Monday, December 27, 2010

Shakespearean Tragedy

Shakespeare wrote a number of tragedies, the greatest among which are Macbeth, Othello, King Lear, and Hamlet. Can the tragic experience as conveyed by Shakespeare in his tragedies be conceptualized into an intellectually coherent system? To generalize, said Blake, was to be a fool. Moreover, Shakespeare himself, as A. C. Bradley observes, had only "a sense for tragedy", not a "philosophy" of it. Nevertheless, we certainly can arrive at a few factors which are shared, more or less, by all the great tragedies of Shakespeare. We can, as Bradley says, be able "to descend on certain well-built principles which underlie almost every Shakespearean tragedy." Let us examine what these common factors are.

The Story of One Man:
A Shakespearean tragedy is invariably built around one pivotal figure-the hero, who stands as a colossus beside the many other characters of the play. It must be remembered that a Shakespearean tragedy does bring before us a very large number of dramatis personae. Their number is indeed much larger than that of the characters in an ancient Greek tragedy, excluding, of course, the chorus: however the stage-lights always remain focussed on the hero. Other characters also experience ups and downs of fortune like the hero, but their careers remain in the background. It is only in the love tragedies, Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra, that some importance is given to the heroine also : her name is also a part of the title of the tragedy. Elsewhere she is just one of the numerous "minor" characters. In none of his tragedies does Shakespeare pre-eminently concern himself with more than two persons. Forces of the overruling fates, gods, or whatever extra-terrestrial powers that be. Shakespearean tragedy is much less fatalistic in conception. It does not echo the idea expressed in the following well-known lines:
As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods:
They kill us for their sport.
Shakespearean tragic hero is good, but he is not perfect. Nor is he a superman like a Marlovian hero. Nor still is he a villain. His character is a mixed fabric, but with strains of good much more numerous than those of evil. There is in him a certain flaw of character (which Aristotle termed hamartid) which provides the ground for the calamity which eventually overwhelms him. All his goodness of character is of no avail. His action which issues from his slightly flawed character is what results in suffering and death. But for this flaw of character the tragedy would have been averted. Bradley observes: "Lear's tragedy is the tragedy of dotage and short­sightedness, Othello's that of credulity, Hamlet's that of indecision, Macbeth's that of ambition, Antony's that of neglect of duty and so on." If Hamlet were there in place of Macbeth, and vice versa, both of them could have averted the catastrophe. In short, the dictum "character is destiny" is fairly true of Shakespearean tragedy.
Contributing Factors:
But apart from the fatal flaw some other factors beyond the ken and power of the tragic hero are also responsible for the catastrophe. They are mainly two:--
(i)         the supernatural; and
(ii)        chance happenings.
These extraneous factors do exert some influence on the hero's destiny, even though basically it is his own character which is to blame. The supernatural beings, such as the ghost in Hamlet and the three witches in Macbeth, prompt the hero in each case to do what will be harmful for'him. To quote Bradley, the supernatural "though it does not contribute to the action directly, yet has an intensifying effect on the thoughts and emotions of the hero." In the words of Moulton, "it has no power except to accentuate what already exists." The witches, for instance, do not .compel Macbeth to murder Duncan in order to seize the throne. They only exploit that ambition which is already a part of his character. They only precipitate the doom by drawing out that flawed part of the hero's personality which holds within it the seed of tragedy. In the ancient Greek tragedy we meet with gods and goddesses who actively participate in human affairs and turn the tide against one man or another. In other words, the downfall of the hero depends completely, or in a major part, on the malignance of the supernatural forces. But in Shakespeare the supernatural forces stand aloof from the arena of human activity. They are spectators, though they may at times precipitate the doom which mainly arises from the action of the hero issuing directly from his personal character.
The same is true of the numerous chance happenings. In Romeo and Juliet it is by chance that the hero does not get the Friar's message about the potion, and the heroine does not awake from her long sleep a little earlier. In King Lear it was by chance that Edgar could not reach the prison earlier than the hanging of Cordelia. It was by sheer accident in Othello that Desdemona dropped her handkerchief at a crucial moment. In Hamlet it was a chance that Hamlet's ship was attacked by the pirates so that he was back in Denmark. So the element of chance is there in Shakespearean tragedy, but it is not so strong as to overshadow the responsibility of the hero in bringing about his own doom. Shakespeare uses it quite judiciously. "Neither does he employ it," to quote Bradley "too frequently to be credible, not too rarely to be altogether unnatural."
The Conflict in Shakespearean Tragedy:
The conflict in Shakespearean tragedy is the essence of the whole drama. It may be justly said : "No conflict, no drama," This conflict is of two kinds, both of which generally go on simultaneously.. They are:
(i)         the external conflict, in which the hero and his party are pitted against their antagonists;
(ii)        the internal conflict which goes on in the mind and soul of the hero. This conflict is between attitudes, loyalties, conceptions or passions. Antony's mind is torn between the opposite-pulls of love and duty; Macbeth's between those of ambition and duty; and so on.
