We say that things are tragic all the time, but mostly to mean they are just sad. With images of conflict, terror and strife all over our TV screens and newspapers, have our ideas of tragedy today been pigeonholed and detached from our own experience?
The following topic explores the meaning of tragedy and how Shakespeare represents society's deepest fears on stage.
"The tragic events of September 11": it has become a formula that rolls off every politician's tongue. Meanwhile, almost every day you will find some lesser "tragedy" described in the pages of your newspaper: a child drowns, a car crashes, someone is murdered. The word is used so frequently and sometimes with regard to misfortunes that in the overall scale of things are so commonplace that it has been emptied of its primal force. If the word had been treated with the respect it deserves, kept ready for the truly awesome and the world-historical horrors, then its application to 9/11 would have had more meaning.
"Is this the promised end?" asks Albany at the end of King Lear. "Or image of that horror?" replies Kent. Every human death is, for those who witness it, an image of our own promised end, but until relatively recently the word tragedy has not been applied to the mundane cycle of death, the expirations and silencings that occur every hour, every minute, every second. In Shakespeare's world the term was reserved for two exceptional kinds of disaster. One was the catastrophe that seemed cosmic in its scale and horrific in its particulars, so genuinely seeming to be an image of the apocalypse, the promised end of all things. When Caxton wrote of "tragicall tidings" the sort of thing he had in mind was the fall of Troy-the end of a whole civilization, a turning-point in history.
The second traditional sense of tragedy was shaped less by scale than by structure. "Tragedie," wrote Chaucer, "is to seyn a certeyn storie, / As olde bookes maken us memorie, / Of hym that stood in greet prosperitee, / And is yfallen out of heigh degree / Into myserie, and endeth wrecchedly." The higher they climb, the harder they fall: tragedy is traditionally about heroes and kings, larger than life figures who climb to the top of fortune's wheel and are then toppled off. It is a structure saturated with irony: the very quality that is the source of a character's greatness is also the cause of his downfall.
This is why talk of a tragic flaw is misleading. The theory of the flaw arises from a misunderstanding of Aristotle's influential account of ancient Greek tragedy. For Aristotle, hamartia, the thing that precipitates tragedy, is not a psychological predisposition but an event-not a character trait but a fatal action. In several famous cases in Greek tragedy, the particular mistake is to kill a blood-relation in ignorance of their identity. So too in Shakespeare, it is action (or in Hamlet's case inaction) that determines character and not vice-versa.
Here's a variant on the critic John Bayley's helpful way of looking at it. Imagine Hamlet in Othello's situation and Macbeth in Hamlet's. Would Hamlet be duped by Iago's story about the handkerchief? Of course not. He would endlessly speculate on every possibility and devise a scheme to test the evidence-perhaps he'd put on a play about adultery and watch for Desdemona's reaction. He'd soon discover that Iago is not to be trusted, and there would be no tragedy. Now imagine Macbeth commissioned with Hamlet's task. Would he hesitate and agonise? No, he'd go straight to Claudius and unseam him from the nave to the chops before you could say Danish bacon. Again, there would be no tragedy. The tragedy comes from the mismatch of person and situation, not a pre-programmed psychological cause.
Lear cannot let go of the past, Macbeth cannot wait for the future, Hamlet cannot stop worrying about the future: none of them is content to live in the moment. This is not so much an individual tragic flaw as a universal human failing. We are creatures bound by time but always longing for another time.
In the face of this dilemma, Shakespearean tragedy pulls in two different directions. There is a movement towards acceptance of the moment, which means acceptance of death. Thus Hamlet: "If it be now, 'tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all." And Macbeth: "She should have died hereafter. / There would have been a time for such a word." And Edgar in King Lear: "Men must endure / Their going hence, even as their coming hither; / Ripeness is all." This is a kind of tragic knowledge that derives from the classical philosophy of Stoicism. Stoicism meant resignation, fortitude, suppression of emotion.
