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The word tragedy originates in Greek as tragōidiā (Classical Greek τραγῳδία) contracted from trag(o)-aoidiā = "goat song" from tragos = "goat" and aeidein = "to sing". This dates back to a time when religion and theatre were more or less intertwined in early ritual events. Goats were traditionally sacrificed, and as a precursor, the Greek Chorus would sing a song of sacrifice-- a "Goat Song". This may also refer to the horse or goat costumes worn by actors who played the satyrs in early dramatizations of mythological stories, or a goat being presented as a prize at a song contest and in both cases the reference would have been the respect for Dionysus.

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Tragedy (fr. Greek τραγῳδία, tragōidia, "goat-song") is a form of art based on human suffering that offers its audience pleasure. In his speculative work on the origins of Athenean tragedy, The Birth of Tragedy (1872), Nietzsche writes of this "two-fold mood": "the strange mixture and duality in the affects of the Dionysiac enthusiasts, that phenomenon whereby pain awakens pleasure while rejoicing wrings cries of agony from the breast. From highest joy there comes a cry of horror or a yearning lament at some irredeemable loss. In those Greek festivals there erupts what one might call a sentimental tendency in nature, as if it had cause to sigh over its dismemberment into individuals"

While most cultures have developed forms that provoke this paradoxical response, tragedy refers to a specific tradition of drama that has played a unique and important role historically in the self-definition of Western civilization. That tradition has been multiple and discontinuous, yet the term has often been used to invoke a powerful effect of cultural identity and historical continuity--"the Classical Athens and the Elizabethan era, in one cultural form; Hellenes and Christians, in a common activity," as Raymond Williams puts it. From its obscure origins in the theatres of Athens 2500 years ago, from which there survives only a fraction of the work of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, through its singular articulations in the works of Shakespeare, Lope de Vega, Jean Racine, or Schiller, to the more recent naturalistic tragedy of Strindberg, Beckett's modernist meditations on death, loss and suffering, or Müller's postmodernist reworkings of the tragic canon, tragedy has remained an important site of cultural experimentation, negotiation, struggle, and change. A long line of philosopher have analysed, speculated upon and criticised the tragic form.

Walter Benjamin's major work on tragic form is The Origin of German Tragic Drama (1928). Gilles Deleuze develops his theory of tragic representation in his collaboration with Félix Guattari, Anti-Œdipus (1972). In the wake of Aristotle's Poetics (335 BCE), tragedy has been used to make genre distinctions, whether at the scale of poetry in general, where the tragic divides against epic and lyric, or at the scale of the drama, where tragedy is opposed to comedy. In the modern era, tragedy has also been defined against drama, melodrama, the tragicomic and epic theatre. Drama, in the narrow sense, cuts across the traditional division between comedy and tragedy in an anti- or a-generic deterritorialization from the mid-19th century onwards. Both Bertolt Brecht and Augusto Boal define their epic theatre projects (Non-Aristotelian drama and Theatre of the Oppressed respectively) against models of tragedy. Taxidou, however, reads epic theatre as an incorporation of tragic functions and its treatments of mourning and speculation.[1]

See also