Four Tragedies: Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth

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He seems to have had a good deal of fun in trying his hand at every kind of play. Shakespeare wrote sonnets, all published on , most of which were dedicated to his patron Henry Wriothsley, The Earl of Southhampton. He also wrote 13 comedies, 13 histories, 6 tragedies, and 4 tragecomedies. His cause of death was unknown, but it is surmised that he knew he was dying. The author of numerous books, he is also the editor of the twenty-nine volumes of "The Bantam Shakespeare "and "The Complete Works of Shakespeare,.

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Shakespearean Tragedies : Macbeth, King Lear, Hamlet, Othello

Papp, one of the most important forces in theater today, is the founder and producer of the new York Shakespeare Festival. William Shakespeare. The ghost, Ophelia's death and burial, the play within a play, and the breathtaking swordplay are just some of the elements that make Hamlet a masterpiece of the theater.

Citation Styles for "Four great tragedies : Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth"

Read FREE! Excerpt In these lectures I propose to consider the four principal tragedies of Shakespeare from a single point of view. Read preview Overview. Common types of primary sources include works of literature, historical documents, original philosophical writings, and religious texts. Shakespeare, William The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. We use cookies to deliver a better user experience and to show you ads based on your interests.

The former I shall leave out of account, because, even if Shakespeare wrote the whole of it, he did so before he had either a style of his own or any characteristic tragic conception.

Timon stands on a different footing. Parts of it are unquestionably Shakespeare's, and they will be referred to in one of the later lectures. But much of the writing is evidently not his, and as it seems probable that the conception and construction of the whole tragedy should also be attributed to some other writer, I shall omit this work too from our preliminary discussions.

The question we are to consider in this lecture may be stated in a variety of ways. We may put it thus: What is the substance of a Shakespearean tragedy, taken in abstraction both from its form and from the differences in point of substance between one tragedy and another? Or thus: What is the nature of the tragic aspect of life as represented by Shakespeare? What is the general fact shown now in this tragedy and now in that? And we are putting the same question when we ask: What is Shakespeare's tragic conception, or conception of tragedy?


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These expressions, it should be observed, do not imply that Shakespeare himself ever asked or answered such a question; that he set himself to reflect on the tragic aspects of life, that he framed a tragic conception, and still less that, like Aristotle or Corneille, he had a theory of the kind of poetry called tragedy. These things are all possible; how far any one of them is probable we need not discuss; but none of them is presupposed by the question we are going to consider.

This question implies only that, as a matter of fact, Shakespeare in writing tragedy did represent a certain aspect of life in a certain way, and that through examination of his writings we ought to be able, to some extent, to describe this aspect and way in terms addressed to the understanding.

Such a description, so far as it is true and adequate, may, after these explanations, be called indifferently an account of the substance of Shakespearean tragedy, or an account of Shakespeare's conception of tragedy or view of the tragic fact. Two further warnings may be required.

Four Tragedies: Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth

In the first place, we must remember that the tragic aspect of life is only one aspect. We cannot arrive at Shakespeare's whole dramatic way of looking at the world from his tragedies alone, as we can arrive at Milton's way of regarding things, or at Wordsworth's or at Shelley's, by examining almost any one of their important works.


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  • Speaking very broadly, one may say that these poets at their best always look at things in one light; but Hamlet and Henry IV. And, in the second place, I may repeat that in these lectures, at any rate for the most part, we are to be content with his dramatic view, and are not to ask whether it corresponded exactly with his opinions or creed outside his poetry—the opinions or creed of the being whom we sometimes oddly call 'Shakespeare the man. And in his dramatic conceptions there is enough to occupy us.

    Four Tragedies by William Shakespeare | Penguin Random House Canada

    In approaching our subject it will be best, without attempting to shorten the path by referring to famous theories of the drama, to start directly from the facts, and to collect from them gradually an idea of Shakespearean Tragedy. And first, to begin from the outside, such a tragedy brings before us a considerable number of persons many more than the persons in a Greek play, unless the members of the Chorus are reckoned among them ; but it is pre-eminently the story of one person, the 'hero,' 1 or at most of two, the 'hero' and 'heroine.

    The rest, including Macbeth , are single stars. So that, having noticed the peculiarity of these two dramas, we may henceforth, for the sake of brevity, ignore it, and may speak of the tragic story as being concerned primarily with one person. The story, next, leads up to, and includes, the death of the hero. On the one hand whatever may be true of tragedy elsewhere , no play at the end of which the hero remains alive is, in the full Shakespearean sense, a tragedy; and we no longer class Troilus and Cressida or Cymbeline as such, as did the editors of the Folio.

