illustrated portrait of English playwright and poet William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

Start Free Trial

What are the similarities between a Shakespearean tragedy and a classical tragedy?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

According to Aristotle, the chief elements of the classical tragedy are as follows:

  • the protagonist's downfall is caused by some tragic flaw in his character which prompts him to break moral rules
  • many other factors are also responsible for the hero's misfortune
  • the hero is often hubristic
  • the hero...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
  • is a prominent person in society; this therefore makes his downfall even more terrible and harder to bear
  • the tragedy that befalls the hero is imminent due to fate or the choices he makes

If we take a look at some plays written by Shakespeare, we can notice many of the previously mentioned elements in them. For instance, let us briefly examine Macbeth. Macbeth's tragic flaw is his unrestrained ambition, which drives him to kill king Duncan and many others (Banquo, Lady Macduff, etc.).

Macbeth is very hubristic because he plans to disrupt the natural order of things by murdering the innocent leader of the country.

He is a prominent person, admired by many at the beginning of the play for his bravery and seeming loyalty.

Once he decides to kill Duncan, we witness the beginning of Macbeth's downfall. He descends deeper and deeper into the realm of evil, and his downfall is imminent.

Finally, some other factors are responsible for Macbeth's downfall, such as the witches' prophecy and Lady Macbeth's persuasion and manipulation.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The classical tragedy was defined by Aristotle in Poetics. Within this text, Aristotle outlined the characteristics typical of the classical tragedy. These characteristics are as follows.

The protagonist must possess hamartia (meaning a tragic flaw). The downfall of the protagonist is not fully the fault of the protagonist (other factors play into his or her downfall). The protagonist is typically of high status (therefore, his or her fall is greater than that of a "normal person").

In regards to Shakespearean plays, many of the tragedies followed the characteristics denoted by Aristotle. For example, in Shakespeare's Macbeth, the protagonist's (Macbeth) ambition (his hamartia) leads to his downfall. His place as king, and his fall from king, shows his downfall as being rather extreme. Macbeth is not completely at fault (both the prophecies and Lady Macbeth push his actions).

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the difference between Greek tragedy and Shakespearean tragedy?  

Further, for the ancient Greeks, honoring the gods via the plays' plots was extremely important.  For example, one major theme of the popular Sophocles drama, Oedipus Rex, is that one simply cannot outsmart the gods.  For a human being to think that he can escape the fate the gods have laid out for him or that he can avoid a prophecy delivered by one of Apollo's oracles is the ultimate in hubris.  Such overweening pride almost always results in terrible punishments for mortals.  For Shakespeare's audience, however, such a focus would be much less palatable.  His audience wanted to feel like they had some agency in their lives, that they made legitimate choices (not simply taking actions that were preordained by the gods somehow) that actually made a difference in their futures.  The idea that they were not in control of their own destinies was not a popular one.  Therefore, Shakespeare's plays tend to rely more on a hero's free will rather than his fate (although in some plays, like Macbeth, there is a tension between these ideas).

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the difference between Greek tragedy and Shakespearean tragedy?  

Whereas the plots of Greek tragedies and Shakespearean tragedies can be fairly similar, consideration of the actors and staging will yield some of the main differences.

Greek tragic actors wore masks that covered their entire faces, whereas Shakespeare's players did not. Greek tragedies also had a smaller number of actors who spoke in a single scene than in Shakespeare’s plays. In a typical scene from a Greek tragedy, it is fairly rare for more than two actors to speak to one another. Shakespeare’s tragedies also lack the twelve to fifteen member chorus found in the earlier Greek tragedies.

The theaters themselves were also different. How much of a stage was present in ancient Greece is a matter of debate. The primary acting space in a Greek theater seems to have been the orchestra, a large circular space that frequently had an altar in the middle of it. This is not the case in Shakespearean theater. Also, Greek plays were always staged outdoors and during the day. Again, Shakespearean tragedies could be performed in indoor theaters.

We should also note that Greek tragedies were performed as part of religious festivals devoted to the god Dionysus. Shakespearean tragedies do not have this religious alignment.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the difference and similarity between Shakespeare and Greek tragedy?

Shakespeare's earlier tragedies are considered to be exaggerated in the use of blood and gore (typical of the Greek tragedy "formula" and almost ritualistic advancement of plot reiterated in Aristotle's "Poetics").  Over time Shakespeare became more refined and constrained in style; in spite of its bloody 'grande finalé,' "Hamlet" marks the turning point in his approach (as it is more a psychological study than a simple display of gutsy heroism).

Another modification is Shakespeare's use of secondary characters (often of low caste and comical nature) in the place of the "chorus" to announce impending disaster or a sudden reversal of events. The gravediggers' scene in "Hamlet" or the nurse's babblings in "Romeo and Juliet" are examples of this.

Another difference is in the idea of 'tragic flaw.' In the purely Greek tradition, this defined simply a character's resistence against his/her predestined fate ('hubris'); in Shakespeare's works, the idea of it representing a personal human weakness comes to the fore instead. The idea of catharsis, or spiritual purging through suffering, is however a common trait.

Check out the following references for further information. Moreover, with an enotes pass, you can peruse a wealth of material out there documented on Shakespeare, his times, and his works.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on