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Shakespearean Tragedy

“As flies to wanton boys are we to th'

They kill us for their sport.”
- “King Lear”
What did Aristotle say?
• Ἐστὶν οὖν τραγωδία μίμησις πράξεως σπουδαίας καὶ
τελείας, μέγεθος ἐχούσης, ἡδυσμένῳ λόγῳ, χωρὶς
ἑκάστῳ τῶν εἰδὼν ἐν τοῖς μορίοις, δρώντων καὶ οὐ
δι'ἀπαγγελίας, δι' ἐλέου καὶ φόβου περαίνουσα τὴν τῶν
τοιούτων παθημάτων κάθαρσιν. which means Tragedy is
an imitation of an action that is admirable, complete
(composed of an introduction, a middle part and an
ending), and possesses magnitude; in language made
pleasurable, each of its species separated in different
parts; performed by actors, not through narration;
effecting through pity and fear the purification of such
Six parts of Tragedy

Mythos = plot

Opsis = Ethos =
spectacle character


Melos = melody Dianoia =

/song thought

Lexis =
Tragic Hero
as per Aristotle & Shakespeare
• Aristotle defined the tragic hero as a character of noble stature and has greatness. This
should be readily evident in the play. The character must occupy a "high" status position
but must ALSO embody nobility and virtue as part of his/her innate character. eg. King
Lear is the king of England, Hamlet is the prince of Demark.
• Though the tragic hero is pre-eminently great, he/she is not perfect.
• The hero's downfall, therefore, is partially her/his own fault, the result of free choice, not of
accident or villainy or some overriding, malignant fate. In fact, the tragedy is usually
triggered by some error of judgment or some character flaw that contributes to the hero's
lack of perfection noted above. This error of judgment is known as hamartia. Often the
character's hamartia involves hubris (which is defined as a sort of arrogant pride or over-
confidence). Eg. If extreme irrationality is the hubris of Lear, his hamartia is division of his
kingdom and putting his faith in Goneril and Regan instead of Cordelia
• The hero's misfortunate is not wholly deserved. The punishment exceeds the crime. As
Shakespeare puts it “more sinned against than sinning”.
• The fall (reversal of fortune = peripeteia) is not pure loss. There is some increase in
awareness (anagnorisis), some gain in self-knowledge, some discovery on the part of the
tragic hero. Remember Lear being more compassionate, sane and cognizant of his error
when he says, “I am a very foolish fond old man,
Fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less;
And, to deal plainly,
I fear I am not in my perfect mind.”
The structure of Tragedy
Freytag’s Pyramid
Three unities and Shakespeare
• Suggested first by Aristotle in his “poetics” and later expanded by Italian critics like Lodovico Castelvetro and
French dramatists like Racine and Moliere. The three unities included:

1. The unity of action: a play should have one main action that it follows, with no or few subplots. Shakespeare
clearly flouted this. Wouldn’t you agree that Gloucester sub-plot in “king Lear” adds to the grandeur of Lear’s story
2. The unity of place: a play should cover a single physical space and should not attempt to compress geography,
nor should the stage represent more than one place. In “Antony and Cleopatra” , the story takes us to Africa and
Europe alternatively.
3. The unity of time: the action in a play should take place over no more than 24 hours. Be it “Macbeth”, “King Lear”,
“Hamlet” or “Othello”, we scarcely see Shakespeare’s conformation to this unity. His last play “The Tempest”,
however show an impeccable compliance of the same.

• Samuel Johnson in his “preface to Shakespeare”, wrote “Whether Shakespeare knew the unities, and rejected
them by design, or deviated from them by happy ignorance, it is, I think, impossible to decide, and useless to
inquire. We may reasonably suppose, that, when he rose to notice, he did not want the counsels and admonitions
of scholars and critics, and that he at last deliberately persisted in a practice, which he might have begun by
chance. As nothing is essential to the fable, but unity of action, and as the unities of time and place arise evidently
from false assumptions, and, by circumscribing the extent of the drama, lessen its variety, I cannot think it much to
be lamented, that they were not known by him, or not observed: Nor, if such another poet could arise, should I very
vehemently reproach him, that his first act passed at Venice, and his next in Cyprus. Such violations of rules
merely positive, become the comprehensive genius of Shakespeare…”
Shakespearean tragedy and
Elizabethan Stage
Famous Shakespearean
Tragedies: King Lear
• Protagonist = Lear
• Hubris = passion and
• Hamartia = unwise division of
• Theme = filial ingratitude
• Antagonist = Goneril and
• Protagonist’s well wishers =
Kent, Gloucester, Cordelia
• Subplot = Gloucester’s lack of
Famous Shakespearean
Tragedies: Macbeth
• Protagonist = Macbeth
• Hubris= Inordinate ambition
• Hamartia = killing one person
after another to assume power
• Protagonist’s chief aide = lady
• People slain = Duncan, Banquo
• Macbeth’s Nemesis = Macduff
• Supernatural element = witches
Heroines in Shakespearean
Tragedy: In black and white
• Unlike the witty and strong
willed heroines of
Shakespearean comedies, the
heroines of his Tragedies are
often painted in monochromes
and uni-dimensional in
We find ourselves amidst sweet
but ineffectual Cordelia and
Desdemona; ambitious and
unscrupulous lady Macbeth;
seductive Cleopatra; noble but
lovesick and perhaps star-
crossed Ophelia and Juliet.
Other Elements in Shakespearean

Eg. Insanity,


Elements of Supernatural
Chance and Eg. Witches,
accident ghosts
Film adaptations of Shakespearean
Things to be done
• Compare Shakespearean comedy with Aristotle’s concept of Tragedy. Where does he
deviate from Aristotle?
• Think what makes Shakespeare occupy the foremost position in canon of English
literature even today.
• Compare his tragic heroes with those of Marlowe’s.
• Watch the film adaptations based on Shakespeare’s plays and compare them with the
stage performances.
• Make a collage of the book illustrations of various Shakespearean plays.
• Compare the language of Shakespearean characters. Do they all speak in the same way? If
not, elucidate. Can you think of another playwright who made his characters use different
languages or style.
• Try to think of the play from the point of view of the antagonist as in the case of Shylock or
• Compare Shakespearean heroines like Portia and Rosalinde with Cordelia and Ophelia.
• Find important motifs, symbols and archetypes in his tragedies.
• Find more about Elizabethan audience and the changing tastes of the audience during
Jacobean age.
• Find out more about variation in costumes, set designs, props used, theatricality in
performances of his plays over years.