Write a note on Shakespeare’s handling of tragedy.


Answer: Shakespeare represents the first modern success in the projection of tragic view in literature. The tragic element is predominant in Shakespeare and in this context he compares and competes on equal terms with the greatest Greek tragedians and in some cases he even surpasses the Greek, particularly in the variety of characters, situations and the study of characters. Shakespeare’s stronger points lie in his tragic performance. His universality as a dramatist lies in his art of characterization. His characters are larger than life, full of threatening speeches and unheard events. Shakespeare also represents the climax of the English Renaissance. Elizabethan tragedy achieved perfection in the hand of Shakespeare. Before him dramatists like Kyd and Marlowe tried their hand and they represented two distinct traits-the revenge and the romantic.

The crudities of revenge cum-melodrama tradition which Kyd represented got refinement in Shakespeare. Shakespearean tragedies are romantic tragedy for his inclusion of love theme in tragedy. This aspect of Shakespearean tragedy is a flagrant innovation of Shakespeare himself. Greek-tragedy had no such romantic themes. Shakespeare re-interprets the classical concept of tragedy.


English tragedy in the hand of Shakespeare achieved climactic success. Where as the Greek tragedy was based on religious story, Shakespeare’s tragedy was secular. Tragedy in the hand of Shakespeare has no longer religious origin. He borrows materials from here and there and presents them to be life-like. However in regards the status of the protagonist, he maintains the Greek standard that the tragic hero need to be a man of nobility at least a man of royal family. However, this does not mean that the tragic hero in Shakespeare’s play deals with the problems of that particular class, rather he represents all humanity and we pity when the tragic hero goes through sorrows. He represents humanity. The kingly status of the hero is a dramatic requirement and it has nothing to do with the essence of the tragedy. He deals with family relationship in his great tragedies but his tragedies can’t be called family tragedy at all. It is also a dramatic requirement as to arouse pity and fear in the mind of the audience. Shakespeare retains these aspects of Greek tragedy so that the tragedy achieves its true end—tragic pleasure and the tragedy become intensified.

Shakespeare improves over the Greek concept of fate and its consequences. In Greek drama, fate is “destiny.” The character suffers not because of his own sin but because of the sin of his forefathers. His is destined or condemned to suffer. But Shakespeare makes characters responsible for his own follies. In Shakespearean tragedy, “character is destiny”. The cause of the hero’s downfall lies with himself partially and his tragedy also occurs due to social imperfections. Shakespeare has made use of lot of characters in his play, where as the Greek tragedian restricted character to one or two, or two or three.

Shakespeare in his tragedy seems to retrain the use of supernatural to gain a different dramatic effect. His use of supernatural is presented more in a psychological manner than just to show the influences of the immortal as we see in Greek tragedy. Here in Shakespeare, the supernatural reveals the inner psychological thoughts of the characters. It may also represent a world of evil or the bad influences of the society. Still again Shakespeare may have included the supernatural to impress his audience since the Elizabethan audience had faith in superstitious belief. Shakespeare uses supernatural to develop his plot. For example, we can say the ghost in “Hamlet’, the witches in “Macbeth and the lies in “Othello” perform a similar functions.

The character of Hippolyltus

Shakespeare’s use of soliloquy in his tragedies is a replacement of Greek’s use of chorus. This is a glaring contribution to Elizabethan theatre. Soliloquy in Shakespeare not only contributes to the development of plots but also reveals the inner thoughts of the characters. Soliloquy in Shakespeare is necessary both for the understanding of the character and the play. It is a unique device which helps Shakespeare to give an impression about the characters. As a result, the audience comes to know the real crisis of the protagonist and thereby forms their opinion about him.

It has become almost customary that Shakespeare’s tragedy begins with comic elements as comedy begins with tragic elements. In his drama, almost every phase of life is mirrored. However, his plays specially, the historical plays are admirably true to life. He mingles comic elements even in tragedy so that the tragedy does not become unbearable or this combination of tragic and comic gives his drama a realistic expression. The tragic in Shakespeare is purposeful. Most of his tragedies are revenge tragedies and Shakespeare institutionalizes ‘revenge’ as a means of cleansing the world of evil.

Revenge motif in Shakespearean tragedy is in harmony with life and nature. It is neither a violation nor brutalization. Shakespeare could do justice in dealing with revenge-cum-melodrama tradition of Elizabethan drama. Most significantly, he shows an important development that revenge does not come from previous generation. He restricts it to the same generation. On the other hand, for the Greek revenge comes from previous generation-murder, incest, betrayal etc. in the previous generation haunts the generation in posterity and these were the causes of revenge.

But Shakespeare shows son takes revenge for the death of father or father takes revenge for the son. Shakespeare’s tragedy doesn’t get all pessimistic or gloomy because at the end of the drama there is a ray of hope. He shows a conflict between the good and evil and in the confrontation of good and evil, the good comes out winner but at the cost of precious lives. In other words, evil thrives but is defeated at the end.