ENGL 204 / ENGL 339
Dr. Debora B. Schwartz
English Department, California Polytechnic State University

Shakespeare's Plays: 

The genre of tragedy is rooted in the Greek dramas of Aeschylus (525-456 B.C., e.g. the Oresteia and Prometheus Bound), Euripides (ca. 480?-405 B.C., e.g. Medea and The Trojan Women) and Sophocles (496-406 B.C., e.g. Oedipus Rex and Antigone).  One of the earliest works of literary criticism, the Poetics of the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), includes a discussion of tragedy based in part upon the plays of Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles.  While Shakespeare probably did not know Greek tragedy directly, he would have been familiar with the Latin adaptations of Greek drama by the Roman (i.e. Latin-language) playwright Seneca (ca. 3 B.C.-65 A.D.; his nine tragedies include a Medea and an Oedipus).  Both Senecan and Renaissance tragedy were influenced by the theory of tragedy found in Aristotle's Poetics

Classical Tragedy:  According to Aristotle's Poetics, tragedy involves a protagonist of high estate ("better than we") who falls from prosperity to misery through a series of reversals and discoveries as a result of a "tragic flaw," generally an error caused by human frailty.  Aside from this initial moral weakness or error, the protagonist is basically a good person:  for Aristotle, the downfall of an evil protagonist is not tragic (Macbeth would not qualify).  In Aristotelian tragedy, the action (or fable) generally involves revolution (unanticipated reversals of what is expected to occur) and discovery (in which the protagonists and audience learn something that had been hidden).  The third part of the fable, disasters, includes all destructive actions, deaths, etc.  Tragedy evokes pity and fear in the audience, leading finally to catharsis (the purgation of these passions). 

Medieval tragedy:  A narrative (not a play) concerning how a person falls from high to low estate as the Goddess Fortune spins her wheel.  In the middle ages, there was no "tragic" theater per se; medieval theater in England was primarily liturgical drama, which developed in the later middle ages (15th century) as a way of teaching scripture to the illiterate (mystery plays) or of reminding them to be prepared for death and God's Judgment (morality plays).  Medieval "tragedy" was found not in the theater but in collections of stories illustrating the falls of great men (e.g. Boccacio's Falls of Illustrious Men, Chaucer's Monk's Tale from the Canterbury Tales, and Lydgate's Falls of Princes).  These narratives owe their conception of Fortune in part to the Latin tragedies of Seneca, in which Fortune and her wheel play a prominent role. 

Renaissance tragedy derives less from medieval tragedy (which randomly occurs as Fortune spins her wheel) than from the Aristotelian notion of the tragic flaw, a moral weakness or human error that causes the protagonist's downfall.  Unlike classical tragedy, however, it tends to include subplots and comic relief.  From Seneca, early Renaissance tragedy borrowed the "violent and bloody plots, resounding rhetorical speeches, the frequent use of ghosts . . . and sometimes the five-act structure" (Norton Anthology of English Literature, 6th ed., vol. I, p. 410).  In his greatest tragedies (e.g. Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth), Shakespeare transcends the conventions of Renaissance tragedy, imbuing his plays with a timeless universality. 

Modern theories of Tragedy:  Most modern theorists build upon the Aristotelian notions of tragedy.   Two examples are the Victorian critic A.C. Bradley (Shakespearean Tragedy, 1904) and Northrop Frye (The Anatomy of Criticism, 1957).  Keep these theories in mind as you read;  consider whether and how they are helpful in understanding Shakespeare's work.

  • A. C. Bradley divides tragedy into an exposition of the state of affairs; the beginning, growth, and vicissitudes of the conflict; and the final catastrophe or tragic outcome.  Bradley emphasizes the Aristotelian notion of the tragic flaw:  the tragic hero errs by action or omission; this error joins with other causes to bring about his ruin.  According to Bradley, "This is always so with Shakespeare.  The idea of the tragic hero as a being destroyed simply and solely by external forces is quite alien to him; and not less so is the idea of the hero as contributing to his destruction only by acts in which we see no flaw."  Bradley's emphasis on the tragic flaw implies that Shakespeare's characters bring their fates upon themselves and thus, in a sense, deserve what they get.  It should however be noted that in some of Shakespeare's plays (e.g. King Lear), the tragedy lies less in the fact that the characters "deserve" their fates than in how much more they suffer than their actions (or flaws) suggest they should.

  • Northrop Frye distinguishes five stages of action in tragedy: 1) Encroachment.  Protagonist takes on too much, makes a mistake that causes his/her "fall."  This mistake is often unconscious (an act blindly done, through over-confidence in one's ability to regulate the world or through insensitivity to others) but still violates the norms of human conduct.  2) Complication.  The building up of events aligning opposing forces that will lead inexorably to the tragic conclusion.  "Just as comedy often sets up an arbitrary law and then organizes the action to break or evade it, so tragedy presents the reverse theme of narrowing a comparatively free life into a process of causation."  3) Reversal.  The point at which it becomes clear that the hero's expectations are mistaken, that his fate will be the reverse of what he had hoped.  At this moment, the vision of the dramatist and the audience are the same.  The classic example is Oedipus, who seeks the knowledge that proves him guilty of murdering his father and marrying his mother; when he accomplishes his objective, he realizes he has destroyed himself in the process.  4) Catastrophe.  The catastrophe exposes the limits of the hero's power and dramatizes the waste of his life.  Piles of dead bodies remind us that the forces unleashed are not easily contained; there are also elaborate subplots (e.g. Gloucester in King Lear) which reinforce the impression of a world inundated with evil.  5) Recognition.  The audience (sometimes the hero as well) recognizes the larger pattern.  If the hero does experience recognition, he assumes the vision of his life held by the dramatist and the audience.  From this new perspective he can see the irony of his actions, adding to the poignancy of the tragic events.

Click here for Macbeth Study Guide

Click here for information about Revenge Tragedy

Click here for Hamlet Study Guide

Contents of this and all linked pages Copyright Debora B. Schwartz, 1996-2005

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