every decade or so America sees a shift in the way young people think and behave, and their ideas and beliefs have stuck around. After all, women in the 1920s changed the lifestyles of future generations of women, and young people in the 1960s changed the lives of a whole race of people. Maybe the hipster is just another passing fad, or maybe it has inspired America’s culture enough that it is here to stay.
 This sentence effectively sums up the essay (and the hipster) and provides a clear definition of the subculture.
 The author closes the essay with a “bigger thought” about how the hipster may be the latest manifestation of how American youth change the culture.
(Read: How to Write a Killer Essay Conclusion.)
The Definition of a “Good” Definition Essay
The essays I’ve included here are examples of good definition essays because they provide reasonably detailed extended definitions. Is there room for improvement? Most certainly. And if you’ve just written a draft of your own definition essay, chances are there’s room for improvement in your essay too.
Need a few tips on how to make your paper even better than “good”? Check out these posts:
Know who else can provide suggestions to make your paper better than just “good”? Yep, Kibin editors.
As the saying goes: “Good, better, best. Never let it rest until the good is better and the better is best.”
So send your paper our way to make sure your paper is at its best!
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This article is about the form of drama based on human suffering. For the loss of life, see Tragedy (event). For other uses, see Tragedy (disambiguation).
"Tragedian" redirects here. For other uses, see Tragedian (disambiguation).
Tragedy (from the Greek: τραγῳδία, tragōidia[a]) is a form of drama based on human suffering that invokes an accompanying catharsis or pleasure in audiences. While many cultures have developed forms that provoke this paradoxical response, the term tragedy often refers to a specific tradition of drama that has played a unique and important role historically in the self-definition of Western civilisation. That tradition has been multiple and discontinuous, yet the term has often been used to invoke a powerful effect of cultural identity and historical continuity—"the Greeks and the Elizabethans, in one cultural form; Hellenes and Christians, in a common activity," as Raymond Williams puts it.
From its origins in the theatre of ancient Greece 2500 years ago, from which there survives only a fraction of the work of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides; through its singular articulations in the works of Shakespeare, Lope de Vega, Jean Racine, and Friedrich Schiller to the more recent naturalistic tragedy of August Strindberg; Samuel Beckett's modernist meditations on death, loss and suffering; Müller'spostmodernist reworkings of the tragic canon; and Joshua Oppenheimer's incorporation of tragic pathos in his nonfiction film, The Act of Killing (2012), tragedy has remained an important site of cultural experimentation, negotiation, struggle, and change. A long line of philosophers—which includes Plato, Aristotle, Saint Augustine, Voltaire, Hume, Diderot, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Freud, Benjamin,Camus, Lacan, and Deleuze—have analysed, speculated upon, and criticised the genre.
In the wake of Aristotle's Poetics (335 BCE), tragedy has been used to make genre distinctions, whether at the scale of poetry in general (where the tragic divides against epic and lyric) or at the scale of the drama (where tragedy is opposed to comedy). In the modern era, tragedy has also been defined against drama, melodrama, the tragicomic, and epic theatre.Drama, in the narrow sense, cuts across the traditional division between comedy and tragedy in an anti- or a-genericdeterritorialisation from the mid-19th century onwards. Both Bertolt Brecht and Augusto Boal define their epic theatre projects (non-Aristotelian drama and Theatre of the Oppressed, respectively) against models of tragedy. Taxidou, however, reads epic theatre as an incorporation of tragic functions and its treatments of mourning and speculation.
The word "tragedy" appears to have been used to describe different phenomena at different times. It derives from Classical Greekτραγῳδία, contracted from trag(o)-aoidiā = "goatsong", which comes from tragos = "he-goat" and aeidein = "to sing" (cf. "ode"). Scholars suspect this may be traced to a time when a goat was either the prize in a competition of choral dancing or was that around which a chorus danced prior to the animal's ritualsacrifice. In another view on the etymology, Athenaeus of Naucratis (2nd–3rd century CE) says that the original form of the word was trygodia from trygos (grape harvest) and ode (song), because those events were first introduced during grape harvest.
