Shakespearean Concept of Tragedy

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      The concept ‘Shakespearean Tragedy’ becomes the most significant context of study among literary critics especially in the 19th and 20th centuries. This issue got prominence most importantly since the critical works of popular Shakespearean critic A. C. Bradley, whose work produced in 1904, containing his minute observation and thorough study. From Bradley’s analysis, we can gather better knowledge about Shakespearean tragedy because he studied the issue through various perspectives. According to Bradley, “Our understanding and enjoyment of these works as dramas is as if an actor studying the parts, coupled with a process of comparison and analysis”. Studying four (Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth,) of the famous tragedies of Shakespeare, Bradley argues that “Tragic story concern primarily with one person, a tale of suffering and calamity conducting to death, unexpected and contrasted with previous happiness or glory. Because of his previous actions and deeds, tragic protagonist meets the devastating fate not only in his personal life but also affects the welfare of the whole nation or empire. So, A. C. Bradley, in the first part of his Shakespearean Tragedy states that tragedy “would not be tragedy if it were not a painful mystery”.

      In his entire career, Shakespeare wrote 37 plays which are generally classified in three broad groups as tragedies, comedies and history plays:

      The fundamental examples of the genre of Shakespearean tragedy are Hamlet, Othello, King Lear Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra. The most noticeable characteristic of Shakespearean tragedies is that the protagonist belongs to a high status either by class like King Lear and Hamlet or by military rank like Othello and Macbeth. Not only the tragic heroes face the destruction at the end of the play but their lives, families, and/or socio-political structures are destroyed. Of course, many of Shakespeare’s history plays also share the same consequences as in the Shakespearean tragedies, but because they are based on real figures throughout the History of England, they were classified as ‘histories’ in the First Folio. The Roman tragedies - Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus - are also based on historical figures, but because their source stories were foreign and ancient they are almost always classified as tragedies rather than histories. Shakespeare’s romances or tragicomic plays were written late in his career and published originally under either tragedy or comedy. The share some elements of tragedy featuring a high status central character but end happily like Shakespearean comedies. Several hundred years after Shakespeare’s death, scholar F. S. Boas also coined a fifth category, - Shakespearean problem plays, for plays that do not fit neatly into a single classification because of their subject matter, setting, or ending. The classifications of certain Shakespeare plays are still debated among scholars.

      A.C. Bradley opines that Shakespeare’s main interest in his tragedies might be “action issuing from character or in Character issuing from action”. This means that in Shakespearean tragedies there are two possibilities of determining the fate and nature of tragic heroes: action-to-character and character-to-action. For example, in Othello Iago’s actions leads Othello to his character and in King Lear King’s nature or behavior of his character leads to the action. Same as in Hamlet situations and incidents create his character whereas in Macbeth Lady Macbeth or Macbeth’s over ambitious nature leads him to further action.

      With this stress on character and action Bradley also mentioned other tragic agent that is ‘Fate’. For Bradley, it is “a mythological expression for the whole system or order, of which the individual character form an inconsiderable and feeble part; which seem to determine, far more than they, their native dispositions and their circumstances, and, through these, their action”. He argues that in tragedy we feel emotions like repulsion, pity, wonder, fear, horror etc. but we do not judge them. So, his tragedies are dealing with what is good and evil but not with justice and merit and he adds that “Tragedy would not be tragedy if it were not a painful mystery”. So, good tragedy should have mystery which gives pain so that one can feel such emotions. Bradley observes that Shakespearean tragic characters are made of common stuffs which we also find in ourselves, but along with this commonness, they also share those inner conflicts which keep them different from what is called the average level: “We observe one sidedness, a predisposition in some particular direction; a total incapacity in certain circumstances, of resisting the force which draws in this direction, a fatal tendency to identify the whole being with one interest, object, passion or habit of mind”

      In course of his study, Bradley finds out one folly of Shakespeare in his play Hamlet - The mysteriousness of life is one thing, the psychological unintelligibility of a dramatic character is quite another”. According to him. in Hamlet strength and weakness mingled in one soul and this soul doomed to such misery and apparent failure. The reason is his mother’s nature and behavior which poisoned his mind and because of that his tendency towards women is generalized so he can never see Ophelia in the same light again. Here Bradley identifies “the feeling of a supreme power of destiny”. For Bradley Hamlet is “a state of profound melancholy”.

      About Othello, Bradley comments that it is the most painfully exciting and the most terrible of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Though it is not very symbolic, here the emotional pull is strong. The suffering of Desdemona is the nearly intolerable thing that Shakespeare offers us. Her suffering is like “the most loving of dumb creatures tortured without cause by the being he adores”. Bradley correctly ranks Iago on the top of Shakespeare’s evil characters because the greatest intensity and subtlety of imagination have gone into his making. In terms of psychological complexity, Bradley suggests he is equaled only by Hamlet. It does not show us a violent man, like Richard III who spends his life in murder, but a thoroughly bad, cold man, who is at least tempted to let loose the forces within him, and is at once destroyed.

