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 7: Variants of Shakespearean Tragedic Dynamis


As already indicated in the previous chapter, a good sense of dynamis, the power a work has over us, requires a sense of when, where, and how that dynamis is perceived, not just what a dynamis is.

There is a great phrase of criticism— “contemplation in tranquility” (cf. William Wordsworth’s “Preface to Lyrical Ballads”)–which is particularly apt for perceiving the Shakespearean tragedic dynamis. That dynamis is best apprehended in contemplation in tranquility. Tranquility is not typically achieved at the final curtain. The audience has work to do—applause for the actors, an appropriate sentient comment for one’s companion,  perhaps greetings for acquaintances in the audience, getting ready to go outdoors (especially important and especially involved in the midst of a Minnesota winter), car keys to find, and perhaps a car to find in the parking lot and a parking ticket to pay. These are not prerequisites of tranquility.

Many of us do not find much other time for tranquility as well. But the best tranquility for discovering dynamis finds us; we don’t find it.  There comes a time, maybe a day or so after the performance, when all the individual high points of plot and rhetoric no longer engage us individually. We aren’t rehearsing “To be or not to be,” for example, for ourselves.

And if we can stop being involved with practical affairs for just a minute or two, we can articulate some sense of the play as a whole: “A long day’s journey into night for the Macbeths,” “No exit for Hamlet,” “Wind, grief, and a sense of the very large that Lear has become,” “No other way than this, for a man brutally true to his love whether in Aleppo once or in Cyprus today for Othello.” None of these is dynamis per se, but it is a wrapping up of the whole play in question. And when we have gotten ourselves around the play as a whole, we are in a position to discover how we think-feel about it, the whole poesis, the whole making.

Each member of the audience is entitled to his own think-feel about the play. In describing the various dynamics of the Shakespearean Great Tragedies, we are not attempting to dictate that think-feeling, but rather to suggest the central tendency of think-feel especially for Shakespeare’s original audience based in the repeated emphases of the script itself matched with expectable central audience proclivities in London, England at the turn of the 17th century.

Thought and Feeling

We have consistently made the distinction between the tragic and the tragedic, the latter being a literary poesis or making. The two are distinct, but poets typically “go with” their audiences in order that the audience will “go with” them. So, let us assume that the audience has certain basic ways of going with tragic reality. 

First, we often say that something is tragic and don’t mean it. “He was alive one minute, and gone the next.”  “How tragic!”

Not really. How sudden, yes. Perhaps how unexpected. But for something to be tragic, it has to have some sense of dimensionality, some sense of being more than an isolated fact. 

He and his wife were such good friends as well as lovers. He was supporting his mother and two maiden aunts. His kids had shown excellent prospects through seventh grade, but now with him gone. . .. 

We may not say it all or consciously articulate it all, but it is the sense of the greater reality that moves toward the tragic. It also moves toward the tragedic, the poesis.

Now there are many ways of creating dimensionality. Shakespeare was a profound thinker as well as a poetic writer, probably none more so.  Thus, when Shakespeare has gone along with us and takes over for his own poetic, artistic making, purposes, we should not expect the trivial.

In contrast to our mundane and casual tragic thoughts, Shakespeare the tragedic artist, had a profound sense of “the human condition.”   The human condition in Shakespeare’s time was quite brutal, nasty, and short, come to think about it. So if we do think about it and if we try to be very abstract about it—like the medieval “Man is fallen, depraved and desperately in need of a Savior from himself”—can we move beyond the platitudinous?

In reading Shakespeare’s Great Tragedies, we may find the following:

1)     The human condition invites tragic outcomes because existence is always ambiguous: we are always being told definite things, but when we try to use them, they turn out to mean opposite things equally, leaving us worse off than if we had never heard them at all.

2)     The human condition invites tragic outcomes because existence is always paradoxical: there are always indubitable truths, things that just are—and that are very inadvisable to go up against—but it turns out that we are facing at least two truths at once and that they point to opposite ways of escape. Choose either one, and the other one cannot be satisfied or neutralized.

