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Antony & Cleopatra
Julius Caesar
King Lear
Romeo & Juliet
Timon of Athens
Titus Andronicus
Troilus and Cressida




Tragedy is a drama dealing with a noble protagonist placed in a highly stressful situation that leads to a disastrous, usually fatal conclusion. The 10 plays generally included among Shakespeare's tragedies are, in approximate order of composition, Titus Andronicus, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, and Timon of Athens. Troilus and Cressida is often grouped with the Tragedies and is listed that way in the First Folio. A central group of four plays—Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, and King Lear— offer Shakespeare's fullest development of tragedy, and they are sometimes collectively labeled the great or major tragedies. These plays focus on a powerful central character whose most outstanding personal quality—his tragic flaw, as it is often called—is the source of his catastrophe. He is the victim of his own strength, which will not allow accommodation with his situation, and we are appalled at this paradox and at the inexorability of his fate. These works—sometimes with the addition of Antony and Cleopatra—we often thought to constitute Shakespeare's greatest achievement as a playwright.

Naturally, Shakespeare wrote his tragedies concurrently with other plays, and the group is not isolated within his oeuvre. In fact, its boundaries are not clear cut. Timon of Athens is sometimes classed as a Comedy, and the First Folio edition of the plays (1623) listed Cymbeline and Troilus and Cressida, usually thought of as comedies, among the tragedies. Moreover, two of the History Plays, Richard III and Richard II, offer protagonists who have tragic aspects, though the plays themselves, with their pronounced political and social aspects, are not tragedies. Also, three of the tragedies, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus, are similarly historical in orientation and may be separately grouped as the Roman Plays

Shakespeare's tragedies developed out of earlier 16th-century tragedies, which had antecedents in the 'tragedies' of medieval poetry—verse accounts of disaster, suffering, and death, usually of mighty rulers.  The poems emphasised the fate of kings and emperors partly because of their importance in a hierarchical society, but also because, from a purely literary point of view, the contrast between their good and bad fortune was highly dramatic. These tragedies, however, did not lend themselves to the stage because they simply made a single point—that suffering and death come even to the great, without regard for merit or station—in the same fashion every time.  The emotional tone remained in accord with the doctrine voiced by Aelius Donatus, a 4th-century Roman critic who was influential throughout the Middle Ages: 'The moral of tragedy is that life should be rejected.' 

However, at least as early as Boccaccio’s The Fate of Illustrious Men (1355-1374), Renaissance authors, imbued with a sense of the value of human experience, began to alter the pattern. A wider range of subjects was assembled, and, more important, moral lessons were adduced from their lives. A good instance, and an important inspiration for Shakespeare, is the English biographical compilation A Mirror for Magistrates, in which the settings range from the classical and biblical worlds to quite recent history. The typical subject is a villainous tyrant whose fall is obviously and amply deserved. Retribution becomes the theme rather than simple inevitability. This material lent itself to dramatic development, as the tables were turned on the villain. It also lent itself to theatrical effect, as the villainy and the retribution alike were generally bloody. The ancient plays of Seneca were similar in subject and tone; already a part of the Renaissance fascination with the classical world, these works were exploited by 16th-century playwrights.  The immediate result was the Revenge Play, which offered the spectacle of the avenger being bloodily dispatched along with the original villain. Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Kyd pioneered this development. 

However, the emphasis on evil figures was gradually eroded by an awareness of the dramatic value of virtue, providing the moral contrasts so important to Shakespearean tragedy. The medieval heritage of the Morality Play was an important influence on this development. Sometimes the good were simply victims, as in Titus Andronicus; sometimes virtuous deeds resulted in death or disaster, as in the story of Lucrece, which Shakespeare treated poetically in The Rape of Lucrece and which others dramatized; and sometimes the two motifs combined, in virtuous victims whose deaths are redemptive, spiritually cleansing the world of the play. Romeo and Juliet offers a fine example.  Shakespeare's first tragedy, Titus Andronicus, is a simple melodrama, frankly imitative of Seneca. With Romeo and Juliet, the young playwright advances considerably, developing humanly credible protagonists, virtuous young lovers who are ennobled as love triumphs over death. An essential tragic theme is established in Romeo and Juliet: the superiority of the human spirit to its mortal destiny. At about the same time Shakespeare takes another important step. In Richard III he first creates a mighty protagonist who can dominate a play by force of personality, though Richard's features are somewhat stereotyped and his tragic defect is simply a given of the plot rather than a plausibly developed personal trait. However, Richard II constitutes a new phenomenon, a hero who is not merely 'star-cross'd' (Romeo, Prologue 6) but, rather, psychologically flawed. His inner conflicts are exposed in his introspective soliloquies and self-revealing actions, and we see a complex consciousness tragically unable to deal with external circumstances. Nevertheless, Richard's fall depends chiefly on those circumstances. It is in Julius Caesar that Shakespeare first achieves the distinctive element of the major tragedies, a protagonist, Brutus, who is undone precisely by his own virtues, as he pursues a flawed political ideal. A paradoxical sense of the interconnectedness of good and evil permeates the play, as the hero's idealism leads to disaster for both him and his world. 

