An introduction to Shakespearean Tragedy

Despite their dazzling diversity, the tragedies of Shakespeare gain their enduring power from a shared dramatic vision, argues Kiernan Ryan.

When we think about Shakespearean tragedy, the plays we usually have in mind are Titus Andronicus, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus. That core list of nine can be expanded to twelve, however, if we include the history plays Richard III and Richard II, both of which were also billed as tragedies in Shakespeare’s day, and Timon of Athens, whose claim to inclusion is more questionable, but which is listed as one of the tragedies on the contents page (the ‘Catalogue’) of the 1623 First Folio. So, for that matter, is Cymbeline, though no one could make a credible case for its belonging there, when it plainly belongs with the late romances – Pericles, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest – with which it’s long been grouped. Troilus and Cressida, on the other hand, despite being advertised in an earlier edition as a first-rate comedy, is also entitled a tragedy in the First Folio, but not listed at all in the Catalogue and placed ambiguously – as befits its unclassifiable nature – between the histories and the tragedies.

The more one ponders the question of what qualifies as a Shakespearean tragedy, the more complicated it can become. So modern studies of Shakespeare’s tragedies tend to focus on the plays whose right to the title is undisputed, and treat each one separately as a self-contained tragedy, leaving the question of what unites them unaddressed or unresolved. There’s a lot to be said for approaching each tragedy first and foremost as a unique work of dramatic art in its own right. And the temptation to boil them all down to the same generic formula should obviously be resisted. But it would be equally misguided to rule out the possibility of identifying what the tragedies have in common without dissolving the differences between them. For that would mean denying the strong sense most people have, when watching or reading these plays, that there’s something distinctively Shakespearean about their tragic vision that sets them apart from other kinds of tragedy.

Photograph of Orson Welles and Arthur Anderson in Julius Caesar

Photograph of Orson Welles and Arthur Anderson in Julius Caesar

The tent scene in the 1937 production of Orson Welles’s Julius Caesar: The Death of a Dictator.

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Copyright: © Condé Nast Archive / Corbis

Romeo and Juliet

So what is it that stamps a play as the kind of tragedy that merits the term ‘Shakespearean’? The detailed answer that question demands is beyond the scope of this brief introduction. But the basic points of the argument it would entail can be outlined here, and my articles on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth should go some way towards fleshing them out.

The key point should become clear if we turn to one of Shakespeare’s earliest tragedies, Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare’s immortal couple have become a global byword for lovers driven unjustly to their doom because they belong to warring factions that refuse to tolerate their love. During the last four centuries the play has inspired countless adaptations and offshoots on stage and screen, as well as operas, symphonies, fiction, poetry and paintings. But Romeo and Juliet couldn’t have acquired its enduring resonance, if the significance and value of the tragedy were trapped in the time when Shakespeare wrote it. If the play made sense and mattered only in terms of that time, it wouldn’t be able to reach across the centuries and speak with such urgency to so many different cultures now. That Romeo and Juliet is rooted in the age of Shakespeare, and can’t be fully understood without some knowledge of the world it sprang from, hardly needs demonstrating. But no critical account or production can do justice to Romeo and Juliet, if it’s not alert to the ways in which it was far ahead of Shakespeare’s time and is still far ahead of ours too.

Photographs of a Syrian Romeo and Juliet, 2015

Photographs of a Syrian Romeo and Juliet, 2015

A 12-year-old Syrian refugee in Jordan, Ibrahim, plays a Romeo separated from his Juliet by the current conflict in the Middle East.

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Copyright: © Getty Images / AFP Footage

Coleridge was the first critic to grasp, over 200 years ago, this crucial characteristic of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. Shakespeare ‘writes not for past ages,’ observes Coleridge, ‘but for that in which he lives, and that which is to follow. It is natural that he should conform to the circumstances of his day, but a true genius will stand independent of those circumstances.’ ‘It is a poor compliment to a poet’, Coleridge remarks with Shakespeare in mind, ‘to tell him that he has only the qualifications of an historian.’ And what enables Shakespeare’s drama to stand independent of the historical circumstances to which it otherwise conforms is what Coleridge calls its ‘prophetic’ quality, its dream of ‘that which is to follow’. While he ‘registers what is past’ in his plays, Shakespeare also ‘projects the future in a wonderful degree’, and thus ‘shakes off the iron bondage of space and time’, as Coleridge superbly puts it.

Coleridge's annotated copy of Shakespeare

Coleridge's annotated copy of Shakespeare

Coleridge made extensive annotations to his copy of The Dramatic Works of Shakespeare. These are some of his notes on Othello.

