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The Comparison of Classic Greek and Elizabethan Tragedy

The first theoretical explanation of the nature of tragedy is associated with Aristotle’s work Poetics. According to the Greek philosopher, tragedy has an advantage over other genres. It can emotionally affect a person, stimulate cathartic empathy, encourage the reader or viewer to participate in the moral and psychological assessment of events that unfold. Through the perception of the character’s suffering, the reader experiences a state of catharsis or purification, begins to analyze and evaluate life (Janaro & Altshuler, 1993). This is how the moral essence of the classic tragedy is revealed. However, from ancient times, tragedy has gone through various creative transformations. This essay aims to compare and contrast classic Greek and Elizabethan tragedies.

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In antiquity, the tragedy is primarily seen as a split of the whole into hostile parts, resulting in an exacerbation of tragic conflicts of power, duty, and honor. In ancient tragedies, an important role is played by destiny, so the character’s attempts to overpower fate lead to inevitable death. The principles of the classic Greek tragedy are most consistently embodied in the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides (Chowdhury, 2020). The study of their works demonstrates that ancient tragedy is built on a religious worldview and represents the philosophy of human insignificance in the face of gods that have full control over human lives. In Greek tragedy, humans cannot avoid the calamities destined by the gods. The total helplessness of people in their struggle against fate and irresistible divine power is the essence of classical Greek tragedy. One of the examples is Sophocles’ character Oedipus who sins the gods’ will and his tragic destiny is predetermined (Chowdhury, 2020). Sophocles’ Antigone and Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, who show the strength of character and the desire to control their lives, have a similar fate.

Important theoretical changes in the understanding of the nature of tragedy arise in the Elizabethan era due to the works of William Shakespeare. Being an outstanding humanist, Shakespeare reflects social contradictions before the English Revolution. In contrast to the classic Greek tragedy, Shakespeare puts an emphasis on the connection between human destiny and society (Braden, 2017). Shakespeare’s tragedies are devoid of the character’s dependence on fate or gods’ will. His tragedies carry the problem of morality, where characters act by their understanding of honor, duty, and dignity. Unlike the Greek authors, Shakespeare does not raise the issue of religion, which is an important sign of the Elizabethan worldview. Instead, the accent is put on moral and ethical values. Therefore, death as an obligatory element of tragic action is a testimony to fidelity to human ideals, whether it concerns state problems, like in Hamlet, or personal human feelings, like in Romeo and Juliet (Braden, 2017). Shakespeare dreams of a holistic, universal personality, the real existence of which is impossible.

As for the structure of tragedies, the Greeks used the chorus to represent moral, social, and religious attitudes. Shakespearean tragedies have no chorus since the action forms the play. When in the Greek tragedy the chorus separates the sets of actions, in the Shakespearean, this is reached by comic relief (Janaro & Altshuler, 1993). The Greeks were concerned about the unity of action, time, and space, without any digressions, while Shakespeare dispenses these unities. In general, Elizabethan tragedies are evaluated through the involvement of the category of time. One of the historical achievements of that period is the combination of eternal semantic concepts with a specific historical period.

The essence of tragedy, be it Greek or Elizabethan, is the reflection of the destructive and unbearable sides of life, the insoluble contradictions of reality, presented as an unsolvable conflict. The clash between a human and fate, or personality and society reflects sharp individual or social contradictions. It should be noted that Greek and Elizabethan tragedies differ in structure and essence. In classic tragedies, the accent is put on the power of fate that can destroy lives and bring chaos and devastation. On the contrary, Elizabethan plays show the collision of a high ideal of morality with a cruel reality in which the ethics of compromise prevails.


Braden, G. (2017). Classical Greek tragedy and Shakespeare. Classical Receptions Journal, 9(1), 103-119.

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.

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Janaro, R. P., & Altshuler, T. C. (1993). The art of being human: The humanities as a technique for living. HarperCollins College.

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