Module code: EN3194
In 4th century BC, the Greek philosopher Aristotle argued that good tragedy should stimulate ‘pity and fear’ and cause emotional catharsis. In the early 1580s, the Elizabethan author Philip Sidney praised ‘high and excellent Tragedie, that openeth the greatest woundes’. Pity and fear, pain and vulnerability, if all of these uncomfortable emotions are provoked by watching tragedy, then why do we continue to be interested in this dramatic form? What intrigues us and what do we hope to encounter in tragedy?
Tragedy has always vividly reflected the cultures in which it is generated, echoing their ideological concerns, literary trends and desire for spectacle. We will consider the evolution of the tragic form in its different cultural contexts, combining this approach with close readings of the plays, looking at the myths that give tragedy its original subject-matter as well as the historical and political realities that playwrights wove into drama. We will explore tragedy’s origins in 5th century Athens, investigating how it grew from the combination of religious ritual, calculated political manoeuvring and myths of gods and heroes, moving on to consider the bloodlust and dysfunctional families which characterise the tragic plays of 1st century Rome. Finally, we will investigate how Greek and Roman dramatic traditions flowed directly into Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedies. As we look at some of the most famous, complex and challenging plays written during these three periods, we will think about tragedy’s enduring power over us as readers and spectators in the 21st century.