Craig White's Literature Courses

Critical Sources


Is Tragedy the Greatest Genre?

Mask of Dionysus, 2nd century BC

Tragedy is widely (if tacitly) recognized as the greatest genre in western literary history. However, as with the “tragic flaw” of a hero, the same qualities that make tragedy great may also limit it—as with the tragic hero, the strengths of tragedy may be why the genre fails with popular audiences..


of dialectic

Aspect of tragedy that
makes it “great”

Corresponding aspect that limits appeal, universality, etc.

Historical context

(See Periods of Tragedy)

Tragedy appears during "great periods of history," marked by national ambition, confidence in grapple directly with issues or challenges; contrast escapism.

(examples: Classical Greece, Renaissance England, Neo-Classical France [18c], Early-Mid-20c USA)

Tragedy may also signify imperialism and the rise of an overbearing, controlling state;

Does a great writer require a great cultural period to write great tragedy?


(i.e. duration or "permanence" of art; see classic, popular, & representative literature)


Though rarely popular, tragedy's appeal survives longer than comedy or romance, which are immediately popular but age or decay quickly.

Taste for tragedy must be trained by educators (or possibly educated parents); taste for comedy and romance are more natural, + culturally propagated and reinforced by youth-culture.
Schools and libraries retain tragic literature as "timeless," while discarding once-popular comedies & romances.

Appeal of Characters /

Characters' Greatness

Tragic heroes (e.g. Hamlet, Oedipus) are more "royal" or noble, more memorable, individualized, titanic, disturbing and unpredictable than comic or romantic characters, whose types we recongize but whose names we often don't remember 

“Give it a rest!”—Great characters can be tiresome, demanding, unsympathetic;

Romantic / comic characters are "easy," "regular guys," easy to identify with (though usu. better-looking than we are)


Characters or audiences may learn from tragedy. (Aristotle: “to learn gives the liveliest pleasure”)

Most people go to plays or movies to escape,” not to learn or engage with social problems or human issues.

(But those who go to learn may have more power and influence.)

Art as mimesis:
Complex vs. Simple
characters, stories, values

Complexity of characters, plots, outcomes more accurately imitates complexity of reality;
tragic nature of humanity

> distribution of moral responsibility and blame (instead of good guys vs. bad guys
as in typical romance characterization)

Complex morality threatens strict black-and-white moralities of right versus wrong

> "cultural relativism"

+ irony: humanity at its most heroic reveals its vulnerability to error.

Value of complexity vs.

Value of simplicity

Tragedy depicts and inspires learning and search for truth (rather than familiar assumptions of truth) + ethical response of sharing guilt or blame; humans are both good and bad, shaped by free will and fate

Sometimes black-and-white, simplistic right-and-wrong thinking is correct. Sometimes, as Jocasta warns Oedipus, it's better to stop asking questions.

Elite or Popular Art?

Tragedy is rare compared to comedy and romance, but educated elites determine what gets read from one generation to next

Lack of popularity, easy answers, sentimental or sensory satisfaction of physical sensation or spectacle limits appeal of tragedy to common people who just want a break from their own lives of suffering.

How do we learn from art,

or choose not to?

The break or gap between greatness and failure exposes or permits insight into human condition, fear and pity (catharsis), depth of character

Tragedy lacks comforting reassurance or confirmation of comedy, romance, which give us pleasure or justify us for being where and who we already are

Change or status quo?

Tragedy deals with larger social or psychological problems; action’s disturbance of society permits revision of ethics

Comedy, romance personalize problems, reaffirm or evade status quo; satire may only challenge violations of status quo.

Vent or Repress?

Tragedy gives voice to or expresses taboo topics like incest, suicide, child murder while simultaneously punishing transgressions. Other genres exploit the forbidden while avoiding responsibility for it.

Expression may legitimize taboo subjects; also may have less audience appeal than “escapist entertainments”; nothing is more immediately pleasurable than to escape or overcome problems and feel righteous.

Tragedy suppresses spectacle (blood, gore, special effects)

Suppression of spectacle and physicality of comedy opens to spiritual, intellectual, or imaginative possibilities

Suppression may deny physicality of human life; may encourage excessive other-worldliness or mysticism
Is Truth Eternal and Unchanging or Adaptable to Changing Conditions? If all things evolve, adaptability can be good; tragedy adapts to changing history; greatness can be an elusive or overwhelming quality. (If we can pin greatness down, it stops being greater than us; "Classic" as book that stays open.) Tragedyas a genre is comparatively difficult to explain except by false “rules” (tragic flaw, “the unities,” etc.); comedy, romance, and satire comparatively easier to explain by markers, signs.


Oedipus at Colonus

Eugene O'Neill: "The tragedy of life is what makes it worthwhile.  I think that any life which merits living lies in the effort to realize some dream, and the higher that dream is the harder it is to realize.  Most decidedly we must all have our dreams.  If one hasn't them, one might as well be dead.  The only success is in failure.  Any man who has a big enough dream must be a failure and must accept this as one of the conditions of being alive.  If he ever thinks for a moment that he is a success, then he is finished." (quoted in Arthur and Barbara Gelb, O'Neill (NY: Dell, 1965), p. 180.)