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Ancient Greek Tragedy 101: Tragedy & Shakespearian Tragedy


Ancient Greek Tragedy 101 series intends to deepen the reader’s knowledge of the Greek Tragedies rooted in the sixth century B.C. The fundamental purpose of this series is to present a detailed informative background and understanding of the elements of Greek tragedy as well as its prominent tragedians.

Ancient Greek Tragedy 101 is divided into Six Chapters:

6. Ancient Greek Tragedy 101: Tragedy & Shakespearian Tragedy

Ancient Greek Tragedy 101: Tragedy & Shakespearian Tragedy

Note: Sir John Gilbert's 1849 painting: The Plays of William Shakespeare contains scenes and characters from several of William Shakespeare's plays. Located at the Dahesh Museum of Art in New York.

The core of tragedy, Greek or Shakespearean, is the representation of human suffering and the reflection of the nature of men’s fate in relation to the universe. The term "tragedy" is one, in that sense. However, an in-depth analysis of the structure and context of tragedy reveals that ancient Greek drama has several differences from the tragedy written during Elizabethan times, prominently by Shakespeare.

Characters & stage: Both Greek and Shakespearean tragedies present the fall of a protagonist holding a distinguished position in society such as kings, dukes, princes, and noblemen. While the number of characters in Greek tragedies had been developed from one to three, Shakespearean tragedies have a greater number of characters on stage. No females were allowed to participate on the stage and therefore female characters were played by men in both Greek and Shakespearean tragedies. Also, in Greek tragedies murders occurred behind the scenes while Shakespeare’s occur on the stage. For example, Othello murders Desdemona on the stage by smothering her. It is when the spectators are in high sympathy with Desdemona since they know she is innocent.

The Chorus: The participation of the Chorus in Greek tragedies, by describing some scenes or commenting on the ongoing events, was quite significant. The Chorus of the Greeks often interpreted the circumstances of the play to the audience when there were situations that the character itself was not capable of explaining. Shakespeare's soliloquy, which is the act of speaking one's thoughts aloud regardless of any hearers present, served the same purpose.

Note: Laurence Olivier, as Shakespeare's Prince Hamlet of Denmark, holds the skull of Yorick in a scene from British film version of "Hamlet" in 1948.

The most famous soliloquy in literature is perhaps that of Hamlet. He experiences a conflict between his religious belief and his desire for self-destruction. He voices his feelings as follows:

To be or not to be—that is the question:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles

And, by opposing, end them. To die, to sleep—

No more—and by a sleep to say we end

The heartache and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to—’tis a consummation

Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep—

To sleep, perchance to dream. . . (Shakespeare, trans. 1992, pp. 3.1.64-72).

Plot: Though Greek tragedies were constructed on a single plot without any divisions of scenes, Shakespearean tragedies consisted of subplots which do not follow 'the beginning, middle and end structure' or 'the three unities' which are unity of time, unity of action, and unity of place. For example, the play The Merchant of Venice has multiple subplots: Shylock's demand for revenge against Antonio; Bassanio and Portia's marriage; the relationships between Jessica and Lorenzo as well as Gratiano and Nerissa. Also, the play switches locations between Venice and Belmont.

Fate: Greek tragedies were rooted in a theocentric vision, meaning the divine powers are at the core of the plot; on the other hand, Shakespearean tragedies laid stress on the vision of an anthropocentric universe having humankind as the centre of existence. The plots of Greek tragedies present the philosophy of men's insignificance in the face of divine power which controls the characters' inevitable fate. Therefore, the insignificance and helplessness of men against the inevitable and uncontrollable divine power is the essence of Greek tragedies.

On the contrary, the downfall of the protagonist is his own responsibility in Shakespearean tragedies. It is laid upon the idea that the demolition of the individual is his responsibility. The downfall of Othello was due to his extreme jealousy and error in judgment resulting in his killing of his innocent wife. The flaw in human actions is independent of fate; however, the concept of fate upon humanity is not completely denied in the plays. For instance, the effect of an individual's fate can be captured in Macbeth. Even though Macbeth's ambition leads him to murder King Duncan and then his downfall begins, it cannot be overlooked that the three witches accelerate his murder.

Note: The Three Witches in Macbeth, each portrayed by Cavendish Morton. (The Three Witches in Macbeth, Morton, 1909).

Banquo doubted the prophecy that the three witches exposed and Lady Macbeth ignored it. Yet, Macbeth actualised the prophecy for he was weak and vacillating when he had time to think through it. Therefore, the three witches cannot be regarded as "guilty", yet still it can be concluded that they generated a great impact on Macbeth and led him to murder. Hence, the divine power does not control the fate of the individual hero of the play, his actions are of prime importance in Shakespearean tragedies.

Supernatural Elements: Even though the "Deus ex Machina", meaning the unexpected occurrence of gods to resolve the problems in the play, was being used in Greek tragedies, the supernatural elements were of central significance in Shakespearean tragedies such as the presence of witches in Macbeth; the use of fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; the use of the ghost of Hamlet's father in Hamlet.

Note: Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing in A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Blake (1786).

Even if the term "tragedy" revolves around one explanation which is the representation of human suffering, the structural and contextual elements of Greek and Shakespearean tragedies differ from each other. Greek tragedies present the downfall of a virtuous hero, holding a distinguished position in society, due to his fate controlled by the divine power in a single plot; on the other hand, Shakespearean tragedies portray the downfall of a distinguished hero due to human flaws in him, his misjudgments, his extreme emotions or unfair ambitions, sometimes under the influence of supernatural elements. Therefore, these two tragedies have several differences in terms of characters, plot, fate and the use of the stage, the chorus and supernatural elements.

The genre of tragedy, rooted in the sixth century B.C. to be performed at annual festivals in honor of the god Dionysus, has been structurally or contextually rearranged and developed throughout history. Knowing the origin of tragedy, with its simplistic features, helps to capture its evolution thanks to the changing perspectives on the universe, the individual, and fate. Hence, throughout the Ancient Greek Tragedy 101 series, we have discovered the origin and characteristics of tragedy, presented the three prominent tragedy playwrights (Euripides, Aeschylus, and Sophocles), illustrated the essential elements of tragedy according to Aristotle and, lastly, shed light on the differences between Ancient and Shakespearean tragedy.

Bibliographical References:

Chowdhury, T. A. (2020). TREATMENT OF FATE IN SHAKESPEAREAN AND CLASSICAL GREEK TRAGEDIES: A COMPARISON. Academic Journal Perspective: Education, Language, and Literature, 8(1), 29-38.

Grace, W. J. (1942). The Cosmic Sense in Shakesperean Tragedy. The Sewanee Review, 50(4), 433–445.

McAlindon, T. (2002). What is a Shakespearean tragedy?. The Cambridge Companion to Shakespearean Tragedy, 1-22. Retrieved from:

Shakespeare, W. (1992). The tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Edited by Mowat, A. Barbara and Werstine, Paul. Folger Shakespeare Librabry. Retrieved from: (Original work published in 1603)

Visual Resources:

Blake, William. (1786). Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing. [Water color and graphite on paper]. Retrieved from:,_Titania_and_Puck_with_Fairies_Dancing._William_Blake._c.1786.jpg

Gilbert, Sir John. (1849). The Plays of William Shakespeare. [Oil on canvas]. Retrieved from:

Morton, Cavendish. (1909). The Three Witches in Macbeth. [Photograph]. Retrieved from:

Olivier, Laurence. (1948). Hamlet. [Photograph]. Retrieved from:


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Melis Güven

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