Tragedy can be both a genre and a plot type. Employed across the ages, various cultures, and executed countless times, tragedy, in all its form, has been debated, criticized, deconstructed, and reconstructed since…forever. But from a general viewpoint, tragedy has a specific purpose, as understood in the Greek/Roman tradition, which is catharsis.
Catharsis is the purging of often negative emotions. As writers and hacks, the purpose of our words, similes, visual imagery, all the MFA terms poached from classic literary theory, is to invoke emotion. Whether that be negative or positive, anger or joy, is the prerogative of the author.
Tragedy, at the core, follows a downward slope. I mean this in the classical sense in conjunction with comedy, which maintains a positive slope. If you want to compare it, the Act II turning point in tragedy and comedy intersects: in a tragedy it’s often a momentary triumph before the fall, where as in a comedy it’s often a momentary fall before a triumph.
Why do we go to see movies where characters suffer and die? Why is Rogue One so depressing, despite knowing/hinting about the characters’ fates throughout the film(sorry for spoilers, but it’s been a year and a half.)? There is something primordial that speaks to our lizard brains about watching fictional people despair, rage, and die for our own catharsis. Are we cruel gods of the meta? No. Fiction is a lie we participate in willingly. There are no space wizards, no warrior women riding iron bears, no lone Undead traversing a hellish Dying Earth. It’s make believe. But we engage in it as a social function, whether for entertainment or to be engaged socially, politically, or philosophically.
It’s the same reason why we spend two hours watching the downward spiral of a corrupt businessman, the rise of a warrior queen, the sacrifice of the old wizard to make the farm boy legend. Catharsis.
It serves a function, which while subverted, deconstructed, etc, that helps us to find reprieve and release from the real world.
That is the power of the tragedy.