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 5:  Variants of Shakespearean Tragedic Spirit

Dust jackets for comedic videos routinely make a stab at finding the right adjective about spirit to sell the movie. The production is “hilarious,” “exhilarating,” “uproarious,” or even “side-splitting.”  Most of these adjectival attempts seem to be describing the humor content of the comedy and the over-all spirit of the comedy at the same time. While humor is the typical special language of traditional comedy, this sense that the dust jacket may be addressing the special language and the over-all spirit interchangeably does nothing to advance analytic understanding.

Similarly, for tragedy, we can make a stab at appropriate adjectives like “elegant,” “insightful,” and “telling,’ which close consideration also suggests that they reference special tragedic language as much as they reference the spirit of the work as a whole.  We have already discussed the special language feature of Shakespearean tragedy for itself. What we now need to discuss is something entirely separate but organically related to special language, the Spirit of Shakespearean tragedy as a whole.

Shakespeare as a poetic dramatist is doubly pictorial. He gives us dramatic pictures and he gives us pictorial words.  And the word he most typically gives for tragedic action is “flood.”  Tragedy isn’t simply some sudden act that intervenes catastrophically in daily affairs. Tragedy requires more; and the more we can call “dimentionality.” Aristotle’s version is typically rendered “of a certain magnitude.” Tragedy builds, as a flood is built by a rising tide or by a deluge of rain until the flood starts to rise and finally inundates things that have made their most strenuous effort to avoid destruction.

From a perspective of Renaissance religious consensus, flood is a natural choice for describing tragedy because the great communal tragedy in the history of humanity is The Flood. Consistent with this community sense of history, Shakespearean tragedy always lends itself to flood imagery as “overwhelming,” “over-powering,” “engulfing,” or the like. But for the variation of tragedic affects in the Great Tragedies, Shakespeare routinely moves to other pictures that distinguish the Great Tragedies from one another. The most famous of these is probably Fire, closely followed by Poison.  But there are two major alternatives to these: Cancer (or Malignant Growth) and Rot. These four—Fire, Poison, Cancer, and Rot—are clearly not description of tragedic special language, but rather attempts to describe the character or Spirit of the tragedic action as a whole. For some of his tragedies, Shakespeare uses multiple images, but we will argue that finally each of the Great Tragedies best represents one of these appellations. Put more technically, each of the Great Tragedies emphasizes one of the Spirits more than the others, so that that Spirit becomes much closer to an emblem for that whole play than for any of the other Great Tragedies.

The four sub-forms of tragedic Spirit are profitably studied in the abstract as divergent concepts. 


Fire is the consuming tragedy. Fire typically starts small, but a chemical process is initiated, heat is released, and that heat is then used to induce more of the chemical activity and more heat.  Fire is its own chain reaction. To the extent that it is a controlled chain reaction, the control is typically the supply of oxygen needed for the chemical process. When a fire burns out of control, it becomes a conflagration, and conflagrations burn anything burnable, finally burning themselves out simply because there is nothing left to burn. Conflagrations leave ruins, and among the ruins we may find a few things that haven’t burned because they are not subject to the chemistry of burning.  But even such things may be melted or otherwise deformed by the heat around them. When they are not burned and not substantially deformed, they often take on a special prominence as a mansion would take on prominence if all the outdoor finery and the fields for miles around were utterly ruined.

All these analytic elements of fire are well-known, and all of them were well known in pre-industrial society. They form an idea legacy that spans humanity. And this humanity-spanning ideational content occurs for each of the four sub-forms of Shakespeare’s palette of tragedic spirits.


Poison is often thought of as a burning, but it is intellectually quite distinct from fire. Poison in medieval and Renaissance England was strongly associated with Italy and with its cosmopolitan, sophisticated culture. Fire essentially attacks inanimate things.  Poison is directed against the life of animate things. Poison penetrates within the protective shell of living things and moves downward until it reaches some vital point which it attacks and destroys, and with it the life sustained by that vital center.  Poisoning can, of course, be accidental, but for Shakespeare’s purposes, there is almost always some sentient directing and motivating function, and thus poison represents a malicious spirit.  Poisons can be aimed at a central target while causing peripheral, incidental, or accidental casualties along the way. While there is a literary tradition that there can be very delayed-action poisons, the Renaissance didn’t know of any. Slow-acting poisons are incrementally-acting in less than immediately lethal dosages. How poisons sicken and kill depends on the vital center attacked and its defensive resources, so poisons can seem to have very distinct manifestations but remain equally poisonous.


