Module Information

Module Identifier
Module Title
The Shapes of Tragedy
Academic Year
Semester 1
Other Staff

Course Delivery

Delivery Type Delivery length / details
Lecture 10 x 1 Hour Lectures
Seminar 10 x 2 Hour Seminars


Assessment Type Assessment length / details Proportion
Semester Exam 3 Hours   Exam paper - 2 questions  50%
Semester Assessment 1 x 2500 word essay  50%
Supplementary Assessment Resubmit missing of failed 2500 word essay  Students who fail the module will be required to make good any missing assessments elements and/or resubmit any failed coursework assignments (writing on a fresh topic) and/or sit the supplementary exam paper.  50%
Supplementary Exam 3 Hours   Resit failed or missed exam paper  50%

Learning Outcomes

On successful completion of this module students should be able to:

1. Demonstrate a critical awareness of some of the main ways in which the genre of tragedy has been understood.

2. Identify and analyse the ways in which writers from different periods have engaged with and adapted the repertoire of conventions associated with the genre.

3. Find ways of articulating the relationship between literary texts and their historical contexts.

4. Construct detailed critical accounts of complex literary texts.


To encourage students to develop their knowledge of a key genre within the Western tradition; to begin to explore the rich field of critical theory that has grown up around the genre (thus complementing the first-semester core module EN20020 Literary Theory: Debates and Dialogues); using tragedy as a representative example, to study the interaction of genre and history.

Brief description

To call a work or an event 'tragic' is often to imply that the magnitude of the suffering involved transcends the everyday, and projects it from history into the timeless, the 'universal'. Tragedy can be seen as a constant, a 'shape' of experience that recurs throughout human time. Yet tragedy can also be seen as contingent, defined by the everyday: the works that we call 'tragedies' or 'tragic' are enormously different, changing in response to the needs and desires of their sponsoring cultures, and 'tragedy' is therefore a name for a terrain of bewildering variety. This module, by focusing on a series of remarkable texts that either identify themselves or demand to be identified as tragedies, encourages you to think about the relation between genre and history, recurrence and change. You will learn about the ways in which a series of great thinkers have conceptualised tragedy, and will explore a wide range of practical experiments in the form by a group of innovative writers. The set texts cover a wide historical span, from Greek tragedy through Shakespearean tragedy to left-wing political drama of the late twentieth-century; and you will consider too the potential of the tragic to migrate across genre-boundaries, in the shape of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent, both novels with a continuing and compelling contemporary relevance.


Week 1
Lecture 1: Thinking about Tragedy
Seminar 1: Some Theories of Tragedy: Aristotle, Nietzsche, Girard

Greek Tragedy
Week 2
Lecture 2: Athenian Tragedy and the Aftermath of Troy
Seminar 2: Aeschylus, The Oresteia: Agamemnon

Week 3
Lecture 3: Aeschylus and the Shapes of Tragedy
Seminar 3: Aeschylus, The Oresteia: The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides

Shakespearean Tragedy
Week 4
Lecture 4: Shakespeare and the Tragedy of Rome
Seminar 4: Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

Week 5
Lecture 5: Shakespeare and the Tragedy of Britain
Seminar 5: Shakespeare, King Lear

Week 6
Lecture 6: The Rise and Rise of King Lear: Shakespeare's Greatest Play?
Seminar 6: King Lear and its Afterlife in Criticism and Performance

Tragedy and the Novel
Week 7
Lecture 7: Tragedy in the Age of Science
Seminar 7: Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

Week 8
Lecture 8: Tragedy and the Sense of Modernity
Seminar 8: Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent

Tragedy, Class and Disillusion
Week 9
Lecture 9: Tragedy and the Failure of the Millennium
Seminar 9: Caryl Churchill, Light Shining in Buckinghamshire

Week 10
Lecture 10: Tragedy: 'Just a Posh Word for Losing'?
Seminar 10: David Hare, The Absence of War

Module Skills

Skills Type Skills details
Application of Number N/A
Communication Written: By construction of critical argument in coursework essays and exams Oral: Through class discussion, small group exercises, and seminar presentations [assessed formatively, not summatively]
Improving own Learning and Performance Through reflection on feedback
Information Technology By using word-processing packages; using AberLearn Blackboard and other e-resources to research and access course documents and other materials; by submitting assignments via Turnitin
Personal Development and Career planning Through critical self-reflection and the development of transferable ICT, communication and research skills
Problem solving By evaluative analysis and the use of critical skills
Research skills By directed and independent reseach; by synthesizing information in an evaluative critical arguement
Subject Specific Skills
Team work Through group work in seminars


This module is at CQFW Level 5