Writing in 335 BCE (long after the Golden Age of 5th-centuryAthenian tragedy), Aristotle provides the earliest-surviving explanation for the origin of the dramaticart form in his Poetics, in which he argues that tragedy developed from the improvisations of the leader of choraldithyrambs (hymns sung and danced in praise of Dionysos, the god of wine and fertility):
Anyway, arising from an improvisatory beginning (both tragedy and comedy—tragedy from the leaders of the dithyramb, and comedy from the leaders of the phallic processions which even now continue as a custom in many of our cities), [tragedy] grew little by little, as [the poets] developed whatever [new part] of it had appeared; and, passing through many changes, tragedy came to a halt, since it had attained its own nature.
— Poetics IV, 1449a 10–15
In the same work, Aristotle attempts to provide a scholastic definition of what tragedy is:
Tragedy is, then, an enactment of a deed that is important and complete, and of [a certain] magnitude, by means of language enriched [with ornaments], each used separately in the different parts [of the play]: it is enacted, not [merely] recited, and through pity and fear it effects relief (catharsis) to such [and similar] emotions.
— Poetics, VI 1449b 2–3
There is some dissent to the dithyrambic origins of tragedy, mostly based on the differences between the shapes of their choruses and styles of dancing. A common descent from pre-Hellenic fertility and burial rites has been suggested.Friedrich Nietzsche discussed the origins of Greek tragedy in his early book The Birth of Tragedy (1872). Here, he suggests the name originates in the use of a chorus of goat-like satyrs in the original dithyrambs from which the tragic genre developed.
Scott Scullion writes:
There is abundant evidence for tragoidia understood as "song for the prize goat". The best-known evidence is Horace, Ars poetica 220-24 ("he who with a tragic song competed for a mere goat"); the earliest is the Parian Marble, a chronicle inscribed about 264/63 BCE, which records, under a date between 538 and 528 BCE: "Thespis is the poet ... first produced ... and as prize was established the billy goat" (FrGHist 239A, epoch 43); the clearest is Eustathius 1769.45: "They called those competing tragedians, clearly because of the song over the billy goat"...
Main article: Greek tragedy
Athenian tragedy—the oldest surviving form of tragedy—is a type of dance-drama that formed an important part of the theatrical culture of the city-state. Having emerged sometime during the 6th century BCE, it flowered during the 5th century BCE (from the end of which it began to spread throughout the Greek world), and continued to be popular until the beginning of the Hellenistic period. No tragedies from the 6th century and only 32 of the more than a thousand that were performed in the 5th century have survived.[b] We have complete texts extant by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.[c]
Athenian tragedies were performed in late March/early April at an annual state religious festival in honor of Dionysus. The presentations took the form of a contest between three playwrights, who presented their works on three successive days. Each playwright offered a tetralogy consisting of three tragedies and a concluding comic piece called a satyr play. The four plays sometimes featured linked stories. Only one complete trilogy of tragedies has survived, the Oresteia of Aeschylus. The Greek theatre was in the open air, on the side of a hill, and performances of a trilogy and satyr play probably lasted most of the day. Performances were apparently open to all citizens, including women, but evidence is scant. The theatre of Dionysus at Athens probably held around 12,000 people.
All of the choral parts were sung (to the accompaniment of an aulos) and some of the actors' answers to the chorus were sung as well. The play as a whole was composed in various verse metres. All actors were male and wore masks. A Greek chorus danced as well as sang, though no one knows exactly what sorts of steps the chorus performed as it sang. Choral songs in tragedy are often divided into three sections: strophe ("turning, circling"), antistrophe ("counter-turning, counter-circling") and epode ("after-song").