Cancer by that name is virtually unknown in Shakespeare, but by other names it is clearly one of the major tragedic Spirits. Typically, cancerous things are thought of as “unnatural.” Cancers are malignant growths, living entities fundamentally related to the life they attack and yet distorted from that likeness. Cancers are then competitive, one life form against another life form. In that competition, like fire, cancer typically starts extremely small.  But without constant minute diligence and perception, the very small cancer is allowed to multiply by division just as natural life grows by division. (While cancer is one of the humanity-wide legacy ideas, the modern world has a much more analytical understanding of what makes cancer cancer.)  Ironically, gardening as icon repeatedly is associated with cancer because farmers have always been in competition with noxious life forms— weeds, nettles, tares, and the like—that compete with human food supplies. Hawthorne’s “Rapuccini’s Daughter” is one of the most famous literary examples of this association. Typically, malignancy, cancer, is a matter of kill or be killed, but inattention in the dominant life form routinely gives malignancy its opportunity. Until it finally kills, malignancy lives off the living; it exists in symbiotic relationship. So when it finally kills, malignancy loses its own life as well.  From any rational perspective, malignancy then is non-self-protective and insane.


And finally, there is a tragedic Spirit of Rot. Rot is essentially like fire, but rot is the slow-acting form of oxidation. And while fire burns up from the outside, rot is much more insidious and often eats out from the inside. As an inside-out process, Rot can very much resemble malignancy, but malignancy progressively distorts to a different life form, while rot leaves things with a superficially like shape but with no inner strength left underneath. A rotten thing is most dangerous because it can mistakenly be perceived to be the sound thing it once was. Rot thus also becomes an emptying out. Rot isn’t insane.  It isn’t the living that can be the basis for sanity or insanity. But rot moves toward pervasiveness as fire moves toward conflagration. Things that are rotting must be removed, or they continue to transmit the rot to what would otherwise be sound. 

It is perhaps interesting to note that a close parallel to rot in the Renaissance religious consensus would be leaven, a little of which leavens the lump. Biblically leaven is the emblem of sin.  Leaven, however, is not Shakespeare’s chosen sub-form. Leaven is an organic life which feeds and grows on the non-living material around it until it has maximized its utilization of the feeding material and thus leaven is a form of the malignant or cancerous.

Clearly then, at the definitional level, the four Spirits of Fire, Poison, Cancer (Malignancy), and Rot are entirely separate destructive forces of nature. With so many contrastive descriptors for each of the Spirit sub-forms, a great deal of controversy about dominant Spirit in an individual tragedy should be easily avoided.


At first glance, Fire seems to be a good choice for the Spirit of Macbeth, because as we all know, anyone, honest or dishonest, has to have a fire in the belly to go anywhere in politics. This kind of aphoristic thinking is, however, superficial, and Shakespeare is not a superficial playwright.

It is, of course, correct to say that illicit ambition is stirred up, like a smoldering fire, by the witches. Until their intervention, Macbeth has evidently pursued a life of simple but heroic allegiance to his liege lord, the king.  His valor and prowess have gotten him where he is, which is now more than substantial with the addition of a second earldom (thaneship). Yet there is no direct evidence from the script that some previous smolder is being stirred by the witches.

Admittedly, like a smoldering fire, Macbeth seems to flare up enough to write his wife about new possibilities; but then he reverts to allegiance, and Lady Macbeth must seek to restoke ambition.  And even with that restoking, Macbeth isn’t brightly burning, avowing that he can and will do all that is seemly to man. That seems to direct him entirely away from the mayhem that his wife intends, and her contemptuous response is the best evidence that Macbeth has not been a smoldering fire to begin with.

All of which leads to the murder of Duncan himself. The murder has none of the heat associated with fire.  Instead there is a repugnance felt by both Macbeths even as the deed is done. And after it is done, which is little better than a fifth way into the play, the fire has already burned out in any ambitious sense. That doesn’t, of course, mean that murder ends with Duncan.  It has really only begun, and additional deaths can be seen as a spreading fire.  But the fire is hardly a contagious conflagration.  It moves by fits and starts, killing the grooms of the chamber first to cover the crime, killing Banquo next, and none too artfully at that, to eliminate a potential rival while he is still a faithful friend, killing Lady MacDuff and her children with little apparent reason at all.

Fire can be argued, but if argued, it must be admitted to be a strange sputtering and inconsistent fire.

That said, we move to the idea that the Spirit of Macbeth is Poison, and here everything immediately comes together. It comes together in the Weird Sisters first, who like Hamlet’s father’s murderers, prefer to introduce poison in the ear. Later in the play, we will see them again, and this time we will see them in the most famous poison brewing in literary history.

