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The Role of Destiny and Inevitability in Shakespeare's Tragedies

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In Greek tragedy, inevitability plays an important role, portraying the protagonists as pawns of the fates, whose roles in the tragedy are distributed arbitrarily and without justice. The outcomes of these roles are decided before the play even begins, for example in Sophocles’ Antigone, and thus any actions of the characters during the play are futile, as they cannot affect the outcome. In the worst tragedy of all, the characters must return again and again to play out the same roles, as the wheel turns.

Of course, Shakespeare and the other Jacobean playwrights were not subject to the conventions of Greek tragedy, but nevertheless would have been aware of it and been influenced by it. Inevitability is important in Shakespeare’s tragedies too, both as a dramatic device and as a tool in conveying the play’s message. A feeling of inevitability keeps the audience enthralled as it watches apparently hopeful events in the knowledge that there is an inexorable downturn sometime in the near future. This leads the audience to sympathise more with the tragic hero, as one caught up in circumstances beyond his control, although of his own making (I will return to this point later). There is an important difference between inevitability and predictability, however. If the events are predictable, the audience will quickly become bored and the tragic effect will be lost; whereas incidents arousing pathos have a greater effect when they occur unexpectedly, but at the same time as a direct consequence of one another.

An example of this is at the end of King Lear, when Lear enters carrying Cordelia ‘dead in his arms’, as the stage direction says. This event could not have been foreseen, especially as in the preceding lines there has been a sense of hope building for the first time in the play, but there is a sense of inevitability to it, and it is as a consequence of Edmund’s evil. I believe that the play would be incomplete and far less powerful if it did not contain this final hammer blow to hope. If Cordelia were to survive, it would contradict all that the play has been saying up to this point about the injustice and the futility of life; Lear’s death on its own would not have been enough, because there would have been with it a sense of fulfilment and justice, as he has been reconciled with Cordelia and would thus die a happy man.

The tragedy is multiplied vastly by this denial of Lear’s contentment, and he consequently dies confused and wondering what all the pain and destruction and loss has been for. One of the greatest tragedies in the play, and there are many, is that Lear dies without finding an answer to his question, “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, / And thou no breath at all?” Cordelia does not in any way deserve the fate that she receives ­ she is only in England because of her selfless love for her father ­ but one could argue that she precipitated the tragedy in refusing to take part in her father’s ‘love match’. However, her suffering is completely disproportionate to the magnitude of her crime, which accentuates the tragedy even further.

There is a sense of hope in other Shakespeare tragedies, for example in Hamlet, when the ‘young prince’ returns from England in Act V, he is not so naïve as he has been in the rest of the play; he has overcome some of his caprice, and begins to take responsibility for the first time. However, by this time the tragedy is too far advanced for him to change the outcome. Ophelia’s death, due to the slaying of Polonius, makes the position irretrievable for Hamlet, and only amplifies his hatred for the world, the more so because he knows that it is his fault and his egotism does not like to be reminded of its culpability. It is only after his fate is sealed and he has been wounded with the poisoned rapier that Hamlet finally does what he should have done at the beginning and kills his uncle. This tragedy is akin to how Gloucester only gains his insight after his eyes have been pulled out, as it is only when he is dying that Hamlet overcomes his hesitation and takes the act which could have saved the waste of life and promise that has occurred because of it. Thus the hope is again dashed by the inevitability of the passage of events.

In Macbeth, there is hope at the start of the play that Macbeth may overcome his temptation and let the prophesy fulfil itself without his perpetrating any unlawful acts, as he says, ‘If chance will have me king, then chance may crown me / Without my stir.” (I:iii:141-3). However Duncan’s stupidity and lack of tact in the very next scene, when he extols Macbeth’s virtues for a page and a half, saying “More is thy due than more than all can pay”, and then names the unimpressive Malcolm as his heir, effectively signs his own death warrant. Surely at least a step towards rewarding Macbeth with “more than all than pay” would be to name him as Prince of Cumberland, rather than Malcolm, who has been with his father several miles from the fighting while Macbeth and the other soldiers risked their lives for him. From this point onward the events of the play are inevitable, as Macbeth says of the appointment, “That is a step / On which I must fall down, or else o’erleap, / For in my way it lies.” Up to this point, it has been possible that Duncan might name Macbeth heir, and thus he would not have had to “stir”.

