Nature and Definition
Tragedy is a very difficult concept to define. In spite of all that modern critics have said on this subject, Aristotle’s definition of tragedy in the Poetics still remains the best. According to him, “Tragedy is a representation of an action, which is serious, complete in itself, and of a certain magnitude ; it is expressed in speech made beautiful in different ways in different parts of the play ; it is acted not narrated ; and by exciting pity and fear gives a healthy relief to such emotions.”Although Shakespeare did not have a conscious conception about tragedy, still from his tragedies and serious plays, we can get together a notion of what constitutes Shakespearean tragedy. For example, one can easily agree with Dowden that Shakespeare conceives tragedy as concerned with the ruin or restoration of the life of a man and of his soul. In many cases, it shows the struggle between good and evil. Similarly, another critic appropriately refers to Shakespearean tragedy as the .apotheosis (exalting to godhood) of the soul of man. By far the most perceptive comments about Shakespearean tragedy are those of Bradley, who almost defines the essence of Shakespearean tragedy as “a tale of suffering and calamity conducting to death.” Although this remark captures what is common to Shakespearean tragedies, it may be stressed that every Shakespearean tragedy is unique in its way, and that there are very few observations which one may make about one of them which are also applicable to the others.
The Tragic Hero
Shakespeare’s tragedies are definitely built around a single personality who towers above the other characters. In plays like Antony and Cleopatra and Macbeth, the central character, for the most part, may be regarded as a double entity. Shakespeare’s tragic-heroes have many qualities in common. One of them is their intense concern for some one thing or aspect of life. Although it is doubtful whether Shakespeare know the Poetics, his heroes (with the possible exception of Macbeth) are all essentially good. Even Macbeth has an intensely poetic nature and is quite honest in viewing his own enormities. Shakespeare’s tragic heroes are of an extremely sensitive and poetic temperament, Hamlet being the most intellectual and Othello, the most poetic of them. They also belong to the highest rung of society, the lowest in rank being Othello who is at least a general whose descent may be traced to kings. In every one of the tragedies the hero is faced either with making a moral choice of grave consequence or initiating some action which has far-reaching consequences.
A Shakespearean tragedy is above all a tragedy of Character, though the environment, chance and coincidence also play their own part. Some tragedies, notably Macbeth, include the supernatural also. Still above all, it is some trait in the character of the tragic hero which is the basis of the tragedy. Although we refer to this trait as the tragic flaw, it is not necessarily always a shortcoming in itself. It is only in the particular situation in which the hero is placed that that particular quality of character becomes vitally damaging to him. For example, Hamlet's habits of carefully weighing the pros and cons of everything before taking action would have proved an asset to Othello, while Othello’s precipitateness of action would have cut short Hamlet’s agonies. Thus, it is character in a particular situation which is the causative force behind Shakespearean tragedies, though in a general way it is quite correct to refer to them as tragedies of character. It may be noted that the suffering of the hero is often quite out of proportion to the fault, or faulty choice, of which he is guilty, but it is an admitted fact that in tragedy crime and punishment are never commensurate.
The Role of Chance and Fate
Chance and fate, the latter sometimes in the form of the supernatural, also play their part in Shakespearean tragedies. However, they are never the starting point of the tragedies and are_ rather admitted into them when the story has already taken a. definite course. The incident of the handkerchief in Othello is an, example of pure chance which is exploited by the villain, but this chance tapes place at a time when the seeds of jealousy have already attained a flourishing growth in Othello’s mind ; it is not the cause of Othello’s jealousy. Similarly, even in Macbeth we get the impression that the three witches only give an outward shape to a ‘vaulting ambition’ that is already there in Macbeth’s mind.
Theme and Action
Shakespearean tragedies have a well-defined major theme which is often capable of why expressed in moral terms. For example, it may be said that the major theme of King Lear is regeneration while that of Othello is one of making a moral choice. The tragic action in Shakespeare somehow disturbs universal harmony and order and after the death of the hero, but there are often indications that the disturbed harmony will be restored. Thus the action involves a two-fold conflict–that between man and the universal forces and that in the mind of man. Of those two, it is the latter which is Shakespeare’s prime concern. Shakespeare takes his stories from other sources, most of which have been identified but he makes significant changes in the story as it comes to him from his source. It is these changes which often tell us how Shakespeare’s mind works. The, stories often include sensational incidents such as murder, madness, duels and the like, bit they arise naturally and are not incorporated into the story for the sake of sensation. Shakespeare does not conform to the classical view of tragedy which insisted on the purity of genres and in the hands of the neo-classicists also on unities of time and place. For Shakespeare the prime unity is that of tragic effect and he disregards all other unities. Shakespearean tragedies are characterised by a strong sense of inevitability.
