The Greek Origins of Tragedy
In Western civilization, both comedies and tragedies arose in ancient Greece, where they were performed as part of elaborate outdoor festivals. According to the famous ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, tragedy arouses pity and fear in the audience—pity for the hero and fear for all human beings, who are subject to character flaws and an unknown destiny. Seeing a tragedy unfold produces a catharsis, or cleansing, of these emotions in the audience. In ancient Greek tragedies, the hero’s tragic flaw is often hubris—excessive pride that leads the tragic hero to challenge the gods. Angered by such hubris, the gods unleash their retribution, or nemesis, on the hero. Ancient Greek tragedies also make use of a chorus, a group of performers who stand outside the action and comment on the events and characters in the play, often hinting at the doom to come and stressing the fatalistic aspect of the hero’s downfall. By Shakespeare’s day, the chorus consisted of only one person—a kind of narrator—or was dispensed with entirely.