One might argue that the ambition and complete lack of self-control that Macbeth exhibits later in the play must also be present at this stage, and therefore not only is Duncan prudent in not naming Macbeth heir, but that even had the King done so, Macbeth would not have been able to wait until Duncan died of natural causes to claim what was prophesised as his. Macbeth’s “?may crown me / Without my stir” can be seen as a weak effort to convince himself that he will be strong enough to resist the temptation when put in the context of his earlier actions. Macbeth is reported to ‘start’ (I:iii:50) at the news that he will be King, and this may well signify that he has already dreamed of ruling, and that he knows he will have trouble resisting.

This impression of anxiety is reinforced by his wish to know more from the witches, and his weak-sounding assertion that “?to be king / Stands not within the prospect of belief – / No more than to be Cawdor,” since he knows already at this point that one of the three prophecies has come true already. This attempt to deceive himself and his companion Banquo falls through when, upon hearing that he is indeed Thane of Cawdor, Macbeth displays clear ambition: “?Thane of Cawdor! / The greatest is behind – Thanks for your pains.” Thus it could be argued that even before the beginning of the play these character traits of Macbeth’s, dangerous when combined, make the events of the play inevitable. Therefore it is debatable whether the events of the play are directly precipitated by the Weird Sisters’ prophecies, or whether they merely reflect the desires and as-yet hidden mindset of Macbeth at the start of the play.

If he is a puppet of the witches, it could be argued that he generates more sympathy because his actions are beyond his control, whereby the tragedy is increased because the suffering that he endures is even greater than the level of his crimes. However, if one believes that the source of Macbeth’s actions comes from within himself, only uncovered and encouraged by external influences, then, as in King Lear if one believes that there are no gods in the play, all the actions are perpetrated by humans and this provides a bleak impression of the underlying cruelty and selfishness of human nature. This view is supported when one of the witches says of the first apparition, “He knows thy thought” (IV:i:68), implying that the root of their words is within Macbeth’s own head and thoughts ­ Macbeth merely lacks the willpower to act upon his impulses without what he says as promises of his success. At the witches (who could therefore be seen as the tempters of Satan) bidding Macbeth does indeed “spurn fate, scorn death, and bear / His hopes above wisdom, grace, and fear” (III:v:30-31).

In Othello there is always the hope that ‘the Moor’ may come to his senses, see through the scheming of Iago (it wouldn’t, frankly, be difficult to do so), and forgive Desdemona. Even at the last, just as Othello is about to smother Desdemona, the audience has hope that he may yield to what seems blatant common sense and believe his wife and not Iago. The pleading of the innocent and self-condemning Desdemona incites our deepest sympathy, and makes the tragic atrocity by the deceived Othello all the worse, for we cannot quite believe that it would be carried out. Again like Gloucester in King Lear, whose deception bears a strong resemblance to the worryingly easy duping of Othello, the tragedy is that it is only after an irrevocable act has taken place that the deceived party realises what has happened ­ Othello obviously cannot take back his wrong, and Gloucester cannot help his son after his eyes have been pulled out, though he wishes him prosperity, and both wish to commit suicide; but Gloucester’s attempt is foiled by Edgar.

In Othello, once the council decide to let Desdemona accompany Othello to Cyprus, there is a sense of foreboding about the events to come. As shown in Richard II’s failing as a king, the personal life and the role of a leader should be kept separate, and the personality and intelligence of a leader are not necessarily indicators of how he will perform at his job ­ Henry V was a great King, but had many failings as a man. Thus when Othello mixes work and family life it is inevitable that there will be trouble. What one cannot foresee in Othello is the ease with which Othello is fooled by Iago, and this stupidity on the part of the hero puts a strain on the tragedy, as the audience may be in two minds as to whether they sympathise with Othello, given his stupidity and readiness, even eagerness, to believe that his wife has been unfaithful to him. It is absolutely necessary that the audience sympathises with the fate of the protagonist, as if it does not it will not care whether he or she dies, and the element of tragedy will be lost.

The audience must see in the lead character a reflection, however small, of itself, and a representation of human limitations ­ we feel pity for a man who does not deserve his misfortunes, and we fear for someone like ourselves1. Furthermore, the protagonist needs to be fundamentally virtuous or just, suffering misfortune not because of depravity or vice but by an error of judgement2, often because the character is temporarily ‘blinded’ by a character flaw that prevents them from acting as they normally would. Thus it depends upon one’s personal reaction as to whether the tragedy in Othello works or not, and how willing one is to forgive Othello his stupidity. Personally, I think the tragedy still works, but it is nowhere near as crushing as the other ‘major tragedies’: King Lear, Hamlet and Macbeth.

