LITR 4370 Tragedy
Special Topics
Detailed descriptions

Choose among the topics below for your Essay 3: Special Topics to be developed in your midterm and final exam.

The instructional pages and Model Assignments linked under each topic may serve among your four required research sources. (You may also use instructional pages and Model Assignments linked elsewhere)

Consider also instructional videos for Tragedy

Some topics or their discussions may overlap. Don't fear repeating or reinforcing essential points you make elsewhere.

1. Tragedy and its Updates (Tragedy Modernizes)

Review and evaluate two sets of texts:

  • Oedipus the King > Hamlet
  • Agamemnon / Oresteia > The Homecoming (Mourning Becomes Electra)
  • Hippolytus > Phaedra > Desire Under the Elms

Introduction / Conclusion: Review course organization according to this “original version > updated version” pattern. How does Tragedy evolve from its classical origins? What disappears or appears as tragedies become more modern? What does the "original > updated" pattern show about Tragedy, pro and con?

Essential instructional page(s):  Tragedy Modernizes

Model Assignments (may be included in your sources): Kat Henderson, "Forms of Tragedy: From Aristotle to the Modern World"; Haylie Unger, Tragic Changes?; Danielle Maldonado, Tragedy and its Updates; Jorge Lozoya, Tragedy Forms: Classic and The New Classics

2. “Plot is the Soul of Tragedy” ± Comedy & Romance

Starting with Aristotle, review the preeminence of plot in Tragedy—but what problems are raised by this claim? Why does study of Tragedy often focus on character instead of plot? What are the costs and benefits of focusing on plot?

Clarify the tragic narrative by comparing it with Comedy and Romance.  Defend Comedy and Romance, but above all compare and contrast with Tragedy. Focus on these genres’ distinct narratives and appeals, but always refocus on Tragedy.

Suggested textual references: Aristotle on plot from Poetics. Extensive references to “Narrative Genres.” Examples from 2+ tragedies and from at least one comedy and romance either from presentations or your reading / viewing experience. You may briefly refer to additional texts, plays, or films as helpful.

Essential instructional page(s): Aristotle’s Poetics (IX), Narrative; Tragedy; Narrative Genres

Model Assignments (may be included in your sources): Susan Newman, Two Essays: B1 "Tragedy: an Evolving Genre" & B2 "Plotting Against Genres"

3. Families in Tragedy + The Oedipal / Electra Conflict

Families normally repress sexuality and violence, but tragedy expresses such impulses (including punishment). Describe and evaluate families in classical and modern tragedies. How may you come to terms with the persistence of the Oedipal or Electra conflicts in these “tragic families?”

  • Is the Oedipal / Electra conflict an individual or family issue?
  • Acknowledge and incorporate Aristotle’s remarks on families (Poetics XIII, XIV)

Organization: Start with natural "yuck" defenses, but why does Tragedy return obsessively to such outrageous plots and themes? As a working thesis, consider how Tragedy makes people learn--and more or less enjoy themselves in the process.

Suggested textual references: Oedipus the King and The Oresteia / Agamemnon or Mourning Becomes Electra / The Homecoming need  to be mentioned at least, but other tragedies also provide examples.

Essential instructional page(s): Oedipal Conflict, Electra Complex, Aristotle’s Poetics (13c, 14c)

Model Assignments (may be included in your sources): Umaymah Shahid, "Families in Tragedy and the Oedipal / Electra Conflict"; Brandy Dornelly, "Keeping It in the Family"; Melissa King, All in the Family; Cassandra Rea, Families & The Oedipal/Electra Complex

4. Spectacle and / or the Sublime

Tragedy offers various examples of spectacle and the Sublime.

  • Review your understanding of these terms, explaining them with definitions and examples from texts and beyond.
  • Keep the terms close or connected to each other but also distinct.
  • How do these concepts connect to Tragedy's purposes and potential audience reactions.

