Difference Between Aristotle and Shakespearean Tragedy

Main Difference – Aristotle vs Shakespearean Tragedy

Aristotelian tragedy and Shakespearean tragedy are two of the most important forms of tragedies when we study the evolution of tragedies. Although Shakespearean tragedies have been influenced by Aristotle’s concepts of tragedy, some differences can be noted between the two. The main difference between Aristotle and Shakespearean tragedy is the unity of plot; Aristotelian tragedy consists of a single central plot whereas Shakespearean tragedy consists of several interwoven subplots.

This article explores,

1. What is an Aristotle Tragedy – Features, Characteristics and Elements

2. What is a Shakespearean Tragedy – Features, Characteristics and Elements

3. Difference Between Aristotle and Shakespearean Tragedy – Comparison of Features, Characteristics and Elements

Difference Between Aristotle and Shakespearean Tragedy - Aristotle vs Shakespearean Tragedy Comparison Summary

What is an Aristotle Tragedy

Aristotle’s Poetics is the earliest-surviving work of dramatic theory, and this work is a good source to examine Aristotle’s views on tragedy. According to Aristotle, a tragedy is characterized by seriousness. It represents or imitates the reality. Thus, it is an imitation of action and life, of happiness and misery.

Aristotle describes six main elements of a tragedy:  plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle (scenic effect), and song composition. The plot was considered to be the most important out of these elements.

The plot must be a complete whole while containing a definite beginning, middle, and end. The plot also requires a single central theme where all elements are logically connected.

The plot of a tragedy usually revolves around a renowned and prosperous hero who faces a reversal fortune, particularly due to his own tragic flaw. The plot consists of two main elements: reversal, and recognition. Reversal occurs when a situation seems to be developing in one direction and then suddenly reverses in another direction. Oedipus’ investigation of the murder of Laius is an example of this element. Recognition is the point where the protagonist learns the truth of the situation or comes to a realization about himself or another character.

According to Aristotle, the aim of tragedy is to create catharsis – creating feelings of pity and fear in the spectators so as to  purge them of these emotions ensuring that they leave the theater feeling cleansed and uplifted. There is a sense of completeness in Aristotelian tragedies.

Main Difference - Aristotle vs Shakespearean Tragedy

Oedipus is an example of Aristotelian tragedy.

What is a Shakespearean Tragedy

Shakespearean tragedies were also influenced by Greek tragedies. Some similarities can be noted between both Aristotle and Shakespearean tragedy.  Shakespearean tragedies also have a renowned or prosperous hero who experiences a reversal of fortune due to a tragic flaw. Macbeth, King Lear, Hamlet, Othello, Antony and Cleopatra are some of Shakespeare’s famous tragedies.  

However, some differences can also be noted between Aristotle and Shakespearean tragedies. Shakespearean tragedies do not follow the unity of plot; Shakespeare interweaved many subplots into the play to make the plot more complicated and realistic. The protagonists in Shakespearean tragedies usually face a tragic death, not just a reversal of fortune. Moreover, these protagonists do not gain self- knowledge or recognize their flow like protagonists in Aristotelian tragedies.

The inclusion of comic scenes is another difference between Aristotle and Shakespearean tragedies. Aristotelian tragedies usually had a chorus which narrated the scenes that take place offstage and they also provided relief to the spectators. In Shakespearean tragedies, the chorus is replaced by comic scenes such as the porter’s scene in Macbeth. 

Difference Between Aristotle and Shakespearean Tragedy

King Lear is an example of Shakespearean tragedy.

Difference Between Aristotle and Shakespearean Tragedy


Aristotelian Tragedy: Aristotelian tragedy has a single central plot.

Shakespearean Tragedy: Shakespearean tragedy has several subplots.


Aristotelian Tragedy: The protagonist faced death or reversal of fortune.

Shakespearean Tragedy: Protagonists often face a tragic death.


Aristotelian Tragedy: Aristotelian tragedy had a chorus.

Shakespearean Tragedy: Shakespearean tragedy has replaced the chorus with a comic scene.


Aristotelian Tragedy: The protagonist learns the truth of the situation or comes to a realization about himself.

Shakespearean Tragedy: The protagonist does not always gain a self-knowledge.


Image Courtesy:

“Bénigne Gagneraux, The Blind Oedipus Commending his Children to the Gods” By Bénigne Gagneraux – Nationalmuseum, Stockholm (Public Domain) via

“Cordelia-in-the-Court-of-King-Lear-1873-Sir-John-Gilbert” By John Gilbert – Bridgeman Art library (painting in Towneley Hall Art Gallery and Museum) (Public Domain) via

About the Author: Hasa

Hasa has a BA degree in English, French and Translation studies. She is currently reading for a Masters degree in English. Her areas of interests include literature, language, linguistics and also food.

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