What Is a Classic Tragedy?

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A classical tragedy is the story of a hero (or heroine) who experiences a reversal of fortune set in motion by the gods as a result of hubris. Oedipus is one example of a classical tragedy.

Famous Greek philosopher Aristotle first outlined the characteristics of a classical tragedy. The primary elements of classical tragedy are a hero (or heroine) with hubris, the involvement of the gods, a reversal or fall, acknowledgement of error and a period of suffering. Classical tragedy is set apart from Shakespearean tragedy by subplot. Almost all of Shakespeare’s tragedies also contain a “fool” for the purpose of lightening up the heavy subject matter with some comic relief. Another element that separates classical tragedy from Shakespearean tragedy is that classical tragedies often feature characters trying to overcome fate, whereas Shakespearean tragedy is more centralized on individuals who are unable to overcome personal challenges.