Students warned tragedy may be too ‘triggering’

King Lear - Johan Persson
King Lear - Johan Persson

Tragedy may be too “triggering” for modern students, academics have warned.

The dramatic art form has entranced audiences from Ancient Greece to the Shakespearean stage, but has now been deemed potentially upsetting by staff at the University of Derby.

Students embarking on a literature module covering tragedy, including celebrated examples like Hamlet and King Lear, are warned that the genre is “obsessed… with suffering” and could prove “triggering”.

Athenian dramas concerning the deaths of mythical kings, and Arthur Miller’s classic Death of a Salesman, are also on the reading list for the module, which has been given a blanket advisory on how the tragic could be troubling.

The warning, as seen by The Telegraph, states: “Tragedy is a genre obsessed with violence and suffering, often of a sexual or graphic kind, and so some of the content might be triggering for some students.

“If you feel that your engagement with particular texts or themes is going to present challenges, do speak to me in advance of the class.”

University staff said the warning was deemed necessary because “any of the plays explicitly engage with themes of violence and trauma, frequently sexual in nature”.

The plays in the module span 2,500 years of literature, beginning with the works of Aeschylus, whose Oresteia tells of numerous mythological murders, and Sophocles, whose drama Oedipus Rex tells the story of a king who sleeps with his mother and kills his father.

‘The real tragedy is the use of trigger warnings’

Professor Frank Furedi, an education expert at the University of Kent, criticised the broad trigger warning and said that tragedy is meant to cause upset.

“In order to draw a reader or an audience into the drama,  tragedy is meant to provoke emotional upheaval and cause upset,” he said.

“If they fail to provoke strong emotions then a tragedy is anything but tragic. There is no such thing as a safe tragedy and students who wish to study this literary form have to live with it.

“A trigger warning is merely a banal way of saying beware of engaging with this wonderful art form. The real tragedy is the use of trigger warnings for grown-up students who are about to encounter their first taste of Euripides.”

The University of Derby said that the trigger warning is given “because many of the plays explicitly engage with themes of violence and trauma, frequently sexual in nature, and the module leader believes that students benefit from being made aware of this before classes begin”.