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Common Themes of the Shakespearean Tragedies

William Shakespeare’s tragedies are often gripping plays with bloody endings that leave the audiences and readers breathless. Set in places like Rome, Venice, and even Denmark; these tragedies tend to end with all the cards lying on the table, or in other words, all the main characters are dead. Not all tragedies, however, have to necessarily be self-contained tragic plays; in fact, many plays on Romance and Fantasy also have tragic characters, as we shall see in the upcoming examples. William Shakespeare not only creates tragedies within plays, but he creates tragic events within the characters’ lives, which inevitably draws the audience in. Shakespeare uses tragedies to reveal the consequences of a leader’s actions and emotions.

A.C. Bradley, who wrote Shakespearean Tragedy sums up the plot of a true tragedy is perhaps one of the best ways. First, he suggests that there is a “circle of events”(www.clicknotes.com) to all Shakespearean tragedies that “lead up to, and include, the death of the hero”. Secondly, there has to be a fall of the conspicuous person (such as Iago and Aaron), and third, the tragic character/hero must be a great man. Shakespeare definitely follows these rules, or more importantly, he created them, and in the meantime, set the standard for the modern-day tragic hero as well.

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Perhaps one of the best knows Shakespeare plays is Hamlet, where the premise is focused on a young Prince who has lost his father through the devious actions of his Uncle, who has also become his new stepfather. Readers can see many examples of a leader or a character in a leadership role fall from grace because of the way the characters all seem to go through role changes.

The critic Michael Mangan has many insights into the character of Hamlet in his book A Preface to Shakespeare’s Tragedies by revealing the “role-playing”(139) aspect of the character. This ties in nicely to the idea that Shakespeare creates a character that will inevitably fall due to his own actions, as it is the preempted acting that drives Hamlet’s family and friends to change his life for him.

The death of King Hamlet left a sombre setting to the introduction of Hamlet, and the young Prince is left to his own devices after learning of the true reasons for his father’s death. We see Hamlet as a leader who is losing his place in monarchal society to revenge the death of his father. This leadership role was not destined to last for Hamlet, as his “madness”, or implied madness led to his family striping him of his position, and trying to send him away. As the reader can see, Shakespeare created Hamlet as an eccentric young Prince who the audience could relate too and feel sympathy for, and having him lose his position did exactly that. It is easy to see the tragic flaws of anger and revenge here, but on closer inspection of the play, the reader can find a better example of a leader who suffers the consequences of his actions; King Claudius.

Claudius is the true evil in Hamlet because it is he who willing poisoned the old King Hamlet, and married his wife, Queen Gertrude. The reader and audience see the killing and quick marriage as a grab for power, so it is only right that the evil Claudius dies in the end. Truly it is a perfect end for this character, but what about Hamlet himself? As we can see, Shakespeare creates Hamlet as a mean for sympathy. He has lost his father, seen his mother re-marry, and learns of a treacherous plot that ended in his father’s murder. Basically, the audience is drawn to Hamlet to actually feel sympathy for him, which makes the entire play a complete tragedy when his roles eventually change for the worst. Hamlet goes from the young mourning Prince to the schemer and then the avenger hoping to bring out his father’s killer. In the meantime, his family perceives him as a madman, and when Polonius is killed, the play works towards its end, at the duel.

Prince Hamlet got his revenge for the death of his father, but at the same time, he lost his life, which is a consequence of his own tragic flaw; revenge. So in the end we have a murderer being murdered, and a son of a murdered man becoming a murderer himself, and then being murdered as well. It is quite the ending and quite the tragedy, but Shakespeare reveals much about the consequences that these leaders evidently felt.

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The thing that makes Hamlet a really good tragic play is that Shakespeare actually has one character as the focus, yet many are guilty of going through a “tragic life circle”. King Claudius and Queen Gertrude are also guilty in this play of emotional and physical actions that lead to tragic consequences. King Claudius falls after being discovered for his part in King Hamlet’s death, and Gertrude is found guilty (at least by Hamlet) of loving another man too quickly, and therefore dishonouring her late husband.

Harold Bloom said it best in his book Shakespeare Invention of the Human when he described Hamlet’s predicament as follows: “Hamlet’s only persuasive enemy is Hamlet himself”(431). Here we see a perspective insinuating that Hamlet and his true enemy, himself, or rather, his own actions and emotions led up to his downfall. This is exactly what Shakespeare is trying to convey; that one’s own actions will be felt as consequences upon oneself.

In Shakespeare’s Othello, we again see a man tragically brought down by the consequences of his own flaws as he succumbs to the whims of his own jealous and distrusting heart. Othello was treated as a pawn by the unfathomably evil Iago, who shows little motivation for wanting to see Othello fall from grace, yet he goes out of his way to orchestrate a large production of back-stabbing, jealousy and lying.

