LIT526: Greek Tragedy and Shakespeare - New Saint Andrews College

LIT526: Greek Tragedy and Shakespeare

kinglearInstructor: Dr. Jayson Grieser

Summer Term 2017


Of all the tragedies written in ancient Athens, thirty-three full plays have survived. These plays, performed some twenty-five hundred years ago, come from the pens of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, whose plays continue to serve as the foundation of the western notion of tragedy. How might grasping the technical aspects of ancient “Attic” tragedy help us understand Shakespeare’s tragedies and subsequent tragic stories and plays and art? This question gets at the core of this course: to understand and experience plays like Oedipus the King, Antigone, and The Bacchae in their ancient contexts—with the guidance of the first literary criticism of the genre in Aristotle’s Poetics.

In the second part of the course we will trace these ancient notions into the Renaissance in the four great tragedies of William Shakespeare—Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, and King Lear. Included in this second half will be the study of scholarly treatment of tragedy, beyond Aristotle in Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, in selections from Northrup Frye’s The Anatomy of Criticism and others.  We will conclude with discussion on the development of tragedy and its place in contemporary discourse and with a reading of the American classic The Great Gatsby.


Throughout this course, students will be required to form their own judgments about the meaning of tragedy. Students will interact with the readings in weekly posts and discussion forums. Online debate about the perennial questions and insights of tragedy will spill over into a final paper in which students bring together themes, scholarly insight, and their own discoveries.

Course Questions

  1. What are the main theories of the origins of ancient tragedy?
  2. The Oresteia: discuss violence, revenge, and reconciliation.
  3. How is Sophocles a reformer of tragedy?
  4. What does Euripides’ The Bacchae bring to tragedy?
  5. What is the role of the divine in ancient tragedy?
  6. What are the main elements of an ancient tragedy according to Aristotle?
  7. In what important ways does Shakespeare depart from Aristotle? But also, what Aristotelian devices does he retain?
  8. What elements in Shakespeare’s tragedies can be traced to the ancient Greek plays we have read? What does Shakespeare retain that is “ancient”; what does he transform to fit his own time?
  9. What according critics are the great insights of tragedy: what does it teach us about the human condition?
  10. What have you learned about tragedy from critics after Aristotle?
  11. What is the role of the tragic hero? What is tragic recognition?
  12. What do we mean today in popular culture by “tragic.” How can this study help us deepen our experience of suffering and guilt? As Christians, what unique perspectives do we have on tragedy and the tragic?

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