3)     The human condition invites tragic outcomes because so much of existence is full of the incompatible, things that simply can’t go together and work together successfully. We try and try again to make do, but the trying can become utterly exhausting without accomplishing anything much to avoid catastrophic results.

4)     The human condition invites tragic outcomes because—just because: they are inevitable. That’s just the way it is, and any attempts to work around or through it will and must fail. (The Greek tragedians were also very good at making this perception of inevitability into tragedic art.)

One can, no doubt, think of others, but these make a nice matched set—a set of thoughts about the human condition—and they are demonstrably at work in the Great Tragedies.

We can say similar things about feels toward the tragic. First, there are a lot of them.  We can feel eviscerated. We can feel weakened and left powerless. We can feel drained of all human emotional response (another one of the Greek tragedy specialties).

But recognizing Shakespeare as a profound feeler as well as thinker, we should not be surprised if his work reflects deeper feeling than what we can all easily come up with. Consider again a nice set of alternatives:

1)     In the face of tragic events, we can feel with those directly involved, and sympathetically feel that the tragedy has been ennobling.  We can sense that despite the material tearing down of the tragic, something in a different dimension has been built up as only suffering can build.

2)     In the face of tragic events, we can sympathetically feel the grinding down, excruciating, extinguishing which has been the character of the tragedy throughout.

3)     In the face of tragic events, we can sympathetically feel the piercing character of the tragedy. We feel as if the sword, the arrow, the javelin had pierced us to the quick.

4)     In the face of tragic events, we can sympathetically feel the perplexing, impenetrable, opaque nature of tragic termination.  “What’s it all about, Alfie?” and the answer, no matter how hard we try, is “I don’t know.” 

One can mix and match one element from the thought and one element from the feel.  For example, it should be possible to write a play whose thought-feel is Ambiguity and Perplexing or one that is Ennobling and Paradoxical or one that is Incompatible and Piercing.  We are looking for the best thought-feel combination for each of the four Great Tragedies based in technical emphases of the script. It should be apparent, even as we begin this mapping exercise, that Shakespeare could have quite a range of dynamic thought-feelings and still entirely reside within the general dynamic we have posited for Shakespearean Tragedy.

First Try, Macbeth:  Piercing Ambiguity

Our normal procedure has been to start with Macbeth as the shortest of the Great Tragedies, move through Othello and King Lear as often similar tragedies, and end with Hamlet the longest and most complex. We continue that pattern in establishing the plays’ various powers, dynamics, or dynamis.

In earlier chapters, we have established that Macbeth emphasizes Opponents in the form of action, emphasizes Assessment in rhetorical expression, and emphasizes Poison in tragedic Spirit.

Also, we established that the dynamis for all Shakespeare’s tragedies is a cautionary admiration of man’s natural glory even in confrontation with great tragic processes, in Shakespeare’s case, tragic processes emblemized as poison, fire, rot, and malignant growth.

We are then in a position finally to establish the thought-feel variation within that general dynamis for particular plays, starting now with Macbeth.

Toward Thought within Dynamis: The world of Macbeth is a world of purposeful Ambiguity, ultimately the Ambiguities of the Weird Sisters. They say things; Macbeth takes them to mean what they say.  But the words turn out to mean something entirely else as well.  And in that other meaning, the words are deadly.

Opponents are an appropriate Form vehicle for the thought of Ambiguity. Opponents and a champion often have different datasets that they are working on. But the great fact is that Opponents and champion need not disagree on any of the facts. They just “see it differently.” In other words, the facts themselves are ambiguous.  Opponents and Macbeth are presumably entirely in accord that forests stay in place. And, they’d have to agree that Birnham wood is never going to come to Dunsinane. But as Opponents, they both find, though find in different senses, that woods and forests can move and do move to Dunsinane.

Assessment is an appropriate rhetorical vehicle for the thought of Ambiguity. When things are Ambiguous, they often seem unambiguous in a given meaning. It is only deeper and careful thought that reveals the Ambiguity, the twoness rather than oneness in the assertion. Macbeth is an Assessing person (“Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow . . .. It is a tale/ Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/Signifying nothing” 5,5,19-28) as is his wife ([her husband’s nature] “is too full o’ the milk of human kindness . . ..” 1,5,18). Moreover, Duncan and Banquo have their share of stated assessments on which their lives depend. Unfortunately, in the crucial areas, all four characters assess ambiguities poorly and all four pay a mortal price for the error. 

