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 2: The Tragedic Line Shakespearean Style


So much of what the modern world formally teaches as tragedy is Shakespeare’s tragedies that it is hard to conceive of some higher genre of which Shakespearean tragedy is merely a sub-genre.  This is so much the case that Complete Shakespeares for use in universities and colleges normally spend some prefatory time talking about medieval ideas of tragedy distinct from the Shakespearean achievement.  They are, of course, also distinct from the Aristotelian idea of a hero involved in serious action but marred by a single fatal flaw.  It is well to start with such a broader context here in order to avoid the sense in later discussions that Shakespeare is tragedy, the main genre, itself.

There were two main competing ideas of tragedy in medieval Europe, competing and yet often confused for each other. Seeing the two as distinct is, in fact, a way to start to think critically and carefully about tragedy. The first of these medieval tragedies derives from ancient Roman thought: tragedy personalizes the general concept of the Wheel of Fortune. Medieval and early Renaissance artists presented the picture of a Ferris wheel with extended spokes turning behind a line of Everyman figures, the spokes on the upturning side of the wheel lifting Everyman figures from the line.   As these figures ascend, their worker clothing becomes courtier or ecclesiastical finery. At the top of the wheel is a figure dressed either as a king or as a prince of the Church. On the declining side of the wheel, we also find figures on spokes, but they are progressively less fine until they are left off at ground level in the clothes they first wore.

A picture is worth a thousand words, and this picture is the equivalent of a thousand-word definition of tragedy. If so, we should note that it has an up-thrust as well as a down-thrust. And we might also note that it is not necessarily a sequence ending in death, though perhaps there is an implicit death to dreams, ambitions, and the like. And in terms of implicit ideas, there is a strong tendency toward chance (reflected in the Wheel of Fortune metaphor) which lifts some and leaves others simply moving forward at ground level.

While the figures are dressed in Christian attire, the fundamental idea comes from a pagan concept, and one can easily impute a pagan concept of Stoic acceptance as the power or dynamic of the idea.  “Que sera,sera, the future’s not ours to see,”  so get ready for whatever, and treat whatever as nothing more than accident.

The second major medieval form of tragedy was de casibus virorum illlustrorum, concerning the falls of illustrious men, or in short form, de casibus tragedy. De casibus tragedy had an ancient pedigree as well with Plutarch’s Lives as a model that loomed large over the Renaissance generally and Shakespeare in particular. However, de casibus tragedy easily lent itself to Christian moralizing, and in Shakespeare’s time, the conventional wisdom seemed to be that any work worth publishing was worth publishing precisely for its moral. The moral in de casibus tragedy could easily be fit into Christian ideas of “pride goeth before a fall” and “beware lest ye fall” or even “all human boasting is vanity which God abhors.” So de casibus maintained Aristotle’s idea of a figure greater than ourselves but was not at all chained to the idea that there had to be exactly one fatal flaw. Pride goeth before a fall, but there may be many mistakes and flaws implicated in the fall thereafter. With its moralizing implications, the power of de casibus in a Christian orthodox context could easily move to a holy fear of boasting, non-conformity, and reliance on self.

Beyond de casibus and Wheel of Fortune tragedy as main contenders, there is a great deal in High Renaissance thinking that essentially has a Fate definition of tragedy, again an idea with intensely classical roots back to pagan ideas of both Greece and Rome. Such thinking was closely associated with astrology in the Renaissance, and one of the booming businesses other than bear-baiting and the theatre was the casting of horoscopes.  Everything is pre-determined. Things are fated from before birth to go exactly as they in fact go.  Humanity has no freedom to choose otherwise. This, of course, moves quickly toward a dynamis of acceptance and Stoicism, so the circle away from Wheel of Fortune thinking comes back roughly to where it started.  Que sera,sera.

And fourth and finally, at the time when Shakespeare appeared in London, “revenge tragedy” was all the rage. In Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare even tried his hand at it. As a sub-genre, the definition of revenge tragedy is pretty much pictured in its title: someone is grievously wronged (which often is gorily presented on stage) and seeks and gets an equally or more gory revenge (also presented on stage, much to the horror of the classically trained who expect such things to be reported on stage but, as obscene, never seen).

