Modern definitions of the word tragedy don’t help when trying to explain the niceties of Shakespearean tragedy. Our sensationalist news channels such as Sky and CNN are very quick to bring us the latest tragedy; a passenger jet crashes with the loss of all on board; a bridge collapses causing mayhem for home-bound commuters; a school is in lock-down after a young student kills his teacher and many of his fellow students before turning his gun on himself. Our modern definition of ‘tragedy’, therefore, is usually synonymous with the word ‘disaster’; or an event causing great suffering, destruction, and distress, such as a serious accident, crime, or natural catastrophe.
These modern definitions do not help us greatly when trying to describe the action in one of Shakespeare’s tragedies. The good news is that Shakespeare is clearly following a template, one laid down centuries earlier by Aristotle and others – in fact, it can be said that he invented the sequel! So, therefore, if you have studied one tragedy well, you have a huge advantage when you come to study the next one! However, the sad news for all you aspiring young actors is that all Shakespeare’s tragic heroes are men and secondly, if you happen to be playing the title role in one of these tragedies, then universally you will meet a rather gruesome end.
Shakespeare, the consummate businessman, tended to rotate his dramas, so he knew the audience could only take so much comedy, or history or tragedy in any one season. As opposed to his Comedies or Histories, his Tragedies always dealt with tragic events and always had an unhappy ending i.e. the tragic hero dies.
Spoiler Alert! Sometimes, however, Shakespeare’s genius is evident as in Macbeth when the tragic hero suffers a gruesome beheading at the end (sad ending!) but the audience leave the theatre with the knowledge that order has been restored in the kingdom and so Scotland has been rescued from a murderous tyrant (happy ending!).
So, to summarise, no one tragedy fits perfectly any one definition, but the conventions of tragedy require certain tragic elements. Aristotle considered tragedy to be ‘the fall of princes’. Macbeth falls into this category: he is a thane and he becomes king. Generally, in Shakespearean Tragedy, the tragic hero sets out on a course of action but because of a flaw in his character evil enters and is the cause of the catastrophe. Shakespeare believed that his tragedies, including Macbeth, depicted the struggle between good and evil in the world.
The notion of the tragic hero is also problematic. It seems, at face value, to be a paradoxical term, an oxymoron like Groucho Marx’s famous ‘military intelligence’. Our dramas today, in our cinemas, in particular, give us loads of suited heroes from Spiderman, to Superman, to Batman and these modern heroes always win. Tragic heroes, on the other hand, always die!
Shakespeare’s tragic heroes all possess definite characteristics and hopefully, the extreme sexism of the following statements will be understood by members of my female audience! After all, we have to realise that Shakespeare was writing in the late 1500’s and early 1600’s so, inevitably, his tragic hero is always a man of exceptional nature, a great man such as a King or a great General or a Prince, with a more powerful consciousness, deeper emotions and a more splendid imagination than mere ordinary mortals. He is a sensitive being with a spiritual bias. He has a divided soul, he is torn by an internal struggle. However, this tragic hero has some weakness, some fatal flaw that contributes to his downfall. Aristotle called this internal weakness of the hero the ‘hamartia’, the tragic flaw, an essential element in tragedy. Macbeth’s tragic flaw is his ambition. He succumbs to this powerful failing in his nature and is destroyed by it. His ambition pushes him into a sequence of action which inevitably leads to his death. Macbeth attempts the impossible, to usurp the lawful king, and because the means he employs are evil and against the natural law, the inevitable consequences of his actions work themselves out and the result is tragedy.
Aristotle’s criterion for good tragedy was that the members of the audience should experience ‘catharsis’, that is, pity and terror for the tragic hero. The sensitive, conscience-stricken, tortured Macbeth inspires pity, and the tyrannical Macbeth, ‘in blood stepp’d in so far’ inspires terror.
Therefore, Shakespeare, in Macbeth, does a wonderful balancing act between the audience having sympathy for Macbeth while also recognising the reality that evil must be destroyed and good must triumph in the end and order must be restored to the kingdom.