Poison as an agent of death is the lover of Ambiguity. Poison is insidious. Sane, healthy people do not choose to take poison. As intending to remain sane and healthy, they are instinctively set to flee from poison as soon as it is detected. Consequently, poison works best when it doesn’t look like itself, when it presents itself as just the opposite, something of intense benefit.

So, the technical emphases in construction of Macbeth on Opponents, Assessment, and Poison all act easily as pointers toward Ambiguity as one of the great thought variants within Shakespeare’s tragedic dynamis. If we’ve established an Ambiguity-centeredness in Macbeth’s dynamis, we need to move on to the feeling-centeredness of that dynamis.

Adding Feeling to Thought: Moving on, then, to the feel technically created in Macbeth, the feeling given by an emphasis on Opponents is most naturally a feeling of tension. If there are Opponents, who is winning, who is losing, what resources are available to reverse the seemingly likely outcome? Is Lady Macbeth really going to kill Duncan with her own bare hands? Are Lady MacDuff and children somehow going to have enough warning to escape and join Macduff in exile? These are the tense questions of an Opponent-driven form.

Assessment rhetorically goes with depth of thought, while Aptness stays at the surface levels of measuring and fitting. When careful distinctions have to be made between two possible diametrically opposed alternatives, deep penetrating Assessment is of superlative value in confronting such Ambiguities. Poison goes with a sense of penetration. Poisons don’t work if only superficial. They have to drive inward until they hit their vital target.

So, our feel is a combination of tension, depth, and penetration. It is hard to put a name on feelings, but the combination suggests we learn the feeling of the piercing if we want to feel in Macbeth what its technical script elements emphasize. And that allows us to conclude out of many possibilities that the thought-feeling of Macbeth is of Piercing Ambiguity.

Try it on your own personal dynamic response to the play as a whole. Try it on particularly for the Macbeths who had everything in the world—rank, power, fame, moral worth—until Macbeth was pierced by the witches’ words on the heath. The rest was a long day’s journey into eternal night.

The Dark Room of Criticism

Phrases like Piercing Ambiguity are certainly not household terms of criticism. If you are having trouble recognizing the applicability of the phrase for Macbeth, consider the principle that we are entering a dark room of criticism where at first we see only vague outlines of furniture which we can easily fall over if incautious. 

Having remembered that we are in a dark room, we are in a position to understand that comparative criticism and comparative critical statements can often be much more perceptible and powerful than direct critical statements about a single object. If we are in a dark room, we probably can’t see color at all.  But if our eyes move away from direct attributes like color, we can perhaps sense that there is a comparative difference between am empty walkway and a dark sofa. The darkness of the sofa is comparatively just a shade darker. The comparison may not be enough to know much more about the sofa than to know that we should probably be a little extra careful in that direction.

Applying the comparative principle to Shakespeare tragedic criticism then, instead of directly considering Piercing Ambiguity as central to Macbeth dynamis, think instead how very different a dynamic feel you can remember for Macbeth as opposed to for Hamlet.

It is amazing how different the Great Tragedies are from each other and how much difference we can sense. That is one of Shakespeare’s true claims to a paramount position in the entire history of world tragedic literature. Once these comparative distinctions are clearly real, it may be much more perceivable that Piercing Ambiguity has some reference to Macbeth that it doesn’t have to Hamlet.

That dim sense, that dim comparative sense, is a fine start.

We can, in fact, do more in the comparative line, starting from a recollection of the think-feel, contemplated dynamis we have ourselves felt.  For example, which is more like our personal dynamic recollection: Macbeth has a sense of Piercing Ambiguity or Macbeth has a sense of Laughing Ambiguity? Hopefully, this is a very easy choice. 

We can then move on to a finer question: does Macbeth have a sense of Piercing Ambiguity or a sense of Hammering Ambiguity?  This should be much tougher, just as the ophthalmologist tests refraction with progressively finer differences in lenses.

