Difference Between Classical and Modern Tragedy

Main Difference – Classical vs Modern Tragedy

A tragedy can be defined simply as a play that has a sad and depressing ending. Although both classical and modern tragedies have a tragic ending, there are several differences between them. The main difference between classical and modern tragedy is that classical tragedies have a unified plot with one royal or noble protagonist whereas modern tragedies feature ordinary people with realistic problems. This article explores,

     1. What is a Classical Tragedy? 
         – Definition, Features, Examples, Elements

     2. What is a Modern Tragedy?
         – Definition, Features, Examples, Elements

     3. What is the difference between Classical and Modern Tragedy?Difference Between Classical and Modern Tragedy - Comparison Summary

What is a Classical Tragedy

Tragedy is a popular form of drama that originated from Greek literary tradition. Aristotle defines tragedy as a unified work that covers one time span, story, setting, and a main protagonist. The plot of the drama consists of one great, complete action.

The protagonist of classical tragedies is typically from a royal or noble family. Antigone, Oedipus, and Agamemnon are some examples of protagonists in classical tragedies. These brave and noble heroes often face a reversal of fortune. This reversal is typically due to a tragic flaw in the character and the influence of a divine power. Fate also plays a major role in classical tragedies.

Some examples of classical tragedies include Oedipus Rex, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Medea, Antigone and Prometheus Bound.

Given below are some elements of a classical tragedy.

Hamartia – A mistake or a fault that is committed in ignorance; this is usually a mistake made by a morally good person

Hubris – the false pride that leads to ruin; this is the opposite of rectitude

Peripeteia – the reversal fortune

Catharsis – feeling of emotional release felt at the end of the tragedy

Main Difference - Classical vs Modern Tragedy

What is a Modern Tragedy

Modern drama refers to tragedies that were written and performed from the twentieth century. Some examples of modern tragedies include Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”, “A View from the Bridge”, “The Misfits” and David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross are some examples of modern tragedies.

Unlike classical tragedies, modern tragedies are typically centered around ordinary people and their problems. Thus, they are more realistic than classical tragedies. The conflict in modern tragedies are caused by flaws in the characters, society or the law; fate and divine power do not play a major role in modern tragedies. Modern tragedies may also have multiple plots and more than one central character. The action in the story may also span several weeks, months or years – the differences in time is managed by elements such as flashbacks, pauses, flash-forwards, and narrations. Modern playwrights also use elements such as irony and sarcasm to highlight the flaws in characters.

Difference Between Classical and Modern Tragedy

Set of Death of a Salesman

Difference Between Classical and Modern Tragedy


Classical Tragedy: Classical tragedies typically have one main character.

Modern Tragedy: Modern tragedies may have more than one central character.


Classical Tragedy: Protagonist is typically from a wealthy, noble or royal family.

Modern Tragedy: Protagonist usually has a common, middle-class background.

Nature of the Protagonist

Classical Tragedy: The protagonist is usually a noble and heroic character, but has a tragic flaw.

Modern Tragedy: The protagonist may be a white, black or gray character.


Classical Tragedy: Classical tragedies have one unified plot.

Modern Tragedy: Modern tragedies may have multiple plots.


Classical Tragedy: Classical tragedies have one time span.

Modern Tragedy: Modern tragedies have more realistic time spans; there are breaks and flashbacks.


Classical Tragedy: The story is about nobility or royalty, their ambitions, attempts to unify or save a kingdom, etc.

Modern Tragedy: The story is about ordinary people and their problems, ambitions and aspirations; thus, the stories are more realistic.


Classical Tragedy: Classical tragedies typically contain elements such as hubris, hamartia, and catharsis.

Modern Tragedy: Modern tragedies use elements like irony and sarcasm.

Fate and Divine power

Classical Tragedy: Fate and divine power are important elements in classical tragedies.

Modern Tragedy: Fate and divine power rarely play a role in modern tragedies; they are more concerned with realistic, common problems.

Image Courtesy:

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

“Death of Salesman Set” By Chelsea Tenenbaum – Own work  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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