The hero ultimately gives way under the strain of these conflicts. He suffers both externally and internally. The progress of Shakespeare as a tragedy writer is characterised by his gradual shifting of the site of the tragic conflict from without to within. In Romeo and Juliet and Richard II the conflict is almost entirely external. In Macbeth, Hamlet, and Lear it is both external and internal. In Othello it is predominantly internal. In Coriolanus it is almost completely internal. It is in his internalization of the tragic conflict that Shakespeare registered a big advance over his contemporaries and immediate predecessors
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings.
Henry V's words before Harfieur are of the same nature;
And you good Yeomen,
Whose limbs were made in
England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture : let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not:
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
Such passages as these would have certainly increased the patriotic fervour of the audience. These history plays were, thus, not only a product of the patriotic spirit; they were also calculated to infuse patriotic spirit into others. They made a special plea for national unity by showing that foreign aggression was always helped whenever there was internal dissension in the country.
Now those her princes are come home again,
Come the three corners of the world in arms,
'And we shall shock them. Naught shall make us rue, If
England to itself do rest but true.
                                                                        (from King John)
A "Mirror for Kings":
If Shakespeare is moved by patriotic impulses it does not mean that he represents each and every English king as a hero of impeccable character. In fact, as Dowden suggests, Shakespeare's kings can be divided into two classes. King John, Richard II, and Henry VI embody the weakness of English Kings, whereas Henry IV, Henry V and Richard II are studies of kingly strength. Among themselves these weak and strong kings constitute practical studies of king and kingship. Dowden sums up the point well: "John is the royal criminal, weak in his criminality. Henry VI is the royal saint, weak in his saintliness. The feebleness of Richard II cannot be characterised in a word, he is a graceful sentimental monarch. Richard III, in the other group, is a royal criminal strong in his crime. Henry IV, the usurping Bolingbroke, is strong by a fine craft in dealing with events, by resolution and policy, by equal caution and daring. The strength of Henry V is that of plain heroic magnitude thoroughly sound and substantial, founded upon the eternal verities. Here, then we may recognize the one dominant subject of the histories, viz. how a man may fail and how a man may succeed yi attaining a practical mastery of the -world. "Shakespeare's history plays are thus, to borrow the words of Schlegel, a "Mirror for Kings"'. This "Mirror' wii! enable anv English kins to discover his real identity and to correct himself in those respects in which he finds himself lacking in comparison with the past English kings who figure in these plays. Though in an evidently different manner, Shakespeare instructs the English king as Machiavelli had done in his work The Prince. And what can be wiser and more incontrovertible than lesson of history?
Their Lesson:
Shakespeare's history plays are in a class apart from his tragedies and comedies, though sometimes there appears to be a link between them. In Shakespeare's own times tragedies and history plays were often confused together, but it is clear that the latter, unlike the former, do not fathom the final problems of life and death and the nature of evil. Meredith said that life is a comedy for those who think and a tragedy for those who feel. But Shakespeare's history plays deal neither with much thought, nor with feelings; their study is action or the absence of it, and the consequences which flow therefrom. Dowden observes in this connexion: "The characters in the historical plays are conceived chiefly with reference to action. The world represented in these plays is not so much the world of feeling or thoughts, as the limited world of the practicable...The histories, like the tragedies, are for the reader a school of discipline; but the issues with which they deal are not the infinite issues of life and the feeling which they leave us is that of a wholesome, mundane pity and terror, or a sane and strong mundane satisfaction. " The lessons of Richard II can easily be perceived to be : "Whatsoever a man soweth that shall he also reap. " Sometimes such a lesson as "The sins of fathers shall be visited upon the children to the third and fourth generations" is obvious. Mainly however, the histories emphasise the evil consequences of crime, folly, error, and inaction on the part of the king which plunge the country into ruin. Shakespeare's obvious hero among the English kings is Henry V who is distinguished alike by his valour as by his moral equipoise. His is the philosophy of action-righteous and meaningful action-which leads to prosperity for himself and for his nation.
Essays on Kingly Prerogatives:
Shakespeare's history plays are, broadly speaking, so many essays on kingly prerogatives. The king is vested with near divine privileges, but he is also saddled with an onerous responsibility which he is called upon to perform for indicating himself. All along, from King John to Henry VIII, we find kingship fraught with temptations, dangers, and insecurity (the, insecurity of life also). Sometimes this kingship is euologised to the extent reminiscent of the doctrine of the Divine Rights of Kings which envisaged a king to be the deputy of God on earth.

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