If we can at least sense that Piercing Ambiguity is closer than Laughing Ambiguity, then we are at least more comfortable that there is something real called dynamic response that we are investigating. It has to be real because there is a real difference in how valid the descriptors are.

And having learned to be more comfortable through comparison, we could go on to a question like which is closer to the dynamic we experienced for Macbeth: that it can be characterized as Piercing Ambiguity or characterized as Piercing Opaqueness? Perhaps we find that both assertions have their difficulties based in both being about abstract qualities—Ambiguity and Opaqueness—about which we have perhaps never had an articulated thought-feeling in our entire lives. Happily, Shakespeare can establish a dynamic with our only inarticulate understanding.

All of which leads to a final comparison: which is more obviously the dynamic response to Macbeth, the purgation of pity and fear for a powerful man with a single flaw or a settled sense of the gloriously, nobly human in the midst of Piercing Ambiguity?

We will find comparative criticism useful also in articulating the dynamis of Othello.

Othello Excruciating Incompatibility

Othello and King Lear are the two “wrung out” Great Tragedies, actions that eventually exhaust their protagonists and make us feel that exhaustion alongside them. The similarity is real—and the reality creates some bridge between these Shakespearean tragedies and the consistently “wrung-out” tragedies of the Greek Golden Age. There are, however, also important differences between Othello and Lear which still remain within the overall Shakespearean tragedic dynamis. These differences allow the plays to be emblems of separate dynamic variations based in technical emphases of the scripts.

In previous chapters, we have determined that Othello emphasizes Self as Victim in Form, Eloquence in rhetoric, and Fire in Spirit. (Lear’s being on a wheel of fire is one of those aspects of similarity between the plays).

Toward Thought within Dynamis: The world of Othello is a world of Incompatibilities, incongruities that must find a way to work together and can’t possibly work together. Think of Incompatibility as a pair of gloves, one of which is a lady’s silk glove and the other of which is a blacksmith’s gauntlet. One can try to work with the two as a pair, but, in fact, as a pair it can’t accomplish anything that either one was designed to accomplish. In Othello, Othello is a great soldier and an abject lover, an old man and a bridegroom. Desdemona is the absolutely loyal and enthralled maiden and the much too enthusiastic advocate for a man other than her husband. Iago is the trusted third-in-command and the jealous military failure. Cassio is the highly competent deputy commander and the man who can’t hold his first pint of beer or know when to say and mean no. All of these are Incompatibilities, and all of them are deadly or near deadly to self and to others.

The Form Self as Victim is an appropriate vehicle for thought about Incompatibilities because the Incompatibilities in Othello are typically within the self and create a warring rather than cooperative potential within the self. Othello is normally thought of as the Self as Victim, but the point is equally true of Desdemona, Iago, and Cassio as we have just discussed them.

The special language of Eloquence is an appropriate vehicle for thought about Incompatibilities because Incompatibilities are constantly struggling not to be opposed to each other but to work with each other. Both sides of the Incompatibility may be of good will. Both sides know what they can do well. But neither side can persuade its opposite to cooperate when such cooperation simply isn’t in the other’s abilities. Frustration alone leads to Eloquence in seeking a solution, seeking cooperation, seeking to persuade or bargain. The language becomes more beautiful with the greater effort, but it doesn’t get deeper than a search for fittingness which is already doomed to failure. The best example of the principle is the long scenes near the end of the play between Othello and Desdemona, each still in love with the other, but finally only capable of the high Eloquence.  The sense of utter inability to work together begins no later than 4. 3. 155 when Desdemona gives up all hope of herself finding a way through with Othello:

                          “O God, Iago,

What shall I do to win my lord again?

Good friend, go to him; for, by this light of heaven,

I know not how I lost him.  Here I kneel.

If e’er my will did trespass ‘gainst his love. . . .”

And pure inadequate Eloquence thereafter if only in being said to the wrong person.

