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, 2018 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, 2018 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?
    – Tsundoku
    Jan 11, 2018 at 16:07
  • @ChristopheStrobbe Tragic literature, mainly.
    – Fabjaja
    Jan 11, 2018 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, 2018 at 13:16

1 Answer 1



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.


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 AD, 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 wrote novels in this genre as well as the Bronte sisters later on in many of their novels (Wuthering Heights excepted which did deal with themes of death, Gothic horror and unresolved lost love; even Jane Eyre paralleled this to some extent with Jane's childhood tragedies and the tragic relationship between Rochester and Bertha Mason). Also, Gothic novels, such as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, 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, 2018 at 16:09
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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. Jan 12, 2018 at 11:07
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    @LaurenIpsum Interesting...probably, I'd say.
    – Fabjaja
    Jan 12, 2018 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, 2018 at 11:15
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    Lots of good information here. What is missing, and in the Britannica article you base it on, is a working definition of tragedy. Here, it seems to be "anything with an unhappy ending," but Aristotle in Poetics was far more specific, as in the requirement that it have a moment in which the protagonist recognizes that they are the author of their own misery (think Oedipus and Hamlet). It would strengthen this greatly to add some details on what actually counts as tragedy.
    – Philly
    Oct 26, 2019 at 3:36

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