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 3: Variants of Shakespearean Other Material Creating Form

In the last chapter, we distinguished between the tragedic line, the delineation of a central character and what action goes with that character—at least as a rough and ready definition—from the rest of the plot material of a full tragedic play, especially a Shakespearean tragedy.


Before directly defining Other material in Shakespeare’s tragedies, we should recognize that an unrelieved tragedic line would make very poor Shakespearean tragedy. And critical attention only to the direct tragedic line makes for very incomplete and inadequate criticism: Macbeth without MacDuff; Othello without Iago; King Lear without Kent, the fool, and Cordelia; Hamlet without Polonius, Fortinbras, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Without considering Other, Counter materials, criticism loses the real tensions and interests of Shakespearean tragedy in favor of a very unthoughtful return to star-system thinking. (It is one of the glories of Greek tragedy that it can be largely considered without counter materials and can still be interesting theatre.  A good part of that glory is to be found in the Greek choreographed chorus which provides almost non-stop spectacle as woof to the tragedic-line warp.)


The idea that there are “other counter materials” that are vital to any adequate definition of Shakespearean tragedy has not captured much attention in literary criticism. There isn’t much hint of “other material” in Aristotle’s definition of Greek tragedy; we found no need for considering “counter material” in discussing four sub-generic ideas of tragedy in the medieval period. And perhaps most telling of all, “counter material” isn’t at all considered in a street-language definition of tragedy.


Street-language tragedy is likely to tell a story of repeated woes, a tragedic line perhaps, but little more:


It was so sad. First, her husband ran away with his secretary. Then the elder son got in trouble at school and was sent away to reform school, where he is still residing. Then she came down with a cold that turned into flu, which turned into pneumonia, and while the doctors were stabilizing that, they found she had pancreatic cancer.


Such recountings are indeed pitiable, and they routinely cause auditors to fear at how life can suddenly go from bad to worse. But they aren’t art, they aren’t formal art, and they aren’t Shakespearean art. And there would be no hope at all of establishing the long-term power or dynamic of any of Shakespeare’s Great Tragedies on the basis of such tragedic-line thinking.


Technically, Counter Material creates substantial patterning (in weaving, the woof creates a pattern winding through the warp). And thus, pattern becomes an important concept needing some attention. Any sense of patterning depends on contrast, on at least twoness or else multipleness, not on oneness. And therefore, tragedic line plus Counter Materials makes for pattern.


Consider the simplest of patterns, a red-and-white, horizontally-striped pull-over in the casual French style. The effect is simple, and equally it is patterned.


But then, let’s get rid of the white stripes—perhaps too much reminiscent of monarchical days for our tastes! It may all be fine for someone’s politics, but it spells the end to a patterned pull-over with color and counter color. Without the white, there is no pattern at all. We simply have a red pull-over.


Moreover, a shirt white on top and red on the bottom wouldn’t be patterned. Patterning isn’t patterned without repetition. An exactly top-half white and an exactly bottom-half red shirt is only minimally repetitious in the repeated proportions. Most of us won’t start seeing pattern until red moves to white and back to red again. In Shakespearean art, exact repetition is quite abnormal. So we start to think of off-whites interplaying with various shades of red and still representing a basic red/white patterning. In all cases, patterning demands contrast.


Formal tragedic art like Shakespeare’s needs contrast in order not to be quickly intolerable. We can consider such contrasts simple throw-ins.  But no sensitive critic has ever thought that Shakespeare was addicted to throw-ins.  So instead of thinking of contrastive material as “relief,” it is much more consistent (and ultimately much more profitable) to consider such counter material the woof that allows the warp to become a single piece of cloth.

With this recognition that counter materials have not been given their due in tragedic criticism, let us follow the quadrilateral method we have already employed for special language and ask if we can find a set of four counter possibilities that covers the great majority of Shakespeare’s tragedic counter interests. 

We would propose these: Opponents, Victims, Self as Victim, and Alternate (Uninvolved) Universe.

None of these ideas in itself is foreign to tragedic discussion with the possible exception of an Alternate Universe. As matters of form and plot, they are routinely objective realities of plot and action, though it pays to be careful about defining them and sticking to the definitions. Occasionally, we may be in a quandary about which counter is being presented, but normally a return to fundamental definition provides the critical tool needed to clarify what is before us. In all such cases, we return to the fundamental definition of counters as the woof against the warp of the tragedic line, that is seeds of destruction sown in prosperity.