Revenge tragedy can be seen as deriving from Medieval Biblical traditions, often dramatized for religious festivals, particularly stories about Samson, who obviously had a vengeful streak and paid a prodigious price. The hero of revenge tragedy is most often a victim and may have no tragic flaw at all. Again, this is a potentially Christian form of tragedy in a moralizing vein, the moral reflecting the biblical injunction to leave vengeance to the Lord: revenge feeds the bloodthirsty soul, but it leaves dead and mutilated bodies on stage, including the bloodthirsty avenger. Again, as a matter of dramatic power, Beware.

This is a study in literary criticism, not in literary critical history.  Multiple, distinct medieval forms of tragedy are a useful introduction to Shakespeare’s theatrical world. They should also make clear the fundamental assertion in In Search of Shakespearean Tragedy (ISST) and in this volume: Greek tragedy is not tragedy itself—there were at least four medieval European alternatives. Greek tragedy is simply a sub-genre of tragedy, and Shakespeare’s tragedy must be seen as a separate, very powerful sub-genre in need of appropriate definition.

What all medieval ideas of tragedy have in common from a literary critical perspective is that they are definitions of tragedic line. They all posit some kind of character involved in some sort of plot and more than plot, in some kind of action. But once we know who the character is and what the plot is and what the greater thing called action is, that’s it. That’s the full definition of the form of tragedy.

And for most of us, we are hard pressed to notice (much less to think) that there might be anything missing from such a definition.  Sure, people are just trudging through life, but some are lifted up on the Wheel of Fortune, but being a Wheel, the thing that lifts them up also eventually puts them back down.  End of story.

But is it really the end of the story? Is it really the story at all? Or at least for a particular dramatist, was his real interest simply in portraying this false elevation and return to normalcy? Or was a de casibus tragedian only interested in the idea that someone had it all and then went downhill? Or was a revenge tragedian only interested in the gore that precipitated the action and the gore that culminated it? Perhaps that was all for many of them, but maybe that is part of why revenge tragedies quickly went out of fashion.

We could also posit such an action-only definition of tragedy for modern America in the saying that in America the first generation makes the family’s fortune, the second generation maintains the family’s fortune, and the third generation squanders it. We might consider this the formula of saga-like tragedy in the Wheel of Fortune tradition. But is the saying the equivalent of an artistic work, a poetic construction (poetic coming from Greek poesis, a making, doing, or bearing as in fruit-bearing)?  Obviously, it isn’t. It is something of a miniature homily, perhaps, but even as homily it is rather deficient in that there isn’t a conclusion. How are we to think-feel about it?  Character and plot definitions are rather Macbethean, a tale told by an idiot . . . signifying nothing.

In this study, we will be looking for a much fuller definition of Shakespearean tragedy than any of the medieval models available to Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s tragedies accomplish much too much for him to be thought of as writing tragedy as merely truncated action.  But the medieval models do show us what is part of tragedic line: character (often only distantly adumbrated) and the line of action from that single character’s perspective.

The tragedic line has a definite actor (or, for the extremely creative, maybe even a definite couple like the Macbeths), in Greek terms, a protagonist, and a definite plot.  As already noted, however, plot is not enough; we need an action. What difference is there between plot and action?

Plot, Action, and Portrayal: The Skeletal Tragedic Line

Doings are the skeleton of any dramatic poesis. There is an unfortunate propensity to leave it at that in both appreciation and criticism. We need to go much further to understand the tragedic line as it exists in the Great Tragedies.

A plot is a series of doings. He did this, she did that, somebody else threw in the other thing, and then he . . . . 

Plot is multiple. Action, in contrast, is singular, an action. (In Shakespearean comedy, the restriction to a single action is dispensed with, so that Twelfth Night has at least a dozen small-scale actions.)

Plot is the happenings. But happenings don’t create meaning in themselves.  If he said and then she said, what was really happening, what was the reality for which the sayings are signs? Perhaps the meaning is that these two are falling in love and playing a verbal game with each other.  Perhaps the meaning is that these two got married a little while ago and are now regretting not considering more carefully. Or perhaps the meaning is that the marriage effectively has been over for a good many years now. Or maybe they are still playing courting games with each other.

Action isn’t just what happened. Action at least includes what the happenings actually signify. And in most critical discussion, action also includes the why of things: why are these people doing what they are doing?

Once we start looking into motives, for the why and for the reality behind the symbolic happenings, criticism normally moves to considering all kinds of outside variables: what do such happenings normally signify in the society being portrayed, what are the standard expectations of that society that differ from what actually happens, what kinds of results could people in that society normally expect from such happenings, and the like.  In any particular play, some of these questions and their answers may not make for particularly good appreciation and criticism of the play. But in some tragedy, any of these questions can be of great weight.