Click to on the links below or on the left hand bar to see play text and find out more about Shakespeare's Tragedies.

Antony & Cleopatra Othello
Coriolanus Romeo & Juliet
Hamlet Timon of Athens
King Lear Titus Andronicus
Julius Caesar Troilus & Cressida 

Only with Hamlet does the hero's personal sense of that paradox become the play's central concern. In Hamlet and its three great successors, Shakespeare composes four variations on the overarching theme that humanity's weaknesses must be recognized as our inevitable human lot, for only by accepting our destiny can we transcend our mortality. Hamlet, unable to alter the evil around him because of his fixation on the uncertainties of moral judgment, falls into evil himself in killing Polonius and rejecting Ophelia but finally recovers his humanity by recognizing his ties to others. He accepts his own fate, knowing that 'readiness is all' (Hamlet 5.2.218). Lear, his world in ruins of his own making, can find salvation only through madness, but in his reconciliation with Cordelia, he too finds that destiny can be identified with, 'As if we were God's spies' (Lear 5.3.17). As Edgar puts it, sounding very like Hamlet, 'Ripeness is all' (5.2.11). Othello, drawn into evil by an incapacity for trust, recognizes his failing and, acknowledging that he 'threw a pearl away' (Othello 5.2.348), kills himself, 'to die upon a kiss' (5.2.360). The power of love—the importance of our bonds to others—is again upheld. In Macbeth the same point is made negatively, as the protagonist's rejection of love and loyalty leads to an extreme human isolation, where 'Life's but a walking shadow' (5.5.24). In each of the four major tragedies, a single protagonist grows in self-awareness and knowledge of human nature, though he cannot halt his disaster.  Hamlet's thoughtfulness, Lear's emotional intensity, Othello's obsessive love, Macbeth’s ambition—each could be a positive feature, but each is counter to the forces of the hero's world. We find human dignity in a tragic protagonist's acceptance of a defeat made necessary by his own greatest strengths. 

In the later Roman tragedies, Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus, we see the same pattern. Both Cleopatra and Coriolanus face their ends with equanimity. For the Egyptian queen, death is 'as sweet as balm, as soft as air, as gentle' {Antony 5.2.310); Coriolanus, in his more stoical way, says only, 'But let it come' (Coriolamis 5.3.189). However, these plays differ from their predecessors in that the central figures are placed in a complex social and political context, and the plays are strongly concerned with the relationship between the individual and society, with correspondingly less focus on the emotional development of the tragic hero. Timon of Athens, considered the last tragedy (though perhaps written at the same time as Coriolanus) is a flawed effort that Shakespeare left incomplete. Also quite socially oriented, it has a strong satirical quality that allies it as much with the comedies known as Problem Plays as with the great tragedies. Nevertheless, as in the other tragedies, Timon is a central figure whose decline stems from a mistaken sense of virtue. Shakespeare's attempt to integrate elements of tragedy and comedy was to be more successful in the later Romances. 

Shakespeare's tragedies are disturbing plays. We feel horror at the stories—a horror that is aggravated by such scenes as the blinding of Gloucester in King Lear—and we feel pity for the victims. That this pity extends to doers of evil as well—Macbeth, Othello, Lear, Coriolanus—attests to Shakespeare's power. We recognize the nobility of the human spirit, which may err catastrophically but which does so through an excess of strength, challenging its own limits. Hamlet loses his humanity before he learns to accept destiny; Lear in his madness assumes the burden of his evils and thus achieves remission. Othello, recognizing the evil he has fallen to, uses his strength to compensate in the only way remaining to him. Even Macbeth, the most explicitly villainous of the tragic protagonists, resumes his humanity at the play's close and seizes his sole virtue, courage, to face his end with vigor. The essence of these plays is that blame is not the appropriate response to evil that derives from human weakness. In a tragic universe, we are all flawed precisely because we are human, and Shakespeare's tragic heroes embody this inexorable feature of life.

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