General Characteristics of Shakespearean Tragedies – Elizabethan Tragedies
General Characteristics of Shakespearean Tragedies
In Shakespearean tragedies, there is a story of exceptional calamity leading to the death of a man occupying a high position or a status. The matters which a Shakespearean tragedy deals with are not of individual significance but they have got a cosmic importance, e.g. justice, power, meaning of life, etc. the downfall of the hero shows the limitations and capacities of a person. A tragedy by Shakespeare is concerned chiefly with one man, and is a tale of sufferings and misfortunes leading to that man’s death and the deaths of a few others also. These sufferings produce an effect of tragic feelings, especially, the feelings of pity, awe and terror, though the character has some moral flaw or hamartia.
In Shakespearean tragedies, a tragic hero possesses a high status. He is not an ordinary man as considered by Aristotle. In case of Lear, we see that he is the king of Britain. He has the highest position in the country. Similarly, in case of Hamlet, we see that he is the prince of Denmark. As Ophelia, in the play “Hamlet”, refers to him as “the courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s eye, tongue and sword”.
In Shakespearean tragedies, a tragic hero has some fatal weakness (hamartia) in him. He makes some fatal mistake which brings about his tragic fall. In “King Lear”, the tragedy of Lear is mainly and largely owed to a defect in his own character. He loves flattery. Not only that; he is vain, rash and impulsive. Above all, Lear is a wrong judge of characters. His misjudgment causes his sufferings. In “Hamlet”, the tragedy of Hamlet is mainly because of a defect in his character. He thinks too much. He is a man of contemplation, speculation and meditation, rather than a man of action. As he himself points out his cause of delay:
“Of bestial oblivion or some craven scruple
Of thinking too precisely on th’event.”
Thus hamlet hesitates and wavers. This vacillation is the tragic flaw in his character.
In case of Shakespearean tragedy, the fault in the character of a hero is not wholly or solely responsible for his tragedy. Fate or destiny also plays a part in the tragic drama of Shakespeare. In “King Lear”, the role of fate is very small. Storm, the behavior of Lear’s two daughters, and the death of Cordelia play an important role in the tragedy of Lear. In “Hamlet”, the very appearance of the Ghost is a situation for which fate is responsible. His mother’s hasty marriage is also responsible.
Conflict is the essence of Shakespearean tragedies. This conflict is of two kinds: outward conflict among various characters and inner conflict in the mind of hero. In “King Lear”, however, we have very little of the inner conflict. External conflict is too much in the play. For instance, there is conflict between Kent and Lear, as a result of which Kent is banished. In “Hamlet”, there is external as well as internal conflict. In “Hamlet”, the outward conflict takes between Hamlet and Claudius. The inner conflict is revealed to us in Hamlet’s successive soliloquies. For instance, these lines contain mental debate:
“To be or not to be—that is the question.”
An inner conflict appears also very poignantly in the soliloquy which begins thus:
“How all occasions do inform against me!”
In a Shakespearean tragedy, a tragic hero generally comes to the realization of a truth of which he had originally been unaware. There is, as Aristotle says, “A change from ignorance to knowledge”. In “King Lear”, there is a marked development in the character of Lear. He becomes “the pattern of all patience”. He addresses to elemental forces:
“Here I stand, your slave
A poor, infirm, weak, despised old man”.
In this connection, Dover Wilson rightly says:
“The Lear that dies is not a Lear defiant, but redeemed. His education is complete, his regeneration accomplished”.
In “Hamlet”, when we first meet Hamlet, he is in a state of deep depression. The world seems to him “unweeded garden”, from which he would willingly depart. In the final scene, he no longer appears in slovenly dress; he apologizes to Laertes; he takes positive action by killing Claudius. He grows in stature and wisdom. There is a perfect unity of tone and effect in Shakespearean tragedies. In case of “Hamlet” and “King Lear”, there are different comic elements. However, they do not really interfere with the emotional effect of the play as a whole. In case of “King Lear”, there is also a sub-plot. Some critics consider it as an unnecessary burden on the plot and an interference with the play’s unity. But in actual effect, the sub-plot strengthens and reinforces the impression of the main plot because in both, the leading theme is filial ingratitude. In Shakespearean tragedies, the female characters are much less important than in comedies.
To sum up, the Shakespearean tragedies bring about the catharsis or purgation of pity, fear and kindred emotions. In “King Lear”, the spectacle of Lear’s madness is heart-rending. Lear inspires in us not only pity, but also much admiration and affection. Lear’s frankness and generosity, his heroic efforts to be patient, the depth of his shame and repentance, the ecstasy of his reunion with Cordelia melt our hearts. In “Hamlet”, the very appearance of Ghost creates a feeling of fear in our minds. Finally, the death of Hamlet creates in us a feeling of awe and fear, and this feeling has a saddening effect on us.