Traditionally, a tragedy was characterized by a protagonist whose flaw in character leads to a series of events that cause his downfall, a trope that began with the Greek dramatists, reached an apotheosis in the plays of Shakespeare, and prevails in both our contemporary literary realm as well as in the real world of power and politics. The fate of the tragic figure is predestined because fate is the manifestation of one’s character. Listen to today’s commentary for KQED Radio.
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Interested in a longer episode about the word tragedy and the goats in its history? Listen to Tragedy: A Goat’s Lament.
The word ‘tragedy’ is built from two Greek roots: ‘tragos’, meaning ‘goat’ and ‘oide’, meaning ‘ode’. It literally means ‘goat song’, referring to the dramatic plays of the ancient Greeks named such for the actors who dressed in the skins of goats to represent satyrs, goat-like mythological deities.
A tragedy was characterized by a protagonist whose flaw in character leads to a series of events that cause his downfall, a trope that began with the Greek dramatists, reached an apotheosis in the plays of Shakespeare, and prevails in both our contemporary literary realm as well as in the real world of power and politics.
In public figures today, we recognize the pride of Achilles, the rashness of Oedipus, the impulsiveness of Romeo, the ambition of Macbeth, and the greed of Walter White, all of whose fatal flaws portended their inevitable ruination.
Inevitable, because the fate of the tragic figure was already predestined -not because the gods had willed it or because a hostile universe was acting against him — but because fate is the manifestation of disposition and personality. “A man’s character is his fate,” said Heraclitus. Blinded by self-pity, our tragic figure sees it differently.
Ranting and raving, he rails against what he perceives are the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” and weaves a web of paranoid conspiracies to divert attention from his own infractions, but the audience knows what he will learn before his end: that wherever you go, there you are.
After witnessing hours of torment and the demise of a sad and pathetic character, ancient Greek audiences found comic reprieve in the satyr plays that followed the tragedies. These comedic parodies provided a much-needed catharsis for the emotionally exhausted audience.
And though those specific types of plays have disappeared from our own modern theatres, their spirit remains in our late-night TV comedy sketches and comedians, whose lampoons of real-life figures provide the same for us: the salve necessary to heal from the daily exposure to the tragedies unfolding before us.