Although the tragic hero is the centre of the dramatist’s attention, at least one, tether character near him is also brought into the lime-light. In some tragedies, there are several other, characters who have an important function-in the story and whose characterisation, therefore, receives appropriate, attention. Where we have a double plot, the characters in the second plot parallel those in the major plot although on a smaller scale. Shakespearean tragedies have unforgettable feminine characters though the tragic protagonists are all men. Notable among women characters are Cordelia, Ophelia, Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra (who in fact shares the role of the protagonist with
). The tragedies also have minor characters some of whom are delineated wonderfully well although their appearance in the play may be a very brief one. Interestingly, Shakespearean tragedies also have unforgettable ‘comic’ characters among whom one may mention the Porter in Macbeth and the Fool in Ring Lear. They also have well-delineated villains the most interesting of whom is Iago because of a note of mystery’ about his motives. Antony
Even without knowing the Poetics, Shakespeare manages to excite strong pity and terror in his tragedies. However, these are not the only emotions which they excite. In the opinion of Bradley, the characteristic emotion, aroused by Shakespearean tragedies is a profound some of waste. This is derived from the idea of human worth and dignity which the plays express and the missed opportunities or wrong choices which lead to man’s defeat, without affecting his essential dignity. Shakespearean tragedies embody a sense of profound suffering and sadness and some of them end in a number of deaths, the most conspicuous in this respect being Hamlet and King Lear where the stage is literally littered with dead bodies in the last acme, All the same, they do not leave a depressing effect on the mind. There is something towards the close which restores our faith in man’s greatness and Clod’s wise providence. The atmosphere, in fact, is one of calm serenity very well expressed by
in the closing lines of Samson Agonistes. We are given the impression that the suffering has not gone waste. It has either enabled the protagonist, other characters, or the audience to attain new insight, or has worked towards a better future. Many Shakespearean tragedies characteristically ‘end on a note of hope. Milton
The Mature Tragedies
According to Traversi, the conceptions elaborated in Shakespeare’s mature tragedies are complex ; they are inter-relations of themes even further extended, but there is no longer any sense of a gap between purpose and achievement. The predominating tragic conflicts correspond to states of feeling more firmly defined, more clearly conceived in terms of a possible resolution. In Othello the heart of the tragic experience is revealed in its full intensity. The emotional unity s reflected in clearer conception of character and in a more truly dramatic presentation of conflict. The subject of all these great plays can be described, in general terms, as the working out to its inevitable_ conclusion of the disruptive effect of the entry of passion into, normal human experience. By this entry the balance, essential to right living, between the passionate and rational elements in the personality is overthrown, and what should have been orderly, vital, and purposeful is plunged into disorder, death, and anarchy.
Passion Verses Ream
The predominant tragic conflict in the mind of the tragic heroes in the mature tragedies is generally between passion and reason as in .the plays which preceded, them. Now, however, this conflict is no longer shown exclusively in the form of an internal cleavage, and becomes something more truly dramatic, a clash between contrasted and opposed personalities and order. In other words, the opposition between reason and passion, first isolated––through Othello and Iago––in a dramatic conflict of personalities and then projected in Macbeth and Lear, beyond the individual hero to the state and universe which surround him; is merged increasingly into another, of greater significance and profundity, between highly personal conceptions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’.
Shakespeare’s Personal Views
Many books have been written on subjects such as ‘Shakespeare’s Religion’, but in the plays themselves there is very little which can be definitely looked upon as coming from Shakespeare himself. On the whole, Shakespeare is the most impersonal writer, and this probably was responsible to some extent for making him the great dramatist that he is. It is only in a rough and ready way that we can surmise some of Shakespeare’s personal likes and dislikes. For example, Shakespeare uses the image of the fawning dog so often and charges it with so much contempt that it may be assumed that this was one of his intense abhorrences. Similarly, we may say that Shakespeare regarded ingratitude as one of the worst failings is character. There is little doubt that, whatever his brand of Christianity. Shakespeare was deeply religious and compassionate. Although there are occasional outbursts of cynicism––which must be viewed in the contest of the character––the tendency of the plays on the whole is towards gong humanism. In this context, one pray quote the very W observation of one of Shakespeare’s modem biographers. Ivor Brown remarks with justice
In the case, of an author who left personal papers and whose writings are mainly in dramatic form ... it is not easy to be precise about his views and personal traits. Yet many have believed that Shakespeare’s image is fully mirrored in his work. Shaw has claimed that we knew more of him than of Dickens or Thackeray. No writer can wholly disguise himself. Apart from definite expression of opinion, his language and his metaphors betray big predilections and aversions. It is not impertinent, it is not vain, to try to b, the figure behind the glorious hand.
Thus impersonality also is relative, for while there are no explicit ‘autobiographical’ touches in Shakespeare, even he could not have kept his own views, likes and dislikes, entirely out of his writings.