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Introduction to Shakespeare Tragedy

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Anne Shillingsburg

on 6 June 2014

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Transcript of Introduction to Shakespeare Tragedy

Introduction to Shakespeare Tragedy
Unique Elements of Tragedy:

The Tragic Hero:
Is an articulate, social authority
Is “important” within his society
Has at least one weakness or fault – a tragic flaw or Hamartia – which grows until it overcomes his virtues and leads to his downfall and the destruction of his world.
Dies a meaningful death
Usually suffers from hubris, or pride, leads to poor decisions

Common Elements that Appear in Shakespearean Tragedy
- one idea/character or object is thrown into opposition with another for sake of emphasis or clarity
- use of contrast heightens distinctions of character and increases interest by placing opposites side by side (e.g. comic scene just before a tragic scene)
- character foils (those who provide contrast, usually to the protagonist) are used extensively by Shakespeare
Common Elements that Appear in Shakespearean Tragedy
- uncertainty in an incident, situation, or behaviour
- keeps the audience anxious concerning the outcome of the protagonist’s conflict
- two types: that which provokes intellectual curiosity and that which provokes emotional curiosity
- Shakespeare uses conflict, precarious situations, apparently unsolvable problems, foreshadowing and delay to develop suspense
Common Elements that Appear in Shakespearean Tragedy
Dramatic Irony
- this situation occurs when the audience is aware of the conditions that are unknown to the character on stage or when some of the characters are ignorant of what really is on the speaker’s mind
Definition: Tragic drama is fundamentally serious, involving the downfall of a
heroic figure. The themes are lofty: passion (Romeo and Juliet), revenge (Hamlet), ambition (Macbeth) and jealousy (Othello).

Chorus: Borrowed from Greek tragedy in which dancers/singers appear at intervals within the play to comment on the action – express objective judgement on the proceedings.
- intervention of some force over which humans have no control
- may complicate the plot but does not bring about the downfall of the hero (he ultimately chooses it for himself by his actions)
- pathos/sympathy may be felt by the audience for those hurt by fate
The Supernatural
- Shakespeare knew the
appeal of ghosts, witches, premonitions, prophesies and other supernatural events for his audience
- thus he included them
Nemesis (compared to Poetic Justice)
- Nemesis is the Greek goddess of vengeance, the personification of righteous indignation; she pursues those who have displeased the gods
- by Shakespeare’s time, the term became associated with any agent of fate or bringer of just retribution
- a term to describe the intended impact of tragedy on the audience; the reason we are drawn, again and again, to watch tragedy despite its essential sadness
- by experiencing the events which arouse pity and terror, we achieve a purging (catharsis) of these emotions
- detached pity and involved terror that leaves the spectator with “calm of mind, all passion spent”
- speech made by character when he/she is alone on the stage (only audience is privy to the speech)
Purposes include:
- revealing mood of speaker and reasons for it
- revealing character
- revealing character’s opinion of someone else in the play
- revealing motives of speaker
- creating suspense
- preparing audience for subsequent developments
- explaining matters that would ordinarily require another scene
- reviewing past events and indicating speaker’s attitudes
- reinforcing theme
- comments intended only for the audience (or occasionally for one other character on stage)
- made in the presence of other characters on stage, but the audience is aware that these other characters cannot hear the asides
- must be short, or would interfere with the course of the play
Purposes include:
- to indicate character to person speaking
- to draw attention to significance of what has been said or done
- to explain plot development
- to create humour by introducing a witty comment
- to create suspense by foreshadowing
- to remind audience of the presence of speaker, while he/she remains in the background
- humor may take many forms
- Shakespeare was fascinated by word play; therefore, puns are common in his plays
- may create humor through presenting the completely unexpected
The Spectacular
- audiences enjoy scene which presents unusual sights
- furious action, elaborate costumes, or stage props create the spectacular, thus Shakespeare frequently employs fight scenes, crowd scenes, banquets, dancing parties and royal courts
Structure of Shakespearean Tragedy
A Play in 5 Acts
Exciting Force
Tragic Force
Glimpse of Restored Order
Establishes the Setting
Sets the Tone and Mood of the Play
Generally Introduces Key Characters, but not the Tragic Hero
Exciting Force
Introduces the Conflict
Initiates the Momentum of the Play
Mistakes Made Due to the Tragic Flaw of the Hero
Main Cause of Catastrophe
Hero Still Possesses Control of his Fate
Major Turning Point
Serves as the Climax of the Play
Result of the Hamartia
From This Point on, Control Seems to Leave the Hero on his Inevitable Fall
Tragic Force
Downward Fall of the Hero
Leads up to the Catastrophe
Hero has Little Control
Events After the Crisis
The Inevitable Death of the Hero
Resolution to the Conflict
Glimpse of Restored Order
Events After the Hero's Death
Depict Restored Society
Patterns of Shakespearean Tragedies
Lack of Control
Increasing Urgency
Confrontation of the Hero
Realization of Tragic Flaw
Death of Hero
Common Traits of Tragic Hero

Wealthy king or leader whose actions affect everyone
Perepeteia = a change in fortune caused by the tragic flaw
blind to reality
suffers internally and externally
has a meaningful death that contributes to a greater cause
External Conflict
The struggle between the main character and an outside force in a literary work such as nature or other characters.
Internal Conflict
The struggle between the main character and his/herself throughout a literary work. Usually a psychological conflict.
Tragic Conflict
Final Conflict
Tragic Hero realizes Tragic Flaw
Everyone dies
Peace is restored


William Shakespeare started writing tragedies because he thought the tragic plots used by other English writers were lacking artistic purpose and form.
He used the fall of a notable person as the main focus in his tragedies.
Suspense and climax were an added attraction for the audience.
His work was extraordinary in that it was not of the norm for the time.
A reader with even little knowledge of his work would recognize one of the tragedies as a work of Shakespeare.
A hero today is seen as a person who is idolized. Nowadays, a hero does not have to have wealth or certain political beliefs, but instead can be regarded as a hero for his/her actions and inner strength.

However, in the plays of Shakespeare, the tragic hero is always a noble man who enjoys some status and prosperity in society but possesses some moral weakness or flaw which leads to his downfall.

External circumstances such as fate also play a part in the hero's fall. Evil agents often act upon the hero and the forces of good, causing the hero to make wrong decisions. Innocent people always feel the fall in tragedies, as well.
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