Shakespearean Plays of Tragedy Analysis

Also Read

       Shakespeare wrote tragedies, comedies and history plays. Dr Johnson said that comedy is his instinct, tragedy is his skill. But he is at his best both in tragedies and comedies. His early tragedies are Titus Andronicus, Romeo and Juliet, Richard II and Richard III. Titus Andronicus written in 1592-93 and published in 1594 is the most lamentable Roman tragedy of Titus Andronicus. It is modelled after Seneca's Thystes and is full of sensational elements. Romeo and Juliet is a love tragedy and portrays the tragic love story of Romeo and Juliet. It centres on the feud of two families. It is however more poetic than tragic. Richard II (1595-96) and Richard III (1592-93) are historical tragedies full of melodrama, although Shakespeare claims admiration for the villain who secures the murder of his uncle Gloucester, Thomas of Woodstock and banished his cousin Bolingbrooke. Richard II has also a murderous career. These are crude tragedies of murders and sensationalism.

Shakespeare wrote tragedies, comedies and history plays. Dr Johnson said that comedy is his instinct, tragedy is his skill. But he is at his best both in tragedies and comedies. His early tragedies are Titus Andronicus, Romeo and Juliet, Richard II and Richard III.

      Shakespeares plays of tragedy begin with Julius Ceasar (1599-1600). It is a roman play and deals with the murder of Caesar by the conspirators who take Brutus, a political idealist in their side. As a matter of fact, it portrays the conflict of Brutus between friendship and republicanism and his tragic death. Shakespeare's mind is divided between Caesarism and Brutus as an individual and so he cannot attain the tragic height. However, he shows great mastery in the portrayal of Brutus, Cassius, Antony and Brutus's wife Portia.

      Shakespeare's most outstanding achievements in tragedy are Hamlet (1600-01), Othello (1602-03), King Lear (1606) and Macbeth (1606). His Roman plays Anthony and Cleopatra and Cariolanus are also tragedies. Hamlet is a revenge tragedy of Senecan type, but he transcends the type by his superb characterisation of the psychological complexities of Hamlet. Hamlet delays in executing the revenge and his delay is rooted in his mind which is loaded with many questions. There are murders and melodrama, but the insight with which he delineates the characters and the glorious poetry of the play make it a high tragedy. He puts soliloquies to great dramatic purpose for revealing the depth of character.

      Othello is a study of jealousy. Othello, the black moor marries the Venetian girl Desdemona. He loves her intensely and deeply, but he cannot love her wisely. lago, a villain poisons his mind against Desdemona who is described as in illicit league with Cassius, a white man. Othello's occupation is gone, and he is wrought to the extreme. He murders Desdemona because he does not want to see a stain in the alabastor whiteness of her beauty and virtue. Here blank verse attains dignity and grandeur in the speeches of Othello, but he uses prose with equal felicity.

      King Lear portrays evil in its monstrous manifestations. lt is a tragedy of imperial egoism. He cannot judge the characters of his daughters and divides his kingdom between two evil daughters and denies the share to his good Cordelia. This impulse action brings its Nemesis. It is a cosmic tragedy in which evil is shown not only in the indiViduals but also in the whole universe. In this play, Shakespeare's language gains rich symbolic suggestiveness, He wrote speeches in great sweeps and language and imagery become exceedingly complex suggesting a dozen different ideas and associations. It is characterised by excessive concentration of thought and profoundly poetic and complex imagery and language.

      Macbeth which follows Lear is equally remarkable for depth and dimension in its characterisation and suggestion of pervading evil in the universe. Macbeth has murdered the virtuous king Duncan and has thus disintegrated the moral universe. His sufferings are spiritual. He strides from murder to murder but always his poetic faculty makes him aware of the consequences. The tragedy of loneliness is griping. Macbeth's soliloquies show his imaginative awareness of what he is doing and its consequences. The turmoil in Macbeth's mind is conveyed through clotted imagery and density of meaning in the language. In King Lear, Shakespeare uses the theme words Nature and Nothing. Gonerid and Regan are, 'unnatural hags' and Cordelia 'redeems Nature from the general course'. In Macbeth, Shakespeare uses the theme words like 'blood, 'darkness', 'dress. In both the tragedies, power and resonance of language are cleverly used to underpin the themes. In King Lear, the hero grows in awareness, he is expanding as he goes through sufferings, but Macbeth is contracting and degenerating as criminal but in his sensibility, imagination and weariness of spirit he shows how he has himself injured his moral sense. These two mature tragedies are charged with irony and metaphorical resonance and show evil in its tremendous manifestations but at the same time suggest the reorientation of good and evil. The audience are faced with difficult moral choice.

      Antony and Cleopatra (1607) follows Lear. It lacks the vastness of Lear and Macbeth nor does it attain the structural coherence and titanic treatment of the heroes. It is based on Roman history and shows the conflict of Antony between two worlds - Egypt and Rome. His transcendental love of Cleopatra makes him neglect his duties as king and soldier. It is a poetic tragedy in which loves of Antony and Cleopatra are shown in their magnificent beauty and grandeur. Here sympathies are diffuse, and not concentrated. But in the verse ot Antony and Cleopatra, there is a kind of resonance which he has nowhere achieved:

"Oh, my oblivion is a very Antony

And I am all forgotten."

      It shows how simple language becomes sublime poetry. Poetry has become functional to dramatise the overmastering passion of the two characters, the passion that has a tragic overtone. "Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch, Of the rang'd Empire fall".

      Cariolanus is the tragedy of the pride of the hero, though there is the public theme of the struggle between the patricians and plebians just as in Julius Caeser. There is the struggle between Caesarism and republicanism. He condenses and telescopes the materials of history with a view to portraying the character and action of Cariolanus, and their interrelation culminating in his death. But Cariolanus has nothing tragic dimension of Lear and Macbeth, nor the psychological subtlety of Hamlet and Othello, nor the magnificent poetry of Antony and Cleopatra.

Previous Post Next Post