My daughter’s school was offering a ‘community’ lecture on Tragedy by Professor David Robert of the EnglishTragedy Lecture - Attendance Certificate department at Birmingham City University. I haven’t studied English Literature since my O’ level in 1979 (Julius Caesar, Lord of the Flies & Keats’ poetry – you never forget those books do you!) so I thought it was about time to broaden my horizons.

Wikipedia tells us that tragedy is ‘a form of art based on human suffering that offers its audience pleasure’. This definition seems to make anyone that has ever enjoyed Hamlet or Macbeth heartless and cruel! But David explained that watching a tragedy is a catharsis because we see someone in a worse situation than ourselves. The hero who suffers a tragic end can be seen as scapegoat. His demise makes us feel good because we didn’t suffer such a terrible end – he does the suffering for the rest of us.

David took us on a whistle-stop tour of famous tragedies through the ages from ‘Oedipus Rex’ to ‘Death of a Salesman’. Then he  gave a mention to the current popularity of disaster movies such as ‘The Day After Tomorrow’, which can also be seen as tragedies.

Tragedies are mostly written by men and this could be because there is a more certain self-destruct pessimism about the world within the male psyche (and they call us the moody ones!).

So where is all this taking us in the context of our writing? Well, I’m not sure really unless you’re a playwright since tragedies seem to be generally written for performance rather than as a narrative. I had hoped that learning about the greats of English Literature might inform my own writing but I can’t see People’s Friend or My Weekly falling over themselves to buy a tragedy!

But it wasn’t a waste of time because it broadened my horizons and I got a certificate of attendance!

By the way if there are any English scholars out there do correct me if I’ve got anything wrong here.

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  1. #1 by Carl Peters on November 7, 2011 - 2:09 pm

    As a student at the moment I remember last year during a renaissance module that tradegy also likes to deal with subjects that may be considered not for every day consumption. For example, Dr. Faustus. I really enjoyed it though, but I think that even in our modern times the subject of devils and magic are not really talked about widely, usually people will pooh pooh the idea as pure fiction and say it can’t be real and that’s why it’s the subject of plays/films. How about “The tradegy of the fall of the Western World’s shopping!” Could be a blockbuster!!!

    • #2 by Sally Jenkins on November 7, 2011 - 8:21 pm

      Carl – You’re right, many of the things that happen in tragedies such as Oedipus marrying his mother are not things that we contemplate regularly – it could only happen in fiction (I hope!).

      Patsy – Yes, womag stories often show triumph over tragedy and the potential tragedy is a good way of getting the conflict into a story and taking the main character on a journey.

  2. #3 by Patsy Collins (@PatsyCollins) on November 7, 2011 - 7:03 pm

    It’s true the likes of PF don’t want tragic stories, but some mags might be interested in potential tragedies that our characters overcome or avoid.

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