Serving Up Tragedy

Thursday, October 10, 2013
cooked up by Lori

Call me crazy, but I don't care if my kids know who the first person is to speak to Antigone. I don't care if they know how Tybalt and Juliet are related. Truthfully, I don't even really care if they know what the third bad omen was the night before Caesar's assassination. I know all of those things because I've read each of those plays more times than should be allowed, and I suppose those all make really good quiz questions if you want to make sure your kids were paying attention. I guess. But might I suggest a more interesting way to keep them engaged and walk away from a tragedy [because most people don't] knowing what's most important?

Ask kids what makes something tragic. Chances are they will tell you that it is anything that is sad. Wrong. We know that tragedy is a catastrophe that could have been avoided, all caused by that guy nobody wants to be--the tragic hero. He screws up so bad that there is no turning back and no moving past it. Comedy on the other hand, meets potential catastrophe and finds a way to move beyond it. 

You see, in truth, tragedy and comedy both have a shape. Getting kids to know and see that shape is honest to goodness one of the best ways to get them to read plays and recognize tragic conventions and what that even means when you talk about it.

  • Comedy = Full Circle [Couples, marriages, and babies]
  • Tragedy = Half Circle [Dead folks...lots of 'em]
Pick a tragedy...any tragedy, and here's how to do it. 
  • Distribute paper plates--the cheapest and thinnest that you can find.
  • Fold your plate in half. Explain how that shape is tragic. It's tragic because it ends at catastrophe, and you can't move past it. You can speak in terms of a play that they've read in the past or even a hypothetical situation.
  • Unfold the plate. Now it's a full circle. Explain that the circle isn't necessarily funny, but that it continues beyond that tragic end, allowing the characters to have their own happy endings.
  • With a marker, draw a dashed line down the center--one side for comedy and one side for tragedy.
  • You can split each side into three slices and now you can teach moments of the play while addressing them as tragic conventions. It's no longer just about plot! Hooray!!
  • At the end, you can have students write how they would have changed the tragic outcome using the dashed side of the plate. You've essentially (and kinda) taught comedy (I ten thousand feet) without even needing another play.
My Antigone plate has sections like this:

Front of the plate
Back of the plate
·Tragic Convention—Tragic Hero
·Short notes over the tragic hero.
· Read the Prologue
·Predictions about who the tragic hero might be.
·Qualities of a good leader.
·Read Creon’s monologue in Scene 1
·Tragic Convention—Reversal
·Complete the sentence stem as Creon:
·I just want ___ so that ___ because ___.
·Tragic Convention—Recognition
·Read Scene 5

·Tragic Convention—Downfall·Read Exodus
· Complete the sentence stem as Creon:
· Because of my [specific actions], ___ has
· Find a quote that best represents the tragedy as a whole
Comedy--What 3 things could the tragic hero have done differently to avoid the tragedy?

To download a FREE and lovely hand-written temPLATE of your very own, click here!


  1. This. is. awesome. I'm doing both Romeo and Juliet (in 9th grade) and Julius Caesar (in 10th grade) right now. Thanks for this! I'll use it with both of them.

  2. Megan, I'm so glad you like it! I remember a wonderful theater professor of mine talking about the "shape" of tragedy, and it was such a wonderful illustration that I just had to bring it to life for the kids. This is the first year that I've done it, and I felt like it helped to anchor my lessons. Let me know how it goes!