Many ancient Greek tragedians employed the ekkyklêma as a theatrical device, which was a platform hidden behind the scene that could be rolled out to display the aftermath of some event which had happened out of sight of the audience. This event was frequently a brutal murder of some sort, an act of violence which could not be effectively portrayed visually, but an action of which the other characters must see the effects in order for it to have meaning and emotional resonance. A prime example of the use of the ekkyklêma is after the murder of Agamemnon in the first play of Aeschylus' Oresteia, when the king's butchered body is wheeled out in a grand display for all to see. Variations on the ekkyklêma are used in tragedies and other forms to this day, as writers still find it a useful and often powerful device for showing the consequences of extreme human actions. Another such device was a crane, the mechane, which served to hoist a god or goddess on stage when they were supposed to arrive flying. This device gave origin to the phrase "deus ex machina" ("god out of a machine"), that is, the surprise intervention of an unforeseen external factor that changes the outcome of an event.
Following the expansion of the Roman Republic (509–27 BCE) into several Greek territories between 270–240 BCE, Rome encountered Greek tragedy. From the later years of the republic and by means of the Roman Empire (27 BCE-476 CE), theatre spread west across Europe, around the Mediterranean and even reached England. While Greek tragedy continued to be performed throughout the Roman period, the year 240 BCE marks the beginning of regular Roman drama.[d]Livius Andronicus began to write Roman tragedies, thus creating some of the first important works of Roman literature. Five years later, Gnaeus Naevius also began to write tragedies (though he was more appreciated for his comedies). No complete early Roman tragedy survives, though it was highly regarded in its day; historians know of three other early tragic playwrights—Quintus Ennius, Marcus Pacuvius and Lucius Accius.
From the time of the empire, the tragedies of two playwrights survive—one is an unknown author, while the other is the Stoic philosopherSeneca. Nine of Seneca's tragedies survive, all of which are fabula crepidata (tragedies adapted from Greek originals); his Phaedra, for example, was based on Euripides' Hippolytus. Historians do not know who wrote the only extant example of the fabula praetexta (tragedies based on Roman subjects), Octavia, but in former times it was mistakenly attributed to Seneca due to his appearance as a character in the tragedy.
Seneca's tragedies rework those of all three of the Athenian tragic playwrights whose work has survived. Probably meant to be recited at elite gatherings, they differ from the Greek versions in their long declamatory, narrative accounts of action, their obtrusive moralising, and their bombastic rhetoric. They dwell on detailed accounts of horrible deeds and contain long reflective soliloquies. Though the gods rarely appear in these plays, ghosts and witches abound. Senecan tragedies explore ideas of revenge, the occult, the supernatural, suicide, blood and gore. The Renaissance scholar Julius Caesar Scaliger (1484–1558), who knew both Latin and Greek, preferred Seneca to Euripides.
Influence of Greek and Roman
Classical Greek drama was largely forgotten in Western Europe from the Middle Ages to the beginning of the 16th century. Medieval theatre was dominated by mystery plays, morality plays, farces and miracle plays. In Italy, the models for tragedy in the later Middle Ages were Roman, particularly the works of Seneca, interest in which was reawakened by the PaduanLovato de' Lovati (1241–1309). His pupil Albertino Mussato (1261–1329), also of Padua, in 1315 wrote the Latin verse tragedy Eccerinis, which uses the story of the tyrant Ezzelino III da Romano to highlight the danger to Padua posed by Cangrande della Scala of Verona. It was the first secular tragedy written since Roman times, and may be considered the first Italian tragedy identifiable as a Renaissance work. The earliest tragedies to employ purely classical themes are the Achilles written before 1390 by Antonio Loschi of Vicenza (c.1365–1441) and the Progne of the VenetianGregorio Correr (1409–1464) which dates from 1428–29.
