In ‘Educating Rita’, Willy Russell’s comedy about a scousewife hairdresser who goes to University, Rita’s lecturer gives the literary definition of tragedy as…
‘the inevitable, yet unforeseen, result of an action taken by the hero caused by an error or a character flaw in the said hero’
For example in the ancient Greek tragedy ‘Oedipus Rex’, Oedipus flees home when he learns he is destined to kill his father and marry his mother. Meeting a stranger on a narrow road they argue over who should step aside. It leads to fisticuffs and Oedipus accidentally kills the man. When he gets to Thebes he discovers the man was the King. His widow, the Queen, is in no position to protect the state. Out of the goodness of his heart, Oedipus steps up, marries her and becomes king….. I know, I know… but it is a play.
To cut a long story short, a couple of kids later Oedipus learns he was adopted. The king he killed was (wait for it…) his dad. While the queen, now Oedipus’ missus, is in fact… shock-horror … his mum. Horrified Oedipus blinds himself.
Ignorance of his birth, his inability to back-down, and his terrible temper (obviously a trait he got from his old dad) causes Oedipus to fulfil the prophecy and suffer the consequences. He is not a bad guy, but none-the-less, he is the instrument of his own grisly fate.
So in conclusion, says the lecturer, a tragedy is where the hero unwittingly causes his own downfall. Whereas some random happening, no matter how terrible, like a tree falling on someone is not a tragedy.”
“It is for the poor sod under the tree,” pipes up Rita.