Trickiest feature of this question: Even though you’re discussing “spectacle,” its examples in Tragedy (and connections to the Sublime) may involve repression of spectacle—is it shown or merely described in words?

Essential instructional page(s): spectacle, the Sublime, Aristotle’s Poetics

Model Assignments (may be included in your sources): Allison Evans, Spectacle & Sublime (1 of 2 short essays); Whitney Evans, Part B:  Tragedy and Spectacle, Including the Sublime (Obj. 2); Scott Agruso, The Evolution of Spectacle in Tragedy; Hector Guzman, Spectacle and the Sublime

5. Classical Humanism and Judeo-Christianity or other religious traditions in Tragedy

How does a student of literature, whether religious or not, balance or mediate “interfaces” between classical Greek humanism emphasizing reason and empirical perceptions, and Judeo-Christian scriptural traditions emphasizing revelation or revealed truth? Keep texts and examples in sight. Control a big subject by referring to the plays available.

  • Popular model for such discussions: “culture war” between faith-based society and secular humanism. What alternatives to the “warfare” model between these aspects of Western Civilization? (Consider dialogue & dialectic)
  • Belief in Zeus, Apollo, Artemis, and knowledge of Oedipus, Theseus, and Phaedra are now categorized as “mythology,” yet attitudes toward gods and humanity in classical tragedy often sound like modern anxieties about religion—and modern religion (as in Desire Under the Elms) can sound like Greek religion.
  • As a secular public institution, UHCL neither endorses nor prohibits religious expression, but what limits are observed in teaching these two mainstreams of Western civilization in secular public schools or religious private schools?

Suggested or possible textual references:

Essential instructional page(s): Two mainstreams of Western civilization, Christian Humanism, Classical Greek Poets & Philosophers, Humanism; Teaching Literature with Religion

Model Assignments (may be included in your sources): Andy Feith, "Translating religious values into universal values"

6. Tragedy as the greatest genre

Objective 3 highlights Tragedy as “the supreme genre in western culture and art.” Why or how may Tragedy be considered the greatest genre? Also, how may this greatness be questioned? (Compare to Comedy and Romance?)

Essential instructional page(s): greatness of tragedy; popular, classic, & representative literature

7. Tragedy’s cultural and historical backgrounds (Obj. 3)

What kind of society produces Tragedy? What do you learn from this association between art and its social background?

Introduction / Conclusion: Since this essay may be more historical than cultural, you might begin by reviewing the reasons for your interest and your sources of knowledge. As a working thesis, what may you learn through the question’s suggested relationship between historical culture and heroic tragedy? For your conclusion, resolve your observations and consider where our own civilization is in relation to Tragedy?  

Essential instructional page(s): greatness of tragedy (scroll down for historical periods)

Model Assignments (may be included in your sources): Jennifer Hamilton, "The World of Tragedy"

8. Sophocles and O'Neill: review styles, subjects, and stature in 4+ plays.

Review and evaluate the only two playwrights by whom we read two or more complete plays. Reviewing the plays, establish how their works exemplify tragic style and subject matter--but also contrast their works and styles.

Suggested Textual references:

  • Plays by Sophocles: Oedipus the King; Antigone, & Oedipus at Colonus 
  • Plays by Eugene O’Neill: The Homecoming (part 1 of Mourning Becomes Electra); Desire Under the Elms (+ references to other O’Neill plays if familiar) 

Essential instructional page(s): Eugene O'Neill

9. Teaching Tragedy

American high schools equip most students in Tragedy with some pre-knowledge toward this course's intensive study. The purpose of this essay is to reflect on your status as a student and potential teacher of Tragedy in various classrooms.

Introduction / Conclusion: Review what knowledge you brought to our course and how it provided a background for managing our materials. As a working thesis, characterize your knowledge of Tragedy and survey what aspects may be useful to your teaching career.

