Internet Shakespeare Editions


Greek terms used in tragedy

Our English vocabulary is indebted to the Greek language for a wide variety of terms used in describing literature, many originating in the drama. Even so basic a concept as irony is derived from a character in the drama, a dissembler called the "eiron".

Another term whose usage has changed over time is melodrama--"song-drama"--which originally meant a musical play; since the presence of music tends to require that character and action become simplified (as in opera or the musical), melodrama has come to mean drama that relies on spectacular action by type characters. Melodrama relates to tragedy as farce relates to comedy.

Here is a selection of other Greek terms (click on your choice):


  1. Anagnorisis

    Often the protagonists in tragedy undergo a process of recognition, in which they see their own nature, and destiny, more clearly than before.

    Hamlet has a moment just before the final duel when he realizes that "There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow . . . The readiness [for death] is all" (5.2.231,34).

  2. Bathos and pathos

    They sound related, but their effect is almost opposite.

    Bathos--"depth"--is often unintended by the author. Straining for an elevated or heightened effect, the writer overshoots the mark and produces an effect that is perceived as ridiculous.

    Pathos--"pity"--a term often used because the English word tends to imply mere tear- jerking for effect.

  3. Catharsis

    Exactly what Aristotle meant by "purgation" or "catharsis" has been the subject of much discussion, but in essence he was concerned to explain the release of powerful, healing emotions that make tragedy so moving.

  4. The chorus

    In Greek tragedy the chorus was a group of actors, usually concerned citizens, who were the main commentators on the characters and events; they expressed traditional moral, religious, and social attitudes, and were a kind of voice for the audience on stage. Some individual characters in Shakespeare can be seen as fulfilling the role of the chorus-- Horatio, in Hamlet is one, Kent, in Lear, perhaps another (though Kent does become involved directly in the action).

  5. Empathy and sympathy

    Empathy--"feeling-into"--is a projection of oneself into another character; an identification in which one seems to participate in the actions and feelings of the other.

    Sympathy--"feeling-with"--is a little more detached, a fellow-feeling for the other; as when two strings are tuned to the same note, one will vibrate in sympathy if the other is sounded. The word has become somewhat reduced in meaning in recent years to something more like mere pity.

  6. Hamartia

    The protagonist most often contributes to his or her own downfall by a mismatch betwen character and circumstances, or hamartia. Interestingly enough, the translation of hamartia as "flaw" may in fact itself be flawed. There is some evidence that suggests that it rather means any quality in excess--perhaps even a virtue--that brings about the fall of the protagonist.

    Hamlet, with his university education, may be thinking of hamartia when he muses:

    . . . oft it chances in particular men
    That for some vicious mole of nature in them,
    As in their birth, wherein they are not guilty,
    (Since nature cannot choose his origin)
    By the o'ergrowth of some complexion,
    Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason,
    . . . Their virtues else, be they as pure as grace,
    As infinite as man may undergo,
    Shall in the general censure [popular opinion] take corruption
    From that particular fault.
    (Hamlet, 1. 4. 23-36)

    The term "complexion" refers to quality of personality, as in the mixture of humours.

  7. Hubris

    Frequently an Oedipus, an Antigone, a Macbeth, a Lear, or a Cleopatra is brought to doom by excessive pride--hubris--a belief that he or she is somehow above the fates, or in control of destiny.

  8. Nuntius

    The nuntius, or messenger, was an actor who narrated action that occurred offstage--a dramatic convention made necessary by the requirements of the "unities" of time and place, and the tradition that no violent action took place on the stage itself.

    The illustration here is a mosaic of the Roman god Mercury, messenger of the gods.