In 1515 Gian Giorgio Trissino (1478–1550) of Vicenza wrote his tragedy Sophonisba in the vernacular that would later be called Italian. Drawn from Livy's account of Sophonisba, the Carthaginian princess who drank poison to avoid being taken by the Romans, it adheres closely to classical rules. It was soon followed by the Oreste and Rosmunda of Trissino's friend, the Florentine Giovanni di Bernardo Rucellai (1475–1525). Both were completed by early 1516 and are based on classical Greek models, Rosmunda on the Hecuba of Euripides, and Oreste on the Iphigenia in Tauris of the same author; like Sophonisba, they are in Italian and in blank (unrhymed) hendecasyllables. Another of the first of all modern tragedies is A Castro, by Portuguese poet and playwright António Ferreira, written around 1550 (but only published in 1587) in polymetric verse (most of it being blank hendecasyllables), dealing with the murder of Inês de Castro, one of the most dramatic episodes in Portuguese history. Although these three Italian plays are often cited, separately or together, as being the first regular tragedies in modern times, as well as the earliest substantial works to be written in blank hendecasyllables, they were apparently preceded by two other works in the vernacular: Pamfila or Filostrato e Panfila written in 1498 or 1508 by Antonio Cammelli (Antonio da Pistoia); and a Sophonisba by Galeotto del Carretto of 1502.
From about 1500 printed copies, in the original languages, of the works of Sophocles, Seneca, and Euripides, as well as comedic writers such as Aristophanes, Terence and Plautus, were available in Europe and the next forty years saw humanists and poets translating and adapting their tragedies. In the 1540s, the European university setting (and especially, from 1553 on, the Jesuit colleges) became host to a Neo-Latin theatre (in Latin) written by scholars. The influence of Seneca was particularly strong in its humanist tragedy. His plays, with their ghosts, lyrical passages and rhetorical oratory, brought a concentration on rhetoric and language over dramatic action to many humanist tragedies.
The most important sources for French tragic theatre in the Renaissance were the example of Seneca and the precepts of Horace and Aristotle (and contemporary commentaries by Julius Caesar Scaliger and Lodovico Castelvetro), although plots were taken from classical authors such as Plutarch, Suetonius, etc., from the Bible, from contemporary events and from short story collections (Italian, French and Spanish). The Greek tragic authors (Sophocles and Euripides) would become increasingly important as models by the middle of the 17th century. Important models were also supplied by the Spanish Golden Age playwrights Pedro Calderón de la Barca, Tirso de Molina and Lope de Vega, many of whose works were translated and adapted for the French stage.
See also: English Renaissance theatre, Shakespearean tragedy, Revenge play, and Domestic tragedy
The common forms are the:
- Tragedy of circumstance: people are born into their situations, and do not choose them; such tragedies explore the consequences of birthrights, particularly for monarchs
- Tragedy of miscalculation: the protagonist's error of judgement has tragic consequences
- Revenge play
In English, the most famous and most successful tragedies are those of William Shakespeare and his Elizabethan contemporaries. Shakespeare's tragedies include:
A contemporary of Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, also wrote examples of tragedy in English, notably:
John Webster (1580?–1635?), also wrote famous plays of the genre:
Contemporary with Shakespeare, an entirely different approach to facilitating the rebirth of tragedy was taken in Italy. Jacopo Peri, in the preface to his Euridice refers to "the ancient Greeks and Romans (who in the opinion of many sang their staged tragedies throughout in representing them on stage)." The attempts of Peri and his contemporaries to recreate ancient tragedy gave rise to the new Italian musical genre of opera. In France, tragic operatic works from the time of Lully to about that of Gluck were not called opera, but tragédie en musique ("tragedy in music") or some similar name; the tragédie en musique is regarded as a distinct musical genre. Some later operatic composers have also shared Peri's aims: Richard Wagner's concept of Gesamtkunstwerk ("integrated work of art"), for example, was intended as a return to the ideal of Greek tragedy in which all the arts were blended in service of the drama.Nietzsche, in his The Birth of Tragedy (1872) was to support Wagner in his claims to be a successor of the ancient dramatists.
