Accessibility statement

Tragedy: Theatre, Death, and Mourning - ENG00134H

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  • Department: English and Related Literature
  • Module co-ordinator: Prof. Brian Cummings
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: H
  • Academic year of delivery: 2023-24

Module summary

Tragedy is one of the primal genres of world literature. It has attracted philosophers as well as poets from all periods. This course aims to cover literature ranging from ancient Greece to the present day, alongside themes concerning death, chance, and personhood.

Tragedy contemplates human experience at its extreme, placing us face to face with violent death. In this cross-period course, we examine tragedy from three cultural centres: from the mythological family conflicts of Sophocles and Euripides; to the hybrid experiments in naturalistic theatre in Shakespeare; to Beckett’s modernist meditations on mortality, loss and suffering. We also consider the long-term engagement of philosophers with tragedy: in Plato and Aristotle; Freud and Nietzsche; Benjamin and Deleuze.

At the heart of the course is the place theatre has held in society and how it answers to questions of life and death, or youth and old age. Tragedy has been used throughout history to understand suffering, distress and trauma; necessity, change, and misfortune; and also to construct spectacles of human response to catastrophic events, whether through ideas of heroism, ethics, subjectivity, or loss. The course examines the fullest possible range of theatrical experiences of women and men in diverse literatures of the stage.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Semester 2 2023-24

Module aims

The aim of the course is to investigate theatre in a range of contexts (ancient, Renaissance, or modern) including theatrical history, gender, politics, and religion. We will also discuss tragedy as a philosophical concept and examine ideas in a critical way. Topics covered in the course include death and dying; rituals of mourning; women in society; the Oedipus Complex and the Elektra Complex; fathers and daughters; memory and oblivion; poetry and elegy; political catastrophe and the apocalypse.

Module learning outcomes

On successful completion of the module, you should be able to:

  1. Demonstrate an advanced understanding of and engagement with a range of texts from Ancient Greece to Renaissance and twentieth or twenty-first century plays

  2. Demonstrate an advanced understanding of and engagement with performance in the theatre in different contexts, including the use of masks, female and male acting styles, and ritual and gesture in movement

  3. Evaluate key debates within the relevant critical fields especially concerning the changing relationships between theatre, performance, and social and philosophical ideas of life and death

  4. Produce independent arguments and ideas which demonstrate an advanced proficiency in critical thinking, research, and writing skills.


Task Length % of module mark
3000-word essay
N/A 100

Special assessment rules



Task Length % of module mark
3000-word essay
N/A 100

Module feedback

You will receive feedback on all assessed work within the University deadline, and will often receive it more quickly. The purpose of feedback is to inform your future work; it is designed to help you to improve your work, and the Department also offers you help in learning from your feedback. If you do not understand your feedback or want to talk about your ideas further you can discuss it with your tutor or your supervisor, during their Open Office Hours

For more information about the feedback you will receive for your work, see the department's Guide to Assessment

Indicative reading

Possible authors and plays of study:

Aeschylus, Oresteia

Sophocles, Oedipus the King / Antigone

Euripides, Medea, Bacchae

Shakespeare, Hamlet / Othello / King Lear

Elizabeth Carey, Tragedy of Miriam

Samuel Beckett, Endgame / Happy Days / Footfalls / Rockaby

Sarah Kane, Blasted

Aristotle, Poetics

Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy

Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle

Martha Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.