On the first reading of Othello, it is rather easy to say that the dark Othello is truly a man led into a lifestyle of anger and jealousy, but some of the blame for his madness must rest on his own shoulders. Iago is truly the evilest aspect of the play, but it is Othello’s jealousy and distrust for Desdemona that led to her outrageous murder. Again we see a leader, this time Othello, tragically fall from grace from the consequences of his own emotions and actions. Unlike Hamlet, who rises and falls with mere revenge, Othello falls because of his own naiveté and jealousy.

Shakespeare also introduces the reader to the evil persona of a character called Iago, who is definitely behind much of Othello’s feelings and twisted emotions toward his wife. So with that being said, can we really blame Othello? I think we have to give him at least some responsibility because after all, Othello was a calculating, well trusted warrior, and he claimed that Desdemona’s and his love was completely genuine, so how could he believe all of Iago’s lies if he really never had much proof at all? It is those facts that lead the reader to believe that Othello was not completely innocent after all. He was obviously guilty of murder, but it was his jealousy, naivete, and his too easily influenced mind that were his greatest flaws, for they actually led to the murder/suicide in the end.

The truly ironic part of this play, and what might actually be one of the strongest points when talking about the consequences of Othello is that he too, like Claudius, died as he lived. In Act I, Scene 3 we see Othello gracefully speak about the things that wooed Desdemona, “She loved me for the dangers I had passed, /And I loved her that she did pity them”(Greenblatt 2110). What the reader/audience sees again is the circle of tragedy; where Othello is the experienced warrior, who inevitably uses those very skills to bring about his own downfall.

After talking about Othello and his complete circle of a hero to a jealous madman to the killer, we must include Iago’s role and how he too fell from the consequences of his actions. This play shows us the quintessential Shakespearean “trickster” so to speak, who is always illusively in the background, pulling strings and twisting people around. Iago uses many people in this play, starting with Roderigo, Cassio, Emilia and of course Othello. With all this backstabbing and behind-the-scenes conjuring, it is little wonder that the audience can easily grow to hate Iago, but it is most likely because we never really get a sound reason why he does what he does. Even though Iago has a few minor problems with Othello, mostly due to the promotion of Cassio over himself, it still gives him little reason to embark on such a monumental quest of deception.

In fact, Iago even admits to the falsity, which he serves Othello, stating that, “In following him I follow but myself.”(Greenblatt 2101). We see here the beginnings of Iago’s hatred and plotting but in Act 1, Scene 2 we see the smallest glimpse of Iago’s true feelings for Othello. “Though I hate him as I do hell pains-/ Yet for the necessity of present life/ I must show out a flag of love”(Greenblatt 2104).

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So upon reflection of Othello, we need to identify who fell. Obviously, Othello and Iago, for their history were well documented throughout the play, but smaller characters also tragically fell from their positions, although mostly without any fault of their own. Cassio, Emilia, and Roderigo had the consequences of their actions catch up to them, but mostly it was due to what they did not do or rather realize, instead of what they did do. Iago for example used Emilia quite frequently, but it was she who brought Desdemona’s handkerchief to Iago, and set off the worst chain of events in the entire play. Up until the handkerchief was given to Othello, he was still second-guessing Desdemona’s infidelity, but that piece of cloth literally sealed her fate. So is it fair to again condemn characters for their inability to see the elusive? Well, Emilia was portrayed as a smart character, much like Gertrude in Hamlet, and to see her as completely innocent is not realistic. Regardless of how many characters fell in Othello, we again see Shakespeare take his characters and subject them to the consequences of their own actions, and in that, they suffer the full wrath of their flaws.

Shakespeare also reveals the consequences of a leader’s actions in The Tempest. Here we see something a little different since this play is not so much a Tragedy but a Romance/ Fantasy, but nevertheless, we see the main character Prospero suffer from his own flaws.

Harold Bloom actually summarizes the play quite well in his book The Invention of the Human, but his conclusion that The Tempest is, “fundamentally plotless”(662), seems like a misconception to me. The entire story flowed well as far as I could tell, and the interaction of the characters in their surrounded worked well to conceive a fluid climax. I do agree with Bloom’s opinions on the character Caliban being very misunderstood and misread by theatre directors, but he leaves a lot unsaid about Prospero. He does however refer to him as “godlike”(Bloom 669) and alluded to a connection between Shakespeare and Prospero, but what we’re looking for is Prospero’s apparent “fall” as the leader of Milan, which we find in Act 1, Scene 2:

Whereon,
A treacherous army levied, one midnight
Fated to th’purose did Antonio open
The gates of Milan; and, I’th’dead of darkness,
The ministers for the’purpose hurried hence
Me and thy crying self. (Greenblatt 3060).

