As the word "tragedy" refers primarily to tragic drama: a literary composition written to be performed by actors in which a central character called a tragic protagonist or hero suffers some serious misfortune which is not accidental and therefore meaningless, but is significant in that the misfortune is logically connected with the hero's actions. Tragedy stresses the vulnerability of human beings whose suffering is brought on by a combination of human and divine actions, but is generally undeserved with regard to its harshness. This genre, however, is not totally pessimistic in its outlook. Although many tragedies end in misery for the characters, there are also tragedies in which a satisfactory solution of the tragic situation is attained.
The Iliad is an epic poem in dactylic hexameters, traditionally attributed to Homer. Set in the Trojan War, the ten-year siege of Ilium by a coalition of Greek states, it tells of the battles and events during the weeks of a quarrel between King Agamemnon and the warrior Achilles. Although the story covers only a few weeks in the final year of the war, the Iliad mentions or alludes to many of the Greek legends about the siege.
In tragic literature, the actions of the protagonist, no matter how well-intentioned, lead to disaster. In the Iliad, a sense of the futility of human action is conveyed by the use of dramatic irony, especially when Homer depicts his characters unknowingly doing things which lead them to their own doom and contrasts their ignorance with the gods' knowledge of their fate. In reading the Iliad note carefully how the actions of Achilleus and Hektor contribute to their own misfortunes and exactly when they become aware of the consequence of their actions.
When you first read the Iliad, the beginning of the poem can present some difficulty because it assumes a general familiarity with the war between the Trojans and Greeks that most modern readers, unlike the ancient Greeks, do not possess (see Troy for more information on the Trojan War). You should have no trouble, however, if you keep a few facts in mind. The war had been occasioned by an offense given twenty years earlier to Menelaos, the Greek king of Sparta, by the Trojan Prince, Paris (also called Alexandros). Paris, aided by the goddess Aphrodite, whom he had judged the winner of a beauty contest over the goddesses Athene and Hera, had stolen Menelaos's wife, Helen. In order to recover Helen, Menelaos's brother, Agamemnon, the powerful king of Mykenai, had gathered together a large force that included many prominent Greek warriors, themselves either princes or kings. The greatest of these was the hero, Achilleus, the central character of the Iliad . The main story of the poem consists of the experiences of Achilleus within a rather limited period of time (fifty-four days) in the tenth year of the war.
Another problem you might encounter in your first reading of the poem of the language in which the story is told. After reading even a ...