How do we define a “tragedy”? What makes it distinct from other forms of drama?

Throughout history, the most well-known definition of tragedy has come from Aristotle in Poetics. The key element of his definition is that a character’s fall from grace “should come about as the result not of vice, but of some great error or frailty, in a character.” As this is the prevailing way of thinking about the genre, we’re taught from our very early days as students to seek out a “tragic flaw” in a character.

While I admire Aristotle greatly, I outright reject this aspect of his definition of tragedy. It’s not only erroneous, but it limits our understanding of a good play. Character traits do not file neatly into “good” and “bad,” or “virtue” and “flaw.” Just as in life, a character’s trait can, given the context of his actions and the complexity of his personality, be either positive or destructive.

Consider Hamlet and Othello. If these characters have “tragic flaws,” Othello’s might be his gullibility, and Hamlet’s his tendency to overthink things instead of acting. (You may think their “tragic flaws” are other things, but humor me for now.) Imagine if the two were to switch places. Hamlet, in thinking, sees right through Iago’s lies, and Othello goes inside and kills Claudius ten minutes after seeing the ghost, thus saving a great deal of bloodshed. Their flaws are suddenly strengths.

So what is tragedy? There are any number of definitions that have been offered. One comes from G.W.F. Hegel:

Tragedy is the conflict of two substantive positions, each of which is justified, yet each of which is wrong to the extent that it fails either to recognize the validity of the other position or to grant it its moment of truth; the conflict can be resolved only with the fall of the ‘hero’. Within such a conflict each of the opposed sides, if taken by itself, has justification, while on the other hand each can establish the true and positive content of its own aim and character only by negating and damaging the equally justified power of the other. Consequently, in its moral life, and because of it, each is just as much involved in guilt.

(The quote is not from Hegel, but from Mark W. Roche, explaining Hegel’s thoughts on tragedy.)

This one has merit, but it applies very much to social and political tragedy, and not as much to psychological tragedies, like Macbeth.

How do you define tragedy?