The focus of this article will be on Shakespearean tragedy, tragicomedy as well as the chronicle play. The drama of Ben Johnson, Shakespeare’s contemporary will equally be examined here.
William Shakespeare wrote enduring and memorable tragedies, including King Lear, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, etc. Most of Shakespeare’s statements used today in garnishing public speeches and funeral orations are drawn from his tragic plays. This unit examines the nature and characteristics of Shakespearean tragedy and concludes with an analysis of Macbeth.
Nature of Shakespearean Tragedy
Shakespearean tragedies deal with multiplicity of themes and enduring human passions and these imbue them with the quality of timelessness. The most driving forces for human actions like love, hatred, envy, jealousy, lust, pride, revenge, and vaulting ambition etc., are given penetrating treatment in Shakespeare’s tragic plays. In essence, Shakespeare is panoramic in his conception and expression of the tragic view of life, and this complexity makes it extremely difficult for critics to agree on what the plays say or do not say.
Characteristics of Shakespearean Tragedy
It is difficult to discuss all the qualities of Shakespearean tragedy in this study. So, they will be merely scratched on the surface by explaining a few of them. Some of these qualities have been identified by A.C. Bradley (1955) as indicated below.
- Shakespearean tragedy deals with people of high estate whose fate affects “the welfare of a whole nation or empire”.
- The calamity that befalls Shakespearean character is not sent by any supernatural power, but “proceeds mainly from actions, and those the actions of men”. In Shakespeare’s tragedy, the hero initiates an action which “beget others and those others beget others, until this series of interconnected deeds leads by an apparently inevitable sequence to a catastrophe”. This means that the hero normally makes contribution to his destruction.
- However, there are evidences of the presence of the supernatural in some of the Shakespearean tragedies, but as Bradley rightly observes, the supernatural:
gives a confirmation and a distinct form to inward movements already present and exerting an influence: to the sense of failure in Brutus, to the stifled workings of conscience in Richard, to the half-formed thought, or the horrified memory of guilt in Macbeth, to suspicion in Hamlet. Moreover, its influence is never a compulsive kind. It forms no more than an element, however important, in the problem which the hero has to face; and we are never allowed to feel that it has removed his capacity or responsibility for dealing with the problem.
- Unlike, Sophoclean tragedy Oedipus Rex, Shakespearean hero does not remain alive at the end of the play. So for Shakespeare, tragedy is “essentially a tale of suffering and calamity conducting to death”.
- A fundamental quality of Shakespearean tragedy is that there is always a “fatal tendency to identify the whole being with one interest, object, passion, or habit of the mind”. The hero tends to move in one direction.
- In some tragedies, conflict is outward like in Julius Caesar where Julius Caesar contends with the conspirators; but in his mature tragedies, conflict is inward. The hero is often driven by desire, scruple, doubt, etc.
- Roland Mushat Frye (1982) gives yet other characteristics of Shakespearean tragedy as follows.
- Shakespearean tragedy concentrates on older people. According to him, “Maturity with its responsibilities and problems is moved from the background to the very centre of the action, and conflict between generations takes a degree of intensity absent from any of his comedies”.
- The tragic characters have no pastoral retreat, no green worlds. Evil is too oppressive to afford characters any moment of relaxation.
- There is always a pressure on time and this makes the hero to be in a state of emergency all the time.
- In Shakespearean tragedy, existence is reduced to chaos. The atmosphere is dominated by fear. Violence is contagious and extreme action earns extreme penalty.
- Although order is normally re-established, Shakespearean tragedy usually ends in “majestic music of a funeral march”.
- Comic relief helps to reduce tragic intensity.
- Shakespeare’s tragic heroes have power of expression. They think about situations and match their deeds with speeches of equal grandeur.