Exploring Shakespearian Tragedy

A New Critical Theory

Work in Progress

By Paul H. and Robin Jaeckle Grawe

© 2020


A Cheshire Smile:  Humor Texture and Personality in Shakespeare's Comedies











Chapter 1: Introduction

 Shakespearean Tragedy as a Sub-Form of Tragedy

In In Search of Shakespearean Tragedy (Lap Publishing, 2016), we put forth a new theory of tragedy that would give Shakespearean tragedy its rightful place in literary theory, a preeminent place which it long ago established in Romantic sensibility and in practical criticism. (For a summation of that volume, see Synopsis:  In Search of Shakespearean Tragedy.) As it worked out, that effort entailed looking at Shakespeare’s tragedic rhetoric with new eyes, eyes that could see the pre-Romantic in Shakespeare and that could also see that he generally held elevated language in imitation of Greek tragedy in contempt. No wonder that Classical literary criticism held Shakespeare in contempt!

And since our idea of Shakespearean tragedic rhetoric was revolutionarily different from what literary theory had dictated for tragedy, it was only wise for us to check our thinking by continuing our previous practice of empirical testing for the special language of long-term comedy, what George Meredith called Humor of the Mind.

We’d only run one empirical test of tragedic language before writing In Search of Shakespearean Tragedy (ISST).  It was a slender empirical reed to lean on, but even a single empirical test produced multiple high-confidence proofs that our idea of Shakespeare’s tragedic language had reality about it. Since the publication of ISST, more empirical testing has well confirmed this validation of our theory.

So along with an empirically-demonstrated definition of Shakespeare’s special tragedic language, we then also posited that Greek tragedy, far from being the everlasting standard against which all tragedy must be judged, was much better thought about as simply a Greek sub-genre, well explored by Aristotle, but standing alongside rather than standing over Shakespeare.  Shakespeare is a lousy Greek tragedic dramatist.  But then, he evidently had no intention whatsoever of being a Greek tragedic dramatist.

Aristotle never got to see Shakespeare, or for that matter other modern variants of tragedy—Eugene O’Neill’s, or Frank Norris’, or Henry James’, or Arthur Miller’s, simply to name a number of American variants. He did have an intimate knowledge of Greek tragedies from the Golden Age of Athens.

So Aristotle can’t be held to account for not writing about tragedy as if he knew everything that was to follow over the next 23 centuries.  Limited though his experience was, Aristotle nevertheless said things that endure.  Some of them endured to be used against Shakespeare and Shakespearean achievement. That wasn’t Aristotle’s doing.  And some of what Aristotle said did what the Greeks did best: to think in abstractions to logical conclusions. 

Think Euclid. The passing of 23 centuries hasn’t diminished Euclid’s contribution to geometry. And so, for Aristotle, what is really important is how he defined tragedy, not what tragedy he defined.

In previous work, we had considered Aristotle’s definition of tragedy in Section 6 of the Poetics to be essentially two symbiotic definitions, a formal definition followed by an emotive definition.  The formal definition started with tragedy as an action of a hero greater than ourselves but possessing a single tragic flaw. The emotive definition was only a few pungent words long, ending with the idea that tragedy moved to accomplish the purgation of pity and fear.

In Search of Shakespearean Tragedy, however, presents Aristotle’s definition as a three-stage definition. The first stage was descriptive of the action itself; the second stage, also terribly briefly put, described the special language and other dramatic embellishments working with that language; and the third stage considered the affects of the first two stages on the audience, the immediate affects during the performance and the final affect, purgation, which is the abiding affect of Greek tragedy.

Put even more simply, whatever tragedy portrays, it does so with the second element of special language and allied affects, and it is the combination of the portrayal and the special language affects that create both momentary emotions throughout the performance and an enduring final summing up thought-emotion which is the play’s “power” or in Greek, its dynamis.

In Search of Shakespearean Tragedy spends chapters on what Shakespearean tragedy portrays and whole chapters on what the special language of Shakespearean tragedy is (and what we had found out about that special language in first-round empirical testing).  From the special language itself (which can be assumed in a competent performance to be allied with all sorts of other dramatic stage devices that actors and directors have developed through the ages) and from that language in combination with the portrayal, we can say a good deal about how we are supposed to feel moment by moment throughout the play.  For example, how are we supposed to feel when Brutus stabs Caesar in Julius Caesar?  It rather depends on what Brutus says and has said and on how he has said it.