The most obvious of such Counter, Other Forms is Opposition. Not everybody will just stand aside and let evil grow, spread, and annihilate. Some will take up arms, and in Macbeth, taking up arms is a Scottish middle name. MacDuff, of “lay on MacDuff” is the most famous. But there are others, even the King of England, even Siward and his son, lords of the Northern Marches.


Perhaps least obviously among the Counters to the tragedic line are those who stand aside in a different dimension, who don’t seem to be aware of or to be affected by the tragedic line at all. They are the Uninvolved. Think of a vast fire in a forest.  Even amidst seemingly universal chaos, carnage, and destruction, presumably there are myriads of earthworms digging deep in the soil that go on with their lives without any indication that an inferno is raging above them.


Victim Counter Form is normally obvious. A victim is just going about her or his own business when waylaid, molested, violated, stabbed, shot, or whatever is harmful to her or his interests. But victims can be less than obvious because the interest attacked is not obvious.  For example, if someone attacks the momentary price of soybeans on the Chicago Board of Trade, who cares? If you live in North Dakota or Nebraska, you may care very deeply and feel very much the victim if the sudden price drop forces you into a sale when a day later you could have gotten a much higher, fair price. It is often the case that even your closest associates and friends will not be aware that you have been victimized.


And that brings us to Self as Victim which is often as obvious as simple Victim. These latter two categories, Victim and Self as Victim, however, may be difficult to distinguish from one another—when did I do it to myself and when was I really the victim of others doing to me? Often, we are victims of ourselves, but the victimization goes back to a bad choice made many years before. In between lie many steps that allow us to scapegoat someone or something else as the source of what was originally our problem in the making. The distinctions suggested here are happily distinctions that need to be made in real life, not just in literary criticism, and hopefully that makes all of us somewhat proficient in this area of analysis.


Feeling in the Form


There may be other materials that run against the course of the tragedic line, but these four Counters cover a great deal when properly defined and broadly applied. We can call them Counter-running Tendencies. Taken individually, it seems reasonable to argue that each of the four has its own predominant influence on the feel of tragedy.


Opposition if portrayed as a strong contender to the tragedic line will give a feeling of tension. Our interest will center on the tragedic line, but there will tend to be sympathy for the opposition engendered, and that alone will make for a tense reaction to the tragedy in the audience. Weak opposition, opposition which is in no way up to enforcing itself, will perhaps have some pathetic quality, but it will still have a feeling of tension perhaps enhanced because we intuit that the opposition is doomed.  Of course, there can be cases where the tragedic-line main figure is opposed which will quite possibly not create the posited sympathetic result and will have to be considered as an exceptionality.


Victims will not have nearly the same affect even when in strong contention for attention with the tragedic line. Instead emphasis on Victims is likely to engender pathos. After all, Victims are defined as innocent of what is about to befall them. And if they truly are victims instead of being escapees or marginalized-but-safe onlookers, they will also be at least badly hurt, possibly much worse, and with no adequate recourse for defending themselves or exacting retribution. Contrastively, Opposition does defend itself and often has significant means of exacting retribution.


Emphasis on the Uninvolved, those inhabiting a different dimension or Alternate Universe, can hardly be pathetic and, far from establishing tension, they will vitiate tension. Their attitudes will become something of our attitudes as audience, and their attitude will infect us with a sense of distancing.


Self as Victim will probably share some of the pathos of other Victims. But since the Self is also involved in the tragedic line, there will probably be much more sense of an inner tension, not in us as audience but emanating from the Self in conflict with itself.  Self as Victim when accentuated against the tragedic line will create a sense of intensity.


What we have just said is that a play which throughout emphasizes any one of these Other or Counter materials will have a different feel based on the Other involved. Since this is the result of an emphasis over the entire play, a pattern, the feel we are talking about is likely to be a feel closely associated with dynamis, because dynamis is also a reaction to the play as a whole.




Now in our work in comedy, we found that typically dramatic works employ combinations of two variants like the Counter variants discussed as an artistic strategy. Thus, instead of merely considering the analytic feeling for each of our four types of other material, we can consider the feeling two dominant variants working together create as a synthetic, single affect. In Macbeth, for example, we might argue for an interpretation of the play which is long on pathos for Victims—for example, Lady MacDuff and her children—and also long on tension produced by the presentation of formidable Opposition. The combination of the two would be both tense and pathetic and might be called Pathetic Tension. Such synthetic affects deserve their own study and even their own rubrics, single words that stand for the synthetic effect of joining two analytics.  For establishing a dynamic or power variant at the end of this study, however, it will be sufficient to notice that Pathos and Tension are the two emphasized analytics in Other Form for Macbeth.


