In Search of Shakespearean Tragedy:

Tragedic Language, Tragedic Form


By Paul H. and Robin Jaeckle Grawe

© 2020


Exploring Shakespearean Tragedy

A Cheshire Smile:  Humor Texture and Personality in Shakespeare's Comedies













In 2016, The Institute for Travesty, Comedy, and Humor Studies (ITCHS) published In Search of Shakespearean Tragedy: Tragedic Language, Tragedic Form. Clearly this initiative was beyond the original mandate of the Institute. However, throughout the ages, it has seemed necessary to define comedy along with tragedy as contrastive genres. The institute, contrastively, desired to approach tragedy as the great sister genre of comedy and thus to approach tragedic criticism as an analog of comedic criticism.


The general approach of In Search of Shakespearean Tragedy (ISST) is summarized on the book jacket:


A funny thing happened to Shakespeare on his journey from lyric poet to comedian to preeminent tragedian. He ended up writing the most famous of all tragedies since the Greeks and yet had his reputation destroyed for over a century because he had done such a poor job of it!  With the Romantics, Shakespeare’s reputation revived, but no one bothered to reform the criticism of tragedy to place Shakespeare at the center of tradition. As a result, today educated audiences go to Shakespeare’s tragedies expecting to find a single tragic hero with a single tragic flaw, agonizing over an impossible situation.  Those same educated audiences do not expect to see thirteen dancers on stage at all times as the tragedic chorus of the theatre that inspired Aristotle’s definitions. The present study seeks to start criticism back on a sane track of understanding the Shakespearean tragedic achievement. Central to that effort, it seeks to reawaken us to the true Shakespearean tragedic language, which is solidly contrastive to the elevated language of tragedy which Aristotle enshrined.  The search for Shakespearean tragedy has begun.




The Neo-Classical rejection of Shakespearean tragedy and simultaneous endorsement of Aristotle’s analysis of Greek Tragedy as covering all tragedy resulted in Shakespeare’s steeply declining reputation for over a century after his death and in the paradoxical critical position that the greatest tragedies since the Greeks were really very poor and critically deficient work.


In beginning afresh, In Search of Shakespearean Tragedy recognizes Aristotle as the great interpreter of Greek tragedy but simultaneously recognizes that there are many other types of tragedy which modern criticism must take into account. These include Shakespearean tragedy, but also Hebraic, Plutarchian, (Henry) Jamesian, Russian, and Naturalist. Aristotle knew nothing of these other tragedies, and therefore, real respect for Aristotle would allow him to be the preeminent authority on the Greek sub-genre but would recognize Shakespearean tragedy, for example, as an equal sub-genre of tragedy in general.


Thus, any definition of Shakespearean tragedy is a definition ultimately subsidiary to a definition of tragedy as a whole, even though there is no theoretical model of such definition generally recognized and available today.


While Aristotle cannot be, in this perspective, the author of a general theory of tragedy, he is nevertheless seminal in recognizing a two- or-three-segment necessity for any adequate tragedic theory.


Considered in two parts, a tragedic theory must first be a formal definition of a type of action. But that definition will always be inadequate unless it is joined to an emotive definition, a definition of the dynamis or dynamic that reaches out from the dramatized action to affect the audience.


Considered in three parts, a tragedic theory begins with a definition of action and character but then moves on to a definition of the kind of special language employed by the author, and through these two, the definition arrives at a dynamic.


Here then is a first analog between ITCHS’ definition of comedy and a good definition of tragedy in the Shakespearean sub-genre. In comedy, we must have a formal definition and also a sense of the kind of mediating language used to carry that formal action. For many sub-genres of comedy, humor is the special language feature of the definition. (There are sub-genres of comedy like war comedy and romantic comedy which are themselves divided between those that use humor as mediating language and those that do not.) The form plus the special language, frequently humor, then combine to affect the audience.


Various sub-genres of comedy and various sub-genres of tragedy, notably Shakespearean tragedy, can only be fully defined with a sense of special language appropriate to that sub-genre but not appropriate to the entire genre. Put another way, the definition of the genre as a whole is likely to be a definition of a formal character. It is at the sub-generic level that mediating language becomes important to definition and important to emotive affect.