The poison of fake prophesy enters into Macbeth without effective opposition. It will be opposed by Macbeth’s conscience and by the conventions of his society, but these defenses have already been easily penetrated. One barrier after another will fall to the invading poison until it kills, which it does very early. And what it kills is the soul into eternal damnation. That death, for both Macbeths, is accomplished before the killing of the grooms. The death of Duncan has murdered sleep and murdered the restoration of the soul. The witches’ poison has penetrated quickly to the vital center. All the rest is a grim, inevitable journey into night, a tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow as a tale told by an idiot and signifying nothing because there is no life left for it to signify in.


The Spirit of Fire is the emblem of Othello, not Macbeth. Love burns brightly in Othello, but the fire of love is replaced through Iago’s kindling by a fire of jealousy. That second fire burns through every restraint, eating visibly inward from outside Othello, charring his judgment, creating a heat far beyond the heat of love itself. If there was a fire in Othello and Desdemona’s love, the love itself was not fire, but rather something entirely impervious to fire though deformed by the heat of the fire of jealousy.

The fire of jealousy burns itself out, not before taking Desdemona’s life, which in love she freely allows to be suffocated (suffocation as one of two basic ways a fire is extinguished) in Othello’s hands. And once the fire is burnt out, it is equally obvious that everything burnable has been consumed or left in charred ruins. 

 In the final scenes, Othello is not antagonistic to those who must report this state of affairs to Venice. He of everyone is most aware of the total destruction around him accomplished by the now-defunct fire. What is left is only for Othello to pull down the charred remnant which is his own life.

Yet with everything pulled down, the final impression is not of what was destroyed by the fire of his jealousy but of something imperishable that remains. That has been demonstrated in the kiss Othello gives Desdemona even in killing her. And in Othello’s final speech, beginning with, “And say that in Aleppo  once . . . .” we have perhaps the world’s most poetically distant yet poignant assertion that Othello’s love preceded its specific embodiment in Desdemona and that it remains as the summational reality to be conveyed back to the Senate in Venice.

King Lear

The Spirit of Fire is again strongly suggested and may even be the dominant Spirit of King Lear. Lear is, as Northrop Frye so aptly highlighted, on a “wheel of fire.” However, the distinctive emblem Spirit of Lear, the emphasis which is especially remarkable in Lear among the Great Tragedies, is Cancer or malignant growth.

While Macbeth can be argued to be a spreading cancer over Scotland, the argument would be intellectual without much backing from the text. For example, one could see the cancer exterminating Lady MacDuff and her children, but there is no follow-up emphasized in the rest of the play for Scotland. One could see cancer destroying all the good that is Macbeth’s career up to the opening scene of the play, but if this is the cancer, it has thoroughly destroyed both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth long before the end of Act II.  One could see cancer devouring Lady Macbeth’s life in incremental stages until her death at Dunsinane, but seeing that way would not reasonably describe what we see of her or what we hear in the Doctor’s announcement of her death.

Cancer could be seen in Othello’s jealousy. But in Othello, the jealousy is constantly being fed from outside Othello’s being in the person of Iago as a palpably separate source of demonic evil.

But in Lear, there is one cancerous growth after another.  Lear, from his youth, has been a pampered king, and that inattention to and correction of the small has led to a very great foolishness in old age.  In Goneril and Regan, Lear’s attempts to be equal in love toward his children has been in effect an inattention to bridling their own moral deficiencies. In dividing the kingdom between them, he has allowed the cancer to move with extreme rapidity through one phase after another until the sisters have become not only his enemies but his tormentors and torturers without even seeming to notice what they are doing. 

Cordelia herself is in many ways the perfectly loving daughter. But she doesn’t bridle her love to deal with the errant proclivities of her father and thus becomes the first casualty of his mad foolishness.  Gloucester has also allowed and indeed more than allowed, has provoked the cancerous—unnatural, malignant—response of his illegitimate son. Kent and the Fool can only watch the cancer as it eats away, having no medicine available to turn the course of events other than the palliative of Kent’s undying feudal love and the Fool’s guidance for emendation of follies.

So criticism can fight over Fire and Cancer as dominant Spirits in Lear. We need not enter that battle to say that among the Great Tragedies Cancer is emblematic for Lear.


Fire is anti-emblematic for a Spirit of Hamlet. There is less argument in favor of fire than in any of the other Great Tragedies. Rot on the other hand. is emblematic without question for Hamlet over all the other tragedies. And, of course, Rot is announced early in the play— “There’s something rotten in the state of Denmark” becoming a household phrase ever since.

Everything, it seems, is rotten in the state of Denmark. The Queen’s love for husband has evidently been entirely eaten out from within.  Claudius’ love for his brother and loyalty to his family and place in Denmark have all the more the look of rot about them, hollowed out impostures substituted for the original, holding the form and lacking all the substance.

