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Common Features of Shakespeare's Tragedies and Their Unity

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Common Features of Shakespeare's Tragedies and Their Unity Essay

Separating qualities common to one ‘set’ or ‘type’ of Shakespeare’s plays which are not common to the plays as a whole is a difficult task: it would no doubt be possible to find evidence of any feature uniting ‘the Tragedies’ within any of Shakespeare’s plays if one looked hard enough. This is not surprising if one considers that the one thing above all others that unites Shakespeare’s plays is that they portray human life, and the nature of human life does not change. Thus the basis for each and every play is the same: only the circumstances change. Furthermore, all cases of tragedy are, paradoxically, unique and also very similar to everyday events (albeit extreme examples of them), and both parts of this paradox are necessary for the tragedy to work. If the tragic events were not set apart and special in some way, they would be dismissed as everyday occurrences, and if they were not close to common experience the audience would not empathize with the characters. Either way, the element of tragedy would be lost. I firmly believe that what Shakespeare was interested in exploring in his plays was the way in which people react to different situations, both psychologically and through actions. This is borne out by the fact that Shakespeare only invented one of his plots himself? The Tempest ? while for all his other plays he adapted tales of folklore, other writers’ work, and, in the case of the Histories, historical events themselves. This is in no way a shortcoming in Shakespeare’s talent or something which detracts from his plays, for Shakespeare was not interested in simply telling stories: he wanted to put the very nature of human life on the stage. As Joseph Conrad said, “Imagination, not invention, is the supreme master of art, as of life”.

Thus rather than having a distinct set of uniting features, certain features are more prominent in the tragedies than in other plays. The tragedies are, more than any other of Shakespeare’s plays, detailed studies of the psychology of one character, the tragic hero. That the plays are generally named after the main protagonist supports this theory: in Antony and Cleopatra and Romeo and Juliet, the presence of two tragic heroes indicates a wider study? these two plays are more concerned with the workings of society and the characters’ interactions with that society than other plays. This wider concern is also shown by the lack of soliloquies in the two plays. The Comedies are given more general titles, for example, Twelfth Night or Measure for Measure: they explore even more general problems in society, and are less concerned with the individual characters’ reactions than the situation as a whole. That is not to say that the tragedies are unconcerned with society? many of the tragic heroes are rulers or become rulers during the play, and we see that their situation affects the working of the entire kingdom, for example the storms in Macbeth and King Lear which symbolise the disruption of the natural order when a king is deposed unlawfully.

This focus on the tragic hero means that the success of a tragic play hinges around the audience’s reaction that character. The very basis of tragedy lies in the audience’s reaction to a situation where the fundamentally virtuous or just protagonist experiences misfortunes disproportionate to his culpability: misfortunes which he has in part brought upon himself? not through depravity or vice but by an error of judgment. We must see in the lead character a reflection, however small, of ourselves, and a representation of human limitations ? we feel pity for a man who does not deserve his misfortunes, and we fear for someone like ourselves. If the audience does not like the protagonist then it will not sympathize with his fate and the tragic nature is lost because the complex mix of excitement and terror ultimately leading to catharsis will be replaced by indifference or even pleasure at the hero’s downfall and death. This is why some people have a problem with Othello? the ease with which Iago dupes Othello into being jealous suggests that he is actually rather stupid and can lead the audience to a contemptuous reaction rather than a sympathetic one. Similarly it is important that the protagonist has a measure of culpability in his own misfortune? if he does not then the situation is not tragic but merely unfortunate, and the hero simply unlucky to be caught up in circumstances beyond his control.

Each of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes is ‘blinded’ in some way by a character flaw which affects their judgment and causes them to react differently in the heat of the moment from the way in which they might otherwise. The flaw is generally one of temperament which allows the hero’s passions to get the better of him and overrule reason. Shakespeare studies characters’ reactions to extremes of emotion outside the normal sphere of experience and as a result of extraordinary events and thus the audience can forgive the characters’ judgement being a little wayward ? the tragedy comes in the crushing and disproportionate consequences which follow the error, and which turn the audience’s reaction from pity to the deepest sympathy.