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‘My bounty is as boundless as the sea’

It’s hard to think of a Shakespearean tragedy that illustrates Coleridge’s insight more clearly than Romeo and Juliet. The love that Romeo and Juliet discover may be fleeting, but it’s a new kind of love that propels them beyond the horizon of Shakespeare’s world and remains an inspiring ideal in our own. Romeo’s infatuation with Rosaline had been rightly mocked by Mercutio as the same old Petrarchan scenario of submissive male tormented by unrequited love for an unattainable mistress. But Mercutio’s remedy for Romeo’s clichéd quandary is merely its inverted mirror-image, the subjugation of female to male in an aggressive act of self-gratification: ‘If love be rough with you, be rough with love; / Prick love for pricking, and you beat love down’ (1.4.27–28). Both scenarios lock both parties into an unequal relationship that subordinates one of them to the will of the other. But the relationship of Romeo and Juliet is based on reciprocity rather than subservience. As the Chorus tells us: ‘Now Romeo is beloved and loves again’ (‘loves again’ means ‘loves back in return’); they are equally attracted to each other: ‘Alike bewitched by the charm of looks’; and, unlike Rosaline, Juliet is ‘as much in love’ with Romeo as he is with her (2 Chorus 5-6, 11).

Romeo’s symmetrical phrasing reflects the perfect balance of attraction and power that distinguishes their relationship: ‘One hath wounded me / That’s by me wounded’ (2.3.50–51); ‘As mine [i.e. ‘my heart’] on hers, so hers is set on mine’ (2.3.59); ‘Her I love now / Doth grace for grace and love for love allow; / The other did not so’ (2.3.85–87). Above all, their love is mutually enhancing and limitless. In Juliet’s wonderful words: ‘My bounty is as boundless as the sea, / My love as deep; the more I give to thee, / The more I have, for both are infinite’ (2.2.133-35). Thus the tragic fate of Romeo and Juliet’s ‘true-love passion’ (2.2.104) does more than dramatize the pernicious effects of the feud that divides their families. It’s long been recognised that the play vindicates the individual’s right to love whoever they choose to love, unconstrained by irrational prohibitions or mindless prejudice. But Romeo and Juliet goes further than that. It envisions, and finds the words to describe, a bond of love uncontaminated by the urge to use and dominate. 400 years on, the play is as committed as ever to showing that mutual love between equals is not just desirable but possible by bringing it alive in the theatre or the mind’s eye of the reader.

Photograph of a Palestinian-Israeli Romeo and Juliet, 1994

Photograph from a Palestinian-Israeli Romeo and Juliet, 1994

Khalifa Natour (Romeo) and Orna Katz (Juliet) share a dangerous kiss.

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Copyright: © Press Association Images

Citizens of centuries to come

What makes the fate of Romeo and Juliet tragic, and what makes the play a Shakespearean tragedy, is the fact that they live at a time when a boundless love like theirs cannot be sustained and cannot survive, because it belongs to a future men and women are still struggling to create. Romeo and Juliet turn out to have been citizens of truly civilized centuries to come, who reveal the potential to lead more fulfilling lives than those they have been forced to lose by the barbaric age in which they are marooned.

The same strikes me as true, in one way or another, of all Shakespeare’s great tragic protagonists. They are all ‘fools of Time’ (to borrow a phrase from Sonnet 124) in the sense that they are hoodwinked by history. In spite of their capacity to embrace an entirely different destiny, they are overpowered by the constraints of the era they have the misfortune to inhabit rather than by some malign metaphysical force or some unfortunate flaw in their character. Romeo may believe himself to be the victim of ‘some consequence . . . hanging in the stars’ (2.4.107); Hamlet may wonder whether it’s ‘some vicious mole of nature’ (1.4.24) or ‘a divinity that shapes our ends’ (5.2.10); and Macbeth may blame his downfall on the ‘supernatural soliciting’ (1.3.130) of the ‘secret, black, and midnight hags’ (4.1.48) he encounters on the heath. But their real tragedy is to find themselves stranded and fated to die in a hostile, alien reality, far from the transfigured future their tragic plight foreshadows.

First edition of Shakespeare's Sonnets, 1609

First edition of Shakespeare's Sonnets, 1609

Sonnet 124: ‘foles of time’.

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Think of Othello. A black man from Africa and an upper-class white woman from Venice fall in love and elope, undaunted by the hostility their interracial marriage inevitably incurs. Othello and Desdemona act, with a sublime utopian naivety the play invites us to admire, as if they already dwelt in a world of which we in the 21st century can still only dream: a world in which such marriages have the unquestioned right to be left in peace to flourish. Instead they attract, in the shape of Iago, the lethal hatred of a racially prejudiced, patriarchal society, whose foundations their love threatens to undermine. Or think of Antony and Cleopatra, that peerless ‘mutual pair’, whose passion for each other moves Antony to exclaim, as he embraces Cleopatra, ‘Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch / Of the ranged empire fall! Here is my space, / Kingdoms are clay’ (1.1.33–35, 37, 40). To find ‘the nobleness of life’ (1.1.36) not in rank, power, politics or conquest, but in the intensity of their feelings for each other, is to be fatally at odds with everything Rome stands for, and with the part of themselves that can’t, in the end, resist the demands or the glamour of empire. So, like Romeo and Juliet, they are left with no option but to take their own lives in order to find forever in death the transcendent union denied them in life.