Fire is an appropriate vehicle for thought about Incompatibilities because the very act of trying to work beyond the Incompatibility creates heat but not light, burns any fuel that may come in contact with it but finally can’t burn away that which is not burnable, which in Othello is the loving Incompatibility itself. Everything else around is susceptible to becoming smoldering ruins. There is a non-tragic solution: keep the fire closely contained and away from all burnable things. Iago is the incendiary who does just the reverse, continually stoking the fire.

In these senses, Self as Victim, Eloquence, and Fire all point us toward the sense of Incompatibility as its own variant form of Shakespearean tragedy.

Adding Feeling to Thought: Moving over to the feeling side of dynamis, Self as Victim in Form creates Intensity. There is no destruction so clearly destructive as destruction of self. Eloquence creates immediate feeling (and quite likely intense feeling). The Spirit of Fire, almost redundantly, is ardent in feeling. All these feelings are elevated in Intensity. The combination we call Excruciating, suggesting the extreme of extended suffering.

As a thought-feeling, then, the dynamic of Othello, its particular variant power over us is strongly centered in techniques that point toward Excruciating Incompatibility. This should be one of the easiest of the dynamics to apprehend, and to apprehend very soon after the end of performance. 

If we have been entering a dark room of criticism, it is instructive to consider putting the dynamic of Othello on Macbeth. Imagine the assertion that Macbeth has the power over us of Excruciating Incompatibility. If we’ve seen and appreciated Othello in such terms, the terms just don’t make much sense of Macbeth as a poesis. In which case, evidently, some light is coming into the discussion of variations on Shakespearean tragedic dynamis.

King Lear: Ennobling Inevitability

Again, King Lear and Othello seem to have great similarities in dynamis. This is perhaps most particularly noticeable in the relevance to a Spirit of Fire in each and the sense of long ordeal without any reasonable defense in both cases (except that Othello is much more an example of consistently missed chances for defense against Iago’s machinations). A key question, then, is whether carefully working through the technical details of both plays reveals a substantial difference of power over us despite an admitted similarity.

King Lear’s world is a world of Inevitability, strongly enforced as in Greek tragedy by dramatic irony. In Greek tragedy, the audience knew because they already knew the myth what the protagonist on stage didn’t know about his or her future. Moreover, dramatic technique allowed Greek dramatists to make the audience aware of other important realities that the hero didn’t know—for example, we as audience know that Oedipus has killed his father and married his mother.

The dramatic irony in Lear is not a matter of knowing the history before seeing the play. Rather, it is a matter of our knowing things about human affairs that Lear—the fool—has evidently blinded himself to. For example, Lear has blinded himself to knowing that average people are likely to tell you what they know you want to hear. Goneril and Regan are arguably far below average in moral character. They are obnoxiously above average at flattering their parent as long as he has anything to give.

This sets up the Inevitability that someone who refuses to know what we all should know about human nature is inevitably fated to hard knocks in human relations. Similarly, Gloucester from his first words on stage shows himself to have habitually demeaned and derogated his son by proclaiming him a bastard to whoever cares to know. We don’t need to hear the end of the story to know how such things work—obviously very badly, probably tragically.

Inevitability also works in Cordelia who has evidently blinded herself to niceties of rhetoric necessary to keep at peace with her almost-demented father. The practical knowledge that so many of the noble characters seem bereft of is left for the Clown to articulate, perhaps no more memorably than his assertion “Winter’s not gone yet if the wild geese fly that way” (2. 4. 45).  (Note that the line is in prose, but the assertion is one of the special language Aptnesses of the play as a whole.)

Toward Thought Within Dynamis: From earlier chapters, we have argued that King Lear emphasizes Victims in form, Elegance in rhetoric, and Malignant Growth (or Cancer) in tragedic Spirit. (It must be admitted that there is also a large case for Self as Victim for many blinded characters in Lear: Lear victimized by his foolishness, Gloucester victimized by his false humility in demeaning his son rather than himself, Cordelia in working to her own disinheritance from sheer moral pride. These arguments all have great merit, and they are all reasons why a full study of the dynamis of Othello and Lear will have to deal with great similarities as well as significant oppositions.)

