A literary tragedy describes a sorrowful event that occurs because of a character's poor decisions. Tragedies involve people dying at a young age, many people dying at once or deaths that could have been prevented with better timing or choices. Keep reading for examples of tragedy in literature and film, as well as various works that are considered tragedies.
The tragedy genre is one of the main branches of literary drama. Beyond having a sad ending, a tragedy features a main character known as a tragic hero. According to Aristotle's Poetics, literary tragedies must include the following elements:
- hamartia - the protagonist's tragic flaw
- anagnorisis - a tragic hero's change of heart (usually too late)
- peripeteia - a reversal of the tragic hero's fortune; the turning point toward tragedy
- catharsis - the release of emotions for the audience of a tragedy
Classical tragedies use this formula in a straightforward way. Later literary tragedies, including Shakespearean tragedies, use these elements to craft heartbreaking stories in unique ways.
Literary tragedies bring the audience through a journey through the tragic hero's journey. Having learned the hero's tragic flaw, the audience watches them make terrible mistakes or suffer insurmountable challenges, leading to an ending marked by unnecessary death and suffering. Take a look at these literary Greek tragedies, as well as Shakespearean and modern literary tragedies.
In Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, for example, Oedipus has a tragic flaw — hubris, or excessive pride — which makes him a tragic hero. He has unknowingly killed his father and married his mother, Jocasta, to take the throne, which he learns in a moment of anagnorisis. His good fortune of a beautiful wife and kingdom is reversed, leading to the tragic death of Jocasta.
Other examples of Greek tragedies include:
- Agamemnon - Aeschylus
- Antigone - Sophocles
- The Argonautica - Apollonius Rhodius
- The Bacchae - Euripides
- Eumenides - Euripides
- The Frogs - Aristophanes
- Hippolytus - Euripides
- The Iliad- Homer
- Medea - Euripides
- The Odyssey - Homer
- Oedipus Rex - Sophocles
- The Oresteia - Aeschylus
- Prometheus Bound - Aeschylus
Though human tragedy existed long before the works of Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides, dramatic tragedy did not. Greek drama was the birthplace of the literary tragedy, using elaborate sets and Greek choruses to fully demonstrate the dramatic impact.
William Shakespeare's Hamlet is one of his most well-known tragedies. Hamlet's tragic flaw is self-doubt, which prevents him from acting quickly to avenge his father. Many characters suffer untimely deaths due to this flaw, especially in the final act, in which Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Queen Gertrude, King Claudius, Laertes, and Hamlet himself die (Polonius and Ophelia die in the previous acts).
Additional Shakespearean tragedies include:
- Antony and Cleopatra
- Julius Caesar
- King Lear
- Romeo and Juliet
- Timon of Athens
- Titus Andronicus
William Shakespeare wrote around 37 plays in his lifetime, 10 of which were tragedies. They differ from his comedies and histories due to their characters' tragic endings, tragic flaws, and dramatic irony.
Greek drama started literary tragedies, and Shakespeare perfected them, but you can find many modern examples of tragedies in literature as well. Take The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, for example, Jay Gatsby's tragic flaw is his idealism and inability to face reality. It results in the death of Myrtle Wilson, George Wilson and Gatsby himself, as he finally gives up on his lovelorn dream.
More examples of tragedies in literature include:
- Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy
- A Series of Unfortunate Events (series) - Lemony Snicket
- Atonement - Ian McEwan
- Death of a Salesman - Arthur Miller
- The Diary of a Young Girl - Anne Frank
- The Fault in Our Stars - John Green
- Frankenstein - Mary Shelley
- The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald
- The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins
- The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini
- Les Misérables - Victor Hugo
- Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov
- Looking for Alaska - John Green
- Lord of the Flies - William Golding
- The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold
- Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert
- The Night Trilogy - Elie Wiesel
- Oedipus Rex - Sophocles
- Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck
- The Pearl - John Steinbeck
- Tess of the d'Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy
- Thirteen Reasons Why - Jay Asher
- The Time Traveler's Wife - Audrey Niffenegger
- Wuthering Heights - Emily Brontë
Note that these examples don't include novels that simply end sadly or include death. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott is a very sad story, for example, but it is not a tragedy because Jo's flaws do not result in Beth's untimely death. Instead, Beth's passing brings her family even closer together.
The modern age of cinema has brought stories to life on the screen. These stories include dramas and comedies as well as tragedies. For example, in the satirical tragedy Parasite (2019), the Kim family's tragic flaw is poverty. It dooms them to a life of living off wealthy families, Ki-jung's untimely death and Ki-taek's undetermined but likely tragic end.
Other examples of film tragedies include:
- 21 Grams
- American Beauty
- American History X
- Brokeback Mountain
- Dancer in the Dark
- Dead Poet's Society
- The English Patient
- Ex Machina
- Last Tango in Paris
- Moulin Rouge
- Requiem for a Dream
- Sophie's Choice
- V for Vendetta
- West Side Story
Many characters in these movies just needed to wait another moment to avoid their tragic fate, while others could do nothing but watch it happen. Like books and other tragic works, these films can be classified as literary tragedies.
Tragedy in real life and tragedies in literature have different definitions. Literary tragedies have a devastating ending based on a character's flaws and decisions. Real-life tragedies are senseless, unavoidable and not deserved. Many films depict these real-life tragedies in both heartbreaking and uplifting ways. They include:
- 9/11 - based on the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center
- Brian's Song - based on the life and 1970 death of football player Brian Piccolo
- Boys Don't Cry - based on the 1999 murder of Brandon Teena
- Elephant - based on the 1999 Columbine High School shooting
- Everest - based on the 1996 Mount Everest expedition
- Fruitvale Station - based on the 2009 police killing of Oscar Grant III
- Hotel Rwanda - based on the 1994 Rwandan genocide
- The Killing Fields - based on the 1973 Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia
- Milk - based on the life and 1978 murder of gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk
- Mississippi Burning - based on the 1964 murder of three civil rights activists
- Munich - based on the killings of 11 members of the 1972 Israeli Olympic team
- Patriots Day - based on the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing
- The Perfect Storm - based on the 1991 deaths of the Andrea Gail fishing crew
- Selena - based on the life and 1995 death of singer Selena Quintanilla-Pérez
- Schindler's List - based on the Jewish Holocaust during World War II
- Titanic - based on the 1912 Titanic ship collision and sinking
- United 93 - based on the hijacking of United Airlines Flight 93 on September 11th, 2001
If you've seen any of these movies, you know that they focus on life, love, and loss. They are a valuable way to honor those who have passed and to ensure that their stories are told, not to illustrate the failings of a tragic hero.
Tragedies in Greek drama, Shakespearean plays and modern films capture what it means to be human. While they may not be as enjoyable to watch as a romance or action-filled adventure, they bring their audiences catharsis — a healing release from tension and worry. Learn more about how literature represents human life with examples of theme from different literary works. You can also explore how authors create their characters with these archetype examples in literature.