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Views on whether or not tragedy provides a fulfilling end to a work have changed over the centuries and it has slipped in and out of popularity in contemporary works of a given period. Great literary classics, such as Romeo and Juliet, have always been respected regardless of prevailing literary modes. Nevertheless, the presence of tragedy in literature has fluctuated from its beginning in Ancient Greece, then to its obvious comeback in Shakespeare's day, as well as to the present seeming revival in modern literature. This therefore suggests changing attitudes towards literary tragedy.

Tragedy should be considered just as a fulfilling ending as a happy one, so when and why did popularity for tragedy change over the centuries?


Prompted by Rand al'Thor's comment

  • @Randal'Thor Please feel free to add anything since it was your comment in the first place :-) – Fabjaja Jan 11 '18 at 15:35
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    For the moment all I'm adding is my upvote(s) :-) Will come back to read/comment further when I have time. – Rand al'Thor Jan 11 '18 at 16:05
  • I thought Norhrop Frye had written something about the relationship between comedy and tragedy, but I can't remember where. Are you referring only to tragedy as a theatrical genre or "tragic literature" in general? – Christophe Strobbe Jan 11 '18 at 16:07
  • @ChristopheStrobbe Tragic literature, mainly. – Fabjaja Jan 11 '18 at 16:14
  • There are tons of books still being published which have tragic endings. Not in the mystery or romance genres, of course, but definitely in the literary and popular genres. – Peter Shor Jan 12 '18 at 13:16
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When:

There are four main historical periods in which tragedy was a substantial part of literature:

  • Attica, Greece, 5th Century BC, the 'birth of tragedy'
  • Shakespearean England, 16th and 17th Centuries, when Shakespeare published many popular tragedy plays;
  • France, 17th Century, French playwrights revived the classic Greek tragedy

  • Europe and America, latter half of 19th Century, Thomas Hardy broke the prevailing fashion of the Victorian 'Marriage Plot' and paved the way to further tragedies by other authors with his controversial tragedies Tess of the d'Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure. Also Grimms's Fairy Tales were published around the same time (1812), which featured dark, tragic endings to some characters' stories.

Why

Post Greek tragedy

  • After the rise of the Greek tragedy, the Romans tried, and failed, to introduce tragedy into their literature. Although Roman authors such as Seneca wrote epic works, they did not take off as they were largely based on Greek plays and lacked the novelty and innovation that the Greeks had possessed.

  • Furthermore, after the fall of the Roman Empire around 500 BC, barbarians invaded the formerly 'cultured' lands and seemingly snuffed out the idea of tragedy. Christianity brought literature in the form of religious plays, but tragedy remained elusive.

Renaissance revival and fall

  • The first hint of popular tragedy after this was Geoffrey Chaucer's works; however, this was tragedy in the sense of misfortune to a character rather than death. Next came Shakespeare's revered and successful tragedies, most famously Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, Othello and Julius Caesar. This boom in popularity for tragedy was due to the beginning of the Renaissance era at that time, which sought to promote arts of all kinds. Plays depicting the realism reflective of normal life became increasingly favoured, which subsequently developed into displaying the tragic aspects of life.

  • Tragedy again fell at the wayside at the growth of Puritans in England, who closed theatres.

Post Renaissance

  • After Puritanism fell, tragedy was still suppressed with the introduction of the novel in the 18th Century, with Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe often regarded as the first.

    • Almost coincidentally, the Enlightenment period began to flourish which was associated with economy and hence satirical, society and Romantic novels came into being which largely provided the 'happy ending' of marriage or success. Writers such as Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters wrote novels in this genre. Also, Gothic novels, such as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, which aimed to thrill audiences not induce the emotion of tragedy.

Late 19th - 21st Century

  • The late 19th Century marked a surge in tragedy; Thomas Hardy's tragic works as well as Ibsen's tragic dramas marked a clear departure from the contemporary modes, in whose footsteps followed Arthur Miller's plays (notably Death of a Salesman) in the mid-20th Century.

  • At the same time (1930s - 50s), however, cinema began to promote the 'happily ever after' ending especially in Disney's fairy-tale adaptations, who reversed the often dark conclusions of traditional fairy-tales. This caused tragic literature to yet again fall out of favour.

  • Finally, now, Shakespeare's tragedies are celebrated as some of the finest works of literature as well as the fact that tragedy is featuring in modern works, which suggests that modern audiences appreciate both tragedy and the optimism of the happy ending.

Reference for whole answer

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    Haven't read this in full detail yet, so I may be missing something obvious, but ... "the often dark conclusions of traditional fairy-tales" - if traditional fairy tales often had tragic endings, why are they not included in your bullet points at the start? – Rand al'Thor Jan 11 '18 at 16:09
  • @Randal'Thor Good point! I'll edit it in. – Fabjaja Jan 11 '18 at 16:13
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    Is there any correlation, I wonder, between the state of the world/society at large at the time and the popularity of happy or tragic endings? For example, with the World Dumpster Fire going on right now, I am in no mood for grimdark stories with downbeat endings. I want some hope in my entertainment. – Lauren Ipsum Jan 12 '18 at 11:07
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    @LaurenIpsum Interesting...probably, I'd say. – Fabjaja Jan 12 '18 at 11:51
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    I wonder if Lauren's idea could be connected to your history. For instance, perhaps it's no coincidence that the so-called "Dark Ages" in Europe coincided with a decrease in popularity of tragic literature. Also, since you mention Christian literature - I wonder what effect religion had on these ideas? It seems to me that Christianity, with its themes of forgiveness and salvation, would naturally be associated with happy endings, whereas the ancient Greek idea of Hades ties in much better with tragedy. – Rand al'Thor Mar 23 '18 at 11:15

protected by Community Mar 23 '18 at 18:22

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