Any student of drama and literature will spend time with Greek and Shakespearean theater. The two types of drama form the foundation of Western theater and continue to influence drama today. The styles were distinct with differences in approach, style, content and staging. They played to different audiences, and the plays reflect the periods and concerns of those who came to see the performances.
Unity versus Variety
Greek drama focused on a single theme and plot. The story was one that its audience would recognize and treated upon that single story without any subplots. Shakespeare, on the other hand, wove a wealth of plot threads through his plays with multiple story lines, themes and goals occurring in each play. Each play had secondary story lines that sometimes were directly related to the main plot and other times simply fleshed out the world of the play.
In Greek drama, the characters had to be considered "great" in order to be the subject of a play. They were military generals, royalty or children of gods. Also, Greek drama tended to have fewer characters with a chorus filling in all of the roles surrounding the three or four main characters. In Shakespeare's plays, characters came from all walks of life. He even used fairy-type creatures and ghosts in several of his works. There was a larger company, and most plays have roles for at least a dozen characters, some many more.
Greek drama was almost always instructive and dealt with great matters. The plays were political or religious. Most of the subject matter came from histories or myths that the audience already knew, removing the need for much exposition. The plays explored the meaning behind these great events and focused on the story's moral and ethics. Shakespeare, on the other hand, borrowed widely from as many sources as he could find. His subject matter included the stories of private individuals and lovers as well as kings and nobles. He produced histories, but he also produced pastoral plays, and the subject could be as personal as a love affair or the paying of a bad debt. Shakespeare mixed comedy and tragedy within a single play, and some of his works defy an easy fit into one genre or another.
Greek theater was performed at religious festivals in large outdoor amphitheaters. The stages were large and the audiences even larger. Greek drama made frequent use of masks, in part to amplify the voices of the actors. Shakespearean plays took place on smaller stages. They were performed in courtyards and eventually in more permanent structures such as the Globe. They also were performed in parlors and traveled during parts of the year. There was very little use of masks, though they did use a great number of costumes and wigs.