You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

In The Birth of Tragedy, Friedrich Nietzsche’s seminal 1872 study of the origins and significance of Greek tragedy, the German philosopher called for the rebirth of tragic art to reawaken the profound existential insights and revitalizing energies that the ancient Greek tragedies once provided.

According to Nietzsche, the great works of Greek tragedy conveyed profound truths about human existence, acknowledging the suffering and inherent contradictions of life while also providing a form of catharsis. Tragedy celebrated the resilience of the human spirit in the face of an indifferent or even hostile universe, personified by the Greek gods.

However, Nietzsche contends that this rich tradition of tragedy began to decline with the advent of Socratic philosophy and the subsequent rise of Euripides, whom Nietzsche criticizes for infusing too much rationality and logic into his plays. He argues that Socrates and Euripides represented a shift toward a more Apollonian approach to life and art, which emphasized clarity, rationality, and moralism over the visceral, instinctive understanding of human existence. This shift, Nietzsche claims, led to the degradation and eventual demise of the true spirit of tragedy.

I think any fair-minded observer today is struck by the absence of tragedy from contemporary popular culture. Several factors contribute to this reality, including a preference for escapism and comfort, rather than a confrontation with intense, tragic themes, and a value system that emphasizes individualism and self-empowerment that conflicts with the fatalism and determinism that runs through traditional tragedies. There is a prevailing belief in personal agency and the ability to overcome obstacles, which contrasts with the often unavoidable doom featured in tragic narratives.

There are, of course, different layers of tragedy. Classical tragedies involve characters of high estate and revolve around themes of fate, destiny and the machinations of the gods. The tragedy often arises from a fundamental flaw in the protagonist (hubris, for example) and involves a fall from grace, leading to profound moral and philosophical contemplation.

Modern “democratic” tragedies focus on more ordinary characters and explore personal and societal conflicts. These tragedies explore existential questions, the human condition and the absurdity of life without necessarily invoking higher powers.

Domestic tragedies center on tragedies that occur within the settings of everyday life, in family dynamics, personal relationships, and intimate settings.

A tragedy is considered especially profound when it explores fundamental questions about human existence, morality and the nature of the universe. The tragedy typically involves the irreconcilable conflict between equally compelling and opposing values or desires, where there is no clear right or wrong. These dilemmas force audiences to confront complex moral questions.

The most profound tragedies tackle universal themes, such as death, love, honor and betrayal. They speak to essential human experiences and emotions, and resonate across different cultures and times.

Great tragedies, of course, require characters with depth and complex internal worlds. Their decisions and fates invite audiences to empathize with their struggles, making the impact of their downfall more intense and thought-provoking. As Aristotle understood, great tragedies seek to evoke pity and fear, leading to catharsis—a cleansing or purifying of emotion. This emotional release is essential, providing both psychological relief and insight.

The trend toward lighter, more escapist content in mainstream media does not diminish the power and relevance of tragic narratives, which offer the most profound reflections on life’s greatest challenges and mysteries.

No artform is more closely associated with tragedy than opera. Many classic operas explore themes of love, betrayal, sacrifice and death. The heightened emotions associated with tragic stories provide composers and performers the opportunity to explore complex psychological states and express intense feelings.

Tragic themes provide stark contrasts in narrative elements — between love and loss, loyalty and betrayal, life and death. Tragic operas allow audiences to experience intense emotions vicariously through the characters and, ultimately, to experience relief or purification of these emotions. Also, tragedy often explores fundamental questions about human nature, destiny and the gods or fate.

Among the great tragic operas are these:

  • Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata, which explores themes of love, social stigma and redemption.
  • Verdi’s Rigoletto, a tale of vengeance, manipulation and mistaken identity, culminating in tragedy and the death of the court jester’s innocent daughter.
  • Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, an exploration of forbidden love based on a medieval romance.
  • Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca, which tells the story of an opera singer caught in a dangerous web of power and betrayal against a backdrop of political intrigue and corruption, culminating in her suicide and that of her lover.
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Don Giovanni, which, despite its comic elements, is tragic in its tale of the downfall of the libertine and manipulator, dragged to hell for his sins.

These operas are revered not just for their tragic narratives but also for their ability to convey deep emotional truths through the powerful combination of music, voice and dramatic storytelling.

Among the most tragic of tragic operas is Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, now on stage in a minimalist production at the Metropolitan Opera. It tells the heart-wrenching story of Cio-Cio San, who is known as Butterfly, and how she is abandoned by her American husband.

One of opera’s towering achievements, the work is often cited as a classic example of Orientalism, using Western stereotypes to exoticize and simplify the Far East. To take just one example, Butterfly is depicted as submissive, fragile, and naïve—a portrayal that aligns with Western stereotypes of Eastern women as exotic and subservient.

