tragedy

Ancient Tragedies

The earliest tragedies were part of the Attic religious festivals held in honor of the god Dionysus (5th cent. B.C.). The ritual entailed the presentation of four successive plays (three tragedies, one comedy). Each was based on situations and characters drawn from myth, and the tragedies ended in catastrophe for the heroes and heroines. The most famous ancient tragedies are probably the Oresteia (a trilogy) of Aeschylus, Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, and Euripides' Trojan Women.

In his definitive analysis of tragedy in the Poetics (late 4th cent. B.C.), Aristotle points out its ritual function as catharsis: spectators are purged of their own emotions of pity and fear through their vicarious participation in the drama. The plays of the Roman tragedian Seneca—including Hercules, Medea, Phaedra, and Agamemnon —were established on certain conventions, notably violence, revenge, and the appearance of ghosts.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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