This ‘blindness’, causing lack of reason, is another common feature of Shakespeare’s tragedies3. It is akin to the Greek concept of ‘Hamartia’, the ‘fatal flaw’ that causes the character to contribute to their own downfall. Hamlet is blinded by his hatred of the world around him, and his obsessive nature and deep-rooted egotism causes him to pontificate unreasonably over the wider connotations of the acts that he must carry out. He knows that his hesitation is unnecessary, and guiltily tries to find excuses to delay his decision, first pretending that he needs more evidence, saying “I’ll have grounds / More relative than this: the play’s the thing, / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King”(II:ii:605-8). This reasoning is undermined because it ends with a couplet, symbolising Hamlet’s own acceptance that he is making excuses.

In the most famous of his soliloquies (III:I:58-92), Hamlet debates whether it is “nobler” to give oneself up to “outrageous Fortune”, or to end it all by taking one’s own life. He declares, “conscience does make cowards of us all,” and concludes that were it not for “the dread of something after death” which “puzzles the will”, no-one “would bear the whips and scorns of time”. Thus he lacks the decisiveness to either take his life or to carry out his uncle’s murder, although he “[has] cause, and will, and strength, and means / To do’t”(IV:iv:47-8), and even admits that “?thinking to precisely on th’ event, / A thought which quarter’d hath but one part wisdom, / And ever three parts coward.”(IV:iv:44-5) It is only when he is dying that Hamlet overcomes his compunctions and cowardice, “whether it be / Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple,” and commits the act. Of course by this time it is too late.

King Lear is a more complicated case, as he is blinded by a combination of wrath, pride and vanity. The vain ‘love match’ that he sets up to flatter himself publicly is a political blunder of huge magnitude, as is the very idea of splitting up a kingdom. According to Machiavelli, this is one of the worst things that a ruler can do, and this is certainly reinforced by the events in the play. From the moment that Lear splits up his kingdom, it is inevitable that there is going to be turmoil ­ the different factions will eventually succumb to greed and there will be a war. To make matters worse, Lear has already decided which area of the kingdom will go to which daughter, saying to Cordelia, “What can you say to draw / A third more opulent than your sisters?” (I:i:82) This shows that the contest does not even have a practical purpose; it is purely for the benefit of Lear’s ego that he asks his daughters to flatter him in public, and it is for this reason that he reacts so badly to Cordelia’s answer of “Nothing”.

It is a blow to his ego, and a direct slight to him in public, in front of the court. This wounds his pride and causes him to vent his wrath upon her, but in his rage he fails to understand the real meaning of Cordelia’s answer, which is that she cannot beat her sisters’ complicated falsified verbose declarations of love, as her love is of a simple and pure nature. It is in this fit of anger that Lear banishes Cordelia and Kent, the two people that love him best and who he needs to protect him against his other daughters, in a truly spectacular display of political incompetence which makes inevitable his downfall and the all-pervading waste of life that occurs in the final stages of the play. Although Lear is undoubtedly culpable, the suffering that he undergoes is out of all proportion to the crimes that he perpetrates. His subsequent reduction to the level of “unaccommodated man” allows him to rid himself of the pride and vanity that provoked his wrath, and thus he is able to make insightful decisions and understand his earlier mistakes, although it is too late for him to do anything about the state of events in the play, since he has given up all his power. Ironically he needed to lose power to gain insight, but he needs power to use this insight. In this way the audience gains sympathy for Lear, “a man more sinned against than sinning” (III:ii:58-9), and this makes the tragedy work.

Macbeth is blinded by “vaulting ambition”: even though he knows that the witches’ prophecies’ are going to cause trouble, and, as Banquo says, “[fears] / Things that do sound so fair” (I:iii:51-2). Even so, he tells his wife, in an act which he must know will lead to her encouraging his ambition, hers being just as keen as his own. Either Macbeth knows this and lacks the judgement or strength to resist telling her, or he does not know his wife as well as he thinks he does. It may be that he tells her in the knowledge that she will help him to overcome his weakness and force him to act, which he could not do on his own. Macbeth’s ambition makes him impatient when it would be more prudent to wait for his prophesy to fulfil itself, especially as he has “no spur / To prick the sides of my content but only / Vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself.”

Once he is King, he could stop there and get away with his crime. However, his ambition wishes his sons to be kings as well, which means that he has to prevent Banquo’s prophesy from coming good. With his high level of intelligence, Macbeth should realise that if something is preordained, and as these prophecies have shown themselves to be true, nothing that he can do will change the course of events. It is futile to attempt to change the inevitable, but his judgement is marred by ambition, and he refuses to accept this. Having discovered that the witches’ fortune telling is a “poisoned chalice” the first time around, that indeed “Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return / to plague the inventor” (I;vii:9-10), Macbeth should know better than to go back to ask them for more, and even says, “Though you untie the winds and let them fight / Against the churches; though the yesty waves / confound and swallow navigation up?answer me” (IV:i:51-9). However, again his ambition intervenes with his powers of reasoning, and he succumbs to temptation.

