Shakespeare’s tragedies

Shakespeare's tragedies

In this content, we will discuss and write about some of the best tragedy plays of the master Shakespeare.

When the name William Shakespeare comes to mind, many people tend to think of works by the author that have been made into films, such as Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, or paintings of Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra. It is normal.

These, and others written by the English playwright, poet and actor, have in common several characteristics that could well be called elements of Shakespearean tragedy.

The first of these elements is the influence of the historical epoch in which he lived: the Renaissance. In this era, there is a renewed interest in the Roman and Greek classics. The tragedies of this era trace their philosophical essence back to Seneca’s tragedy, based on nobles who often make a grave mistake (hamartia, in Greek, “who missed the mark”).

Another peculiarity of Shakespeare’s work is that the author wrote most of his tragedies under the reign of James I (1566-1625). For this reason, their darker contents may reflect both the general mood of the country – Queen Elizabeth I had died shortly before, after more than 40 years of reign – and King James I’s theatrical preferences.

Many of William Shakespeare’s plays portray the hero as flawed, a weakness that will lead to his downfall. Of course, the more power the hero has, usually a nobleman, the more tragic his downfall will be.

Finally, it should be noted that in all Shakespeare’s plays there is usually an ingredient of external pressures suffered by the heroes. Here, fate, evil spirits and manipulative characters always play an important role in the hero’s downfall.

Having said that, here is a brief review of what could be considered the main tragedies of William Shakespeare’s work.

Antony and Cleopatra

Antony and Cleopatra

This play is closely related to two other Shakespeare titles: Julius Caesar and Coriolanus. All three are known as Shakespeare’s Roman Tragedies. The web of interrelationships of textual and oral traditions that converge in Antony and Cleopatra constitute a complicated interplay of dramatic writing elements.

The representation of Antony and Cleopatra as symbols or archetypes surpasses the historical or contextual instance and maintains the elements of individualization necessary to bring the representation closer to reality, to the person.

The key element of Antony and Cleopatra is to be found in a conflictive political framework that makes love impossible.

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T. S. Eliot called Coriolanus Shakespeare’s greatest artistic achievement.  Inspired by a (legendary) story told by Plutarch. Coriolanus is a superhuman warrior and a radical and inhuman aristocrat whose inflexibility leads to tragedy, threatening even the very subsistence of Rome.

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The tragedy of Hamlet traces the admirable portrait of a legendary prince of Jutland, dreamer, contemplative, immersed in doubts and irresolutions, who, forced to clarify the reasons that led to the death of his father, succumbs to the fatality of circumstances.

The madness of this Danish prince is not only, in the traditional way, a fiction and an alibi. It also becomes a way of being and a vision of the world.

The ambiguity, ambivalence and disorientation of Hamlet’s character bring him remarkably close to a timeless sensibility. Hence his constant relevance throughout the ages.

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Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar

As a Roman tragedy, Julius Caesar highlights the tensions of a classical antiquity characterized, from the early modernity in which Shakespeare writes, by the distinct or different (violence) and identity or similarity (rhetoric) in relation to the historical, ideal and stereotypical construction of that past.

Julius Caesar recreates the historical conspiracy against the Roman dictator Julius Caesar, his murder and its aftermath.

Unlike many of the main characters in other works of the genre (e.g. Hamlet, Henry V), the character of Julius Caesar is not the center of the action – he appears in only three scenes and dies at the beginning of the third act. The most relevant figure in the story is Brutus.

The plot revolves around the psychological struggle between conflicting claims about honor, patriotism and friendship.

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King Lear

King Lear is based on a 12th century English folk tale. The tale tells how old King Lear wanted to know how much his daughters loved him. Whoever conveyed the most love would be his successor to the throne.

Two of them were full of praise. However, the third replied that she only loved him as a father. Dissatisfied with the latter’s response, the king punished her… although she would eventually inherit the throne by proving her worth and winning a war against her sisters.

Shakespeare infused the story with a very personal vision to present an extreme experience of pain, madness and destruction expressed crudely and without reservation.