Body paragraphs: Review several texts or their critical features that are appropriate to various classrooms. Compare and contrast what you learned in high school with what you learned here, and what from this course might transfer back to a high school classroom. What did we leave out that high school lessons successfully managed? (e. g., high schools’ traditional emphasis on the Tragic Hero and the Tragic Flaw, which may be easier to test than plot.) You may also discuss teaching techniques in this class and others, but return to the subject matter of Tragedy + how and why it is learned.

Suggested Textual references: Refer to two or three plays from our course that might work for your students, or that work for you and what lessons you’d like to develop, but welcome also to discuss plays outside this course. The danger of this question is that writers take their eyes off the texts to look at potential students and classes.

Essential instructional page(s): mimesis, imitation, or representation; Purpose of Literature: to Entertain & Inform; Teaching Literature with Religion; many other possibilities including Classical Greek Poets & Philosophers; Two mainstreams of Western civilization; popular, classic, & representative literature

Model Assignments (may be included in your sources): Rebecca Bridjmohan, Teaching Tragedy in Today’s Ever-Changing World; Azhr Sigh, Teaching Greek Plays in Islamic Countries; Chelsea Stansell, Teaching Tragedy; Katherine Vellella, Why Teach Tragedy?

10. Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy and the Apolline / Dionysiac.

Review our course's use of Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy, focusing on his distinction of the Apolline and Dionysiac aspects of tragedy, and apply Nietzsche's and your insights to two tragedies studied in our course, or to 1 course tragedy and 1 text (tragic or not) from your readings beyond our course.

Essential instructional page(s): Apolline / Dionysiac; Dionysus

Model Assignments (may be included in your sources):

11. Aesthetics of Tragedy: the Sublime and beyond: What pleasures and pains with tragedy?

If "learning is the greatest pleasure" and both learning and pleasure are the purposes of art, what balance does tragedy strike between the work of learning and and the pleasures of mimesis?

Essential instructional page(s): mimesis, imitation, or representation; Purpose of Literature: to Entertain & Inform; the Sublime, Aristotle’s Poetics; popular, classic, & representative literature

Model Assignments (may be included in your sources):

12. The so-called Tragic Flaw: where and what is it?

The one thing many students in this course know (or sort-of know) about tragedy before taking the course is "the tragic flaw."

Why? Who teaches "the tragic flaw?" What are the sources for this idea? (Check Aristotle.) Why is it popular as a teaching theme? What are some examples?

Essential instructional page: the Tragic Flaw

Refer to Aristotle, Poetics XIIIb

Related terms: hamartia, hubris

Model Assignments (may be included in your sources): (New topic, no models yet)

13. Self-generated topic of your choice that would be recognizable to a member of our class: What did you learn or see in our course that you're ready to explore on your own?

Based on our readings and connecting at least tangentially to our objectives and discussions, develop your own topic for Part B.

Whatever topic you come up, write to benefit or inform a reader from our course.

  • This topic may be completely different from this exam’s other questions.
  • Or spin off one or more of the questions above.
  • Or combine two or more questions above into a new subject or issue.
  • Your topic may be something we discussed that this exam hasn't isolated, or something we should have discussed—why didn't we?

Suggested textual references: Your topic will dictate the number and selection of texts. Apply your thesis and points to examples from our texts.

Model Assignments: Allison Evans, Internal Characterization (1 of 2 short essays); "A blend of Tragedy and its Updates [topic 1] and Teaching Tragedy [topic 9]": Mickey Thames, Making the Oedipal Modern: How Updated Tragedy Bridges The Gap

14. Special topic for Spring 2017: research on Romeo & Juliet + attendance at UHCL performance (March 9, 10, 11).

Find resources on studying or teaching Romeo & Juliet as a tragedy & attend one of the UHCL performances, evaluating how the production and acting fulfilled or redeveloped the play as a tragedy or as other genres.

15. Contemporary / popular films as tragedies?

See classic and contemporary films that qualify as tragedies.

Choose at least two films from this list or from your own knowledge. Find at least 2 (then 4) sources reviewing or describing these films. Describe how these films may be considered "tragic" as well as involving other genres.

Fate v. free will?