But Shakespeare was also sceptical about Stoicism. It is the Stoic philosophy that he mocks when a grieving father refuses comfort in Much Ado about Nothing: "I will be flesh and blood," says Leanato, "For there was never yet philosopher / That could endure the toothache patiently, / However they have writ the style of gods, / And made a pish at chance and sufferance." The trouble with Stoicism is that it neglects the capacity to feel, something which makes us human just as much as the capacity to reason. The counter-movement in Shakespearean tragedy is towards an acknowledgement of the emotions, as they express themselves in the body. Gloucester has no eyes and yet he sees how the world goes: he sees it feelingly. Before Macduff can act like a man in taking revenge against Macbeth for the murder of his family he must first feel his grief as a man-he must let himself be a weeping human before turning himself into an alpha male.
"A play read", mused Dr Johnson, "affects the mind like a play acted." It doesn't: what you have with a play acted is the actor's body. Shakespeare was not a Stoic because he was a player. A player works with his body as much as with his words. In the theatre, the body is a supremely expressive instrument of feeling.
While Shakespeare was writing King Lear, he was reading John Florio's English translation of the essays of Michel de Montaigne, a writer whose temper of mind was uncannily like Shakespeare's own. At the heart of Montaigne's book was a long philosophical essay that attacked the comfortable "natural theology" of one Raymond Sebond. In that essay, Montaigne exposes the body in shame:
'Truly, when I consider man all naked (yea be it in that sex, which seemeth to have and challenge the greatest share of eye-pleasing beauty) and view his defects, his natural subjection, and manifold imperfections; I find we have had much more reason to hide and cover our nakedness, than any creature else. We may be excused for borrowing those which nature had therein favoured more than us, with their beauties to adorn us, and under their spoils of wool, of hair, of feathers, and of silk to shroud us.'
We think of the nakedness of the central scenes in Lear.
Montaigne also exposes the insignificance of human life within the universal scale of things: Is it possible to imagine any thing so ridiculous, as this miserable and wretched creature, which is not so much as master of himself, exposed and subject to the offences of all things, and yet dareth call himself Master and Emperor of this Universe? In whose power it is not to know the least part of it, much less to command the same. We think of Lear's inability to command the storm. And yet Montaigne's essay also celebrates the astonishing expressive resourcefulness of the human body. Even the eyebrows and the shoulders can express emotion, he says. And as for the hands: What do we with our hands? Do we not sue and entreat, promise and perform, call men unto us, and discharge them, bid them farewell and be gone, threaten, pray, beseech, deny, refuse, demand, admire, number, confess, repent, fear, be ashamed, doubt, instruct, command, incite, encourage, swear, witness, accuse, condemn, absolve, injure, despise, defy, despite, flatter, applaud, bless, humble, mock, reconcile, recommend, exalt, show gladness, rejoice, complain, wail, sorrow, discomfort, despair, cry out, forbid, declare silence and astonishment? This is a list that could be a template for the bodily actions of the tragic actor."Words, words, mere words," says Hamlet-like Troilus in Shakespeare's acrid Trojan tragedy, "No matter from the heart". In the end, what matters about Shakespearean tragedy are not the fine words of resignation and Stoic comfort, but the raw matter of the heart and the solid presence of the body. The body in pain. The body emptied of life but still available for a farewell kiss or blessing. The bodies of Romeo and Juliet, Othello and Desdemona, come to rest in an embrace. Horatio, best of friends, is there to bid Hamlet's body goodnight. Lear is allowed to mourn over Cordelia; when he has said goodbye he is ready for his own heart to break. Macbeth is the bleakest of the tragedies because the Macbeths, having begun the play as one of the few happily married couples anywhere in Shakespeare, drift apart-embittered by their childlessness?-and each dies profoundly alone. There is no Horatio or Kent to give sorrow words on behalf of the audience. Only in this play could Shakespeare have described life as a walking shadow, a poor player, a tale "Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing."