It's a tragedy, sure, but Shakespearean or Greek?

Shakespeare, Spitzer, Aeschylus

Shakespeare, Spitzer, Aeschylus

Sure, the story of Eliot Spitzer spitzering himself is tragic, but no self-respecting journalist would just leave it at that. Simple "tragedy" is never enough... it has to be some kind of tragedy. And, of course, the two go-to categories for tragedy are Shakespearean and Greek.

Both have gotten a fair share of use this week. Maureen Dowd can always be counted on for a Shakespeare reference, but she wasn't alone. As for the Greek treatment, USA Today has helpfully compiled examples.

OK, but which is it? If you're going to take the time to sound like a cultural elite, you might as well be right. So we checked with an expert.

Martha Rozett is a professor of English at U Albany. She specializes in Shakespeare and Renaissance literature. She was nice enough to take up our question:

Well, one of the key elements in Greek tragedy and epic is the concept of hubris, or excessive pride and arrogance, including defiance of fate or the gods, leading to the character's downfall. When English tragedy was reinvented in the early modern period, it was sometimes described in terms of the fall of a great man, sometimes a king or world leader, from a high position, partly as a consequence of his own actions. When I teach Shakespeare I try to get students to stop thinking of tragic "flaws" and think instead of tragic errors or mistakes. Spitzer made a mistake, alright, but was it tragic? Perhaps it was for his wife and followers, who might evoke our sympathy, but I don't think anyone is sympathizing with him in the way we do with King Lear or Othello or Richard II or Brutus or Antony. For that reason, the Shakespeare connection is a little harder to make (though with Patrick Stewart playing Macbeth to much acclaim in NYC right now, I wouldn't be surprised if someone made the analogy).

So, it's Greek. Now you know.

(Thanks, Martha!)

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