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A tragedy is a dramatic or literary work that deals with the downfall of an exceptional character. While some tragic heroes are undermined by ingrained character flaws or by positive qualities taken to self-destructive extremes, other tragic figures are undone by cruel twists of fate and circumstance that are beyond their control. Often, a tragedy will end with the death or exile of its main character, and with the creation of a new (though not necessarily improved) social, political, or moral order.

One of the most influential early commentators on tragedy was the Greek philosopher Aristotle. As Aristotle explained in his tract on the art of drama, The Poetics, a tragedy is designed to inspire "pity and fear" in its audience. Yet these fraught emotions will lead to a feeling of relief and release (called catharsis) once the tragic hero has met his or her fate.

The Greek civilization of Aristotle's time produced outstanding tragic dramatists such as Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides. And while the popularity of traditional tragic conventions has fluctuated over time, ingenious authors working in a variety of written forms have been drawn to tragedy techniques. In particular, tragedy flourished during the English Renaissance, when playwrights and poets such as Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, and John Milton created enduring tragic heroes such as Doctor Faustus, Othello, Macbeth, King Lear, and the Satan of Paradise Lost. Later, novels such as Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther and Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge extended tragic conventions to modern new material. And in the 20th century, Arthur Miller redefined the genre by taking an aging middle-class American—not a figure of power or brilliance—as the central character of his tragedy Death of a Salesman.

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