The difference between Greek tragedy and Shakespearean tragedy

In Lectures on Shakespeare, the poet W. H. Auden makes this brilliant observation on the tragedy of Othello:

The particular kind of tragedy Shakespeare writes differs from Greek tragedy. Both assume that the tragic figure is a great or good man suffering from a flaw that brings him to destruction. If one asks, what is the matter with the Greek character, the answer is hybris, which is not translatable by our word pride. Hybris is the belief that one is omnipotent, a god. This doesn’t cause a radical difference in the way you behave, but the tragedy is the gods’ punishment for a man’s feeling like this. The envy of the gods is aroused when someone powerful – a power derived from them – should claim to be their equal. The gods show the heroes that they aren’t. The tragic heroes in Greek drama must therefore be great men, in a worldly sense. Members of the chorus in Greek tragedy can’t be heroes. The whole point in a Greek tragedy is that the hero and his tragic fate are exceptional.

Shakespeare’s tragic characters, on the other hand, suffer from the Christian sin of pride: knowing you aren’t God, but trying to become Him – a sin of which any of us is capable. Hybris is the manifestation of overweening self-confidence, of over-security. Pride is the manifestation of a lack of security, of the anxiety that is due to lack of faith, and of a defiance of one’s finite limitations as a human being. It is a form of despair. There are two types of despair: one is the despair of willing not to be oneself, the other is the despair of willing to be oneself. The official heroes of Shakespeare’s tragedies are men of passion who will not be themselves – their passions, not unlike the humours of Jonson’s characters, are the attempt to hide from themselves what they are. The other type of tragic figure is Iago, a tragic hero without passion, who refuses to yield to what he knows, who wills to be himself, who knows what he is and refuses to change, who refuses to relate himself in love to others and insists on standing outside the community. Iago relates to others only negatively.


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