Shakespearean Tragedy Defined

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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.

 

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Macbeth: A Tragedy

 

Macbeth (3)

At the outset let’s attempt to define what we mean by ‘Shakespearean Tragedy’.  No one tragedy fits perfectly any one definition of it, 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, evil is the cause of the catastrophe.  Shakespeare believed that his tragedies, including Macbeth, depicted the struggle between good and evil in the world.

Therefore, the best way to begin the study of any tragedy is to do what we have summarised above: describe the main elements of tragedy itself, say what happens and how it happens, and take stock of the qualities which are usually associated with the tragic hero.  Shakespeare’s tragic hero is always a man (Macbeth, Hamlet, Lear, Othello, etc.) of exceptional nature, a great man with more powerful consciousness, deeper emotions, and more splendid imagination than ordinary men.  He is a sensitive being often torn by an internal struggle.    We see our hero set out on a particular course of action and because of a ‘fatal flaw’ (Aristotle’s ‘hamartia‘) in his character he suffers ‘reversals of fortune’ and brings suffering on himself and others; he brings about his own death and the deaths of many others.  Macbeth succumbs to his powerful failing in his nature and is destroyed by it.  He moves along a preordained path through questioning, to awareness of his wrongdoing and finally to perception.  He undertakes a course of action which is credible and probable and the inevitable direction of the hero’s movement is from prosperity to adversity, from centrality to isolation.  This is well expressed by Chaucer’s Monk:

 Tragedy means a certain kind of story,

As old books tell, of those who fell from glory,

People that stood in great prosperity

And were cast down out of their high degree

Into calamity and so they died.

(The Canterbury Tales, trans. by Nevill Coghill, 1951, p. 212)

An essential tragic requirement is that the hero must be ‘a great man’ – a man of some status in society.  The essential features here are moral stature and greatness of personality.  In Shakespearian tragedy, such qualities are invariably associated with eminent people (Chaucer’s men of ‘high degree’) engaged in great events.  The hero in any tragedy must be a man who can command our earnest good will, a man whose fortunes interest and concern us.  We identify with him in his suffering; he must be a man who reminds us strongly of our humanity, whom we can accept as standing for us  –  (‘There but for the grace of God go I’).  Unless this sympathy for the tragic hero is maintained to the end the dramatist has failed in his essential task.

The tragic hero inevitably meets with disaster due to his unrealised and unforeseen failures.  He consciously sets out to undertake a specific course of action, ‘I am settled, and bend up / Each corporal agent to this terrible feat (Act I, Scene vii).  However, he now has no control over the consequences of his actions.  The notion of blindness is appropriate to his condition here, just as that of recovered sight is appropriate to his later recognition of what he has done and what he has become as a result.  The Golden Rule is that ‘what’s done cannot be undone’.  When he decides to murder Duncan and usurp the throne, Macbeth deprives himself of his freedom: his life now follows a determined and inescapable pattern after the fatal act.  In this regard it should be said that although Macbeth may appear to be – and is commonly described as – a play about ambition and its effects, it is not fundamentally that.  To stress ambition as the source of Macbeth’s tragic error is a case of false emphasis.  What happens is that he is tempted by forces hostile to his good into proving their predictions true.  In his efforts to fulfil a fated plan he is destroyed (just like Oedipus); these efforts lead him to forge a chain of crime from which he cannot break free.

The problem of Macbeth’s ‘motivation’ or lack of it is often given a central place in discussions of the play.  If he does not strongly covet the crown, he has no logical motive for killing Duncan.  Shakespeare does not present him as a man driven by an unquenchable ambition for power.  Indeed critics of the play have found his conduct wildly improbable, his murder of Duncan completely out of character.  When he is first tempted, he is racked by feelings of horror and guilt; the thought of murder makes his heart knock at his ribs and his hair stand on end; he has the conscience of a good man.  The problem, for some critics, is to believe in the transformation of the conscience-stricken figure of the early scenes into the ‘butcher’ and ‘hell-hound’ of the later ones.  His later murders are even more difficult to explain in terms of ‘logical’ motivation.  His fears in Banquo ‘stick deep’, yet surely his real target should be Fleance, since Banquo himself can never, if the witches are to be trusted (and Macbeth trusts them), be a danger.  Still, it is Banquo’s murder, not Fleance’s, which occupies most of his attention.  This goes to show that tragedy, not unlike real life, does not always conform to neat, logical packaging – what is important is that Shakespeare is exploring here the progress of a man towards self-destruction.  We marvel at the fact that he has the capacity to commit acts, which seem to violate his essential good nature.

Central to our definition of tragedy is the process referred to earlier as ‘reversal of fortune’, which is what happens when the hero achieves the opposite effect to what he meant or expected.  In tragedy, as has been stated already, the hero undertakes a specific course of action which leads to suffering and awareness at the end.  In their blindness, both the Macbeth’s believe that if they usurp Duncan’s throne they will live happily ever after; what they actually achieve is almost total misery culminating in ruin.

Aristotle’s final criterion for good tragedy was that the audience would experience ‘catharsis’, that is, be left with a mixture of feelings, of pity and fear at the end of the performance.  This is true of Macbeth, the sensitive, conscience-stricken, tortured Macbeth inspires pity, while the tyrannical Macbeth, ‘in blood stepp’d in so far’ inspires terror.

Shakespeare does a wonderful balancing act in Macbeth. The audience maintain their sympathy for Macbeth, the tragic hero, while also recognising the reality that evil must be destroyed and good must triumph.  This is achieved with Macduff’s final gory victory over Macbeth. Malcolm can now assume his rightful place on the throne.  Order has finally been restored – for the time being at least!

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