Characteristics of Shakespearean Tragedy

Characteristics of Shakespearean Tragedy

Characteristics of Shakespearian tragedy

William Shakespeare wrote a number of tragedies which includes: Othello, King Lear, Hamlet, Macbeth, etc. His tragedies were different from Greek tragedies but they were derived from Greek tragedies. The dramatic form of Shakespearean tragedies derives from ancient tragedies of Athens, which depicted the tragic downfall of a protagonist or renowned persona of Greek legends. Characteristics of Shakespearean tragedy are far away from Greek tragedy. 

Click here to know about difference between Greek tragedy and Shakespearean tragedy.

Characteristics of Shakespearean tragedy

Characteristics of Shakespearean tragedies are analysis of his tragedies based on his renowned tragic plays like, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, and Hamlet. Below are the characteristics of Shakespearean tragedy.    

One Man Show

Shakespearean tragedies are mostly one man show. However he used much number of characters in his tragedies compared to Greek tragedies excluding chorus but the focus always remained on hero. Other characters also experience rise and fall according to the plot but hero remains pivotal figure during the whole play.  There is exception in his love tragedies like Antony and Cleopatra and Romeo and Juliet; where heroin also gains focus of the audience.

Social Status of Hero

In Shakespearean tragedies, hero is from outstanding social status. His heroes are same like Greek and Roman heroes.  His all heroes are from kings (Julius, Caesar, Lear), princes (Hamlet), nobles (Macbeth, Brutus), or military commanders (Othello). Tragedies, written before Shakespeare, were also conforming to the same Greek tradition. Some critic accused him for snobbery, they said that a common man may face a tragedy in his life and his suffering is same like a king or a noble. But, Shakespeare has his own point of view that a common man wins sympathies from only his close and limited class but tragedy of a king or a noble man win sympathies of a large span which makes it more appealing.      

Tragic Fall of Hero

Shakespearean tragedies depict suffering of a hero causing his tragic death. In Shakespearean sense a tragedy is not a tragedy if hero does not face tragic death. Initially hero goes through suffering and calamities leading him to tragic death. The way sufferings befall on hero is interesting in case of Shakespeare. Initially characters commit a sin or make an error of judgment that causes sufferings. The magnitude of suffering increases as the plot of the play progresses. The magnitude of suffering goes up to its maximum level in fourth act.

Sometime, sufferings are not limited to hero alone but other characters suffer too. In some tragedies other characters also face tragic death like hero as in the case of Othello in which innocent Desdemona was murdered  

The Cause of Suffering and Death

In Shakespearean tragedies, the cause of sufferings and death is not like Greek tragedies. Greek believed on destiny but Shakespeare blamed character himself responsible for his doom. A flaw in characters, known as hamartia, is responsible for suffering and death but sometime destiny play its role but on back end. Shakespearian characters are comprised of mixed traits. They are no holy man or perfect in nature. They also commit sin that cause sufferings. In short, It is perfect to say that “character is destiny” for Shakespearean tragedies.

Three Unities in Shakespearean Tragedy

Shakespearian tragedies do not follow three unities. Aristotle proposed the three unities: unity of place, unity of time, and unity of action.  According to Aristotle, firstly, a tragedy must take place in a single location, for example a city square or a house but actions in Shakespearean tragedies are on various places. One scene is at one place and second scene may be in another city. Secondly it would happen during the course of one day but his plays are lengthy and do not follow unity of time. Lastly, a tragedy would be a single story, without sub- plots or sub-sub-plots but Shakespeare has sufficient number of sub-plots in his tragedies. So in this way Shakespearean play do not follow Aristotle’s three unities.  Compared with these set patterns by Aristotle, Shakespeare’s tragedy is a more relaxed genre.

Supernatural Elements and Chance Happening in Shakespearean Tragedies

There are some other external factors, apart from the fatal flaw of protagonist, in Shakespearean plays that are responsible for the tragic fall of protagonist. The use of supernatural machinery and chance happening are the external factors who contribute in tragic fall.  These factors play role in shaping destiny of characters. Shakespeare used supernatural elements like three witches in Macbeth and ghost in Hamlet. These elements prompt the hero to do irrational and heinous offence in the play that causes his tragic fall. In similar way, the use of handkerchief in Othello became cause of chance happening which made him more jealous and extreme jealousy became cause of his fall. Although these factors contribute a lot but basically it is his own character which causes hero’s fall.

Structure of Shakespearean tragedy

Shakespearean plays usually consist of five acts, corresponding to different scenes in each act. Act one includes exposition, outlines the situation, begins the action and introduces the main characters. Act two continues the action towards further development, and introduces complications in the plot. Act three is comprised of climax of the plot, brings everything to a head. A change of direction occurs in this act and audience realizes the sin or folly committed by protagonist that leads him towards sufferings. Act four includes further developments of act three leading inevitably to final act. Act five includes final outcome and revelation that ends with tragic death of hero.

Moral Values and Poetic Justice

Shakespeare never focused on poetic justice which requires the characters to be awarded or punished with their merits and demerits accordingly.  But there is only hero who suffers because of his flaw but there are some other characters who became innocent prey of hero’s flaw. On other hand no villainous character is left unpunished in Shakespearean plays but the destructive power of their evil is strong enough that it pulls other innocent characters into it.  In Othello, Desdemona and Emilia were murdered innocently without any evil committed by them. But the intrigue plot of villain was strong enough that pushed innocent characters into tragic death. The moral values of Shakespearean tragedies do not left pessimistic impression on readers but they feel piteous and fearful. 

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