Craig White's Literature Courses

Critical Sources


Periods of Tragedy

Historical-cultural periods when, simultaneously, nations or civilizations were confidently expansive or assertive while also producing great tragedies (along with other genres of literature). (See also Tragedy the Greatest Genre?)

Tragedy tends to appear during "great periods of history," marked by ambition, confidence, challenges to grapple directly with issues.

During stressful, depressed, or uncertain periods of history, audiences prefer escapism and simple answers through romance and comedy.

Classical Greece (5th century BCE) (see Classical Greek Poets & Philosophers)

confident historical / national moment: "Golden Age of Athens" (480-404 BCE)

Birth of modern civilization: engineering, science, architecture, democracy, courts, mathematics, philosophy, drama

  Athenian empire expands internationally, undertakes great civic projects (Parthenon, etc.) 

First great dramatic tragedies (and comedies): Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides (+ comic playwrights Aristophanes, Menander, many others)

Aeschylus (525-456 BCE): 7 plays survive, incl. Prometheus Bound (attributed; ca. 478?); Oresteia trilogy (456); Seven Against Thebes

Sophocles (496-406 BCE) 7 plays survive, incl. Oedipus the King (ca. 442); Antigone (ca. 420); Oedipus at Colonus (produced 401)

Euripides (480-406 BCE): 18 or 19 plays survive, incl. Medea (431), The Trojan Women (415), The Bacchae (405), Electra, Heracles, Hippolytos (429 BCE), on which Racine's Phaedra(1677) and O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms (1924) are based.

Classical Greek Tragedy coincided with the "Golden Age"

of Athenian power and culture during the regime of Pericles

Renaissance England / Europe (1500s-1600s)

Confident, expansive historical / national moment: discovery of New World (Columbus); re-birth of Classical learning / humanism; printing press; modern astronomy (Copernicus, Galileo), scientific revolution

great dramatic tragedies appear (also comedies):

Shakespeare (1564-1616): Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, others

Christopher Marlowe (1564-93): Tamburlaine parts 1 & 2; The Jew of Malta; Dr. Faustus; Edward II; The Massacre at Paris

Thomas Kyd (1558-94), The Spanish Tragedy (1592?) (revenge tragedy, cf. Hamlet)

Neo-Classical France (early Enlightenment)

confident historical / national moment: French King Louis XIV (1638-1715), the "Sun King," consolidates national power at the court of Versailles; international expansion (e.g., Canada, Louisiana); sponsors learning, drama, other arts 

great dramatic tragedies appear:

Corneille (1606-84): Medee or Medea, 1635; Le Cid, 1636; Horace, 1640; Cinna, 1643; Polyeucte 1643;

Racine (1639-99): Andromaque (1667); Britannicus, Berenice, Iphigenie, Phaedre (1669-1677)

late 19c-early 20c Europe (Modernism)

confident historical / national moment: Modern nations of Europe take current form, develop literature in national languages; imperial expansion to Developing World of Asia and Africa 

great dramatic tragedies appear:

Henrik Ibsen (Norway, 1828-1906): A Doll's House, Hedda Gabler, Ghosts, The Wild Duck

Anton Chekhov (Russia, 1860-1904): The Seagull, Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard

August Strindberg (Sweden, 1849-1912): Miss Julie, A Dream Play, The Ghost Sonata

George Bernard Shaw (Anglo-Irish, 1856-1950) Man and Superman; Heartbreak House; Saint Joan . . .

+ a number of other great names, as theatrical drama enjoyed a last great moment before films largely reduced theater to an elite or academic medium.

Early-Mid-20c USA

confident historical / national moment: Modern USA culture crystallizes; stock market and labor unions; growing national government supporting expanding middle class; emerging world power in both World Wars and Cold War 

great dramatic tragedies appear:

Eugene O'Neill (1888-1953): The Hairy Ape, Desire Under the Elms, Mourning Becomes Electra, The Iceman Cometh, Long Day's Journey into Night, A Moon for the Misbegotten

Tennessee Williams (1911-83): The Glass Menagerie (1944), A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), Sweet Bird of Youth (1959), The Night of the Iguana (1961)

Arthur Miller (1915-2005): Death of a Salesman (1949), The Crucible (1953), A View from the Bridge (1955, 1956), All My Sons (1947)

Alley Theatre: Arthur Miller, A View from the Bridge


Greatness in American tragedy coincided with the growth of progressive national governments devoted to building broad-based middle-class wealth,
exemplified by Presidents Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) and Franklin Roosebelt (1933-45)