What is the difference between tragic heroes as depicted in Greek and Shakespearean literature?  

Expert Answers

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

Shakespeare was strongly influenced by classical models. Moreover, many of his plays are based either on classical themes or stories by earlier writers. Nonetheless, there are a few major differences between Shakespearean and Greek tragedy.

First, Shakespearean protagonists tend to have a greater amount of free will than Greek...

See
This Answer Now

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

Start your Subscription

Shakespeare was strongly influenced by classical models. Moreover, many of his plays are based either on classical themes or stories by earlier writers. Nonetheless, there are a few major differences between Shakespearean and Greek tragedy.

First, Shakespearean protagonists tend to have a greater amount of free will than Greek ones. The fates of tragic heroes such as Agamemnon and Oedipus are often set in motion by curses on their ancestors passed down across generations and are inescapable. While Shakespearean heroes may face great dilemmas, they make their own choices, rather than simply following fate or prophecies. Macbeth had the option of not listening to the witches, whereas, for example, in the Theban plays, Tiresias's prophecies were true and unavoidable.

Next, Greek heroes commit violent acts, if at all, offstage or in the backstory to the play, while Shakespearean ones engage in sword fights and other violent acts onstage. This makes them appear more violent than the Greek protagonists who are normally seen in discussion rather than in fights.

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

William Shakespeare certainly took some of his ideas about what made a tragic hero from the Greeks before him, but he also added his own spin. The Greeks believed humans were ruled by fate, and this is highly evident in Greek mythology. In many myths, the characters consulted oracles, and were told what their fate would be. The rest of the story was often spent trying to change that fate, with no real hope of doing so. A perfect example is the myth "Oedipus Rex," where, out of ignorance of his own birth, Oedipus is told that he will kill his father and marry his mother.  Oedipus leaves the couple he believes are his parents to change this terrible destiny, much later discovering they were actually his adoptive parents, and the story ends just as fate predicted.

Shakespeare's tragic heroes, however, are depicted as individuals responsible for their own destiny. Decisions they personally make lead to their downfall. Othello, for instance, misjudges several situations, and though evil forces abound, it is his own jealousy that causes his demise. To sum up, the Greek's vision was one of theo-centrism (the gods were at the center and controlled everything), where the Elizabethans of Shakespeare's time believed the individual's actions were primary.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team