Polonius, the “loyal” servant of one king and equally “loyal” servant of the usurper rings hollow and rotten. Polonius thinks he talks a good fight, especially in his immortal speech for prudent conduct for his son. The son, of course, is itching to get out of Polonius” presence and evidently has no intention of letting the speech’s superficial propriety inform his conduct. Presumably the advice has always guided Polonius’ conduct, a guidance to be prudent and self-protective, essentially on-the-make. Polonius’ name itself suggests a hollowness—he is evidently not a Dane but rather from Poland, a man making his way in the world as a political condottiere, far from home and distant from all native loyalties.

Ophelia seems and, for our analysis can remain, simply the innocent maiden caught and destroyed by the rot all around her. It is often claimed that Ophelia’s name is opaque and can tell us nothing about the play. But that’s not typical of Shakespeare elsewhere. If ‘twere true then ‘twere well we ignore that Orlando in As You Like it is named after Roland, the most famous, tragically fated knight of Charlemagne, and  if  ‘twere true, we need not notice that the two servants running madly about through Comedy of Errors are both named “Racetrack.” Ophelia, in fact, has a fine Greek etymology: “Advantage” or “Profit.” It suggests A rather hollowed-out sense of female value appropriate to a royal marriage, and the kind of rot Polonius has evidently been long heir to.

Hamlet himself is not rotten, nor seemingly is Horatio or the soldiers on the wall of Elsinore. One can only hope that Fortinbras is not infected and, as a new king of a new dynasty, can stop the rot that has infected Denmark from the head downward.  That is for the future to determine. On stage, what we see is time elapsing with only spasmodic and ill-advised outbursts of activity in Hamlet.  Mainly he procrastinates, he lets time grow, and time is the great prerequisite for thorough rot.

Shakespeare’s Great Tragedies have always been recognized for their immense breadth of tragedic perception. Corresponding to that breadth is a similar breadth of varied Spirits. Macbeth breaths the Spirit of Poison, Othello melts under the Spirit of Fire, King Lear reeks with the Spirit of Cancer beyond cure, and Hamlet trembles amidst a Spirit of pervasive Rot that has hollowed out every regal reality.

Dynamic Implications

The last three chapters should clearly demonstrate that Other Form, Special Language, and Spirit, as technical elements of drama easily distinguish the four Great Tragedies from one another. If form carries meaning, as Suzanne Langer[i] so aptly argued for aesthetics generally more than half a century ago, then the differences in these formal, technical attributes of the Great Tragedies should result in a difference in meaning. Meaning is a cognitive concept. 

Langer went on to argue: differences in form also carry differences in feeling. 

And the kinds of technical differences we have been discussing are not momentary in the plays but rather are dominant patterns or consistencies within the plays as whole works of art.  Even Special Language, which starts at the momentary level has in our consideration been seen as a dominant recurring consistent pattern within plays as wholes.

If then form carries meaning and simultaneously carries feeling, where should we look to find this thought-feeling combination most importantly displayed?  Evidently, we should look at some overall characteristic of the individual works since all of the technical differences are consistent patterns of the work as a whole. 

And of all characteristics of drama, dynamis is the most dependent on the whole play with every jot and tittle relevant to the final effect filtered out in our memories as the specific facts of act and word dim.

It is the work of our final two chapters to bring all this meaning and feeling together in dynamic statements about the Great Tragedies.  But before we close this discussion of Spirit as a separate technical feature, we should attempt to say what difference these differences in Spirit are likely to promote in the feel of any dynamis deriving from them.

Dynamic tendencies based in Spirit Pattern

The central feel of Poison is its penetrating quality. Poison has to reach its vital target to be considered successful, and to reach that target, it must penetrate through every defense offered against it, whether external to the victim or inside the victim’s body itself.  There are typically many defenses arranged consecutively from those far from the vital center to those almost indistinguishably separate from the vital center itself.  So whether the poison is fast or slow, painful or unfelt, stealthy or bullying in its approach, the Spirit of Poison is always involved in penetration, and its feel is of the penetrating.

The central feel of Rot is precisely involved in its slowness and its typical hidden sapping of the strength and nature of what is rotted.  The feel associated with such things is insidious.

The central feel of Cancer is overwhelming. Cancer that doesn’t overwhelm is cancer failing.  The body naturally reacts to kill the cancer before the cancer kills it, and in fact human bodies are defeating cancer every day.  But some cancers manage to escape such annihilation. And when they do, they simply proliferate, more and more. Without intervention, they eventually overwhelm what is left of the living organism they have invaded.

The central feel of Fire is the intensity of its devouring seeming life-of-its-own. We can call the feel of such reality ardent.  



[i] Suzanne K. Langer, Philosophy in a New Key, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1942; Feeling and Form:  New York: Charles Scribners’ Sons, 1953.




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