For much of the 17th century, Pierre Corneille, who made his mark on the world of tragedy with plays like Medée (1635) and Le Cid (1636), was the most successful writer of French tragedies. Corneille's tragedies were strangely un-tragic (his first version of Le Cid was even listed as a tragicomedy), for they had happy endings. In his theoretical works on theatre, Corneille redefined both comedy and tragedy around the following suppositions:
- The stage—in both comedy and tragedy—should feature noble characters (this would eliminate many low-characters, typical of the farce, from Corneille's comedies). Noble characters should not be depicted as vile (reprehensible actions are generally due to non-noble characters in Corneille's plays).
- Tragedy deals with affairs of the state (wars, dynastic marriages); comedy deals with love. For a work to be tragic, it need not have a tragic ending.
- Although Aristotle says that catharsis (purgation of emotion) should be the goal of tragedy, this is only an ideal. In conformity with the moral codes of the period, plays should not show evil being rewarded or nobility being degraded.
Corneille continued to write plays through 1674 (mainly tragedies, but also something he called "heroic comedies") and many continued to be successes, although the "irregularities" of his theatrical methods were increasingly criticised (notably by François Hédelin, abbé d'Aubignac) and the success of Jean Racine from the late 1660s signalled the end of his preeminence.
Jean Racine's tragedies—inspired by Greek myths, Euripides, Sophocles and Seneca—condensed their plot into a tight set of passionate and duty-bound conflicts between a small group of noble characters, and concentrated on these characters' double-binds and the geometry of their unfulfilled desires and hatreds. Racine's poetic skill was in the representation of pathos and amorous passion (like Phèdre's love for her stepson) and his impact was such that emotional crisis would be the dominant mode of tragedy to the end of the century. Racine's two late plays ("Esther" and "Athalie") opened new doors to biblical subject matter and to the use of theatre in the education of young women. Racine also faced criticism for his irregularities: when his play, Bérénice, was criticised for not containing any deaths, Racine disputed the conventional view of tragedy.
For more on French tragedy of the 16th and 17th centuries, see French Renaissance literature and French literature of the 17th century.
Further information: Bourgeois tragedy and Augustan drama
Bourgeois tragedy (German: Bürgerliches Trauerspiel) is a form that developed in 18th-century Europe. It was a fruit of the Enlightenment and the emergence of the bourgeois class and its ideals. It is characterised by the fact that its protagonists are ordinary citizens. The first true bourgeois tragedy was an English play, George Lillo's The London Merchant; or, the History of George Barnwell, which was first performed in 1731. Usually, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's play Miss Sara Sampson, which was first produced in 1755, is said to be the earliest Bürgerliches Trauerspiel in Germany.
In modernist literature, the definition of tragedy has become less precise. The most fundamental change has been the rejection of Aristotle's dictum that true tragedy can only depict those with power and high status. Arthur Miller's essay "Tragedy and the Common Man" (1949) argues that tragedy may also depict ordinary people in domestic surroundings. British playwright Howard Barker has argued strenuously for the rebirth of tragedy in the contemporary theatre, most notably in his volume Arguments for a Theatre. "You emerge from tragedy equipped against lies. After the musical, you're anybody's fool," he insists. Critics such as George Steiner have even been prepared to argue that tragedy may no longer exist in comparison with its former manifestations in classical antiquity. In The Death of Tragedy (1961) George Steiner outlined the characteristics of Greek tragedy and the traditions that developed from that period. In the Foreword (1980) to a new edition of his book Steiner concluded that ‘the dramas of Shakespeare are not a renascence of or a humanistic variant of the absolute tragic model. They are, rather, a rejection of this model in the light of tragi-comic and “realistic” criteria.’ In part, this feature of Shakespeare’s mind is explained by his bent of mind or imagination which was ‘so encompassing, so receptive to the plurality of diverse orders of experience.’ When compared to the drama of Greek antiquity and French classicism Shakespeare’s forms are ‘richer but hybrid'.
