Shakespearean Tragedy Vs. Classical Tragedy

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      In their formal and structural aspects, a Shakespearean tragedy was different from a Greek tragedy. The classical tragedy is religious in character. It mainly represents human littleness before a mighty divine power that controls human destiny. The utter helplessness of man pitted against a mighty, rather angry divine power is the substance of the classical Greek tragedy. Fate, the omnipotent power, inevitably plays the dominant role and governs the tragic motive in the classical tragedy of Greece. Seneca, a roman dramatist, constitutes a significant phase in the development of Romantic or Shakespearean drama of the Elizabethan period. Senaca’s classical tragedies do not belong exactly to the classical Greek pattern, although they are characterized as classical. Senaca gives importance to human motive and conduct rather than fate or divine
power. He uses revenge, blood and supernatural terror in his tragedies. Gorboduc and the Spanish Tragedy are full of Senecan elements.

      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 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. In Shakespearean tragedy, there is no chorus, no limit on the number of actors, no restriction of subjects and no respect for the unities of time, place and action. Shakespearean tragedy followed a dramatic tradition which came partly from the Roman tragic dramatist Seneca and partly from the medieval mystery plays. Blood, revenge and long declamatory speeches in Elizabethan dramas were borrowed from the Senecan tragedies. Thus, Seneca and English medieval plays greatly influenced the Shakespearean tragedy, especially in its form and structure. But in substance and idea, a Shakespearean tragedy owes much from Greek tragedy. Brutus, in Julius Caesar is a great philosopher and an honest man. He is also noble and incapable of understanding treachery in others. Thus, he is a poor judge of man and an incompetent politician consequently. Brutus commits a series of blunders which brings his fall. It is the flaw in his character, what in Aristotle s language is hamartia’. And Brutus’ pride in classical term, hubris is punished by natural justice or fate. His honesty and honor at the start of the play are reversed at the end. Aristotle calls it ‘Peripeteia’. The fall of this great man creates pity and fear — the Aristotelian prescription of the purgation of tragic emotion.

      However, the classical tragedy developed from its own culture which was religious. Fate was dominant and supreme in worldly affairs. The hero’s pride and courage wanted to overpower fate that he had the unmistakable feeling of fighting a losing battle. Oedipus’ heroic power and grandeur could not save him in the struggle with fate, the Delphic Oracle. In classical tragedy, thus, there is the supremacy of fate over the individual heroism. As a product of the humanistic culture of the renaissance, Shakespearean tragedy gives supremacy to individual glory of man. Fate broods over the career of Shakespearean heroes, but his fall comes from his own flaws, his misjudgment of the situation around him. Lear, Othello, Macbeth, and Hamlet - all fall victim to their own perplex passion or ambition. But there is only an impression of fate guiding them to their doom. Here fate acts as adversity, chance and coincidence. Supernatural elements in Macbeth, handkerchief in Othello, Hamlet’s deep reflections etc. — in all these, fate acts as adverse circumstances. Shakespearean tragedy is thus a combined product of character and circumstances.

      If we study the tragedies written by Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus, it becomes clear that the 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 in 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 the 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.

      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 Shakespearean play this is achieved by comic relief. An ideal example is the Porter Scene in Macbeth. In a classical play there were no room of 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.

      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 been used in Greek tragedies. The witches in Macbeth or Banquet’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. 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. 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.

      Finally, it should be summed such that whatever may be the differences between convention and style of the ancient and Shakespearean tragedies, the basic purpose of both the tragedies is the same as to present 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. Both the types of tragedy show that heroism lies not in victory or defeat, but in courageous endurance of pain, and hostility.

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