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Macbeth, general of the army of the Scottish King Kenneth II, decides to assassinate the monarch and thus accede to the throne.

Macbeth was married to his cousin Gruoch, lady-in-waiting of Scotland and granddaughter of Kenneth II. As such, he believes he has the right to claim the Scottish crown.

However, the murdered monarch, before his death, changed the rules of succession to the throne. For this reason, it is his grandson Duncan I who has the legitimate right of succession.

In a tragedy in which there is no doubt about where good and evil lie, Shakespeare’s extraordinary genius manages to make Lady Macbeth more than just a wicked character.

The culprit always reveals the human being who also suffers from evil, and thus conveys to the spectator the uneasiness provoked by the relationship between fatality, personal will and guilt.

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Within the wide gallery of Shakespearean characters that embody the most universal and common passions that move human nature, Othello has come to represent the man destroyed by jealousy.

Summarized in a few words, in this play Shakespeare portrays Othello, a brave soldier of advanced age in the service of the Republic of Venice. Married to Desdemona, the beautiful daughter of a respected Venetian senator, Othello is manipulated by his former ensign, Iago, into believing that Desdemona is an adulteress and is having an affair with his lieutenant, Cassius.

Conflict in Othello arises when Rodrigo confesses to Yago that he is deeply in love with Desdemona, and Yago gives him advice behind Othello’s back. However, Yago in front of Othello, Desdemona’s husband, shows himself to be totally different, disguising everything he said to Rodrigo.

Today, Othello’s syndrome is defined as a delusional disorder that, based on irrational elements, makes someone think that his or her partner is unfaithful.

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Timon of Athens

Timon of Athens

Rara avis within Shakespearean theater, Timon of Athens is such a puzzling piece that many Shakespeare scholars think it is a draft, an unfinished play.

Considered by the censors to be a politically incorrect play. Shakespeare was never allowed to see his play performed on stage.

The play parodies the so-called misanthropes, those beings who end up hating all mankind and who, surely, became fashionable in the Renaissance, since authors such as Shakespeare or Moliere (France) wrote about that attitude towards life.

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Titus Andronicus

Titus Andronicus

Portrait of the great Roman general who defeated the Goths. The soldier returns to Rome taking as hostages Queen Tamora and her sons Alarbus, Demetrius and Chiron, as well as the Moor Aaron, the queen’s lover.

In the imperial capital they are disputing the throne Saturninus and his brother Bassianus, who abducts Lavinia, daughter of Andronicus, whom Saturninus wanted as wife. Later Saturninus, falling in love with Tamora, marries her. Mutius, Lavinia’s brother, assisted at her abduction and for this his father Titus kills him.

All the horrors of Seneca and Ovid are mixed and accumulated in this drama. An example is the sinister bramble where the body of Bassianus is thrown, which recalls, and repeats, somber descriptions of Seneca.

Titus Andronicus seems to us caricatured and inhuman, although it is typical of the Elizabethan taste for Seneca. The characters are rudely outlined, and are rather puerile. Moreover, the dramatic situations are treated without delicacy.

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Troilus and Cressida

Troilus and Cressida

Troilus and Cressida is not a conventional tragedy, since its protagonist does not die, however we include it here because the play ends in a very somber way, with the death of the Trojan nobleman Hector.  In reality Troilus and Cressida is usually considered a comedy of conflict.

William Shakespeare is believed to have written Troilus and Cressida around 1602, shortly after finishing Hamlet. It was published in two separate editions, both 1609.

It is not known whether Troilus and Cressida was ever performed during the author’s lifetime, since the two editions contradict each other: one edition announced on its title page that the play was recently performed on stage; the other maintains in its preface that it is a new play that has never been performed.

Troilus and Cressida, written for an audience with knowledge of Greek and Trojan myths and in particular of the Trojan War, is considered an aberration by many.

Troilus and Cressida is a work difficult to classify. It was, even for Shakespeare’s early editors. Throughout the staging, the tone oscillates radically between high comedy and sad melancholy. This makes it difficult, at times, for the audience to understand how they should react to the characters’ performances.