Shakespearean Tragedy is the classification of drama written by William Shakespeare which has a noble protagonist, who is flawed in some way, placed in a stressful heightened situation and ends with a fatal conclusion. The plots of Shakespearean tragedy focus on the reversal of fortune of the central character(s) which leads to their ruin and ultimately, death. 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. There are 10 Shakespeare plays which are always classified as tragedies 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. The plays which provide the strongest fundamental examples of the genre of Shakespearean tragedy are Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra.
Qualifiers and Classification of Shakespearean tragedy
The qualifiers or defining characteristics of Shakespearean tragedy are outlined in this section. 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 character(s) in a Shakespearean tragedy further the central conflict of the play to the point that their lives, families, and/or socio-political structures are destroyed. The title character(s) 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 Caesar, Anthony 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 or tragicomic plays were written late in his career and published originally under either tragedy or comedy 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, Shakespearean problem play, for plays that don't 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.
Chronology of Shakespeare's tragedies
- Titus Andronicus (1591–1593)
- Romeo and Juliet (1594-1595)
- Julius Caesar (1599-1600)
- Hamlet (1600–1601)
- Troilus and Cressida (1601-1602), was listed in the first folio as a comedy, but is now classified as a tragedy
- Othello (1604–1605)
- King Lear (1605–1606)
- Macbeth (1605-1606)
- Timon of Athens (1605–1608)
- Antony and Cleopatra (1606-1607)
- Coriolanus (1607-1608)
- Cymbeline (1609–1611) was listed in the First Folio as a tragedy, but is now usually included among Shakespeare's Shakespeare's late romances.
Influences and source stories
The English Renaissance in which time 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 plagiarism practices and characters, plots, and even whole phrases of poetry were considered common property. The majority of Shakespeare's tragedies are based on historical figures, the exceptions to this are 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 Chronicles written by Holinshed. 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 Amleth(French spelling) and his mother, behind the arras in the Queen's chamber. The story of Lear appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia regium Britanniae circa 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 Sir 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.
Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy, Shakespeare's contemporaries
Tragedies from these eras traced their philosophical essence back to Senecan tragedy, 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. 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
- The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd
- The Jew of Malta by Christopher Marlowe
- Tamburlaine by Christopher Marlowe
- Antonio's Revenge by John Marston
- The Revenger's Tragedy by Thomas Middleton
- Tis Pity She's a Whore by John Ford
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