Module code: EN3194

Module co-ordinator: Professor Sarah Knight

In the fourth 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? Why do we spend our time and money watching and reading tragic narratives? 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 fifth-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 characterize the tragic plays of first-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 twenty-first century.

Topics covered

The module will be structured around the work of three dramatists:

  • the ancient Greek Sophocles (496-405 BC)
  • the Roman Seneca (4 BC-65 AD)
  • William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

We will look at how tragedy was defined and conceptualised by classical critics and their Renaissance counterparts, particularly Aristotle’s "Poetics" (mid-fourth century BC), Horace’s "Art of Poetry" (c. 19 BC) , Philip Sidney’s “Defence of Poesy” (1582-83), Thomas Nashe’s Preface to Greene’s “Menaphon” (1589) and George Puttenham’s “Arte of English Poesie” (1589). By reading these accounts of tragedy, you will increase your awareness of how the form evolved and the different purposes it has served at various moments of cultural history.

Families in crisis are central to most tragic plots, and on this module we will look closely at how human relationships under pressure are dramatised in the plays on the syllabus. We will read the following plays, grouped under four themes:

  • Mothers and sons: Sophocles, “Oedipus the King”; Seneca, “Oedipus”; Shakespeare, "Hamlet"
  • Fathers and daughters: Sophocles, “Antigone”; Shakespeare, King Lear”
  • Women, war, sexuality: Seneca, “Trojan Women”; Shakespeare, “Troilus and Cressida”               
  • Jealousy and masculinity: Sophocles, “Ajax”; Shakespeare, “Othello”

We will consider performance history and dramatic conventions across the term, and three films will be screened: “Hamlet” (directed by Sven Gade, 1921), “Oedipus Rex” (dir. by Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1967) and “Ran” (an adaptation of King Lear, dir. by Akira Kurosawa, 1985). If possible, while the module is running the tutor will organise a trip to see a theatrical performance of either one of the set plays or another relevant ancient or early modern tragedy.

By the end of the module, you will:

  • Be more aware of how tragedy has evolved and why it continues to fascinate audiences and readers.
  • Be able to evaluate the influence of ancient texts on their Renaissance counterparts, and argue for the significance and complexity of this influence.
  • Be able to consider Greek, Latin and Renaissance tragic plays within their contemporary social and historical contexts.
  • Have gained experience in presenting your readings formally to your peers, and had the opportunity to participate in focused discussion within a smaller student group.

Teaching and Learning

  • Ten two-hour seminars
  • You will also be divided into Autonomous Learning Groups (ALGs): the ALGs will be asked to consider discussion points relating to the reading and to formulate their own questions for seminar discussion. Each member of the seminar group will be expected to give a short assessed presentation on his/her ideas, to be discussed beforehand with the tutor.


  • Oral presentation (20%)
  • 4,000-word essay (80%)