Sunday, December 19, 2010

Shakespearean Tragedy

Nature and Definition: Tragedy is a very difficult concept to define. Despite what modern critics have labored on the subject, Aristotle’s definition of tragedy in his Poetics, still remains the best and comprehensive with some minor difference in the 21st century. 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.
However, A.C. Bradley most perceptively comments the Shakespearean Tragedy: A tale of suffering and calamity conducing to death. Although this remark captures what is common to Shakespearean Tragedies. It must be noted that ever Shakespearean Tragedy in unique in its way. There are very few observations which one may make about one of them which are applicable to others.
The Tragic Hero: Shakespeare’s tragedies are built of a single man who towers above the other characters. So Shakespeare’s major tragedies such as Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth are all tragedies of character. 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 the qualities are their intense concern for some one, some thing or some aspect of life. In the case of Othello, we find the character to be deeply concerned about Desdemona. It is doubtful whether Shakespeare knew Poetics; all his heroes except the possible exception of Macbeth are good. His tragic heroes are of an extremely sensitive and poetic nature. Hamlet being the most intellectual and Othello being the most poetic and romantic of them. They also belong to the higher order of society. The lowest in rank is Othello who is at least general whose progeny may be traced to kings. Still he is no common man.  In every one of Shakespeare’s tragedies, the hero is either faced with making a moral choice of grave consequences or initiating some action which has far-reaching consequences.
The Tragic Flaw: Shakespeare’s tragedy is above all a tragedy of character, though environment, coincidences and chance play their parts. However, it is some flaw in the tragic hero which causes his tragedy. The example being Othello whose tragic flaw is jealousy. The tragic flaw is not always a shortcoming in itself. It is only in the particular situation in which the hero is placed that the particular quality of the hero becomes damaging to him. For example, Hamlet’s habit of carefully weighing the pros and cons of every thing before taking action would have proved an asset to Othello, while precipitateness of action would have cut-short Hamlet’s agonies.
The Role of Chance and Fate: Chance and fate, the latter sometimes in the form of supernatural, also play their part in Shakespearean tragedies. However, they are never the starting point of tragedies, but are led into when the story has taken a definite course. The incident of handkerchief in Othello is an example of pure chance which is exploited by the villain, but this chance crops up when the seeds of jealousy in Othello’s mind have become strong trees
Theme and Action: Shakespearean tragedies have well-defined themes which are also capable of being expressed in moral terms. For example, the theme of King Lear is regeneration while that of Othello is one of making a choice. His stories involve themes such as murder, madness, duels etc. Shakespeare doesn’t conform to the classical view of tragedy which insisted on the purity of genres and the unities of time and space. For Shakespeare, the prime unity is the tragic effect created by a strong sense of inevitability.
Characterization:  Shakespearean tragic hero is the only and the one in the play; however, there is at least one character near him which is also highlighted. In his tragedies, male characters have a dominant role and female characters, although unforgettable, usually play little action. Shakespeare also uses double plots and comic scenes for comic relief.
Tragic Effect: Even without knowing the Poetics, Shakespeare is able to arouse strong pity and fear in the minds of his readers and theater viewers. In Shakespearean tragedies, only these emotions are not aroused; but according to A.C. Bradley, the characteristic emotion aroused by Shakespeare’s tragedies is a profound sense 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 which enhance Shakespeare’s intended tragic effect. For example, Hamlet and King Lear end in so many deaths that the stage is littered with dead bodies in the last scene.
Passion Versus Reason: The predominantly tragic conflict in the minds of Shakespearean heroes is between passion and conflict. 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 original hero to the state and universe which surround him in an eternal fight between good and evil.
Shakespeare’s Personal Views: Many books have been written on subjects such as ‘Shakespeare’s Religion’, but there’s nothing definitely coming from his own plays. On the whole, Shakespeare is the most impersonal writer. That’s perhaps what makes him the greatest writer in the world. Shakespeare was greatly religious and compassionate; but we don’t know his brand of Christianity. It is, however, very difficult to get insight into Shakespeare. 

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