Macbeth is blinded by “vaulting ambition, which overleaps itself” (I.vii.27), an ambition that he cannot prevent himself from pursuing, even though he knows the dreadful consequences which will befall him, and the mental anguish which it will cause: Macbeth is perhaps the most purely psychological of the tragedies, showing as it does the inner turmoil of Macbeth and his wife, and their gradual descent into madness. Macbeth’s famous soliloquy at the beginning of I.vii brilliantly shows the torment that he is going through ? he knows that if he acts upon his ambition it will destroy him, yet he cannot resist doing it anyway, and laments his imminent downfall, wishing “If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly…that but this blow might be the be-all and end-all!” (lines 1-5) But he knows that “Bloody instructions…being taught, return / To plague the inventor” (9-10) ? he cannot “jump the life to come”, but must “have judgement here”. The audience has great sympathy for him, as he is a great man, highly intelligent and fiercely loyal up to this point, and although he says he has “no spur / To prick the sides of [his] intent”, one could argue that he was greatly insulted in I.iv when Duncan, having said to Macbeth that “More is [his] due than more than all can pay”, names Malcolm as Prince of Cumberland and not Macbeth less than twenty lines later! This is less than politically shrewd as Malcolm is nowhere near as impressive as Macbeth, and downright rude given Duncan’s previous debt of thanks to Macbeth. This slight, combined with the witches’ cryptic promises and Duncan’s ill-timed visit to Macbeth’s castle, conspires to produce an opportunity well out-of-the-ordinary and a huge temptation for Macbeth. This is where the difference lies between Macbeth and the character of Edmund in King Lear, who has a similar all-consuming ambition ? Edmund’s rise is all of his own making, he knows exactly what he is doing, it is cool and calculated whereas Macbeth’s is a crime of passion and opportunism, and Edmund does not care one bit what is right or wrong? his very aim is to subvert the accepted way of life. Like an Elizabethan version of Conrad’s Mr Kurtz, Macbeth “[lacks] restraint in the gratification of his various lusts”: if it is in his power to do something, he cannot but do it. It is Macbeth’s and Kurtz’s brilliance which is their downfall? as Marlow says in Heart of Darkness, “no fool ever made a bargain for his soul with the devil”.

Othello is blinded by “jealousy so strong / That judgment cannot cure” (II:i:300-1), 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. The ease with which Iago persuades Othello that his wife and his most trusted officer are deceiving him is alarming, indeed there is almost eagerness in the speed with which he changes from devoted love to absolute hate: in barely more than three hundred lines Othello turns from professing that “when I love [Desdemona] not, / Chaos is come again” (III:iii:92-3) to “I’ll tear her all to pieces!” (III.iii.428). Although he tries to maintain that he is confident of his position and his wife’s loyalty, saying “exchange me for a goat, / When I shall turn the business of my soul / To such exsufflicate and blown surmises” (III.iii.178-180), the very fact that he does not immediately send Iago away in disgrace shows he is not as sure as he says. Very soon after he has given himself up so fully to “trifles light as air” (III.iii.319) that only a herd would do. This startling reversal suggests to me a predisposition to suspicion; that Othello expects to be treated differently from and less equally than other men because “[he is] black / And [has] not those soft parts of conversation / That chamberers have” (III.iii.260-2), and because he is “declined / Into the vale of years” (III.iii.292-3). This is not something to condemn him for in itself, as for a “Moor” to be in his position of success was unheard of, and no doubt he had other unseen enemies besides Iago (Desdemona’s father, for example, of whom it is said “[Desdemona’s] match was mortal to him” (V.ii.204) ). The fault comes in his judgement of character? with tragic irony Othello turns on those who most respect and love him for the man that he is, while he trusts the racist who hates him for superficial reasons: as he says himself, he “loved not wisely, but too well” (V.ii.340). Iago really has to do very little: as with Macbeth and the Wyrd Sisters the roots are there from the start, and need only a little nurturing to flourish. I do not suggest that Othello’s motivation is in any way similar to Macbeth’s: the latter rejects conventional morality in return for absolute power, while Othello is merely misled by the amoral Iago but retains his innate virtuosity. However I believe that the element of tragedy is increased if some of the blame for Othello’s ‘duping’ is attributed to the protagonist himself, not for stupidity but for presupposing the guilt of Desdemona and Cassio, and for his weakness in not holding to his demand for proof. The errors of judgement that Othello makes while under the influence of his jealousy are grave, but the main part of the fault lies with Iago and we forgive Othello his misdirected passion ? he at least maintains the same moral code throughout, and as he says at the end, “naught did I in hate, but all in honour” (V.ii.292).