Macbeth’s ambition is similar to Edmund’s in King Lear, in that they both go against the natural order. The difference is that Macbeth suffers terribly from guilt over being “[Duncan’s] kinsman and his subject, strong both against the deed (I:vii:13-14), whereas Edmund states, “All’s with me that I can fashion fit,” a very Machiavellian response which shows that unlike Macbeth he has no respect for the natural order that he is subverting. Macbeth’s guilt and resulting mental turmoil is symbolised by the storm, which Lennox describes saying, “My young remembrance cannot parallel / A fellow to it” (II:iii:58-9). This is similar to the storm in Lear, of which Kent says, “Since I was a man, / Such sheets of fire?I never / remember to have heard” (III:ii:44-6). Although Macbeth’s guilt is the reason why he fails, causing him to give himself away when he sees the apparition of Banquo’s ghost, it is also the reason why we sympathise with him and therefore why the tragedy works. If he were like Edmund we would not be sympathetic in the least, and the pathos would be lost.

The concept of “fair is foul, and foul is fair” (I:i:9) is key in Macbeth, and indeed Macbeth’s first words are, “So foul and fair a day I have not seen” (I:iii:36): he understands that things are not always as good or bad as they appear ­ his win on the battlefield has come at great cost of life. This realisation sets him apart from the more simple but just as loyal Banquo, who cannot see the danger in the witches’ words. This simplicity is in many ways Banquo’s saving grace, as it prevents him from being tempted as Macbeth is, and saves him from such “vaulting ambition” which would cause him problems. This difference between the two thanes is expressed in the witches’ apparently contradictory remarks, “Lesser than Macbeth, and greater” (I:iii:64), and “Not so happy, but much happier” (I:iii:65).

Although Banquo’s intelligence is lesser than Macbeth’s, the latter’s inability to act upon this intelligence is a tragic fault that Banquo does not have, and which again contributes to the inevitability of his downfall. Tragically, Macbeth’s lack of willpower prevents him from doing what his intelligence knows to be right. In the same way, Banquo’s simplicity allows him to be happier than Macbeth, as he is not tormented by the connotations of the Sisters’ words, and he is less ambitious because he knows himself to be of lesser qualities, or, at least, less noticeable qualities, and is content with his lower position. This is perhaps reflected in the fact that the witches predict that his sons will be kings, but not he himself. Ironically, in requesting to know his own future (he does not, unlike Macbeth, appreciate the danger of knowing it, and indeed for him it is not a temptation), Banquo unwittingly causes his own death and compounds Macbeth’s downfall-to-come ­ if Macbeth had not known that Banquo’s sons are to be kings, he would not have had to kill Banquo and his own inner torment would be less.

Othello is blinded by his “jealousy so strong / That judgement cannot cure” (II:i:300-1), an overpowering insecurity which causes him to be suspicious at the slightest encouragement from Iago, who allows Othello’s imagination to do most of the work. As soon as the jealousy takes hold of him, things that seem obvious to the audience are incomprehensible to Othello, and everything his wife does seems to him to be an act of unfaithfulness. Othello is right in his prediction that “when I love [Desdemona] not, / Chaos is come again” (III:iii:92-3).

Thus the fundamental theme that is presented in tragedy is one of inevitable waste, both of life and of promise, which presents a bleak picture of the ultimate futility of human life. In King Lear, the principal waste is that of the Christ-like Cordelia, who sacrifices herself out of love for her father and is an innocent victim, if one believes that the act of splitting up the kingdom would have led to conflict even without her stubborn refusal to take part in his game. She is an intensely virtuous figure, as we discover in Acts IV and V, and when Lear enters with her “dead in his arms,” it is possibly the most devastating moment in literature.

In Macbeth the innocent victims are Lady Macduff, her children, and Banquo; in Othello, Desdemona; in Hamlet, Ophelia. All these are killed for reasons that have nothing to do with them; they are caught up in the tragedy and become victims of the downfall of the protagonist. Along with this waste of life the tragic heroes themselves are a great waste, as they are great men who are destroyed by one or more relatively minor character flaws (their ‘blindness’, as outlined above, is one example) that negate their greatness in other aspects almost entirely. The most devastating revelation, however, is that this waste is a consequence of human nature, and not only are the incidences of it recurring; they are inevitable.


1. Paraphrased from Aristotle’s Poetics

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