Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes

Tragedy Modernizes

(see also periods of tragedy)

A modern tragedy that uses masks like Classical Tragedy

How tragedy modernizes after 5th century BC Greece:

Other narrative genres appear more prominently: esp. romance but also dark comedy (also dark humor or the grotesque).

Examples: In Mourning Becomes Electra: Homecoming, characterization of Adam Brant as "romantic" including his "dream" of owning his own ship and escaping to a Pacific Island comparable to the Garden of Eden. 

In Hamlet, the darkly comic grave-digger's scene is more extended and developed than any comedy that appears in classical Greek tragedy, where comic moments are brief if they happen at all.

Democratization of characters. High characters become lower. Low characters become higher. Heroic characters become less noble or aristocratic, more everyday and realistic. Heroes may be underdogs rather than rulers, children rather than parents, princes or princesses rather than kings or queens

Historic examples: Hamlet is prince rather than king of Denmark. Modern audiences identify more with the character Antigone as princess than with King Oedipus or King Creon.

Twentieth-century tragic heroes include middle-class salesmen (Death of a Salesman), farmers (Desire Under the Elms), or industrialists (All My Sons). Adam Brant in Mourning Becomes Electra: Homecoming is the son of a servant girl who works his way up to become a ship's captain.


Characters' motivations or drives become internal & psychological instead of external forces like divine curses or prophecies (e.g. Freud's Oedipal Conflict rather than the will of the gods).

Fate or destiny may still appear in terms of family predispositions, but these are more naturalistic than divine or fate-driven.

God(s) or Divinity may appear less polytheistic, more monotheistic.


Chorus diminishes. Choral functions of background information and commentary may be reassigned from "community of elders" to marginal groups or individuals; sometimes a narrator or voice-over. (Settings may also potentially convey background information.)


Masks disappear except in experimental theater (e.g. O'Neill's The Great God Brown, see above) or as metaphors for public selves v. interior selves.


More spectacle. Examples:

sword-fights in Hamlet,

visible murder of Ezra Manning in Mourning Becomes Electra: Homecoming (in contrast to off-stage murder of Agamemnon in Oresteia: Agamemnon;

dance scene in Desire Under the Elms

but spectacle remains carefully managed in all tragedy—too much spectacle distracts from complexity of plot and depth of characterization.


As with all tragedy, any conclusions are open-ended and descriptive rather than prescriptive. 

Earlier models of tragedy may prefigure later changes, and later models may retain traditional conventions.