Once the idea was widespread that tragedy and comedy differ essentially in material. Dryden maintained that tragedy must deal with people of exalted rank in extraordinary situations, expressing themselves in speech befitting their extraordinary circumstances. This idea, first stated by Aristotle in his “Poetics” as a result of his observation of the Greek Tragedy—which the definition perfectly fits—was fostered and expanded by critical students of dramatic theory till it found expression in the exaggeration of the Heroic Drama in England and the dignified if somewhat cold tragedies of Corneille and Racine.〖H. C., xxvi, 77, 133.〗 The coming of the Sentimental Comedy in England in the first thirty years of the eighteenth century, the related “Drame Larmoyante” of France, and the “Bürgerliche Drama” in Germany, showed that tragedy may exist in all ranks from high to low, from educated to uneducated.

What then is tragedy? In the Elizabethan period it was assumed that a play ending in death was a tragedy, but in recent years we have come to understand that to live on is sometimes far more tragic than death. Nor is the presence of tragic incidents in a play sufficient reason for calling it a tragedy, for many plays that end happily have in them profoundly moving episodes. Why, then, is it that we are so agreed in calling “Hamlet,” “The Duchess of Malfi” and “The Cenci”〖H. C., xviii, 281ff.〗 tragedies? Because in them character clashing with itself, with environment, or with other temperaments, moves through tragic episodes to a final catastrophe that is the logical outcome of what we have observed. By “logical” I mean that the ending is seen to grow from the preceding events in accordance with the characters. That is, it conforms with human experience as known to us or as revealed to us by the dramatist in question.

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