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Tragedy and the Tragic

ENGL 229.403
also offered as: CLST 315.403
TR 1:30-3

Journalists often described the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina as “a tragedy” or “a tragic event”. They presumably did not mean that it was an exciting dramatic spectacle, performed in verse by masked actors to a complex musical accompaniment, at a religious and civic festival. What do modern real-life disasters have in common with tragoidia, a literary genre which began in ancient Athens in the fifth century BC? In this course, we will trace the history of tragedy as a dramatic genre, and ponder changing conceptions of “the tragic” and their cultural implications. We will read a selection of literary and theoretical texts, ranging from antiquity to the present. These will include plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Seneca, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Racine, Milton, Chekhov and Beckett, and work by theorists from Aristotle to Terry Eagleton. Students will be asked to think about whether it is possible to provide an adequate definition of “tragedy” or “the tragic” that applies equally well to the whole history of the genre. We will discuss various concepts which have been said to be essential to tragedy, including sacrifice, heroism, horror, conflict, pity, fear, pathos, tragic irony, death, dignity, danger, grief, fate, reversal and recognition. Can a play which lacks one or all of these features still count as a tragedy? We will also look at some “problem cases” in the history of the genre, including one or more Greek tragedies which seem to have happy endings. Does it make sense to extend the term “tragic” to film, to non-dramatic genres (novels, paintings, music), or to real life? Can we explain why tragedy has proved so popular, for so long? The course is open to anybody with an interest in literature or drama; no previous experience of classical literature is required.

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