Othello’s problems stem from a common mistake among the tragic heroes: he mixes his personal affairs with his public ones and his role as a leader when he allows Desdemona to accompany him to Cyprus. As shown in Richard II by Richard’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. Lear mixes the two worlds when he holds a public ‘trial’ for what should be intensely private declarations of love, and Macbeth lets his own personal ambitions completely obscure any thought of actually governing for the good of the wider kingdom. The most striking examples of private and public concerns overlapping come in Antony and Cleopatra and Romeo and Juliet. In the former love is very much something for the public arena, with grand gestures the only way to demonstrate genuine feelings: Octavius Caesar is shocked when his sister arrives without a grand entrance, saying “You come not / Like Caesar’s sister. The wife of Antony / Should have an army for an usher, and the neighs of horse to tell of her approach / Long ere she did appear.” Moreover, the crux of the play lies in Antony’s balancing of his private pleasures and his public duties. It seems that he has returned to the Antony of Julius Caesar when he brings about peace with Pompey and marries Octavia to pacify her brother Octavius, but gradually he gives in to his lust again, culminating in his retreat during the sea battle, when he abandons thoughts of fighting and blindly follows Cleopatra’s retreating vessel, which turns possible victory to certain defeat. This is Antony’s ‘blindness’: he cannot maintain the balance between his public and private affairs, and lets each one affect the other. In Romeo and Juliet, the couple fight an ongoing battle to keep their very private feelings of love from the constraints that the social and religious institutions seek to impose on them. They meet at night and marry in secret, the opposite of Antony and Cleopatra’s public show. Eventually the only way the couple can defeat the public forces which threaten to destroy their love is to commit suicide: it is a final assertion of their private rights, their ultimate night.

Romeo and Juliet does not follow the general trend of most of the tragedies in that it has two main protagonists, neither of whom conforms to the exact definition of the ‘tragic hero’ as someone who brings about their own downfall by a failing of character. Indeed we are told in the prologue exactly what will happen to the “star-cross’d lovers” ? they must die to end their families’ feud. It would be easy, after this beginning, to write off the events of the play as the mere “sport” of “wanton” fate, as Gloucester says in King Lear, but I think that this opening scene is loaded with irony and Shakespeare is in fact subtly sending up the widespread fatalistic views of his time. The play has more in common with its tragic peers than it would first appear ? the couple are ‘blinded’, just as the tragic heroes of other plays are, because when they fall into a love “as boundless as the sea” (II.ii.133), a love so strong that it overcomes fear and reason, their subsequent judgements are affected and they make choices which they otherwise would not have made. Their love is something which, once kindled, is beyond their direct control to a large extent ? one cannot control its ebb and flow ? but which undeniably originates from within them. Because of this duality, when their love brings them into conflict with their families, the social institutions and their religion we not only feel pity, but we recognise that they have a choice, however difficult, and could save their earthly bodies if they were willing to compromise their purity. This element of choice evokes a great deal of pathos and transforms our pity into deep sympathy.

