Shakespearean tragedy

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Shakespeare's First Folio behind glass at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C.

Shakespearean tragedy is the classification of drama written by William Shakespeare which has a noble protagonist, who is flawed in some way,[1] placed in a stressful heightened situation and ends with a fatal conclusion.[2] The plots of Shakespearean tragedy focus on the reversal of fortune of the central character(s) which leads to their ruin and ultimately, death.[3] Shakespeare wrote several different classifications of plays throughout his career and the labeling of his plays into categories is disputed amongst different sources and scholars.[4] There are 10 Shakespeare plays which are always classified as tragedies[1][3] and several others which are disputed; there are also Shakespeare plays which fall into the classifications of comedy, history, or romance/tragicomedy that share fundamental attributes of a Shakespeare tragedy but do not wholly fit in to the category.[2] The plays which provide the strongest fundamental examples of the genre of Shakespearean tragedy are Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth[3] and Antony and Cleopatra.[2][5]


The primary characters in a Shakespearean tragedy are of high status, either by class like King Lear and Hamlet or by military rank like Othello and Macbeth. The main characters in a Shakespearean tragedy further the central conflict of the play to the point that their lives, families, or socio-political structures are destroyed.[3] The title characters along with many other characters in Shakespeare's tragedies die as part of the story of the play. Many of Shakespeare's 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 Cæsar, 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 don't fit neatly into a single classification because of their subject matter, setting, or ending.[3][6] The classifications of certain Shakespeare plays are still debated among scholars.


Edwin Austin Abbey (1852–1911) King Lear, Cordelia's Farewell

Below is the list of Shakespeare's plays listed as tragedies in the First Folio, along with a date range in which each particular play is believed to have been written.[3][7]

Play Terminus
post quem ante quem
Titus Andronicus 1591 1593
Romeo and Juliet 1594 1595
Julius Caesar 1599 1600
Hamlet 1600 1601
Troilus and Cressida[a] 1601 1602
Othello 1604 1605
King Lear 1605 1606
Macbeth 1605 1606
Timon of Athens 1605 1608
Antony and Cleopatra 1606 1607
Coriolanus 1607 1608
The Tempest 1610 1611

Influences and sources[edit]

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.[3] 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.[3] 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.[4] 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.[3] The historical basis for Shakespeare's Roman plays comes from The Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans by Plutarch,[8] whereas the source of Shakespeare's Britain based plays and Hamlet (based on the Danish Prince Amleth)[9] derive from Holinshed's Chronicles.[3] 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.[9] The story of Lear appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia regium Britanniae c. 1135, and then in John Higgin's poem The Mirror for Magistrates in 1574, as well as appearing in Holinshed's Chronicles in 1587.[10] Some events that happen in Shakespeare's King Lear were inspired by various episodes of Philip Sydney's Arcadia from 1590, while the nonsensical musings of Edgar's "poor Tom" heavily reference Samuel Harsnett's 1603 A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures.[10]

Contemporary tragedy[edit]

Tragedies from these eras traced their philosophical essence back to Senecan tragedy,[3] grounded in noble who have a tragic flaw or commit a grave error (hamartia) which leads to their reversal of fortune (peripeteia). Revenge tragedy was also of increasing popularity in this age, Shakespeare's Hamlet is one example of this.[6][7] Plays of this age were also decidedly secular,[3] 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.[3]

Select exemplary (non-Shakespearean) Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedies[9]

See also[edit]

Notes and references[edit]


  1. ^ Troilus and Cressida was listed as a comedy in the First Folio, but is now classified as a tragedy.



External links[edit]