The libretto, some critics argue, is culturally reductionist, presenting the setting and cultural practices through a Western lens that focuses on elements that emphasize difference and exoticism without a nuanced understanding of the actual complexities of Japanese culture.

Yet this great work can also be viewed through a feminist lens and an anti-imperialist lens, and, yes, an anti-American lens, as a critique of the patriarchal and imperialistic attitudes of the United States.

Pinkerton, the American naval officer, represents the archetype of Western imperialism and male dominance. His marriage to 15-year-old Cio-Cio San can be seen as a metaphor for the way Western powers engaged with and dominated Eastern countries—entering with fascination and a promise of commitment, followed by exploitation and abandonment.

Butterfly’s tragic fate underscores the vulnerabilities of women in patriarchal societies. Her abandonment by Pinkerton, despite her devotion and sacrifices—including renouncing her own religion and cultural identity—underlines the feminist critique of how women are treated as disposable commodities in patriarchal and imperialist societies.

Butterfly’s ultimate decision to take her life, while wrenchingly tragic, can also be interpreted as a final act of agency in a life where much has been dictated by the men around her. Rather than continue to live in humiliation and dependency, her death is a powerful, if heartbreaking, rejection of her subjugation.

The opera prompts profound reflection on the broader implications of American society’s individualistic values, especially concerning its treatment of “the other” and its romanticization of foreign cultures without genuine commitment or respect. A work of extraordinary emotional depth and narrative complexity, the opera offers profound insights into issues of gender, power and cultural interaction. It encourages audiences to reflect on the intersection of imperialism and patriarchy, highlighting the consequences of these systems on individual lives and cross-cultural interactions.

In its depiction of Butterfly’s emotional journey from a naïve girl to a betrayed woman, the opera explores such themes as cultural collision, innocence and vulnerability, and offers profound insights into human nature.

Puccini’s incorporation of Japanese melodies, styles and folk tunes into the score offers a bold fusion of Western and Eastern musical elements and a pioneering attempt at cultural integration. His use of leitmotifs (recurring musical themes associated with particular ideas or characters) and his attention to pacing and tension-building give the opera a cinematic quality even though it predates the earliest films to tell a complex story.

Today’s popular culture tends to ignore or evade the many tragedies that surround us. The audience tends to prefer the lighthearted, the uplifting, the thrilling and the humorous—works that are readily accessible and easily digestible.

Tragedy, with its complex themes and often somber tone, is a hard sell to mainstream audiences looking for escapist entertainment.

Contemporary culture, particularly in the West, tends to emphasize positivity, happiness and personal fulfillment as major life goals. Moreover, there is a growing trend toward self-help and improvement narratives, which focus on overcoming obstacles and achieving personal goals, rather than dwelling on the inevitability of suffering or the complexity of human frailty. This cultural bias toward positive emotions and success can make tragic themes especially off-putting.

Given the stresses of modern life, including economic uncertainties, political tensions and global crises such as the pandemic, many people seek relief or distraction in entertainment. Popular culture offers a refuge from unpleasant realities, providing a space to decompress rather than confront additional emotional challenges. Tragedies, which often require emotional investment and confrontation with painful truths, don’t fulfill this need for escapism.

Artistic trends and public tastes have shifted toward genres and formats that incorporate elements of fantasy, adventure and romance, which can more easily incorporate hopeful resolutions or lighter themes. Even when tragic circumstances are depicted, they are often resolved in a way that restores order or delivers justice, adhering to a narrative structure that reassures rather than unsettles the audience.

In a culture where the tragic dimension of life is often sanitized or avoided, humanities courses should play a crucial role in ensuring that students are exposed to the full spectrum of human experience. Through tragedy, whether the classic Greek and the Shakespearean, tragic operas, or the naturalistic novel, students confront the most profound aspects of life, grappling with questions of morality, destiny and the human spirit. This exposure is not only critical for their intellectual and personal development but also for preparing them to engage thoughtfully and compassionately in the world.

Tragic literature confronts fundamental questions about human existence, such as the nature of suffering, the complexities of fate and free will, and the consequences of human actions. The great Greek tragedies like Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex or Antigone explore themes of fate, divine justice and ethical dilemmas, forcing audiences to consider the limits of human understanding and control over destiny.

Tragedy thrives on conflict, particularly conflict that arises from competing ethical, moral, or existential values. Shakespeare’s tragedies often depict heroes struggling against their own flaws and external circumstances, providing insights into the nature of ambition, power, love and betrayal. Here, students can learn about individuals navigating complex moral landscapes, and, in the process, gaining a more nuanced understanding of human psychology and social dynamics.

By witnessing the suffering and choices of characters in works like Dostoevsky’s novels or Puccini’s operas, students can better understand the forces that drive seemingly irrational human behavior.

In the contemporary context, tragedy extends beyond mere suffering to embody deeper, more complex existential and ethical dimensions. Tragedy in this sense involves the interplay of fate, value conflicts, unintended consequences of progress and the paradoxes of human intention and action. These elements manifest in various ways across the societal and the personal.