Tragically, the other choice that the couple has is “to end itself by death” (Gloucester in King Lear ? it is the only way that they can be together without compromising themselves and the purity of their love. Suicide is man’s final personal choice, the only way of absolutely and irreversibly taking control of life: in ending it. This is why Gloucester laments that even this last right has been denied him ? when suicide has failed he truly has nothing to live for, for human life is meaningless without the ability to choose: it becomes an absurdity. Hamlet agonizes over whether to kill himself in order to escape the iniquity of the world, but shies away from committing the act, initially because “the Everlasting had fix’d / His canon ‘gainst self slaughter” (I.ii.131-2), but later the religious imagery fades away and is replaced by a fear of the “undiscovered country”. Hamlet concludes that it is only this “dread of something after death” that makes man “bear the whips and scorns of time” (III.i.70) If death’s country was charted territory, everyone would commit suicide. This theory is key when considering Romeo and Juliet’s suicides: they do not fear “unsubstantial death” (V.iii.103) but rather welcome it as a certainty after the uncertainty of life. There is a mixture of Christian and pagan imagery, for while there is an emphasis on earthly physical pleasures that will be given up in death, there is also a strong sense of a belief in some sort of “timeless” state after death in phrases such as “everlasting rest”, “dateless bargain” and Juliet’s “timeless end”. Above all Romeo and Juliet’s double suicide is a defiant denial of predestined fate and their status as “star cross’d” Instead they show that it is always possible to take control and “shake the yoke of inauspicious stars” (V.iii.111). That such a pure incarnation of love was not allowed to exist and they must kill themselves to take control is a damning indictment of their society.

Romeo and Juliet’s transcendent love is both their blessing and their curse: it is the quality which makes the audience like them and that which sets them apart from ordinary people; but it is simultaneously the very thing which leads to their downfall and deaths, precisely because of its transcendent nature if their love had not been so intense or so beautiful, they would not have died to save it. This ‘duality of innocence’ is a common feature in many of the tragedies often the tragic hero’s ‘fault’ is linked to, or actually is, that trait which makes us like them in the first place. In this way, innocence can often achieve evil. David Daiches compares it to Eve’s temptation in Milton’s Paradise Lost:

“If Satan, in the form of the serpent, had been telling the truth, then Eve would have done right to believe him and eat of the fatal fruit. Eve’s real fault was lack of sophistication; she was unsuspicious of what the serpent told her; she was, to use an American slang term, a ‘sucker’ and swallowed his story. But is it morally wrong to be a sucker ? as Eve was with respect to the serpent, as Othello was with respect to Iago, as Brutus was with respect to such sophisticates as Antony, as Hamlet was, we might almost say, with respect to life?”

Shakespeare does not give an answer to this problem of ‘the morality of innocence’, though he examines it in many of the tragedies. We can conclude, however, that the ‘practical man’ is far from the peak of human success in Shakespeare’s eyes. Figures such as Benvolio in Romeo and Juliet, Octavius Caesar in Antony and Cleaopatra and Malcolm in Macbeth are portrayed as cold and uninteresting, being unmoved by the great passions which bring the rise and fall of the tragic heroes. They put me in mind of Tennyson’s phrase “‘Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all.” Truly these ‘practical men’ have never loved, and thus are monochrome sketches in comparison to the glorious Technicolor of the heroes ? brilliant and flawed is superior to ordinary and consistent.

Inevitability is important in Shakespeare’s tragedies, 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 which he initiated but which have spiralled out of his control, as is the case in Macbeth, where once the hero has murdered Duncan it is inevitable that his reign of tyranny will escalate until he himself is destroyed. 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 through her egoism in refusing to take part in her father’s ‘love trial’. However, her suffering is completely disproportionate to the magnitude of her crime, which accentuates the tragedy even further.

