Date of Award


Document Type

Open Access Dissertation


Comparative Literature


College of Arts and Sciences

First Advisor

Paul Allen Miller


In this dissertation I will argue that familial betrayal is a central element in sixteenth-century British tragedy and seventeenth-century French tragedy. Family relationships help to define who the characters are and provide a point of identification between the audience and the play. This identification, as Aristotle argues, is necessary for the arousal of pity and fear and thus creates the possibility of catharsis. Fear is a key component of psychological trauma. This is the main link between Aristotle’s theories and modern trauma theory but there are other overlapping ideas that form a basis as to why old tragedies still resonate with today’s audiences. Two of these key elements are the omnipresent familial and social dynamics that must be navigated. Trauma can be inflicted from these interactions both onstage and in reality. I intend to explore how various events traumatize and influence certain characters’ behaviors and reactions. The actions of the families they should be able to trust above all others ultimately lead these characters to make tragic decisions.

I will begin by defining tragedy from an Aristotelian perspective, examining how his formulation is related to the theories held by his more prominent early modern successors. I will then do an overview of trauma theory, specifically Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Betrayal Trauma Theory. Finally, I will apply an analysis based upon these psychological theories to certain characters in my chosen plays. For my exemplary English tragedies I have chosen Shakespeare's Richard III, Hamlet, and King Lear. For my French tragedies I have chosen Pierre Corneille's Médée, Thomas Corneille's Ariane, and Jean Racine's Iphigénie. These selections were made because, as a whole, these plays represent the various core familial relationships found in early modern tragedies.