      King Lear “as a whole is imperfectly dramatic, and there is something in its very essence which is at war with the senses, and demands a purely imaginative realization”. So this play is overpowered to the purely tragic emotions and physical horror works as stimulus to pity which appalled essence of the tragedy to excite. As Greek philosopher, Empedocles believes all matter is composed of particles of fire, water, air and earth, Shakespeare regards Love and Hate as the two ultimate forces of the universe for this play.

      Shakespeare no longer restricts the action to be purely human agencies, as in Macbeth. Of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Bradley writes that ‘there is egoism a cleux’; that means, they have no separate ambitions and they remain tragic till end, even grand. In this play many actions take place and further he compares Lady Macbeth with Iago and mentioned about the tone of the play which shows dark and bloody environment. In words of Bradley “It is as if the poet saw the whole story through an ensanguined mist, and as if it, stained the very blackness of the night”. Thus, through his minute observation and thorough study on Shakespearean tragedies Bradley brought a variety of dimensions in the way of reading Shakespeare in the 19th century which affects the latter time periods and he also justified himself by putting concrete arguments.

      Shakespearean tragedies open with a stable situation, but soon the characters reveal through their comments their surprise, insecurity or misgivings about it. For example, King Lear opens with a conversation between Kent and Gloucester about Lear not favoring Albany over Cornwall and continues with Gloucester’s mixed feelings about having had an illegitimate child. Similarly, Antony and Cleopatra opens with Demetrius’ and Philo’s comments about Antony’s doting on Cleopatra. In Hamlet Francisco’s (“I am sick at heart” and later Marcellus’ (“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” words add to the atmosphere of impending doom. Othello opens with Roderigo complaining to Iago about having used his purse and withholding information apparently important to Roderigo. In Macbeth and Hamlet the appearances of ‘aliens’ or supernatural beings help to create this feeling of instability. There is an evil character or characters — who through ambition or malice destroys the once stable situation. Iago, Lear’s daughters, Edmund, Macbeth all are of this category. There are some characters (Iago, Cordelia etc.) or spirit (Ghost, Weird Sisters) whose words push the hero into tragic action. In Antony’s case it is Cleopatra’s charm that leads him to tragic inaction.

      Aristotle called the protagonist’s weakness the tragic flaw because, he believed this flaw was the cause of the hero’s fall. In Shakespearean tragedy the tragic hero sometimes plays an active role in the events that follow, while at other times he does not. For example, Lear divides his kingdom and disinherits the daughter who really loves him, and Richard II banishes Mowbray, his supporter. Similarly, Macbeth is coerced into acting by Lady Macbeth, though he had previously stated: “If chance will have me king, why chance may crown me / Without my stir”. He could have waited for the “Weird Sisters” prediction to take place. Northrop Frye equates the tragic flaw with false pride, and calls the tragic hero “an imposter”, “self-deceived or made dizzy by Hybris”.

      The tragic hero usually has a trustworthy nature. Hamlet, however, though he is referred to by Claudius as “being remiss, / Most generous, and free from all contriving”, does not trust the king, and for this reason, he was able to exchange his lot with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Not surprisingly, Hamlet has his misgivings about the duel, in spite of the fact that he insists “it is such a kind of gain giving as would perhaps trouble a woman”. Knowing Claudius, Hamlet is necessarily suspicious of anything in which the king is involved. The Shakespearean tragic hero may be credulous or at least give a lot of importance to words as Othello, King Lear, Gloucester have done, but Hamlet does not trust words, not even those of the Ghost. Only Antony is the other exception. He does not trust Caesar or his men.

      All the tragedies under study end with the death of the tragic hero, an element apparently common to most tragedies, not only Shakespeare’s. In Shakespearean tragedies, the death of the tragic hero is not an isolated event because it brings with it the death of almost all the other characters. The king’s plan to kill Hamlet results in the deaths of Gertrude, Laertes and the king himself, who receives the poisoned sword Laertes had used on Hamlet. To make a generalized view about Shakespearean tragedy is a job of challenge since the commonness of incidents is very rarely repeated in his works. Notwithstanding, the only characteristic that seems to apply to those under study is the death of the tragic hero and the political turmoil and loss of lives that this death brings with it. However, with respect to the tragic hero, we cannot find many general characteristics because sometimes he is not only the “hero” but the villain, as is the case with Macbeth. The same can be said about his character or reactions. Hamlet is as obsessed with his mother’s marriage as Othello is with Desdemona’s supposed infidelity. However, Hamlet does not kill his mother, even though the thought does come to his mind. Lear, the epitome of arrogance, who disowns his favorite daughter because she is incapable of flatteries and who banishes a loyal vassal for speaking the truth, later kneels in front of Regan, something unthinkable to Lear at the beginning. However, all Shakespearean tragic heroes, even the evil ones, eventually exhibit that special stature that makes us feel we are confronting a demigod. If we feel repelled by Macbeth’s actions we are drawn to the character by his inner struggle and determination. But though all Shakespearean tragedies do not have common characteristics, each tragedy shares at least some features with most of the others, and all of them share that special and intangible Shakespearean quality that makes them great.

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