From Aristotle, we derive that a good definition of a particular tragedic sub-genre, like Greek tragedy or Shakespearean tragedy, will have three parts: a formal definition of appropriate action, a definition of appropriate special language, and a definition of dynamis or appropriate emotional response.


In ISST, we contrast the special language of Hamlet with the special language of Troilus and Cressida. Given that both plays were written in approximately 1600, Shakespeare doubtless was aware of the differences in style. 


Troilus and Cressida is a mock tragedy, and what it mocks most is the pretentious elevation of language which would be something of an English equivalent to the language proposed by Aristotle for tragedy. In short, what could be the basic language techniques of Greek tragedy were outside serious consideration for the tragedy Shakespeare would write.


Hamlet forswears the elevated style of Troilus altogether. “Something is rotten in the State of Denmark” may have entered as a household phrase into the vernacular of the English language, but that fact does not make it elevated language. “To be or not to be, that is the question. . .” may be immortal, but it is immortality composed out of plain, pedestrian English.


Late in the play, a captain in the Norwegian army is asked what his army is about to fight for, hardly the main direction of the tragedic action. But the captain replies, “For five marks, I would not farm it.” Not the stuff of elevated language, yet one of the most condemning moments in literature against war greed in medieval Europe. The radical difference in language between the two plays is entirely apparent simply by recalling the opening sentence and a half of Troilus:


In Troy, there lies our scene. From isles of Greece

The Princes orgulous, their high blood chafed

Have to the port of Athens sent their ships. . . .


The Romantic revaluation of Shakespeare was made easier by the assumption that Shakespeare’s special tragedic language was poetic and, therefore, necessarily elevated, and thus to that extent authorized by Aristotle himself. This is stop-gap criticism. The Hamlet/Troilus contrast begs us to recognize that Shakespeare had no interest in a special tragedic elevated language style.


Shakespeare’s scorn for elevated language in his tragedies demands that we consider in what ways Shakespeare reflected Greek tragedic norms and in what ways he invented new standards for a new age.





Special tragedic language is centrally important for distinguishing tragedic sub-genres. ISST not only defines Shakespeare’s special language, it also describes an empirical test validating the distinctions made in that definition. The large number of high-confidence results from controlled experiment are a strong validation of the quadrilateral theory of Shakespearean tragedic special language variants.


Working analogously from ITCHS’ discoveries concerning classical humor used in traditional light comedy and vitalist humor used in vitalist comedy, ISST presents a quadrilateral of special Shakespearean tragedic language forms. With classical, traditional comedy, we defined four humor-of-the-mind forms of special language (see Comedic Tenor, Comic Vehicle: Humor in American Film Comedy and A Cheshire Smile: Humor Texture and Personality in Shakespeare’s Comedies) and similarly with Vitalist comedy we defined four Vitalist forms of special humor language (see Four Seasons: Variations in Vitalist American Film Comedy). Following this model, for Shakespearean tragedy. We defined four forms of Roman-Romantic rhetoric that together comprise the bulk of Shakespeare’s special tragedic language. These four rhetorical forms are Aptness, Assessment (both based in Thought), Eloquence, and Elegance (both based in Beauty). 


Like the quadrilaterals of comedic special language, this quadrilateral of Shakespearean tragedic language can be used to create six pairs of synthetic forms: Forceful, Compelling, Transcendent, Ethereal, Prophetic, and Enchanting language. For example, dominant use in a particular play of Aptness and Assessment creates a no-nonsense, Forceful synthetic feel for that play. 


These are not simply six complimentary terms: they are contradistinctive, specifically-defined feels or textures created by dominant combinations of Shakespeare’s special tragedic language sub-forms.


Theories abound. However, in the case of Shakespearean tragedic special language, what emerged as a subjective theory has been validated by empirical testing. ISST goes on to discuss a scientifically designed test, the Shakespearean Tragedic Language Assessment (STLA), and its first employment in a carefully controlled test environment.   Participants were asked to consider 18 pairs of short passages, each pair from the same Shakespearean tragedy, each passage embodying one of the four identified forms of special tragedic language. Participants were then asked to choose which of the two passages was more powerful.