There is the randomness of fate. We should always remember that there, but for the grace of God, go I. Whether we are speaking of the natural disasters that strike without warning and leave devastation in their wake; or the genetic lottery that can predetermine one’s health or longevity; or war, individuals often find themselves in circumstances they can’t control, irrespective of their personal merit or behavior. The randomness of such events challenges our sense of justice and fairness.

Then, there are irreconcilable conflicts of values. In a globalized world, the clash of cultural, religious and ethical values frequently leads to profound tragedies. For instance, the migration crisis illustrates how the aspirations of refugees for safety and a better life can conflict with the political and social dynamics of host countries, creating situations where there is no clear solution that aligns with all ethical perspectives. These conflicts can also occur on a smaller scale within families, where generational or ideological differences create deep rifts.

Another source of tragedy lies in the costs of progress. While technological and scientific advancements have significantly improved living standards, they also bring about unintended consequences that can be tragic. Industrialization has led to climate change, which now threatens the very fabric of our ecological and social systems. Similarly, urbanization and technological connectivity, while enhancing access to resources and services, have also led to issues of mental health decline, social isolation and erosion of traditional community structures.

Often, actions taken with good intentions lead to disastrous outcomes, a theme central to many tragic narratives. In international politics, interventions meant to bring peace or democracy have often resulted in prolonged conflict and suffering. In technology, innovations intended to enhance connectivity and efficiency can inadvertently erode privacy and empower surveillance states. In personal relationships, the desire to protect loved ones can result in overprotectiveness or control, stifling the very individuals one aims to support.

A mature understanding of the world requires our students to grapple with the complex layers of human existence. It compels us to acknowledge that outcomes are often beyond individual control, that moral choices are frequently fraught with competing loyalties and outcomes, and that progress can have an ugly side.

Confronting tragedy in the arts is essential if our students are to become more empathetic and thoughtful beings who grasp the complexities of the human experience and the often paradoxical nature of life, where joy and suffering are intricately intertwined, and where the best intentions can sometimes lead to the worst outcomes.

At his son’s 9th grade commencement in 2017, Chief Justice John Roberts bestowed the following piece of advice to some of the most privileged students on the planet:

“Now the commencement speakers will typically also wish you good luck and extend good wishes to you. I will not do that, and I’ll tell you why. From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty.

“Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time, so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either.

“And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then, your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship. I hope you’ll be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion.

“Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes.”

Incorporating tragic artworks into our students’ education does more than broaden their literary or artistic horizons, it equips them with the emotional and intellectual tools needed to face life’s complexities with awareness, resilience and compassion. By understanding tragedy, students learn not just to anticipate and endure life’s inevitable hardships but also to perceive the broader human context in which they occur, deepening their connection to our shared human experience.

Tragic art confronts the viewer or reader with the inescapable realities of human existence—suffering, loss, and death. By engaging with these themes, students are not shielded from harsh truths but are instead introduced to them in a controlled, reflective manner. This can be particularly important in an educational setting, where students are preparing not just for careers but for all facets of adult life. Tragedies teach resilience and the ability to cope with life’s inevitable hardships. They show that suffering is a universal aspect of the human condition, thereby normalizing feelings of grief or despair as shared human experiences rather than individual failings.

Tragic narratives often revolve around profound moral dilemmas with no clear right or wrong answers. Characters may be forced to choose between competing loyalties or values, each with significant consequences. By studying these conflicts, students learn that life often presents situations where ideal outcomes are not possible and that moral complexity is a standard part of human existence. This understanding is crucial for developing critical thinking and ethical reasoning skills, essential for navigating the moral landscapes they will encounter in their personal and professional lives.

Tragedy also teaches that loss is an integral part of life. Whether it is the loss of loved ones, the end of relationships, or the death of cherished ideals, these experiences are universal and can be transformational. Tragic art allows students to explore their feelings about loss and mourning in a profound way, offering insights into the process of healing and the acceptance of change.

Perhaps one of the most significant impacts of tragic art is its ability to foster empathy. By witnessing the struggles and suffering of characters, students can develop a deeper understanding and compassion for the pain of others, particularly those whose lives are vastly different from their own. This is crucial in a globalized world where social and cultural divides can be bridged by the mutual understanding that comes from recognizing shared experiences of suffering, whether that is a product of social or economic inequality, of war, marginalization or oppression.

So, embrace the abyss and bring tragedy into your classroom. Explore life’s shadows, storms and sorrows, for tragedy teaches tough, yet essential, truths, deepens our understanding and cultivates the compassion and empathy that we need now more than ever.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and the author, most recently, of The Learning-Centered University: Making College a More Developmental, Transformational, and Equitable Experience.

Next Story

Written By

More from Higher Ed Gamma