In a literary sense, tragedy refers to a specific plot line. Characters encounter a series of events that lead to a tragic outcome, or catastrophe. In a tragedy, the misfortunes build up over the course of the plot. The plot typically begins with "business as usual," but then a problem occurs. The problem gets worse, sometimes because of how the characters choose to deal with the problem. In spite of their best efforts (or maybe because of them), the characters cannot prevent an unfortunate outcome.
Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy. The two young lovers meet and fall in love, but because of the age-old feud between their families, they are destined for misfortune. Juliet's cousin Tybalt kills Romeo's friend Mercutio. Romeo kills Tybalt and becomes a criminal. The friar tries to help the couple by having Juliet fake her death. But, Romeo thinks she is truly dead and kills himself-which leads to Juliet's suicide as well.
Oedipus Rex is a tragedy. When Oedipus is born, it is foretold that he will kill his father and marry his mother. So, his parents asked that the infant be murdered, but a shepherd takes pity on him, and passes him off to be raised in a far country. As a grown man, Oedipus returns to his original homeland, actually killing his biological father along the way and marrying his biological mother. The truth comes out years later, after he has had four children. His biological mother, and wife, Jocasta, kills herself, and Oedipus gouges out his own eyes.
Shakespeare's Julius Caesar is also a tragedy. Caesar is murdered by those close to him who are ambitious. One of the murderers is Brutus, who has come to believe that Caesar's death is the only way to keep Caesar from becoming a tyrant. Brutus finds out afterward that his co-conspirators had selfish motives. After his "friends" are killed in battle, Brutus kills himself, realizing that he probably did not do the noble thing.
Literary Terms Examples