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 6: Dynamis

The Power of Shakespeare’s Tragedies


Preliminary Insights Building on Aristotle

The most articulate statement of dynamis for any literary genre is Aristotle’s in Section 6 of the Poetics: it is veritably the beginning of formal literary criticism. It cannot be surprising if this original foray into academic study is a little rough around the edges. It is considerably more surprising that so little has been done to move toward removal of those edges in all the succeeding centuries.

Dynamis, literally, is the power that a work has over its audience.  Aristotle described the dynamis of Greek tragedy as having two stages. The first stage is the evocation of pity and fear. The second stage is the purgation of these emotions. 

Now a first improvement on Aristotle is simply to notice that if this is a two-stage definition, the first of the two is happening from the beginning of the play onward. Certainly, fear is being invoked before the crisis of the specific tragedy. But when does the purgation of pity and fear take place? Is this also variable from one tragedy to the next? And if there is some variation, is there some normatively central time at which we can observe the purgation dynamis to have begun or to have been accomplished? When shall we look to find this dynamis that Aristotle is so sure exists? The point here is not to doubt Aristotle as critic but to point out an improvement of theory that can be undertaken and perhaps needs to be undertaken.

The question itself needs clarification, because part of the question is about timing and another part of the question is about audience. Aristotle is not particularly clear about what audience he is talking about. Presumably, it is the audience that filled the theatre at Athens for a free public performance. Since the performance itself was a competition under strict rules between oligarchs who could pay the expenses of production, we can assume that the audience was prepared to be critical, at least in the sense of seeking to discriminate for itself which was the better and which was the lesser of competing plays.

Obviously, none of this describes Shakespeare’s audience for his Great Tragedies. Let us, then, begin again by saying that we are talking about a dynamis that is felt by an appropriate normative audience, in Shakespeare some part of the paying audience that went to the Globe or one of the other theatres in which the tragedies were produced. 

Admittedly, after that, there is a haziness over what the appropriate normative audience includes or excludes. Does it, for example, include members of the gentry and the nobility? Does it limit itself to members of those classes? Does it include or exclude academically trained minds, probably most notably lawyers and law-school scholars? Does it include or exclude guild masters? Does it ever include enthusiastic apprentices and journeymen? Perhaps the real normative audience is members of the theatre company—or perhaps it was the Queen herself, whose appreciation Shakespeare demonstrably sought.

However we choose to solve this question of audience, we must move on to the question of timing. Does dynamis start to develop during the play or only after the completion of the play? Does the definitive dynamis of the play happen as the final curtain falls or does it take some time after the close of the play for the dynamic to fully sink in and become palpable to the normative audience? These questions have a range of potential answers, and the answers actually chosen do make a difference to what we can possibly say about dynamis, dynamic, or power over the audience.

Recognizing then that making some choices here does relate to defining the power or dynamis itself, let us try to make a good approximation of what considered criticism is likely to finally answer.

In comedy, the dynamis, which we have argued repeatedly elsewhere is centrally the power of celebration in the destined survival of humanity, typically builds through at least the later acts of the play and is at least initially palpably perceived in traditional comedy in a more or less formal, more or less coda ending. While this dynamic is palpable at the closing curtain, it is capable of modification for at least hours thereafter. In particular, there is a potential “hang-over effect,” a feeling that typically comes at least many hours later when the euphoria encouraged by the acting company toward the celebrational dynamis has had a chance to wear off. 

If, on careful consideration or even without conscious consideration at all, by the next morning we begin to feel that we have been “snookered,” that we have been lead to celebrate a destined survival which, in fact, is an unwarranted presumption, then we will have a morning-after hang-over, a bad taste in the mouth, maybe a feeling of some nausea for having been hoodwinked. So it is best to think about comedic dynamis to be at first tentative and subject to modification, but hopefully moving to a more and more contented assurance that our original celebration was justified.

In contrast, For Aristotle’s tragedy, the dynamic preliminaries of pity and fear grow throughout the play, typically depending on dramatic irony as a central feature of that growth. After all, Athenians already knew the whole story of Oedipus before they went to see the play. They were primed to pity, primed to fear years before they got to the theatre.