This greater context than the happenings, than the underlying direction and motivation of the happenings, we can call portrayal.  Typically, key to portrayal is the kind of character that is going through the happenings, motivation, and direction. Is the character sympathetic or unsympathetic?  Is the character tolerated, or rather is the character greatly admired? 

Central Character within Portrayal

In Shakespearean tragedy, there is typically a character central to the portrayal. This is not invariably true; in Julius Caesar, the title role is not a good clue to the play, and there are many character centers to the portrayal: Brutus, Cassius, Julius Caesar, Antony, Octavius.  Shakespeare as comedian had learned to control multiple plots, multiple central character interests, and the like.

Aristotle said of character that the hero is greater than ourselves.  This turns out to tell us little. We infer that he means character is at least a key player in the state. He also says that the character has a single tragic flaw. Real people typically have a host of flaws, not a single tragic flaw, and Shakespeare’s characters have a humanness that can be absent in Greek tragedy. And Shakespearean tragedy as a whole is fundamentally interested in the Human Condition. For Shakespearean tragedy, it is axiomatic that Humanity is caught in imperfect understanding and accord with self, in contention and conflict with others, in a sensitivity to pain which can be exquisitely augmented, in limited control or absolute lack of control of events, and attackable from the hidden spiritual dimension as well as from the secular  and mundane.

All of these aspects of the Human Condition have strong biblical warrant.  Remembering that warrant, we can say that Shakespeare’s Humanity are spiritual beings, interesting for themselves but simultaneously involved in fleeting affairs that must soon give way to eternal considerations. They are weak even when they seem most powerful, prone to many errors and routinely imperfect.

And simultaneously, they are all created in the image of God. Shakespeare’s age wrestled with all these principles as unanswerably real and true. What Shakespeare did in addition was to strongly assert a positive value of Humanity in the form of Natural Nobility. At the center of his tragedic portrayals is Naturally Noble Humanity.

Natural Nobility is the foundation of Shakespearean tragedic character. We have already devoted a full chapter to it in In Search of Shakespearean Tragedy, and we highly recommend beginning there.  But for our purposes here, the Natural Noble is like the noble elements in chemistry, those that are not easily compromised in compound with other elements. They insist on remaining themselves. And in that basic sense, they move toward self-isolation. Though self-isolation as a term can often carry a negative connotation of something to be avoided, the Natural Noble’s self-isolation does not carry this connotation. Perhaps even the reverse: self-isolation can easily be a noble badge of honor.

Honor, then, becomes a second fundamental aspect of the Natural Noble. Honor, truth to self, acceptance of self, including responsibility for all one’s faults—these ideas are so completely intertwined within Natural Nobility that it is hard to define them independently. What they have in common is an abhorrence of blending in with humanity generally through compromise and ultimately through lying about oneself to slide by and get through.  The Natural Noble doesn’t slide by, doesn’t settle for getting through.  The Natural Noble need not be forever frank and open, but the Natural Noble remains unfeigning.

Natural Nobility thus always stands out, though it need not be attractive.  The Natural Noble, like the God of the Bible, cannot lie, and to that extent at least, the Natural Noble proclaims Man, Humanity, to be in the image of God.

In Shakespeare’s class society, dominated by Titular Nobility, it wasn’t wise to emphasize the point, but the Natural Nobility we have described quite naturally moves to its own democracy.  Everyone has within the urge to nobility.  Everyone presumably has some spark of what Shaw’s Henry Higgins called “the eternal fire.”  And presumably everyone can finally appreciate the Natural Noble, the person who has not shunned the calling but rather embraced it and largely patterned life not as a getting ahead or a getting along but as an authentication of self. In that sense, Shakespeare’s emphasis on the Natural Noble is very modern and very Romantic.

We start then from what can be called the Tragedic Line. It isn’t the whole of tragedy; it is the warp of tragedy, the threads across which a pattern will be made apparent by the kinds of lines that cut across the warp. In simplified form, the warp revolves around a central character and embodies the plot, action, and portrayal that encompass that character.

We move, then, to what is not Tragedic Line but important for determining the final dynamis, the final power the play has over us long after we have left the theatre and forgotten most of the specifics we witnessed in the play. We will be discussing Other Form of Action, Special Language, and Spirit as key aspects of Shakespeare’s tragedic achievements that must ultimately be related to the definition of Shakespearean tragedy, to the definition of Shakespearean tragedy’s general dynamis and to the variations of that dynamis within the Great Tragedies.


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