Further information: Poetics (Aristotle)
Aristotle wrote in his work Poetics that tragedy is characterised by seriousness and involves a great person who experiences a reversal of fortune (Peripeteia). Aristotle's definition can include a change of fortune from bad to good as in the Eumenides, but he says that the change from good to bad as in Oedipus Rex is preferable because this induces pity and fear within the spectators. Tragedy results in a catharsis (emotional cleansing) or healing for the audience through their experience of these emotions in response to the suffering of the characters in the drama.
According to Aristotle, "the structure of the best tragedy should not be simple but complex and one that represents incidents arousing fear and pity—for that is peculiar to this form of art." This reversal of fortune must be caused by the tragic hero's hamartia, which is often translated as either a character flaw, or as a mistake (since the original Greek etymology traces back to hamartanein, a sporting term that refers to an archer or spear-thrower missing his target). According to Aristotle, "The misfortune is brought about not by [general] vice or depravity, but by some [particular] error or frailty." The reversal is the inevitable but unforeseen result of some action taken by the hero. It is also a misconception that this reversal can be brought about by a higher power (e.g. the law, the gods, fate, or society), but if a character’s downfall is brought about by an external cause, Aristotle describes this as a misadventure and not a tragedy.
In addition, the tragic hero may achieve some revelation or recognition (anagnorisis--"knowing again" or "knowing back" or "knowing throughout") about human fate, destiny, and the will of the gods. Aristotle terms this sort of recognition "a change from ignorance to awareness of a bond of love or hate."
In Poetics, Aristotle gave the following definition in ancient Greek of the word "tragedy" (τραγῳδία):
"Ἔστιν οὖν τραγῳδία μίμησις πράξεως σπουδαίας καὶ τελείας μέγεθος ἐχούσης, ἡδυσμένῳ λόγῳ χωρὶς ἑκάστῳ τῶν εἰδῶν ἐν τοῖς μορίοις, δρώντων καὶ οὐ δι᾽ ἀπαγγελίας, δι᾽ ἐλέου καὶ φόβου περαίνουσα τὴν τῶν τοιούτων παθημάτων κάθαρσιν."
which means Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is admirable, complete (composed of an introduction, a middle part and an ending), and possesses magnitude; in language made pleasurable, each of its species separated in different parts; performed by actors, not through narration; effecting through pity and fear the purification of such emotions.
Common usage of tragedy refers to any story with a sad ending, whereas to be an Aristotelian tragedy the story must fit the set of requirements as laid out by Poetics. By this definition social drama cannot be tragic because the hero in it is a victim of circumstance and incidents that depend upon the society in which he lives and not upon the inner compulsions — psychological or religious — which determine his progress towards self-knowledge and death. Exactly what constitutes a "tragedy", however, is a frequently debated matter.
According to Aristotle, there are four species of tragedy:
1. Complex, which involves Peripety and Discovery
2. Suffering, tragedies of such nature can be seen in the Greek mythological stories of Ajaxes and Ixions
3. Character, a tragedy of moral or ethical character. Tragedies of this nature can be found in Phthiotides and Peleus
4. Spectacle, that of a horror-like theme. Examples of this nature are Phorcides and Prometheus
G.W.F. Hegel, the German philosopher most famous for his dialectical approach to epistemology and history, also applied such a methodology to his theory of tragedy. In his essay "Hegel's Theory of Tragedy," A.C. Bradley first introduced the English-speaking world to Hegel's theory, which Bradley called the "tragic collision", and contrasted against the Aristotelian notions of the "tragic hero" and his or her "hamartia" in subsequent analyses of the Aeschylus' Oresteia trilogy and of Sophocles' Antigone. Hegel himself, however, in his seminal "The Phenomenology of Spirit" argues for a more complicated theory of tragedy, with two complementary branches which, though driven by a single dialectical principle, differentiate Greek tragedy from that which follows Shakespeare. His later lectures formulate such a theory of tragedy as a conflict of ethical forces, represented by characters, in ancient Greek tragedy, but in Shakespearean tragedy the conflict is rendered as one of subject and object, of individual personality which must manifest self-destructive passions because only such passions are strong enough to defend the individual from a hostile and capricious external world:
The heroes of ancient classical tragedy encounter situations in which, if they firmly decide in favor of the one ethical pathos that alone suits their finished character, they must necessarily come into conflict with the equally [gleichberechtigt] justified ethical power that confronts them. Modern characters, on the other hand, stand in a wealth of more accidental circumstances, within which one could act this way or that, so that the conflict is, though occasioned by external preconditions, still essentially grounded in the character. The new individuals, in their passions, obey their own nature... simply because they are what they are. Greek heroes also act in accordance with individuality, but in ancient tragedy such individuality is necessarily... a self-contained ethical pathos... In modern tragedy, however, the character in its peculiarity decides in accordance with subjective desires... such that congruity of character with outward ethical aim no longer constitutes an essential basis of tragic beauty...