Greek tragedy thus has the audience as putty in its hands from the get-go. And the putty is shaped into deep and wide dimensions through every technique of developing stagecraft thereafter. We don’t have any great need to posit that there is any appreciable time between the close of the play and its second-stage affect, the purgation of pity and fear. The play itself has “wrung out” all the audience’s capacity for pity and fear. These emotions have been used up, and as the audience leaves the theatre, it can feel itself drained of all such emotion. Time to get back to work, time to get back to living, time to say goodbye to pity—and thus to self-pity as well—and to fear—including fear for one’s own future. There is little reason to posit any possible “hang-over affect” or any other modification of this essentially negative, this essential lacking which is the Aristotle-posited, presumably immediate dynamis.

But in this study, we aren’t talking about Greek tragedy nor are we talking about modern light comedy.  We shouldn’t assume that the dynamis of either somehow carries over to Shakespearean tragedy and its dynamis.

What should we expect about Shakespearean tragedic dynamis? Essentially, we should expect to find adumbrations of a dynamis statement in all sensitive responses to the Great Tragedies over the last 400 years. We start, then, from conclusions derived from the canon of Shakespearean discussion and criticism.

Shakespearean criticism, especially for the Great Tragedies, routinely indicates that our response to Shakespeare is not just some dramatic heightened experience worked toward throughout the play and culminating immediately at the final curtain. Rather, we routinely find that people go back to Shakespeare again and again, and that each time they go back, they are rewarded by a deeper and deeper “appreciation” which includes deeper and deeper sense of the dynamis and its implications. An ITCHS associate after taking the Shakespearean Tragedic Language Assessment, a former high school English teacher, stayed around to comment that she always appreciated the tragedies of the Shakespearean canon because they gave her “something to chew on.” There are innumerable similar reactions, and all of them indicate that time must and should be taken to get the most out of one of the Great Tragedies, i.e. to have a settled sense of our own dynamic response to the play.

Another way of looking at these reactions is to say that all dynamic appreciations of the Great Tragedies are tentative and subject to modification. And when we have taken that seriously, it is virtually inevitable that the dynamis of Shakespeare’s tragedies is a something positive not a something essentially lacking. As something positive, the dynamis can be chewed on. It can also be reformed, re-experienced, revalued. Sure, we can reappreciate a Greek tragedy. We can learn Greek, we can better appreciate the cadences, the word choices, the rhetoric al structures, and on and on. But the dynamis is best appreciated when our pity and fear were the most real and were most fully wrung out, which typically was the dynamis felt the first time through the play and immediately after the play’s conclusion. 

Thus, purgation—a negative idea of taking out and draining away—is not going to help us in Shakespeare.

As a first approximation of Shakespearean tragedic dynamis, then, we are looking for something at the positive extreme, something more like a building in rather than like a draining away.

A second aspect of Shakespearean discussion over 400 years is a general positive sense of things being heightened, not things being diminished. People do leave Shakespeare “built up” rather than torn down, dragged out, or left limp. The word “celebration,” which we have used consistently in comedic studies for the central tendency of comedic dynamis, seems in Shakespeare always ready to move in on the tragedies as well. When Brutus and Cassius have both committed suicide, when everything they had fought for in the Roman Republic is clearly a lost cause, is Shakespeare calling on us to mourn, to despair, to be disgusted, to be appalled? If so, why is the last scene building toward “This was the noblest Roman of them all”?  Yes, the cause was—and remained--entirely lost. Ultimately, in dynamic terms, that wasn’t what Julius Caesar was about.

We recognize that there is an actor tradition of bombast that denies what has just been concluded. The BBD TV series Black Adder has a wonderful spoof on that tradition where actors try to teach the Prince Regent how to act tragedically, how to wring the most out of every word and clause, necessitating fancy footwork on the part of the actor not to rip his breeches at the crotch. (Richard Curtis and Ben Elton, Black Adder the Third, Episode 4., 1987.) Actors would love for us to watch them as Lear and let them wring every possible sentimental value from the script and maybe go on to adding a few non-scripted brilliances of their own toward the same affects. 

But when we watch them do so for Shakespeare, we should all have a distinct sense that it is all a sham and rather ridiculous in more or less Black Adder terms. Fine to have great lines and great sentiments of loss throughout Lear, but ultimately, as dynamis, that is not what King Lear is about. Professor George Soule who taught Shakespeare tragedies for decades at Carleton College had an abiding expression— “Cordelia lives!”  She did live in Shakespeare’s sources.  In Shakespeare, she clearly dies on stage. But in many recitations, Soule was reminding us that such negativity is not what Shakespeare wanted to leave us with.