But so far, that does not say what the dynamis of Julius Caesar is, how we as a well-trained, sensitive audience should feel-think long after we have left the playhouse. We made some attempt to define that dynamis in In Search of Shakespearean Tragedy, but we indicated that these points were only an approximation which would have to be worked out more fully in practical criticism of individual Shakespearean tragedies.

Reviewing that approximation of dynamis, we posited that all tragedy, not just Greek or Shakespearean tragedy, has a cautionary dynamis. And we might add that such cautionary character makes tragedy “teachy” and teacher-friendly. It is good stuff to feed adolescents, cautioning them about dangers from which we dearly hope they have so far been shielded by loving parents and friends.

Along with cautionary, all tragedy, not just Greek or Shakespearean tragedy, is contemplative.  Recognizing the deadly pitfalls of an adult world quite naturally points one toward the great philosophical and religious issues of humanity. It also leads one to consider what if any safeguards might have guarded against the tragedic denouement and carried life in some different direction altogether. Tragedy is “meaty stuff,” and for many of the most serious minds throughout the ages, it becomes almost the only literature that is worthy of contemplation.

At the sub-genre level, the level at which Shakespearean tragedy is a sister genre to Greek tragedy, In Search of Shakespearean Tragedy heavily suggested that we needed also to look at what was portrayed if we were to have a proper sense of the dynamis the original Shakespearean audience was supposed to feel. 

Greek tragedy is, always was, and never pretended to be other than polytheistic pagan in its mindset, which was, of course, the mindset of its intended audience. There’s much to say about that mindset, but in very simplistic terms, the mindset tended toward a conception of the universe as a universal trap, created by gods who couldn’t care less about humanity in general, and when they made an exception and did care,  gods who were extremely careless about what happened to the humans they interacted with.

It is not a comforting ideology to live by.

Simultaneously, the Greek rulers had invented or inherited the idea that the average citizen was there to be used, used by the state for the state’s purposes, for the state’s good not for the individual’s good. Twentieth century Nazism, with its interest in antiquities generally, was rather addicted to this element of Greek political thought. So was Stalinist Russia. And so are most of the world’s governments of the present or past that have not had a strong democratic foundation. The Greater Good seems always to play in the rhetoric of elites. Forget the individual and her or his rights.

That also is not a comforting ideology for the Everyman audience of the theatre to live by.

And not surprisingly, in Greek drama with the mindset already described, that disregarded audience should be made, on leaving the theatre, to feel no pity or fear, not for the hero and not for itself.  The audience should go back to doing their job, making their sacrifices for the state and not grousing about it.

Shakespeare’s theatre was marching to a different drummer, though a drummer beating two cadences rather than one. England was aristocratic and monarchical. It was used to the idea that the few dictated to the many.

But since Magna Carta at least, strange things had been happening in the English mind. People had come to think that they, as individual Englishmen—and even Englishwomen—had rights!  The Renaissance had been going on for some time when Shakespeare came to London, and the Renaissance too seemed intent on stressing the individual as worth noticing.

And ultimately, Shakespeare’s was a Christian England and a Christian theatre. Despite many contrary trends, Christianity had always asserted the individual: Christ died for Everyman and for Everywoman, not for a bunch of cogs in the state machine.

So whatever Shakespearean dynamis turns out to be, we should not expect it to be Greek.

And with that, we turn to the unfinished business announced in In Search of Shakespearean Tragedy: if we look at a number of the Shakespearean tragedies themselves, can we more specifically tack down from practical criticism what the dynamis of Shakespearean tragedy feels-thinks like?

The present volume tests whether we can establish a dynamis that covers all four of the Great Tragedies of Shakespeare—Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, and Othello. It should be obvious to anyone who has sensitively viewed all four that this is a daunting assignment.