Treating only what makes Othello and King Lear distinctively different in dynamis, then, an emphasis in Lear on Victim as Form of action emphasizes a sense of vulnerability and thence of the possibility of inevitable catastrophe. Victims are not like Opponents.  Opponents fight back and sometimes win. Victims are just victimized, stabbed in the back, cudgeled in the dark, swindled and robbed with impunity. (Contrastively, in Othello Iago is willing to victimize everyone, but his central victims, Othello and Desdemona, are too strong to be seen as stabbed in the back. Both must make choices for themselves which are the tragedy which Iago only enables.)

Elegance in rhetoric is an appropriate rhetoric for thought about Inevitability in that Elegance finds a deep-level beauty which it typically states with great economy. The howling wind so impressive in Lear is easy to bemoan as one of the many natural threats to man’s comfort and dignity. But at a deeper level, there is also something of beauty that is brought out by the howling wind or for that matter by Poor Tom’s lacerations. The beauty is, if you will, how wonderfully we are made to experience and withstand so much, and even more, to remain human amidst such pummeling. In some senses amidst such pummeling, Lear, Kent, the Fool, Cordelia, and Edgar not only remain human, they become more nobly human.  Lear is a foolish and pampered old man—until he is defrauded and thrown out into the cold, damp, howling, threatening world where he can say


              “here I stand, your slave,

A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man:

But yet I call you servile ministers,

That have with two pernicious daughters join’d

Your high engender’d battles  ‘gainst a head

So old and white as this.”  (3.2. 16-23)


Lear is now not foolish even if quite possibly mad, not pampered and therefore more respectable, more in touch with reality and therefore considerably saner in his madness.

Malignant Growth is an appropriate vehicle for thought about Inevitability because Malignant Growth has a sense of the inexorable about it, at least once it gets the upper hand and becomes self-perpetuating, which is when we notice its malignancy at all in most cases.

Adding Feeling to Thought: On the feeling side, emphasis on Victims moves all tragedy toward the pathetic. Emphasis on Elegance moves toward deep senses of beauty which are primarily felt, not thought.  The Spirit of Malignant Growth centers on the sense of the overwhelming, especially because malignant growths are noticeable primarily when they have reached crisis stages in which they are choking out whatever is left of the natural growth order.

We have then. Overwhelming, pathetic, deeply beautiful feeling, and a sense of the Inevitable. This combination is perhaps the most complex we will consider.  But the combination works quite readily to a perception of a new and higher reality that comes only through suffering. Because it is pathetic, we sympathize and look for that redeeming quality. Because it is a matter of deep feeling and deep beauty, we look well beneath the tragedic surface to find that new, building dimension. Because it is overwhelming in catastrophe, the superficial is likely obliterated, and that leaves the possibility of finding the new dimension built beneath to be left as all that remains and all that is important. In general, we can call that building in a new dimension Ennobling.

King Lear’s distinctive dynamic variant, then, is Ennobling Inevitability.

Again, we started in a dark room. If we take our conclusion, Ennobling Inevitability, as the dynamic variant in King Lear and try to make it fit Othello, we should find very quickly that it is not a good fit, and we won’t be much tempted to find it as a power over us.  Othello doesn’t inevitably have to kill Desdemona. Desdemona doesn’t have to be over-enthusiastic in her advocacy of Cassio, nor does she have to be so complaisant in her death. Iago doesn’t have to be a devil figure; he doesn’t even have to be all that disappointed in rank, and he doesn’t have to be jealously suspicious of Othello’s relationship to Iago’s wife.

Moreover, Othello is not ennobled. He was noble from the start, and he has been very seriously degraded progressively with Iago’s provocation. But in the “say that in Aleppo once” speech, in his murdering himself, and in his dying with a kiss, Othello is redeemed.   

Hamlet: Perplexing Paradox

Hamlet is the longest of the Great Tragedies and arguably the most profound. If the superficial dynamis of tragedic art is the most like everyday reactions to life’s tragic realities, Hamlet’s dynamis is likely to be at the profound extreme of tragedic dynamis, for Hamlet’s dilemma(s) are not the stuff that ordinary life is made of or that ordinary thought contemplates: an heir-apparent student prince confronted by a ghost with the ill tidings that his uncle has gotten the throne and his brother’s queen by poisoning murder.

