Shakespearean tragedy is the designation given to most tragedies written by playwright William Shakespeare. Many of his history plays share the qualifiers of a Shakespearean tragedy, but because they are based on real figures throughout the History of England, they were classified as "histories" in the First Folio. The Roman tragedies—Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus—are also based on historical figures, but because their source stories were foreign and ancient they are almost always classified as tragedies rather than histories. Shakespeare's romances (tragicomic plays) were written late in his career and published originally as either tragedy or comedy. They share some elements of tragedy featuring a high status central character but end happily like Shakespearean comedies. Several hundred years after Shakespeare's death, scholar F.S. Boas also coined a fifth category, the "problem play," for plays that do not fit neatly into a single classification because of their subject matter, setting, or ending. The classifications of certain Shakespeare plays are still debated among scholars.
Below is the list of Shakespeare's plays listed as tragedies in the First Folio, along with the date range in which each play is believed to have been written.
Influences and sources
The English Renaissance, when Shakespeare was writing, was fueled by a renewed interest in Roman and Greek classics and neighboring renaissance literature written years earlier in Italy, France, and Spain. Shakespeare wrote the majority of his tragedies under the rule of James I, and their darker contents may reflect the general mood of the country following the death of Elizabeth I, as well as James' theatrical preferences. Shakespeare, as was customary for other playwrights in his day, used history, other plays, and non-dramatic literature as sources for his plays. In Elizabethan England there were no copyright or protections against plagiarism, so characters, plots, and even whole phrases of poetry were considered common property. The majority of Shakespeare's tragedies are based on historical figures, with the exception of Romeo & Juliet and Othello, which are based on narrative fictions by Giraldi Cintio. The historical basis for Shakespeare's Roman plays comes from The Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans by Plutarch, whereas the source of Shakespeare's Britain based plays and Hamlet (based on the Danish Prince Amleth) derive from Holinshed's Chronicles. Furthermore, the French author Belleforest published The Hystorie of Hamblet, Prince of Denmarke in 1582 which includes specifics from how the prince counterfeited to be mad, to how the prince stabbed and killed the King's counsellor who was eavesdropping on Hamlet and his mother behind the arras in the Queen's chamber. The story of Lear appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth'sHistoria regium Britanniaec. 1135, and then in John Higgin's poem The Mirror for Magistrates in 1574, as well as appearing in Holinshed's Chronicles in 1587. Some events that happen in Shakespeare's King Lear were inspired by various episodes of Philip Sydney'sArcadia from 1590, while the nonsensical musings of Edgar's "poor Tom" heavily reference Samuel Harsnett's 1603 book, A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures.
Tragedies from these eras traced their philosophical essence back to Senecan tragedy, grounded in nobles who have a tragic flaw or commit a grave error (hamartia) which leads to their reversal of fortune (peripeteia). (However, some critics have argued that the "pseudo-Aristotelian" concept of the tragic flaw does not apply to Shakespeare's tragic figures.) Revenge tragedy was also of increasing popularity in this age, Shakespeare's Hamlet is one example of this. Plays of this age were also decidedly secular, in contrast to the religious morality plays which by this time were outlawed by Elizabeth I. One marked difference between English renaissance tragedies and the classics that inspired them, was the use and popularity of violence and murder on stage.
Select exemplary (non-Shakespearean) Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedies
Notes and references
- ^ James P. Hammersmith, "Shakespeare and the Tragic Virtue"
- Boyce, Charles (1990). Shakespeare A to Z. New York: Roundtable Press. ISBN 0-440-50429-5.
- Brockett, Oscar G.; Hildy, Franklin J. (2007). History of Theatre (9th ed.). Boston: Pearson Education. ISBN 9780205358786.
- Bryson, Bill (2007). Shakespeare: The World as Stage. Eminent Lives. New York: HarperCollins. ISBN 978-0-06-074022-1. OCLC 136782567.
- Dunton-Downer, Leslie; Riding, Alan (2004). Essential Shakespeare Handbook. New York: Dorling Kindersley. ISBN 9780789493330.
- Foakes, R.A., ed. (1997). King Lear. The Arden Shakespeare, third series. Cengage Learning. ISBN 1903436591.
- Greenblatt, Stephen, ed. (1997). The Norton Shakespeare (2nd ed.). New York: W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 978-0-393-92991-1.
- Hoy, Cyrus, ed. (1992). Hamlet. Norton critical editions. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 978-0-393-31642-1.
- Jamieson, Lee (1 May 2015). "Shakespeare Tragedies". About.com. Retrieved 4 April 2014.
- McEachern, Claire, ed. (2013). The Cambridge Companion to Shakespearean Tragedy. Cambridge Companions to Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CCOL0521790093. ISBN 9780511999314.
- Mowat, Barbara A.; Werstine, Paul, eds. (2013). The Tragedy of Julius Caesar. New York: Folger Shakespeare Library. ISBN 978-1-4391-9671-7.
- Boas, Frederick S. (1910). Shakespere and his Predecessors. University manuals. John Murray. OCLC 939680633.
For someone to be a tragic hero, they must first be a noble character. Othello can be considered a noble character because he is one of high social ranking and he has a genuine heart. Othello, despite coming from a rough past, is an honorable war hero and the general of the Venetian army. Along with his social stature, Othello also has a noble heart. Although he is sometimes portrayed as violent, Othello’s loving nature can be seen in instances such as when he speaks about Desdemona. These traits are greatly admired among characters of Othello including Iago who admits that Othello is “of a constant loving, noble nature [and] will prove to Desdemona A most dear husband” (2.1.290-292). Othello’s nobility is quite evident, however, he does have traits that can be viewed as tragic flaws.
Othello is a tragic hero because of his tragic flaw. There are many undesirable traits in Othello, like his jealousy and gullibility. However, the core of these problems and his main tragic flaw is his insecurities. Othello being the only black character and an outsider in Venice brings upon many insecurities. His vulnerability makes him an easy target for Iago to manipulate his mind; he begins to believe that he isn’t good enough for Desdemona: “She’s gone, I am abused, and my relief Must be to loathe her. Oh, curse of marriage That we can call these delicate creatures ours And not their appetites!” (3.3.283-286). Iago was easily able to convince Othello that Desdemona has been unfaithful. However, Othello doesn’t realize his insecurities have taken over his life until it is too late and his tragic downfall has already hit rock bottom.
What makes Othello a tragic hero is he experiences a tragic downfall. Othello’s downfall is set into motion when the jealous Iago begins planting seeds of doubt into Othello’s already insecure mind. Iago’s manipulative words convince Othello that his wife is unfaithful; from then on he begins to lose his noble traits. He treats his wife with little to no respect and eventually smothers her to death. When Iago’s plot is finally unveiled and Othello realizes his terrible mistake, it is evident he has reached his emotional limit: “Whip me, ye devils, From the possession of this heavenly sight! Blow me about in winds, roast me in sulfur, Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire!—Oh, Desdemona! Desdemona! dead! Oh! Oh!” (5.2.286-290). In his distraught state of mind and with his broken heart, Othello decides to kill himself. With one fatal stab, this hero’s tale comes to a tragic end.
Othello is a tragic hero because he is noble, he suffers from a fatal tragic flaw and he goes through a tragic downfall. All these traits that Othello exhibits lead him to be known as one of the most well-known tragic heroes in all of literature.