Difference Between Classical Greek Tragedy and Shakespearean Tragedy

The essence of tragedy, be it Greek or Shakespearean is the rendering of human suffering and a contemplation of the nature of man’s destiny in relation to the universe. It is here that all tragedy is one. But an in-depth analysis of the features of tragic drama as was in vogue in ancient Greece reveals that in structure and conceptualization, classical Greek drama has some differences with the tragedy as practiced in the Elizabethan times, especially by Shakespeare.

A study of the tragedies written by Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus, shows that ancient Greek tragedy is basically modeled upon an essentially religious weltanschauung. Accordingly, Greek tragedy represents the philosophy of men’s puny insignificance in the face of a colossal divine power that controls and mostly destroys human life. The emphasis here is laid upon the inscrutable power of Fate or Destiny, capable of bringing about havoc and ruin to human life. The utter helplessness of men in his struggle against such a malevolent and uncontrollable divine power is the substance of classical Greek tragedy. The most obvious example is that of Oedipus in Oedipus Tyrannous who commits a sin in such ignorance that the impression of an overwhelming sinister destiny that rules and destroys his life is paramount. Similar examples are Sophocles’ Antigone or Aeschylus’ Agamemnon.

The most striking contrast in this fatalistic world view of the Greeks’ is found in Shakespearean tragedy where the entire emphasis is laid upon the responsibility of the individual in bringing about his ruin. Though Aristotle has pointed out that the Greek tragedies also portrayed the mistaken actions of the hero and therefore the Greek tragedies also showed an element of awareness of tragedy resulting from human flaws, the error of judgment of the hero or his hamartia is always conditioned by Destiny. That is, however much the hero makes mistakes, the overall impression is that he is led to committing those errors under the snares and pitfalls of Destiny. In Shakespearean tragedy the emphasis, however, is upon human action independent of Destiny where, however, the impression of fate working upon man is also not totally negated. For instance, there is no doubt that Macbeth’s ambition leads to his sacrilegious murder of Duncan which results is his doom, but there is also the impression of the witches that precipitate his murder. Similarly Othello’s tragic destiny is brought about entirely by his misjudgments resulting in his overwhelming Jealousy, but there is also the impression that Othello is so pitted against certain evil forces over which he has no control. Actually, the Greeks had a theocentric vision while the Elizabethans, motivated by the Renaissance laid stress on the vision of an anthropocentric universe. Hence crux of tragic action lay with a divine power in Greek tragedies while the individual hero and his actions were of prime importance in a Shakespearean tragedy.

In matters of structure, the Greeks were much more fastidious about the unity of action. The unity of action implies that the action represented in a play should be just one single whole without any digressions what so ever. As a natural corollary the unity of action stood the unities of time and place. The unity of time implied that the time represented in the play should be limited to the two or three hours it takes to act the play or at most to a single day of either twelve or twenty four hours. The unity of place implied that the tragic action portrayed in the play should be limited to a single location. These three unities were observed for the sake of verisimilitude, that is, for the achievement of an illusion of reality in the audience. Shakespearean tragedy completely dispenses of these three unities. A Shakespearean tragedy takes place often in two or three places, and the time taken is much more than twenty-four hours, often spurning a month or even more. Moreover, often in plays like king Lear or Hamlet there are sub plots which run counter to the Greek notion of the unity of action.

The Greeks employed the chorus as a dramatic device. The chorus, as stated by Aristotle, was often a group of characters who remained aloof from the action and commented upon it by singing or chanting verses and performing dance like maneuvers on the stage. They represented traditional, moral, religious and social attitudes and often took part in the action. In Shakespearean tragedy there is a complete absence of the chorus. Shakespeare needs no chorus for commentary while the action is what constitutes the play. But whereas in Greek drama the chorus offered time gaps between two sets of tragic actions; in a Shakespeare play this is achieved by comic relief. An ideal example is the Porter Scene in Macbeth. In a classical play there were no room o comic elements in a tragic actions but Shakespeare so artistically manipulates characters like Fool in King Lear that they become integral to the tragic action. 

Finally, the introduction of ghost, witches, strange visions and fearful phenomena that is the deus ex machina or the supernatural apparatus, which is so rampant in Shakespeare, is never made use of in Greek tragedies. The witches in Macbeth or Banquo’s Ghost in the same play, or the Ghost of Hamlet’s father in Hamlet or Caesar’s spirit in Julius Caesar are all instruments of horror which the Greeks avoided.

It should, however, be kept in mind that these differences in convention and style should never blind us from the truth that both Shakespeare and Greek tragedies fulfill the same purpose of presenting before us the enormous vision of human grandeur that issues from the struggle of man with in transient forces either at work within him or outside and that both these two types of tragedies show that heroism lies not in victory or defeat but in courageous endurance of pain and hostility. 

Reference: R.J. Rees - History of English Literature

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