Hamlet is so long that it can hardly even be produced in full.  Macbeth is one of the shortest works of the canon. Othello isn’t even about the serious action and a hero greater than ourselves called for in Aristotle’s definition, serious action being the running of the state and greater-than-ourselves being kings and princes, not mercenary soldiers. Rather, Othello is one of the condottieri, a talented soldier assigned to a distant conflict and outpost, which conflict turns out not to be relevant to the action of the play. Lear is both self-pitying and pitiable as only the old and discarded can be.  Hamlet is still a youth, seemingly with a life before him.

What can possibly provide a common thread of ultimate audience response to such diversity, other than amazement at Shakespeare’s utterly unrestrained imaginative range?

Moreover, what earthly good is there in finding such a common dynamic strain? Isn’t it better just to experience the plays? No doubt, as Shakespeare has Hamlet say, “the play’s the thing.” Good criticism always plays second fiddle to the work. But the second fiddle can provide the harmony that makes the first fiddle so extraordinary.

In any case, literary criticism is what we do at ITCHS. And ultimately the only way to know whether there is real value in doing something is to do it—and then evaluate it afterward.

Meanwhile, our tripartite sense of Aristotle’s definition suggests where the path must lead to find united dynamis if it exists. First we need to establish a “tragedic line” of action or portrayal, the equivalent of Aristotle’s idea of a man greater than ourselves involved in serious action. In Search of Shakespearean Tragedy asserts that Shakespearean tragedy centers on at least one “noble” figure.  We need to fill in the rest of the tragedic line.

Second, as we fill in the tragedic line, it will become apparent that the line is made apparent in large part by elements counter to that line, elements which are common to all or many of Shakespeare’s tragedies but which take on more or less prominence in individual plays.

Third, we need to define the special language that is employed along with the tragedic line. In ISST we defined a quadrilateral of special language forms which, combined in various ways, created various textures. These textures, in turn, acted to mediate between the tragedic line and the dynamis. To date, 38 different empirical tests have shown with high or very-high-confidence levels that the four sub-forms of Shakespearean tragedic rhetoric have existence and that they are contradistinctive in their affects on human subjects.  Much of this is covered in ISST and in a report to the Minnesota Marine Art Museum where a major empirical test resulted in a dozen or more of these results. We will continue that exploration in this volume.

Fourth, we will examine the Spirit of each work.

Finally, if we can unite what Shakespeare portrayed in his tragedies with Shakespeare’s unmatched talent for special language, then we should also be able to define much more clearly what power each play has that is distinctly its own. 

But more to our ultimate purpose in this study, we should be able to define the commonality of these individual dynamics. The commonality, if we find it, then becomes the general power of the Great Tragedies as a sub-genre, in short, a Shakespearean tragedic dynamis.



A Note on Empirical Testing

Shakespeare’s special language was In Search of Shakespearean Tragedy’s strong suit.  Not only did we define the special language feature, we also empirically tested that special language.  In many high-confidence results, we found, fundamentally, that the special language we posited for Shakespeare does exist in four variants which are meaningfully demonstrable in human responses to them.  Moreover, we found individually in these high-confidence results some very “quirky” things about preference among these four special language variants, things never dreamt of perhaps in practical criticism any more than they have been dreamt of in sociology or psychology.   We think it all makes interesting reading, and one can read it in In Search of Shakespeare’s Tragedy.

By the time ISST came into print, we had already done a second empirical experiment with Shakespeare’s special tragedic language.  And since the publication of ISST, we have done a much more major and unusual empirical experiment linking preference among Shakespeare’s special language variants to preference for painterly qualities among masterworks of art in the Minnesota Marine Art Museum (MMAM). All three experiments were successful in establishing high-confidence relationships (95% confidence levels) between special language preference and other preferences. In fact, we found at least 38 high-confidence relationships to other preferences, many of the 38 being not just high-confidence but very-high-confidence (99%+). Almost all of these results can be considered “quirky.” Some are related to basic demographic distinctions like age. Some are related to modern popular literature, reflecting the experimental audience of customers at a used book store. And some are related to masterworks of American and European art, relationships for example to Hudson River School and Luminous American artists, or to European artists like Matisse, Picasso, Monet, and Van Gogh.

Quirky perhaps, but we have already showed that they can help explain critical preferences about Julius Caesar. And the variations within Shakespeare’s special language are also key to our finding a dynamic commonality among the Great Tragedies with all their seeming diversity.


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