1.       They present tales of suffering and calamity, often involving violence and death (though in Greek tragedy, the violence and death always occurs offstage).


2.       They lead to the deaths of ‘exceptional’ men such as royalty, nobility, etc.



3.       They include misfortunes that arise from the protagonist’s hamartia, which is a major flaw or weakness in personality that results in his/her downfall; an act or omission for which the hero is responsible.  (In other words, the tragic hero/ine does things s/he shouldn’t do, or doesn’t do things s/he should be doing.)  (Hubris is a form of hamartia; it is excessive pride that results in characters breaking divine or moral laws.)


4.       They convey the sense of causal connection (cause and effect) of character, actions and catastrophe.  Things happen for a reason because there is always the dominant theme of Fate as the governing force controlling the cosmos.  Everything that the characters do is pre-scripted by destiny; everything is ‘written in the stars.’



5.       Often in tragedies there is peripateia or ironic reversal of fortune; that is, one who starts at the top of the metaphorical wheel of Fate often ends up at the bottom, and vice versa.


6.       Though tragedies depict external conflicts, readers are caught up in the internal moral struggle/conflict going on within protagonists.  The tragic hero is usually isolated/alienated from others.



7.       They include grave threats that are posed to the natural order by the ‘evil’ characters, who must necessarily be destroyed.  For example, killing ones brother and then marrying his wife means that one deserves to die, because that constitutes retributive justice or nemesis.  Nemesis = the Greek goddess of revenge, who pursues the tragic hero.  (Nemesis can also mean a character’s foil: one who is a complete opposite in personality/actions.)


8.       There are contrasts in action and character (foils) throughout the tragedies.



9.       Tragedies always contain an anagnorisis: the moment of recognition/discovery on the part of the tragic hero/ine when s/he realizes the mistake s/he has made; a change from being ‘ignorant’/not understanding to a state of ‘knowledge’/understanding.


10.      catharsis: feelings of pity and fear for characters – particularly for the tragic hers/ine – on the part of readers/the audience; pity is experienced in that readers feel ‘sorry’ for /empathetic towards the character(s), and fear in that we recognize the lesson(s) to be learned.  In other words, fearful that we as people could also suffer the same fate: being too proud, not recognizing the truth until it’s too late, not compromising when we really should, etc.  Tragedies are ‘cathartic’ in that there’s a sense that the evil/curse has been ‘purged;’ the world is rid of it and temporarily safe, and therefore the good characters who remain living at the end have an opportunity to make things right and start over.






1.       The hero begins in a position of greatness (not just in rank – king, prince, noble, great general, etc.) but as the embodiment of the virtues of society.


2.       The hero has a ‘tragic flaw’, which causes his downfall.

The tragic flaw(s) can be:                  a) a moral flaw in character

                                                                b) an intellectual weakness

                                                                c) an error in judgment

d) an error due to inadequate knowledge

of particular circumstances


e) fate – a force OUTSIDE his character

3.       The tragic hero moves in relation to the group (the rest of society) from a central and revered figure to a position of tragic alienation/isolation: the greater the separation between the hero and the group, the greater the stature of the hero.


4.       The hero is heroic because of his response to suffering.



5.       Out of the tragic situation comes knowledge and affirmation of both good and evil.





1.       Conflict: rivals in love or war, within families, between families

2.       Order and disorder: the disturbance in persons, society, and nature.

3.       Change (metamorphosis): characters change in some way – learn new understandings from the suffering they endure.

4.       Appearance versus reality – spying and deception, acting


Themes in Hamlet


5.       Madness – real and feigned

6.       Revenge

7.       Delay – action/inaction

8.       Sin/salvation – incest

9.       Friendship and faithlessness

10.    Fate/Wheel of fortune

11.    Memory





Disease/corruption (pain/suffering, death, disorder in nature)

Function of the Ghost