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Although originally stemming from the "Dionysia" or religious festivals dedicated to Dionysius, the God of Wine, Greek tragedy was solemn, poetic, and philosophic in tone. Plays such as the ones about Oedipus often told the tale of a central character/protagonist who was an admirable but not necessarily, a perfect person. This individual was often confronted by hostile forces from both outside (the fates or gods) and within (individual free will, pride, etc.). The protagonist often had to make difficult moral/ethical choices in order to resolve these conflicts. If the protagonist's struggle ended in defeat or death, the play was labeled a tragedy. Most Greek tragedies were based on myths and, as Aristotle says, were "an imitation of an action" that was both serious and complete in itself.
For a clearer idea of how Greek tragedy works, one must refer to Aristotle's definitive comments given in his great critical treatise about Greek drama, entitled The Poetics (circa 335 B.C.). It deals with theories of Greek tragedy as seen in the finest plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. These principles of classical Greek tragedy have influenced almost all the later tragic dramatists of the Western world.
Though modern tragedy often deviates widely from the Greek classical norms, it still acknowledges the universality of Aristotle's fundamental concepts, especially his ability to pinpoint those elements in human nature that are, always and everywhere, responsible for tragedy in life.