Here we get a look at the night Antonio sent the ministers to exile Prospero and his young, crying daughter. In this play, however, the consequences of the leader’s actions where far less severe than most Shakespearean plays, probably for the reason that Prospero’s flaws were not considered as bad as the previous examples involving revenge or murder. Prospero’s problem was that he had become an apathetic ruler, and only cared about his books, and the quest for knowledge. That theme actually speaks volumes about the ideas that Shakespeare was trying to get the reader/audience to think about, like how much knowledge or the pursuit of knowledge is too much? Even though Prospero’s exile is fundamentally seen as a consequence of his apathetic and lackluster leadership, it is still a consequence of his actions that Shakespeare makes him suffer.

Regardless of the themes and genre of The Tempest, we still get another view of a leader falling from the consequences of his own actions.

Perhaps on of the greatest examples of Tragedy and the consequences of a character’s actions has to be Titus Andronicus. Any critical piece of Shakespearean literature regarding Tragedy must include this play which was brilliantly summarized by Richard Courtney in his book Shakespeare’s World of War. “It is a lurid horror play, crudely violent, a chamber of horrors that includes thirteen deaths, two mutilations, one violent rape, and a cannibal banquet at which Tamora, the Queen of the Goths, is fed a pie made out of the bodies of her two sons.”(Courtney 152).

Titus himself goes through an entire “ tragic circle” in the play, where he was once the gallant general of Rome returning to his homeland, but eventually became the fallen, horrified father of dead children. His homecoming is rather triumphant, as he slaughters an heir to the Goth Queen, and is offered the crown of Rome. Soon after, however, through an argued marriage contract to the new Emperor Saturninus, Titus finds himself on the bottom of the social pyramid, as an “outlaw” so to speak. From their, Titus falls even their father, after having a few of his sons killed (one by to his own hand in fact), and his daughter being violently mutilated and raped. This is by far one of the most Tragic plays of its kind, and still haunts theatregoers to this day.

But let us not forget the other characters in this barbaric play that succumb to the consequences of their actions. Tamora, Queen of the Goths has revenge acted out upon her “two” fold, as she is served dinner at Titus’ home which ends up being the bodies of her missing sons. After her devious part in the fall of Titus (which was revenge for the murder of her first son), it seems like Tamora got what she deserved.

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Saturninus also got his in the end as well. At the same dinner party, we see the Emperor partake in the same meal as Tamora, and he is eventually killed by Lucius after he kills Titus. Here we see more evidence that Shakespeare gives his characters what they deserve in the conclusion of the play, in regards to their actions from the beginning. Tamora and Saturninus both fall from their positions as King and Queen of Rome, and it is obvious that it is entirely due to their brutal agenda towards Titus.

Another character that must be mentioned when discussing Titus, is the reoccurrence of the elusive trickster, this time, Aaron. Again Shakespeare uses the evil man behind the scenes (much like Iago from Othello), to convey, or rather give a reason for all the devious plot lines that the characters find themselves in. One thing that almost exactly mimics Othello, is the use of two contrasting skin colours to make the audience notice the true distinction between good and bad. In Othello, we have the deceptive and evil Iago, who is white compared to the dark-skinned Othello, but in Titus, we have Aaron the moor, who is greatly contrasted against the white-skinned Titus. This distinction is not by coincidence, rather, it shows the reader/ audience the contrast between the main character and his adversary, even though the characters themselves often can’t see the difference.

One thing that I have to disagree with Richard Courtney on is his presumption that “Titus fails to reach tragic stature because it does not evoke real sympathy.”(Courtney 162), but I think that is far from true. The rape, mutilation, and eventual murder of Lavinia are by far some of the most sympathetic things that I’ve ever read (after you get over the initial shock), and to say that Titus himself doesn’t have some form of redeeming sympathies is absurd. His revenge actually causes the reader to applaud him, thereby conclusively showing his sympathetic mindset for revenge.

I think it is hard to not be somewhat sympathetic for Titus, simply because he has lost so much. Even though it is evident that he lost or caused the loss of most of what he holds dear, it nonetheless evokes feelings of empathy. The reader even felt sympathy for the evil Tamora in the opening scene of Titus, when her son was brutally sacrificed. Simply put, it is impossible to not be sympathetic for anyone who losses that much, in that short of a period, no matter how bitter and mean the character has been.

Throughout the major Tragedies such as Hamlet, Othello, and Titus Andronicus, we see various examples of reoccurring themes regarding the fall of a hero. We can even see smaller but nevertheless similar examples of a leader’s fall in plays like The Tempest. William Shakespeare not only reveals the consequences of great leaders’ actions in his plays, but he shows how their flaws can irreversibly lead to their destruction.

What we have been left with essence, is a warning of sorts. One which shows us that men do indeed have to “pay” for the consequences of their flawed emotions and actions and that they do have a bearing on our lives. Truly there is no action without a reaction, and Shakespeare eloquently reveals that to the reader and the audience through his noble yet flawed characters.

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