What do we mean when we call an event “tragic”? When we do so, often without knowing it, we reach back to a form of theater that began over 2500 years ago, in 5th B.C.E Athens. This is perhaps the most powerful example of how a literary genre – tragedy – can shape our perception of our history and experience. This course will examine the beginnings and evolution of the tragedy’s formal qualities, asking how form interacted with social and political factors. We will review historical notions of the tragic hero, from Aristotle to the present: what has defined a tragic hero, and why and how do these heroes matter to people? The class will also think about the role of plot in shaping tragedy, and how a tragedy differs from a catastrophe or a merely unhappy event. Finally, we will speculate on the recent past and future of tragedy as a genre. This course will not pretend to cover all the manifestations of tragic drama from the Greeks to the present: texts will likely include plays by Sophocles, Euripides, Shakespeare, Racine, Ibsen, and Beckett, but also recent films and television as well as relevant criticism and philosophy.