Hamlet’s world is the world of paradox.  He has been given a direct command by his ghost father. Indubitably, his father rightfully expects obedience. But then—but then, what if his father’s ghost isn’t his father at all but a demon from hell?  Hellish commands are indubitably to be ignored and opposed.

Hamlet’s college buddies have come to court. He certainly should be glad to see them. But then—but then, what if they aren’t what they seem either? What if they are simply henchmen of the usurping king? 

Hamlet catches the king unarmed and at prayer, an easy target for revenge. But then—but then, what if his prayers are a return to grace, a free confession of his sin and a free gift of pardon in exchange? In that case, Hamlet’s killing the king is hardly revenge; it is much more the king’s passport to heaven.

And so it goes from one paradox to another. And by and large, Hamlet procrastinates in the face of these paradoxes. When he doesn’t procrastinate, he acts impulsively and foolishly, as in his killing Polonius, possibly also in his spurning Ophelia, indirectly causing her death as well, possibly also in accepting a sporting duel with Ophelia’s brother, resulting in both Hamlet’s and Laertes’ deaths. The demands of the moment seem to involve Hamlet in possibly one murder after another.

Prudent thought leads to procrastination and a rational attempt to solve the paradox by clever stratagems like Hamlet’s employment of the itinerant players.  But prudent thought involves temporizing, and temporizing is not the way to checkmate brazen corruption.

Toward Thought Within Dynamis: In earlier chapters, we established that Alternate Universe in tragedic form, Aptness in special language, and Rot in Spirit are emphasized throughout Hamlet.

Alternate Universe is an appropriate vehicle for thought about Paradox in part at least because the Alternate Universe, as a sharp contrast, simply doesn’t concern itself with the Paradox at all and seems no worse for that ignorance.  Why can’t Hamlet, for example, simply ignore the paradoxes around him and imitate Horatio, or Fortinbras, or the itinerant players? Of course, he can’t, but the Alternate Universes of all three make the paradoxical all the more central to Hamlet himself.

Aptness is an appropriate vehicle for thought about Paradox in the indirect sense that being caught in profound Paradox, finding the fitting for the moment and on the surface of things seems like one of the few ways of procrastinating, postponing facing one horn or other of the dilemma.

Rot is an appropriate vehicle for thought about Paradox because refusing to deal with the Paradox may get one on to the next day but it may also supply another day to rot and another day to make any decision less tenable. Queen Gertrude seems to symbolize this kind of Rot, evidently caught in her own Paradox and now so far delayed in facing realities that she isn’t very sure what those realities, in fact, have been. Thinking about Paradox is thus strongly reinforced by technical emphases of Alternate Universe in Form, Aptness in rhetoric, and Rot in Spirit.

Adding Feeling to Thought: Moving over to the feeling side, the form of Alternate Universe is intrinsically a distancing agent.  And in Hamlet, we have an extraordinary number of Alternate Universes, one beginning the play as ordinary soldiers on guard duty exchange fears with one another and another ending the play, Fortinbras returning to be a king in Denmark when he had been seeking to prosecute an inherently vainglorious and imprudent war in Poland.  Each time a new Alternate Universe like the itinerant players intrudes into the action, we as audience, in trying to consider them, lose intimate closeness and intensity which might have been achieved for Hamlet facing the unsolvable quandaries before him.

The language emphasis on Aptness emphasizes finding just the right word, just the right turn of expression for what is clearly real and in need of articulation. As such, Aptness emphasizes the need for measured thought. And measured thinking is typically also distanced, disinterested thinking.

The Spirit of Rot emphasizes the reality of insidious and undetected weakening, especially weakening simply by the elapse of time without a change in ambient realities which have caused the rot to date.

So, technical elements promote distance, a sense of the need for careful, disinterested thought, and a sense of insidious decay. In many senses these seem contradictory to one another, but if there is a oneness about them, it is perhaps best described as perplexed and perplexing. The need for careful thought is reinforced by the sense of necessary decay, but the two are balanced off against a strong sense of standing back and maintaining distance. It explains procrastination at the same time that it demands a solution, and works around to a strained stasis.  Call it Perplexing.

