This handout was prepared by Dr. William Tarvin, a retired professor of literature. Please visit his free website www.tarvinlit.com. Over 500 works of American and British literature are analyzed there for free.
Note: This handout uses the following text: David Bevington, ed. The Complete Works of Shakespeare, 4th ed. New York: Longman, 1997.
I. SHAKESPEAREAN COMEDY AND TRAGEDY CONTRASTED
A. SHAKESPEAREAN COMEDY has the following characteristics:
1. An atmosphere of optimism.
2. Festive endings, such as weddings, dancing, feasts, and songs.
3. Reconciliation of protagonists with antagonists.
4. Romantic young lovers.
5. No great danger or real pain.
6. The principal setting is often in a “green world” (nature).
7. The rise (not the fall) of the protagonist.
B. SHAKESPEAREAN TRAGEDY has the following contrasting characteristics:
1. An atmosphere of pessimism.
2. Mournful endings, such as a funeral march.
3. An absence of reconciliation.
4. Older protagonists: Except for Romeo and Juliet, all of the tragic protagonists are considerably older than those of the comedies: Caesar is in his middle 50s and Brutus in his early 40s; Hamlet is 30; Othello and Macbeth are middle-aged, and Lear is in his 80s.
5. Danger is imminent, and pain is real. Evil is an oppressive force. Tragic issues are issues of life and death (not, as in the comedies, who will get the girl or boy), and the tragic struggles are struggles to the death.
6. The “green world” is seldom brought on stage. In the tragedies, there is no pastoral retreat for reflection, peace, and renewal, as in the comedies: Instead, nature is menacing, as in the storm scene in Lear, or a “green world” setting is used as the place of a suicide, as with Ophelia’s drowning herself in the garden pool in Hamlet.
7. The fall of the protagonist: This fall should be caused by some error or moral weakness in the protagonist. However, the suffering is usually out of proportion to this error or weakness, as Lear seems to recognize when he proclaims, “I am a man / More sinned against than sinning ” (3.2.59-60). Typically, though, the tragic protagonist will gain some wisdom about the nature of life from his or her fall.
II. CHARACTERISTICS OF SHAKESPEAREAN TRAGEDY
A. ELEVATION OF THE TRAGIC PROTAGONIST
1. The Shakespearean tragic protagonists show great strength of character. In a sense, they transcend the violence pitted against them. Even in apparent defeat they attain a pyrrhic victory.
2. Generally they are elevated above the norm into supermen/women. Superlatives abound when other characters speak of them. In JC, Brutus is called “the noblest Roman of them all” (5.5.75). Hamlet is “the expectancy and rose of the fair state” (3.1.160). Othello is the noble Moor, the greatest soldier of his day. Macbeth is compared with Lucifer, the brightest angel who fell from Heaven.
B. MADNESS AS A SIGN OF INTENSE INNER STRUGGLE
1. In many of Shakespeare’s tragedies, the protagonists are driven to madness or a state bordering on madness:
–Hamlet says he is feigning madness (but this statement may disguise his fear that he is really going mad), while Ophelia actually descends into madness;
–Othello falls into a foaming epileptic fit;
–Lear is driven crazy by the cruelty of his evil daughters.
–Macbeth sees hallucinations, a sign of mental disorder, while the sleepwalking Lady Macbeth is confirmation of the doctor’s statement to Macbeth that his wife has gone mad.
2. Madness is the most dreadful affliction of the human spirit, the ultimate threat to one’s dignity as a human being.
3. It is also a reminder that a person’s capacity to suffer has a breaking point; in this sense, madness humanizes the tragic protagonist by showing that even the most elevated person has his or her limitations.
C. PERSONAL/SOCIAL/NATURAL INTERRELATIONSHIP
1. In Shakespeare’s tragedies, this personal struggle is mirrored socially and naturally.
2. Chaos within is also chaos without—in nature and in society.
3. The chaos of nature is seen in the frightful storms of JC, Lr., and Mac., which powerfully reinforce the conflicts within and between the tragic characters.
4. Natural chaos is also seen in the appearance of ghosts or witches (JC, Ham., Mac.) and through references to unnatural events in nature which serve as omens of disaster (Rom., JC, Ham., Oth., Lr., and Mac.).