Thus, for the daunting task of finding the power in ourselves that Shakespeare’s tragedies have over us, we at least know when and where to look. Don’t look for the dynamis to be obvious and fully developed as you walk out of the theatre talking to your companion and social acquaintances—even though that was good enough for Greek tragedy. Do look for a dynamis that grows and grows after the play is over, grows more after a second viewing or reading.

Don’t look for the dynamis of Shakespeare in negative ideas like the emptiness of things drained totally away.  Do look for the dynamis inside as a building in, a deepening and widening of ourselves and of our perceived world.

Don’t start looking for the dynamis of Shakespearean tragedy in some great deductive and abstract thought effort by some great original critic who finally put it all together when no one else had ever felt it before. Do look for that dynamis in the shared appreciation of everyone who has ever enjoyed Shakespeare—not everyone has, you know. 

But don’t exclude the enthusiastic journeymen and apprentices, don’t exclude the nobles and gentry, don’t exclude the Queen herself any more than you exclude law clerks. And don’t exclude Heminges and Condell, either, any more than you exclude Alexander Pope and Dr. Johnson.  They all got it, because Shakespeare is good enough to have power over all of us.

The panegyric could continue and perhaps should. The resort directly to the history of Shakespeare criticism could go on from one book to another, and possibly should, with the clue that everyone who appreciated Shakespeare was adumbrating a dynamis statement somewhere or other in their recorded reactions to the tragedies. But with this preamble on when, where, and how to look for dynamis, we move on to what everything said earlier in this study and everything said even earlier in In Search of Shakespearean Tragedy was moving toward as a formal dynamic statement.

An Articulation of the Shakespearean Tragedic Dynamis

On the basis of all previous reactions to Shakespeare generally and to all remarks previously in this study and before it in ISST in particular then, we define the general form of Shakespearean dynamis in the Great Tragedies as:

A power-over-audience movement begun in complex, competing, and contradictory assessments of human action in adverse and normally mortal circumstances which does not move toward or end in confusion, but rather moves to a heightened sense of the potential, terrible beauty of human character perceived without blinders but perceived instead with unblinking candor

This movement is not fully accomplished by the final curtain of the play and may not even be well-begun at that point. The movement is best completed in disinterested contemplation in quiet and often inarticulate tranquility. Any stasis which we take to be a completed dynamis should be considered tentative because the general experience of audiences of Shakespeare is that there is always something deeper in dynamic perception itself left for a new reading or a new viewing.

There are many more words here than there are in Aristotle’s quick sense of dynamis as a purgation of pity and fear. Shakespeare’s tragedy is much more dynamically complex than the Greek sub-genre, but Aristotle’s conciseness is to be admired, and our words need condensation. So without denying anything in the fuller statement made just above, let us redefine more succinctly the general Shakespearean dynamis in tragedy as:

A cautionary admiration of man’s natural glory, encompassed by the tragic processes of nature: poison, fire, rot, and cancerous growth.

In attempting to be succinct, we have also added. In doing so, we have added the basis not only for dynamis throughout Shakespeare’s tragedies, but also for dynamic variation within Shakespeare’s tragedies, variation dependent on the type of destruction dominantly portrayed in the individual tragedy. The four types of destruction are symbolized in four key images of natural destruction: poison, fire, rot, and cancerous growth.

It is well to caution that the individual words of our succinct dynamic definition need careful definitions of their own and careful attention to those definitions. And at the center of that care is to recognize what we have already stated, that the words must refer to the original normative audience, not to us in the 21st century or even to any of the critical statements about Shakespeare in the 18th, 19th, or 20th centuries. We are enriched by all these adumbrations of the Shakespearean dynamis, but none of them is a direct statement of the normative audience.

In particular, Shakespeare’s normative audience existed in a world fraught with religious controversy, concern, and appreciation.  No later criticism of Shakespeare has been quite so religiously attuned. Tragedy is deep stuff, and whether Greek or Shakespearean easily carries theological meaning with it. But that deep stuff that Shakespeare wrote and the affects he attempted and succeeded in creating were for an audience of the 16th century with their own religious apprehensions. We need to get back to those apprehensions as we define the terms we have used for defining Shakespearean dynamis.

There are no doubt important clarifications that make each phrase of this formal definition of dynamis more meaningful. We will leave that clarification to others to the extent that that clarification is not provided in the following discussion, which has as its focus not the general form of dynamis but the variations of that form which are so spectacular in the Great Tragedies considered as their own canon.




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