So the thought-feeling of Hamlet is Perplexing Paradox.

Paradox doesn’t have to be perplexing.  For the alternate universes of Hamlet and for us as we work our way through mundane reality, paradox can often be kept at bay. But mundane reality is at a far extreme from Hamlet and its power over us.

Other possible combinations with Paradox are jeering and even joy.  There are people who find the presence of Paradox in life an upper which expresses itself as jeering defiance of the Paradox itself. And there are others (especially in the Christian Critics of Comedy like Nathan Scott, Jr. (“The Bias of Comedy and the Narrow Escape into Faith”), Nelvin Vos (For God’s Sake, Laugh!), and Fr. William Lynch (Christ and Apollo)) who find Paradox bracing and joyful in anticipation of final resolution,

And if all these are possible, then in the terms of this study, in addition to the possibility of Perplexing Paradox there should be possibilities (not exhibited in the Great Tragedies with any particular emphasis) for Piercing, Excruciating, and Ennobling Paradox.

It should be by now abundantly clear (which means light is now becoming much more available in the dark room of criticism) that the technically-derived dynamic variant of Hamlet, Perplexing Paradox, is quite awkward for Macbeth, Othello, or King Lear, and that their particular variants—Piercing Ambiguity, Excruciating Incompatibility, and Ennobling Inevitability—are all less than adequate for Hamlet.

Putting It all Together

We have already posited a short definition of the Shakespearean tragedic dynamis in general:

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

Now we can customize that dynamic for any one of the Great Tragedies in particular. For example, for Hamlet, we have derived the following particular dynamic or power over us as audience:

A cautionary admiration of man’s natural glory, encompassed by the tragic processes of nature, particularly the distanced insidious processes of Rot, with an emphasis on the Perplexingly Paradoxical and its potential to wreak havoc in human affairs. 

For King Lear:

 A cautionary admiration of man’s natural glory, encompassed by the tragic processes of nature, particularly the pathetically overwhelming processes of Cancerous Growth, with an emphasis on Ennobling Inevitability.

For Othello:

A cautionary admiration of man’s natural glory, encompassed by the tragic processes of nature, particularly the intensely ardent processes of Fire, with an emphasis on Excruciating Incompatibility.

And for Macbeth:

A cautionary admiration of man’s natural glory, encompassed by the tragic processes of nature, particularly the tensely penetrating processes of Poison. with an emphasis on Piercing Ambiguity.                                         

If we consider only the last phrase of each dynamis—emphasis on Perplexing Paradox, Ennobling  Inevitability Excruciating Incompatibility, Piercing Ambiguity—it becomes clear that the Great Tragedies are so different from one another that they do not at all invite contemplation of what, in fact, unites them as a consistent tragedic sub-genre with its own dynamis of which the four tragedies are extraordinary variations. 

Throughout literary criticism of the last four hundred years, it has always been too obvious to fully mention and to fully explore that the Great Tragedies are, in fact, a whole unto themselves, that they are a singular literary achievement as a group, that the achievement is centered in having so single a vision and so wide and varying a scope. Our set of four power variations is simultaneously an insistence on the singular consistent literary achievement of the group.

Equally under-mentioned is that the world is not extremely fond of tragedy. A little goes a long way. Some of us, particularly if we teach Shakespeare’s tragedies for a living, can relish reading and rereading Macbeth or Othello or King Lear or Hamlet throughout a long career.  But the much more normal situation is for someone to have seen one or more of the tragedies sometime during her or his life—and to be indelibly impressed.

An educated man or woman should know something about Shakespeare, and that something to know is most commonly thought to exist within the Great Tragedies. And if the educated woman or man should know something generally available in the Great Tragedies, then what an educated man or woman should know is something that they have in common. What they should know is the power, the general power which the four share, a power to lead us to both truth and beauty through the exploration of natural nobility. 

Educated people should have some experience  both of recognizing the harsh realities of the human condition and of knowing  that even when those harsh realities turn terribly ugly and tragic, there is a truth and beauty that fight their way toward recognition as a higher reality that transforms the fallen human condition into the ennobling human adventure in the image of God.




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