The death of Cordelia, the one glimmer of hope and purity in a play full of injustice and suffering, gives a deeper meaning to Edmund’s “The wheel has come full circle” (V.iii.174) ? it destroys any sense of progress that has been achieved through Cordelia’s transformation from rampant egoist to selfless altruist and thus any sense that anything has been learnt or gained from all the pain and death. If one wishes to find hope at the end of King Lear then it must lie in Edgar, for one must assume that he will take up the post of King. It could be argued that Edgar has experienced madness without being mad through adopting the role of Poor Tom, and has learnt what it is to be “unaccommodated man” before without having to pay the ultimate price for his discovery, and therefore can avoid making the mistakes that Lear made. However, I would contest the notion that Edgar has learnt anything much: the stupidity he shows at the beginning by his unquestioning acceptance of Edmund’s frankly not very clever trick is still present at the end. He effectively allows Cordelia’s death when he is again fooled by Edmund, the latter encouraging Edgar to waste time by saying “This speech of yours hath moved me, / And shall perchance do good. But speak you on; / You look as you had something more to say.” Edgar has four times as many lines as Edmund, and if he had not wasted so much time then perhaps there would have been time to save Cordelia. If we put these events down to Edgar’s innocence rather than downright stupidity they are perhaps more tragic, being akin to Iago’s deception of Othello, but nevertheless the fact remains that Edgar has not learnt from his original mistake. If he is so easily deceived, whether through innocence or stupidity, he will not make a very good ruler and the consequences of his being deceived will be far more serious when he is in power than when only affects himself. Furthermore, Edgar’s treatment of his father, in keeping him alive and prolonging his misery anonymously when all he need do to halt the old man’s suffering is to reveal his identity. The sole aim of this seems to be to punish Gloucester for his sins and make him repentant, which is gratuitous when Gloucester has already endured the pain of having his eyes plucked out and believing he has lost his son, not to mention that he has already admitted his mistakes, saying “I stumbled when I saw”. This, combined with Edgar’s highly disturbing speech to the fallen Edmund in which he asserts, “The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices / Make instruments to plague us: / The dark and vicious place where he [Gloucester] thee got / Cost him his eyes” suggests a disturbingly vigilante Puritanism which is in conflict with the ‘enlightened’ Lear’s speech in where he asks why humans should be punished for adultery since “The wren goes to ‘t, and the small gilded fly / Does lecher in my sight.” ( I would therefore assert that far from being a promising candidate for King, he has a dangerous combination of naﶥté ¡nd disgust at the human condition, which suggests that the events of the play could well repeat themselves. As Macbeth says, “better be with the dead” (III.ii.19).

This cyclical nature is another common feature of the tragedies: too often nobody has learnt anything from the events of the play and thus there is no reason why they should not repeat themselves. Any hope, as with Edgar in King Lear, must reside in the characters left alive at the end of the play, and specifically in the character left in charge. In Othello, we have already seen Cassio’s weakness when, despite knowing well that he “[has] very poor and unhappy brains for drinking”, he nevertheless allows Iago to get him drunk. In Hamlet, the future success of the nation depends upon Fortinbras, who has been absent from the proceedings and so has not been able to learn from the mistakes that have been made, and in Romeo and Juliet I don’t believe that the newfound reconciliation of the two families will last long, given the centuries of feuding beforehand, and so everything will return to how it was at the beginning of the play the social and religious practices that made it necessary for Romeo and Juliet to kill themselves to preserve their love have not been changed so nothing has been achieved. Thus the fundamental theme that is presented in tragedy is one of waste, both the waste of life and of potential. Cordelia, Desdemona and Ophelia are virtuous, pure and largely innocent casualties of the tragic machinations (Cordelia is more culpable than the other two, but is redeemed by sacrificing herself for the good of her father), while the tragic heroes themselves are a great waste because relatively minor character flaws negate their huge potential for good. The most devastating revelation, however, is that this waste is a consequence of human nature, and not only are the incidences recurring; they are inevitable.


  1. Shakespeare’s Tragedies, ed. Laurence Lerner, Penguin Books, 1963
  2. Shakespeare’s Tragic Practice, Bertrand Evans, Oxford University Press, 1979

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