Shakespeare's Tragedy

Shakespeare’s Tragedy

A tragedy is a story of exceptional calamity leading to the death of a man in high estate (A.C. BRADLEY).

Tragedy: The derivation of the word 'tragedy' is uncertain. The word may come from two Greek words tragos (goat) and oide (song).

Shakespeare's plays usually classified as 'tragedies' are:

Titus Andronicus (1592)
Romeo and Juliet (1592)
Julius Caesar (1599)
Hamlet (1600-01)
Othello (1603)
King Lear (1605-06)
Timon of Athens (1605)
Macbeth (1606)
Antony and Cleopatra (1606)
Coriolanus (1608)

All of Shakespeare's tragedies have a tragic hero, or 'protagonist' who is put into a situation of conflict which he must resolve. A combination of bad luck and misjudgement lead to the hero's death. He is often a man of high social standing:

Lear and Macbeth are kings
Hamlet and Othello are princes - Othello is also a military general
Coriolanus and Titus are Roman Generals
Julius Caesar and Antony are rulers of Rome

Timon and Romeo are wealthy citizens

Tragedies are tales of harshness and injustice. They chart the downfall of a hero, whose own death leads to the downfall of others, for example in:

Hamlet Ophelia, Laertes, Polonius, Gertrude, Claudius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern also die
Titus Andronicus 13 characters die
King Lear Cordelia, Goneril, Regan, Gloucester, Cornwall and Edmund die
Romeo and Juliet Mercutio, Tybalt, Lady Montague and Paris all die

All of Shakespeare's tragic heroes have a flawed nature or blind spot that leads to their downfall:

for Hamlet it is procrastination
for Macbeth it is ambition
for Coriolanus and Othello it is pride

The decisions made by people in positions of power have tremendous consequences.

Catharsis is a medical term meaning 'purgation'. By means of purgation, an organism rids itself of noxious substances and so is healed. In his Poetics , Aristotle (384-322 BC) writes that tragedy should succeed in 'arousing pity and fear in such a way as to accomplish a catharsis (i.e. purgation) of such emotions.

Thomas Kyd's Spanish Tragedy (c. 1589) was the first play to be called a Revenge Tragedy. The play appears to have developed an appetite amongst theatre-goers for the form for the genre flourished in Elizabethan and Jacobean theatres.

Examples of Revenge Tragedies:

Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd
The Jew of Malta by Christopher Marlowe
The Revenger's Tragedy - an anonymously published play
Titus Andronicus and Hamlet by Shakespeare

Common features of Revenge Tragedies include:

a hero's quest for vengeance
scenes of real or feigned insanity
scenes in graveyards, severed limbs, carnage and mutilation
a corpse-strewn stage
the restoration of order after chaos

In Comedy -
The characters tend to be ordinary people, rather than kings and queens
The emotions and dangers are comparatively mild
The outcome of the action is happy - the plays generally end in marriage
The main thrust of the action is from chaos to resolution

In Tragedy -
The characters are of very high social standing (kings, princes, generals)
The dangers are extreme
The conclusion is sad
The action moves towards a state of chaos

In 2004, the RSC will stage five of Shakespeare's tragedies. Here is a brief synopsis for Hamlet; King Lear; Macbeth; Othello; Romeo and Juliet:

The young prince Hamlet discovers that his father died by foul play, murdered by his brother to gain the throne. He is visited by the restless ghost of the old King Hamlet, who tells him this and asks his son to avenge his death without harming his mother who has since married the new king. Hamlet wavers. He is presumed mad at court because of his erratic behaviour. He traps his uncle into showing his guilt, but then fails to murder him. He is estranged from Ophelia whom he had once loved and she is driven to distraction and then death. Hamlet is sent away and his murder secretly ordered by the King. Though Hamlet evades this and returns to complete his business, he is too late to save anyone from death - not even himself.

The old king Lear sets out to divide his kingdom between his three daughters, according to their love for him. Goneril and Regan profess great love for their father, but Lear's youngest and favourite daughter, Cordelia, says nothing. Enraged, Lear banishes Cordelia and gives away her portion of the kingdom to her sisters. But with nothing left to gain from their father, Goneril and Regan no longer wish to care for him and turn him out to the cold. Meanwhile Edmund, the illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester, contrives an estrangement between his father and his half-brother Edgar and declares his love and allegiance to both Goneril and Regan. Cordelia raises an army in France to fight her sisters' powers, while Edgar, disguised, acts as shepherd to his broken Father. Both Lear and Gloucester realise too late that they have put their trust and themselves in the wrong care.

Returning victorious from battle, Macbeth meets three witches who prophesy that he will rise to the throne of Scotland, though its heirs will be the descendants of another general, Banquo. Spurred by this prophecy and the encouragement of Lady Macbeth, he murders the sleeping King Duncan and assumes the throne. Having fulfilled the first part of the prophecy Macbeth then rushes to preempt the rest - setting out to murder Banquo and his son. Meanwhile Duncan's son Malcolm raises an army in England, with the help of Macduff, about whom Macbeth has been warned. Together they fulfill the prophecy for Macbeth's overthrow.

The celebrated general Othello has secretly married Desdemona, the daughter of a Venetian senator. But when he is accused of stealing her, Othello explains himself and is given a new commission by the Senate, to lead the Venetian forces in a battle for Cyprus, against the Turks. Othello lands victorious in Cyprus, where he is joined by Desdemona. Their peace is shattered by Iago, a soldier, who manipulates Othello into believing that his wife is unfaithful and in love with Cassio - Othello's trusted lieutenant. Possessed by jealousy, Othello murders his wife.

The houses of Montague and Capulet are sworn enemies. When Romeo, a Montague, and Juliet, a Capulet, fall in love they do not know whom each other is. They marry in secret, while the feud rages. When Romeo's friend Mercutio is killed by Juliet's cousin, Tybalt, Romeo in turn kills Tybalt. He is banished from Verona, while Juliet's family plan to marry her to someone else. Friar Lawrence hatches a plan to reunite the lovers, but messages are crossed and they are driven to their deaths instead.


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