5. Chaos in society is observed in civil strife, uprisings, military preparations, and war, which are in the foreground or background of Rom., JC, Ham., Oth., Lr., and Mac.
D. ISOLATION OF THE TRAGIC PROTAGONIST
1. The tragic protagonist typically must face the mental, natural, and social storm alone or with the fewest of people he or she can trust.
2. Romeo and Juliet die in human isolation.
3. At his end, Brutus has become alienated from the only person he had been able to trust, his fellow assassin Cassius, and ultimately commits a lonely suicide.
4. Hamlet has only Horatio to whom he can confide.
5. After killing his wife, the only person who gave meaning to his existence, Othello is left confused and alone.
6. Macbeth’s ambition separates him from the very person who had ignited his ambition—his wife; while they are inseparable in the early and middle scenes of the play, they are never seen together in the last act of the play.
7. Lear is isolated on the heath.
8. Pressing time is also an isolating agent in the plays. Time is always presented as pressing down on the tragic protagonists, rushing them to their doom.
9. Compared with the sources from which Shakespeare got the stories of his tragedies, the time span of his tragedies is always shortened.
10. Furthermore, the tragic protagonists frequently bemoan that they are bothered by rushing time, as in Macbeth’s “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow / Creeps in this petty pace from day to day” (5.5.19-20).
E. COMIC RELIEF
1. Unlike Greek and Roman tragedies which deal with only serious matters, Shakespearean tragedies have some interposed comic scenes.
2. Scenes invoking laughter serve paradoxical purposes: they both relieve and intensify the suffering of the tragic protagonists.
3. Hamlet’s sexual puns are not only an outlet for him to reveal his disgust at his mother for marrying her brother-in-law but also a means for him to torment himself by heightening his nausea at the situation.
4. Similarly, the witty comments of the Fool in Lear both entertain and torment the king.
5. In Mac., the humorous porter’s scene also has a double function: it allows the play’s audience to make a transition from the “hell” of Duncan’s murder to the normal world represented by the characters whom the porter ushers in.
1. The world of the tragedies is one where evil dominates, and the evil is usually from the most unexpected source: from one’s best or most trusted friend (as in JC or Oth. or Mac.) or from a family member (Ham. or Lr.).
2. Also, Shakespeare’s tragedies seem to suggest that evil is ineradicable. “Something” will always be “rotten in the state of Denmark” (Ham. 1.4.90).
3. Simple people (always the majority) will be insensitive to this elemental evil or content with simple pseudo-solutions: For instance, the mob in JC follows the leader who has the most power at that moment, never asking if this person represents goodness or evil. Also, few protest the horrible treatment of the aged Lear by his evil daughters.
4. In addition, goodness or good characters must often hide or go in disguise in Shakespeare’s tragedies, while evil or evil characters rampantly exult in their successes.
5. In the face of this overt evil, finer spirits will suffer more because they are more finely attuned to the evil. Also these tragic heroes or heroines will attempt to remedy the evil, although seemingly with reluctance, as in Hamlet’s “O cursed spite / That ever I was born to set it [the evil in Denmark] right” (1.5.197-98).
5. In Shakespeare’s great tragedies, evil is directly the consequence of sin, often Biblical in nature:
–the destructive ambition of Caesar’s assassins or of Lear’s evil daughters or of Macbeth;
–a brother’s murder of a brother (Ham.) or a sister’s poisoning of a sister (Lr.) or a soldier’s murder of his king and kinsman (Mac.);
–greed (Iago’s obsession with money).
–failure to honor one’s parents (Lr.)
6. Lastly, Shakespeare’s great tragedies ask the basic and hardest questions about the nature of goodness and evil:
–Is there any meaning or order or justice in the universe?
–Is God (or Nature or some other controlling force) good or evil or simply indifferent to humanity?
–Is the human suffering brought on by evil actions meaningless, or can this suffering lead to insight, wisdom, and the determination to confront and defeat evil?
Shakespearean tragedy (as with other philosophical works) gives only ambiguous answers to these questions about the nature of evil.