Hegel's comments on a particular play may better elucidate his theory: "Viewed externally, Hamlet's death may be seen to have been brought about accidentally... but in Hamlet's soul, we understand that death has lurked from the beginning: the sandbank of finitude cannot suffice his sorrow and tenderness, such grief and nausea at all conditions of life... we feel he is a man whom inner disgust has almost consumed well before death comes upon him from outside."
Similar dramatic forms in world theatre
Ancient Indian drama
The writer Bharata Muni, in his work on dramatic theoryA Treatise on Theatre (Sanskrit: Nātyaśāstra, नाट्य शास्त्र, c. 200 BCE – 200 CE), identified several rasas (such as pity, anger, disgust and terror) in the emotional responses of audiences for the Sanskrit drama of ancient India. The text also suggests the notion of musical modes or jatis which are the origin of the notion of the modern melodic structures known as ragas. Their role in invoking emotions are emphasised; thus compositions emphasising the notes gandhara or rishabha are said to provoke "sadness" or "pathos" (karuna rasa) whereas rishabha evokes heroism (vira rasa). Jatis are elaborated in greater detail in the text Dattilam, composed around the same time as the Treatise.
The celebrated ancient Indian epic, Mahabharata, can also be related to tragedy in some ways. According to Hermann Oldenberg, the original epic once carried an immense "tragic force". It was common in Sanskrit drama to adapt episodes from the Mahabharata into dramatic form.
- ^Klein, E (1967), "Tragedy", A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, II L–Z, Elsevier, p. 1637
- ^See Horace, Epistulae, II, 3, 220: "Carmino qui tragico vilem certavit ob hircum".
- ^of Naucratis, Athenaeus, The deipnosophists, Wisc
- ^Aristotle, Poetics, section 1449b, Tufts
- ^Scott Scullion: "Tragedy and Religion: The Problem of Origins", in Gregory (ed.), A Companion to Greek Tragedy, 2008, p. 29
- ^"Lovati, Lovato de'", Treccani: Enciclopedie on line (in Italian). Accessed March 2013.
- ^"Mussato, Albertino", Treccani: Enciclopedie on line (in Italian). Accessed March 2013.
- ^"Drama", Encyclopædia Britannica, eleventh edition, Vol. VIII, p. 503
- ^Henry Hallam (1837) Introduction to the Literature of Europe in the Fifteenth, Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Paris: Baudry's European Library, p. 212.
- ^"Del Carretto, Galeotto, dei marchesi di Savona", Treccani: Enciclopedie on line (in Italian). Accessed March 2013.
- ^Graham Sadler, "Tragédie en musique", Grove Music Online (subscription required). Accessed March 2013
- ^George Steiner, The Death of Tragedy  (Oxford University Press, 1980; Yale University Press, 1996), p. xiii. See also George Steiner, ‘ “Tragedy.” Reconsidered.’ New Literary History 35:1 (Winter 2004), pp. 1-15
- ^Aristotle. Poetics, Trans. W.H. Fyfe. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1932. Section 1452b
- ^Rorty, Amelie Oksenberg. Essays on Aristotle’s Poetics. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1992. Page 178