    On the other hand, the story depicts also the troubled part of the hero's life which precedes and leads up to his death; and an instantaneous death occurring by 'accident' in the midst of prosperity would not suffice for it. It is, in fact, essentially a tale of suffering and calamity conducting to death. The suffering and calamity are, moreover, exceptional. They befall a conspicuous person.

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    They are themselves of some striking kind. They are also, as a rule, unexpected, and contrasted with previous happiness or glory. A tale, for example, of a man slowly worn to death by disease, poverty, little cares, sordid vices, petty persecutions, however piteous or dreadful it might be, would not be tragic in the Shakespearean sense. Such exceptional suffering and calamity, then, affecting the hero, and—we must now add—generally extending far and wide beyond him, so as to make the whole scene a scene of woe, are an essential ingredient in tragedy and a chief source of the tragic emotions, and especially of pity.

    But the proportions of this ingredient, and the direction taken by tragic pity, will naturally vary greatly. Pity, for example, has a much larger part in King Lear than in Macbeth , and is directed in the one case chiefly to the hero, in the other chiefly to minor characters. Let us now pause for a moment on the ideas we have so far reached. They would more than suffice to describe the whole tragic fact as it presented itself to the mediaeval mind.

    To the mediaeval mind a tragedy meant a narrative rather than a play, and its notion of the matter of this narrative may readily be gathered from Dante or, still better, from Chaucer. Chaucer's Monk's Tale is a series of what he calls 'tragedies'; and this means in fact a series of tales de Casibus Illustrium Virorum ,—stories of the Falls of Illustrious Men, such as Lucifer, Adam, Hercules and Nebuchadnezzar. And the Monk ends the tale of Croesus thus:. A total reverse of fortune, coming unawares upon a man who 'stood in high degree,' happy and apparently secure,—such was the tragic fact to the mediaeval mind.

    It appealed strongly to common human sympathy and pity; it startled also another feeling, that of fear. It frightened men and awed them. It made them feel that man is blind and helpless, the plaything of an inscrutable power, called by the name of Fortune or some other name,—a power which appears to smile on him for a little, and then on a sudden strikes him down in his pride.

    Shakespeare's idea of the tragic fact is larger than this idea and goes beyond it; but it includes it, and it is worth while to observe the identity of the two in a certain point which is often ignored. Tragedy with Shakespeare is concerned always with persons of 'high degree'; often with kings or princes; if not, with leaders in the state like Coriolanus, Brutus, Antony; at the least, as in Romeo and Juliet , with members of great houses, whose quarrels are of public moment.

    There is a decided difference here between Othello and our three other tragedies, but it is not a difference of kind.

    Othello himself is no mere private person; he is the General of the Republic. At the beginning we see him in the Council-Chamber of the Senate. The consciousness of his high position never leaves him. At the end, when he is determined to live no longer, he is as anxious as Hamlet not to be misjudged by the great world, and his last speech begins,.

    And this characteristic of Shakespeare's tragedies, though not the most vital, is neither external nor unimportant. The saying that every death-bed is the scene of the fifth act of a tragedy has its meaning, but it would not be true if the word 'tragedy' bore its dramatic sense. The pangs of despised love and the anguish of remorse, we say, are the same in a peasant and a prince; but, not to insist that they cannot be so when the prince is really a prince, the story of the prince, the triumvir, or the general, has a greatness and dignity of its own.

    His fate affects the welfare of a whole nation or empire; and when he falls suddenly from the height of earthly greatness to the dust, his fall produces a sense of contrast, of the powerlessness of man, and of the omnipotence—perhaps the caprice—of Fortune or Fate, which no tale of private life can possibly rival. Such feelings are constantly evoked by Shakespeare's tragedies,—again in varying degrees. Perhaps they are the very strongest of the emotions awakened by the early tragedy of Richard II.

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    And these feelings, though their predominance is subdued in the mightiest tragedies, remain powerful there. In the figure of the maddened Lear we see. A Shakespearean tragedy as so far considered may be called a story of exceptional calamity leading to the death of a man in high estate. But it is clearly much more than this, and we have now to regard it from another side. No amount of calamity which merely befell a man, descending from the clouds like lightning, or stealing from the darkness like pestilence, could alone provide the substance of its story.

    Job was the greatest of all the children of the east, and his afflictions were well-nigh more than he could bear; but even if we imagined them wearing him to death, that would not make his story tragic. Nor yet would it become so, in the Shakespearean sense, if the fire, and the great wind from the wilderness, and the torments of his flesh were conceived as sent by a supernatural power, whether just or malignant.

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