Obviously, we have only done a cursory job of establishing these Other or Counter Forms for Macbeth.  It might be worth a full essay to consider these decisions at length, perhaps finding some difficulty in assigning definite roles to English figures in the play, Edward the Confessor, Siward, and Siward’s son. While such work is likely to pay rewards in a fine understanding of the play, we hope most readers will accept Tension and Pathos (representing Opposition and Victims) to be the main Counter pattern for Macbeth.


At a similar level of generalization, Othello has almost no sense of Alternate Universe. Everyone seems involved, and that is rather important in the play because Iago seems bent on orchestrating everyone’s involvement. At the same time, as orchestrator, Iago minimizes Opponents by turning them into Victims. Brabantio is at odds with the marriage of his daughter and the Moor, but that is minimized if still fatal to Brabantio. That leaves Victims and Self as Victim for emphatic Counter forms for Othello. This pair suggests an interesting essay considering to what extent Othello is a Victim and to what extent a victim of his own character flaw or flaws, considering whether Desdemona can be seen as victimizing herself in her enthusiasm for Cassio’s reputation, and even considering whether Iago has truly been victimized in anything other than his own fiendish character. The fine distinctions make for fine criticism, but here the need for fine distinction rather proves the case for emphasized analytic Counter forms.

King Lear

In King Lear, as in Othello, there is little of humanity left over to just uninvolvedly go about its own affairs. If there is an Alternate Universe, it is the inanimate universe of howling wind, chilling cold, slashing rain. There is little sense of Opposition, Goneril and Regan easily overrunning anything other than abject compliance and Edmund working secretly and unopposed to perhaps even more diabolical ends. Again, as in Othello, we are left with Victims and Self as Victim as emphasized Other or Counter forms. Clearly, Lear has victimized himself with foolishness, and Gloucester has victimized himself with an unmotivated grinding disparagement of his illegitimate son.  But in the latter acts of the play, Kent, the Fool, and Edmund join themselves to Lear’s victimization so thoroughly as to emphasized that Lear, like his associates, is also a Victim.

Again, fine points of distinction are counter to our purposes and needs in this essay. For our purposes, we’d argue for three Counter emphases in King Lear: Victim, Self as Victim, and Alternate (literal, physical) Universe.


None of the three tragedies thus far considered truly emphasizes an Alternate human universe. But that brings us to Hamlet with a very strong emphasis on Alternate Universe, yet a very different kind of Alternate Universe from what we have considered in King Lear. The Alternate Universe of King Lear is inanimate. The Alternate Universe of Hamlet is entirely human and even societal. Fortinbras is in his own universe, contesting for land in Poland not worth five marks to farm. Horatio, close friend though he is to Hamlet and evidently aware of the general development of Hamlet’s affairs, is nevertheless a spectator. Horatio is a scholar and authenticator, not an “agonist,” proto- or otherwise. Similarly involved and yet evidently clueless about involving herself seems to be Ophelia.  Polonius seems to prefer to be in his own Universe of abstract principles (neither a borrower nor a lender be) disconnected with the affairs of the royal family he serves. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seem to be boys from the country, bewildered by the court universe in which they can be at best pawns. And the Players are exactly that, players of some fantasy that may be useful at court but essentially uninvolved with the play’s life drama as they move from town to town and role to role.

Hamlet is not a Victim of himself. Gertrude and Claudius may be, but we see them more in opposition to Hamlet (an opposition that doesn’t breed sympathy, the unusual exception mentioned above). And all the other fatalities—Polonius, Ophelia, Laertes, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern—are obviously victims of outside forces, whatever their personal failings may or may not be.

So, for our purposes, social Alternate Universe is clearly the most distinctively emphasized Counter characteristic of Hamlet, Victim most in Lear, Self as Victim most consistently central in Othello, and Opponents most classically obvious in Macbeth from the Weird Sisters, to MacDuff, Malcolm and Donaldbane, Edward the Confessor, and the Siwards.

For theoretical purposes here, we can ignore the synthetic combination of emphases,  but for the record, in addition to Macbeth moving toward Pathetic Tension, we have Othello encouraging Pathos and Inner Tension, King Lear encouraging Pathos, Inner Tension, and Distance, and Hamlet encouraging Distance and Pathos, though the Pathos is largely limited to specific moments like the deaths of Polonius and Ophelia. 

In this sense, Hamlet is the most like Greek tragedy. Arguably, in many Greek tragedies, the Chorus acts as a distancing agent, somewhat analogously based in their not existing in the important-affairs realm that Aristotle posits as the realm of the tragedic hero. The final power over us of both Greek tragedy and Hamlet involves a deadening of emotion.


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