The earliest known performances of tragedy (plays) were those held in the Dionysus Festival in Athens, Greece. Large crowds gathered for these plays and many masks, including those of a laughing and a crying face (depicting comedy and tragedy, respectively) were used during performances. The nature of the plays was said to be solemn, narrating stories of noble heroes from Greek mythology or history, who had suffered a downfall due to their inherent flaws.
The Tragic Flaw
The downfall that the hero of a Greek tragedy suffered was mostly attributed to a flaw in his nature ('Hamartia'). Most popular examples include Hamlet's indecisiveness or Othello's jealousy. A tragedy was thus seen here, less a misfortune that befalls due to workings of fate, and more an occurrence happening due to the protagonist's own doing. Needless to say, we see numerous examples of this nature in everyday life and can identify with them.
In the inherent sense, tragedy did not mean a sad event. But with passage of time, this meaning has gained popularity and stuck in public memory as tragic plays as stories mostly involved the downfall of the protagonist and the misfortunes that entailed. This included departing of loved ones, loss of name and fame or wealth, betrayal by a loyal kin, and so on. Though we may not be literary characters, such events may occur in our lives too, making us all too familiar with their plight.
Due to this inherent nature of tragedy, the protagonist (main character) has an innate quality of 'pathos' - the quality of evoking pity or sympathetic compassion. Such heroes and heroines of the story appeal to the emotional being of the audience and connect at a human level to them, hence involving them intimately in their story.
The pathos evoked by the characters and story then affects the audience to an extent where they can see themselves in the situation of the characters. This 'putting ourselves in their shoes' is the classic definition of empathy, making the tragedy an experience striking close to one's heart.
According to Aristotle, 'tragedy cleansed the heart through pity and terror, purging us of our petty concerns and worries by making us aware that there can be nobility in suffering.' He called this phenomenon 'Catharsis'. Indeed, we may have experienced this some time or the other, that after watching a tragic play, movie or reading a tragic piece of literature, we may feel as though we have lived through the character's life and emerge feeling better about our own life situations.
Whether life imitates art or the other way round, tragedy is something we all encounter at one point or the other. Due to the strong emotional connect of the content, the talent of the writers to pen stories that resonate with real-life experiences and our ability as emotional beings to find pieces of ourselves in the story, tragedies will remain alluring to us through the ages.