The Five Stages of Action in a Tragedy

By David B. Ryan ; Updated September 15, 2017
Shakespeare's tragedies weave humor with the action of the tragedy format.

Dramatic tragedy involves drawing out a feeling of pity from the audience and presenting an opportunity to learn from the mistakes of the characters. Greek rhetorician and philosopher Aristotle traced the arc of action tragedies and noted that they told the tale of a person of high esteem falling from grace as a result of a personality defect. William Shakespeare refined tragic plays into a five-part dramatic form.

Exposition

The playwright in the tragedy shows the main character as a person with position, wealth and typically authority, but also with at least one deep flaw. This makes obvious the fall from the heights and helps the audience relate the moral of the tragedy to their own lives, even when the character happens to be a royal figure. The exposition presents the lead character as a successful person living a life of privilege. The audience also sees the initial plot development showing the main character taking a position or accepting a duty that ultimately leads to the great failure.

Complication or Conflict

The medieval tragedy uses the wheel of fate operated by Dame Fortune, represented in art as a woman standing blindfolded by a wheel of fortune. The action of tragedy traces the fall by the spin of the wheel. The people at the top of the wheel earned power, fame and fortune simply by arriving at the top by the wheel's spin. Fortune, however, turned quickly as the wheel moved the same person to the bottom of the wheel. In Shakespeare's "Hamlet," Hamlet's father is killed and his mother marries his uncle, whom Hamlet suspects had something to do with his father's death. This complication allows a trigger to disrupt the characters' lives.

Reversal or Crisis

Tragedies show the main character experiencing a shocking reversal of fate as a result of the complication or conflict created by Dame Fortune and her wheel of fate. The central character flaw comes into play during this stage of tragic action. Shakespeare's Macbeth and his wife want power so badly that they kill to take the crown.

Catastrophe

The catastrophe stage of the tragedy action results when the characters attempt to deal with the reversal of fate. The Bard's Romeo fails to receive the message of Juliet's plan to feign death. He arrives to see her lifeless body and the audience, aware of the plan, observes Romeo killing himself. Juliet awakens to see his dead body and stabs herself. Crisis compounds with catastrophe as the action rises to tragic proportions.

Recognition or Catharsis

The recognition or catharsis ends the tragedy. The playwright leaves the audience with a lesson as the remaining characters review the the tragic hero's fall from grace. The lesson told onstage reinforces the tragic nature of the loss and the events leading up to the disaster. The audience observes as Romeo and Juliet's parents learn that their hatred was not as important as the lives of their children.

About the Author

David B. Ryan has been a professional writer since 1989. His work includes various books, articles for "The Plain Dealer" in Cleveland and essays for Oxford University Press. Ryan holds degrees from the University of Cincinnati and Indiana University and certifications in emergency management and health disaster response.