Photograph of Joanna Vanderham and Hugh Quarshie in Othello, 2015

Photograph of Joanna Vanderham and Hugh Quarshie in Othello, 2015

Johanna Vanderham (Desdemona) holds a despairing Hugh Quarshie (Othello).

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Shakespearean tragedy

It’s not difficult to see how Shakespeare’s tragedies of love – Romeo and Juliet, Othello and Antony and Cleopatra – were written from an imaginative standpoint ahead of their time. The heart-breaking conflict between what human beings need to be, deserve to be and could be, and what the time and place they live in condemn them to become, could scarcely be clearer than it is in these plays. Shakespeare makes it equally plain that there’s nothing to stop human beings putting an end to such tragedies by changing the world that produced them and changing themselves in the process. His creation of characters who can’t come to terms with their world reveals the capacity of human beings to be radically different from the way their world expects them to be. So, although these particular characters end up defeated by the intolerable predicament in which they are trapped, the predicament itself is shown by them to be the product of a society whose authority can be resisted and contested. The way things had to be for them, as they prove at the cost of their lives, is not the way they should be, and not the way they have to go on being.

Once one understands that, it’s much easier to see what the other tragedies have in common with the tragedies of love, and what’s characteristically Shakespearean about them too. Shakespeare’s tragic protagonists, the fictional universes they inhabit, and the tragic fates that await them are amazingly diverse. But every one of his tragic protagonists is doomed by having been cast in the wrong role in the wrong place in the wrong time. Every one of them becomes a stranger in a world where they had once felt at home, and a stranger to the person that they used to be or thought they were. And in the process, every one of them reveals the potential they possess to be another kind of person in another kind of world, which they will tragically never live to see.

Photographs of John Gielgud and Peggy Ashcroft in Hamlet 1944

Photographs of John Gielgud and Peggy Ashcroft in Hamlet 1944

John Gielgud as Hamlet, isolated at the Danish court.

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Copyright: © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby's

‘The prophetic soul / Of the wide world’

Take, for example, Hamlet: cruelly miscast as a 16th-century prince, bewildered by his inability to sweep to the revenge he has sworn to take, and so alienated from a time he perceives to be ‘out of joint’ (1.5.188) that ‘all the uses of this world’, including sovereignty itself and everything it entails, have become ‘weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable’ (1.2.133–34) to him. Or King Lear: forced to feel what the ‘Poor naked wretches’ (3.4.28) of his kingdom feel; to see the vulnerable human being – ‘unaccommodated man’ (3.4.106–7) – beneath a mad beggar’s rags and his royal robes; and to recognise the systemic injustice and inherent inhumanity of the regime over which he had presided so thoughtlessly for so long. Or Macbeth: the noble warlord who murders a fellow human being for his crown, is tortured by guilt as a consequence, and winds up butchering his way to oblivion, in spite of being, as his own wife attests, ‘too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness’ (1.5.17).

Photographs of John Gielgud as Lear, 1955

Photographs of John Gielgud as Lear, 1955

John Gielgud (Lear) cradles the body of Mary Watson (Cordelia) at the close of the RSC’s 1955 production of King Lear.

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Copyright: © Photos by Angus McBean © RSC

Take Titus Andronicus and Coriolanus: both driven to turn in savage rage against the Rome whose martial virtues they once epitomized – Titus having realised that ‘Rome is but a wilderness of tigers’ (3.1.54) behind its civilised façade; and the killing-machine Coriolanus that ‘There is a world elsewhere’ (3.3.135), though not one in which he can escape from himself. Or Richard II: the dethroned monarch, who learns too late, like Lear, that the king was just the role he chanced to play, and who realises that without the trappings of majesty he is ‘nothing’, and might as well have been the ‘beggar’ he sometimes wishes that he was (5.5. 33, 37). Or Timon of Athens: transformed by the ingratitude of his friends into an implacable misanthrope, so disenchanted with humanity that, like Richard II, he finds fulfilment only in the annihilation death will bring: ‘My long sickness / Of health and living now begins to mend, / And nothing brings me all things’ (5.1.186–88).

Photographs of Berliner Ensemble's Coriolanus

Photographs of Berliner Ensemble's Coriolanus

Volumnia visits Coriolanus in the Volscian camp.

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Copyright: © Vera Tenschert

When the visionary German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, ‘We children of the future, how could we be at home in this today?’, he might have been speaking for all Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, who are heroic precisely because they could never have been at home in their today. Nor is it that surprising, since they are the creations of a dramatist who was himself a child of the future, and who remains to this day, four centuries after his death, ‘the prophetic soul / Of the wide world dreaming on things to come’ (Sonnet 107).

  • Kiernan Ryan
  • Kiernan Ryan is Professor of English Language and Literature at Royal Holloway, University of London, where he directs the Shakespeare MA, and an Emeritus Fellow of Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge. He is the author of Shakespeare (3rd edition, 2002), Shakespeare’s Comedies (2009), Shakespeare’s Universality: Here’s Fine Revolution (2015) and the Introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of King Lear (2015). His next book, Shakespearean Tragedy, will be published by Bloomsbury in 2017.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.

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