Exploring and Comparing Greek and Shakesperean Dramatic Tragedies

9 teachers like this lesson
Print Lesson


SWBAT use knowledge of mythology to understand literary allusions by comparing Greek and Modern tragedy and making a prediction.

Big Idea

Time to "zoom out" and look at Romeo and Juliet as compared to Greek tragedies.

Lesson Introduction

5 minutes

Zooming Out

After re-introducing my class to Romeo and Juliet, I decided to take a short break from closely reading and analyzing the play to zooming out and looking at this play as a whole as compared to traditional Greek tragedies.  I think this is a good time to "zoom out" because I do not want to interrupt the literary momentum that is created as the plot unfolds. 

By comparing Greek and Shakespearean tragedy, I am asking students to analyze how complex characters develop over the course of the play RL.9-10.3 as well as how Shakespeare draws on other source material and transforms his play RL.9-10.9.


10 minutes


To check for prior knowledge, I write the word TRAGEDY on the white board and then ask my students to work with an academic partner to define the word tragedy and discuss one element of a story, film, or personal experience that is apparent in order to be a tragedy SL.9-10.1 and L.9-10.6.  I then facilitate a group share so that all students have each other’s ideas in their journals. 

Building Knowledge

25 minutes

I begin by projecting the power point I began during a previous lesson, Who is the Bard? And, why should we read his play, Romeo and Juliet? and stopped at slide #23.  I discuss the remaining 10 slides, #24 - 34 by first teaching and reviewing the dramatic terms: Tragedy, Monologue, Soliloguy, and Prologue (L.9-10.6).  I then tell my students that we are going to focus on the term tragedy.

I next teach the etymology of the word tragedy. I review what tragedy is in drama as in Romeo and Juliet. Next I choose a short story from Greek mythology as an example of a tragedy.  

I explain that:

 1. In Greek drama, the main character is often a significant person and the cause of the      tragedy and

2.  In modern drama, however, the main character may be an ordinary person, and the cause of the tragedy can be some evil in society itself. 

An example that I use is Antigone, by Sophocles.  I first let them know that they will be reading this example of a Greek tragedy in eleventh grade and that is is a classic example of how the main character is the cause of the tragedy.  I explain that it is a tragedy because it tells the story of a Princess (Antigone), who gives her life for her family, gods, her personal beliefs, and values.  

Greek Tragedy

I then discuss the figurative usage of the term "Greek tragedy."  I explain when used it implies that the tragic or sad outcome is just an inevitable result of a main character's personal flaws (like Romeo).  Next I explain that the character is often seen as "doomed" form the start by decisions he or she makes.  

Next I explain that Shakespeare's tragedies are different from a traditional Greek tragedy in that Shakespeare's protagonists (Romeo and Juliet) are not as rigidly defined as Greek heroes (Antigone), and Shakespeare also includes comic elements into his plays.  At this point I stop and ask students to reflect on what I explained was the differences between Greek and Shakespearean tragedy.  After a few minutes I check for understanding by asking a student to share their thoughts.

I then pass out a short dialogue between Antigone and Kreon and introduce it by saying: The basic story is that two brothers were supposed to rule alternately a mythical kingdom called Thebes. Trying to rule together didn’t work and one brother, Eteokles did not want to give up rule to Polyneices. They fought and both died. Their uncle, Kreon, said Eteoles will be put in a grave and Polynecies will not.  Their sister, Antigone, is the only one in Thebes who violates Kreon’s decision. Knwoing she will be put to death for her decision, she buries her brother. This is the dialogue between Antigone and Kreon. 

I ask students to read the dialogue and citing evidence from the text, RL.9-10.1, determine why is this a Greek tragedy and not a Shakespearean tragedy? I facilitate a short sharing of answers SL.9-10.1.

As an example of modern dramatic tragedy I next use Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, which they'll be reading before the end of the school year.  I explain that tragedies traditionally center on main characters who are leader types and who really mess up. But not the main character George, the protagonist in Of Mice and Men. The tragedy occurs in his friendship with a mentally handicapped man, Lennie, who takes away the only dream George had and this leads to a tragic ending.

Student Learning Activity

25 minutes

To make the lesson more relevant, I ask the question, "Why do you think people like reading books or watching films that have tragic endings?"  After a short discussion I share that when author's end their story in tragedy, they are possibly trying to depict how sometimes human nature is destined to sail on the ship of disaster, like the Titanic, into an iceberg.  I then ask if students' think tragic endings are more realistic?  Do they believe that life is not always a happy-ending Disney movie? 

Analysis and synthesis are both high order skills which create meaning and a deeper understanding of the topic being discussed.  To increase their higher order skills I then asked if they think Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet to possibly show that some people are fated for tragedy?  And if so why? To facilitate our communication I ask students to use Accountable Talk Stems stems to guide the discussion SL.9-10.1.

During the discussion I record their ideas on the board, and explore them further.


I then ask my students to take out their journals and to write an analysis in their Journals of how Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy.  I explain that I know some of the students know what happens at the end of the play from having read it previously or having seen a film version, but that I want the students to explain why this play becomes a Shakespearean tragedy versus a Greek tragedy (W.9-10.2).


Wrap Up

10 minutes

Report Out

Students are asked to read their analysis of how Romeo and Juliet will be a tragedy. I change things up to create some energy for the wrap up activity by asking the boys to first read their analysis followed by the girls SL.9-10.1.  I record their responses on the board.