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Ten compelling stage tragedies that everyone should see


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Tragedy is a form of theatre which has been drawing in audiences for centuries, all around the world. From Shakespeare to John Ford, here's a look at ten of the best.  


1)    Hamlet, by William Shakespeare

Hamlet is the pillar of tragic playwriting. It has all the interesting features audiences find so captivating to see on stage and that make it one of the greatest If not the greatest tragedy of all time: ghosts, madness and psychological turmoil, death, politics and social commentary. The play was written by Shakespeare and published between 1601 and 1603. The play is set in Denmark and follows Prince Hamlet, whose father has recently died. Hamlet is disturbed at the fact his mother has re-married straight away and is even more disturbed when his father presents himself in the form of a ghost to state that he was murdered. 


2)    Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles

Oedipus Rex, also known as Oedipus the King, is a psychological murder thriller. King Laius is killed and Oedipus sets out to solve the murder mystery. However, Oedipus himself is accused by everyone, including the prophet Tiresias, who also states that as incestuous marriage will take place. Oedipus finds out that he is, in fact, Jocasta and Laius’s son and that the prophet was correct that he did kill his father and marry his mother. The play ends in true tragic style with the Queen Killing herself and Oedipus gouges his own eyes out. The play was written by Greek tragedian Sophocles. He writes the downward spiral of a family in turmoil in a compelling yet prolonged way that makes it all the more enjoyable to see unfold on stage, as truths are slowly revealed as the play continues.


3)    Othello, by William Shakespeare

The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice, is believed to be written in 1603 by William Shakespeare. The play is set in Venice and is based on the story of Un Capitano Moro by Cinthio. It involves a whole load of jealousy and manipulation, as well as the exploration of social issues such as gender and race. The whole play focuses around Othello and his succumbing to his inner jealousy: he lets it control and inevitably ruin his life, as he suspects his wife Desdemona has been unfaithful to him. The play ends just about as tragic as it could get with Othello murdering his wife and then killing himself. Stemming from his jealousy that turns out to be psychological rather than the reality in the end.


4)    Machinal, by Sophie Treadwell

Sophie Treadwell wrote this truly moving play about a young woman who lives in a time where she has to follow the rules and norms that society expects of a woman her age, even though she is resistant to them. She ends up marrying a man who she finds utterly abhorrent. However, she meets a man who re-lights her passion and ignites her lust for life. Ultimately, she is driven to murder her repulsive husband and is sentenced to death by the electric chair. The play was written in 1928 and was inspired by a true case of convicted murderer Ruth Snyder. It was premiered on Broadway, in 1928 starring Clark Gable in his Broadway debut. It was awarded in Burns Mantle’s Best Plays of 1928-29.


5)    Fences, by August Wilson

Fences is a more modern play, compared to others on this list. It was written in 1985. Fences was the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and won a Tony Award for Best Play. The protagonist Troy Maxson is a hard man, trying to survive as a black man in 1950s America. This play features racism, infidelity, a troubled father-son relationship, and larger social commentary that makes this it a must-see.


6)    Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare

Another Shakespeare play finds itself on this list. Shakespeare was at the forefront of tragic plays, so it would be rude not to acknowledge four of the greatest tragedies out there. Romeo and Juliet is arguably the most well-known tragedy in history. It begins with star-crossed lovers, who come from feuding families, which ends with tragedy for both. The tragedy has been adapted to be more modern in Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’ musical adaption ‘West Side Story’ set in 1957 New York, a tale of two feuding gangs the ‘Sharks’ and the ‘Jets’.


7)    ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, by John Ford

This play was first performed between 1629 and 1633. The play is set in Parma, Italy.  The protagonist Giovanni confesses his incestuous love for his own sister Annabella, this love ultimately ends in despair and death. This play explores religious viewpoints in the sense of sin and condemnation for the sibling’s love. It is a compelling play, especially through Giovanni’s quest for justice and search for spiritual or religious answers, neither he finds and this ends in disaster for everyone involved.


8)    The Spanish Tragedy, by Thomas Kyd

This play is rumoured to have inspired Shakespeare’s Hamlet, with its ghosts, revenge and a tragic protagonist. It tells the story of Marshall of Spain Hieronimo, whose son is murdered. Hieronimo goes on a quest for revenge and justice (he fails) and comes to represent all that is real in grief and madness.  The book was written in 1589 and is a pivotal piece of literature in from the Elizabethan era, it explores attitudes to the family, revenge and Anglo-Spanish conflicts. 

9)    A Yorkshire Tragedy, by Thomas Middleton

A Yorkshire Tragedy is a Jacobean stage tragedy. There is some dispute as to who wrote the play, with later critics claiming it was Thomas Middleton rather than earlier assumptions that Shakespeare wrote it. The play is set in East Yorkshire, in 1605. The main character Walter Calverley, who is in an unhappy marriage and also heavily in debt. The play is not for the faint-hearted as it ends with Calverley murdering his entire family, his two children, and wife, and going on a search to kill his last remaining son. However, he is caught beforehand and ultimately pressed to death. There is no arguing that this gruesome tale of family murder is deserved of a place on this list, as nearly every single character comes to an untimely end.


10) Antony and Cleopatra, by William Shakespeare

This play follows the life and relationship between Marc Antony and Cleopatra, from the early time of the Sicilian Revolt and ultimately Cleopatra’s suicide. It is a play of betrayal and lies, but also, of deep passion and love. Both characters fight for dominance over one another whilst simultaneously being wound up and held back by the love they have for one another.  Similarly, to Romeo and Juliet, mistaken death becomes the end for both Antony and Cleopatra. Cleopatra pretends to have died in order to bring Antony back to her and to re-ignite their love. However, when Antony hears the news he kills himself. After this, Cleopatra ends her life with the venomous bite of an asp, hoping to meet Antony again in the afterlife.  This tragedy is set in Egypt and Rome and shows alternatives between the interesting and artistic setting of Alexandria in contrast to the austere Rome.






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