Statistical analysis revealed better than twenty high-confidence results from this testing procedure. For example, respondents to the STLA claiming a primary academic stance in Social Science, STEM, or Business have a low positive response to Elegance. This result, statistically analyzed, is better than 99% confident.


The book concludes by bringing such high-confidence test- administration results as clues toward good critical discussion of Julius Caesar. Julius Caesar is employed as a first in-depth look at a Shakespearean tragedy, preparatory to establishing more specifically the Shakespearean tragedic sub-genre dynamis.

Theoretical explication of the special language quadrilateral and its empirical validation thus moves to specific application in Julius Caesar. Experimental results from the STLA are shown to be surprisingly and insightfully related to conclusions routinely drawn in modern Shakespeare criticism.





The presence of a new kind of tragedic language in Shakespeare points us to a need for a wider sense of tragedy—of what tragedy is all about, of the power it has over us, and the nature of its dramatic figures. We need to see Tragedy as a supergenre, with Greek tragedy and Shakespearean tragedy, along with others, as sub-forms of the supergenre. Thus a few words on the supergenre are appropriate here.


Without a sweeping study of all tragedy to date, we can suggest some features of Tragedy as a whole. Tragedy is (often) an action, not a very sad accident. It is a poesis, a making. 


Tragedy is the Cautionary and Contemplative Genre, in contrast to Comedy, which is the Celebratory Genre. People who find tragedy savory do so because tragedy savors of reality, practical wisdom, and clear-sightedness.


These features are shared by Greek and Shakespearean tragedy alike.


But beyond such similarities, the Shakespearean tragedic sub-form often diverges from the Greek, and thus Aristotle’s dicta can often be misleading or at least needing clarification. For example, Aristotle posits that the tragic figure must be greater than ourselves. A more modern conception might be that the tragic hero is somehow set apart from humanity in general. Aristotle expects us to admire, respect, sympathize, or otherwise positively respond to the tragic figure greater than ourselves. Aristocratic audiences have always had such predilection for representatives of their class. 


But the general human response to greatness is envy, not sympathy. Aristotle’s idea needs at least some attention to a mechanism that turns envy into approval.  


And when we turn to Shakespeare, “greater than ourselves” needs at least a new interpretation. Shakespeare’s central figures are princes, war-leader thanes, abdicating kings, warrior-governors. But it isn’t their political status that is centrally important, that makes them so especially memorable in the history of literature. 


We posit, then, that Instead of “greater than ourselves,” Shakespearean tragedic central figures exhibit three common characteristics: they are Vivid, Noble, Set-Apart figures. Of these three, the Set-Apart figure seems possibly to be a characteristic of Tragedy in general in all its sub-genres. The Vivid and Noble Figure is characteristic of the Shakespearean sub-genre but may not be important in other sub-genres.


So, whatever the dynamis of Shakespearean tragedy turns out to be after much more intense investigation of individual plays, that dynamis must somehow be appropriate for and to some extent grow out of the character of the Shakespearean tragedic figure as well as out of the special language Shakespeare used to embody his tragedic drama.





In Search of Shakespearean Tragedy culminates with two discussions applying theory to Julius Caesar. The first of these discussions considers Julius Caesar and criticism in relation to specific empirical evidence from STLA testing. The second discussion adds the insights of special-language analysis and empirical testing to literary distinctions between Greek and Shakespearean tragedy, furthering our search for Shakespearean tragedy. 


It is necessary to caution, then, that the first discussion seems abnormal for literary discourse, abnormal because it deals in definite results of disinterested experiment.


The most significant conclusion from empirical testing is paradoxically, not about Julius Caesar. Rather, it is about empirical testing in literature.


ISST argues strenuously that the fact of 20 high-confidence results in two test settings for the STLA (Shakespeare Tragedic Language Assessment) indicates time and again that STLA was testing something real, some real distinction within general Shakespearean tragedic language. 


Empirical evidence that a reality has been tested does not mean that the reality investigated has been exactly as we have defined it. Refinements of understanding are always possible. But these remarkable high-confidence results are repeated validations that we are closing in on reality, a reality represented by the four identified rhetorical forms of Shakespearean tragedic language: Aptness, Assessment, Eloquence, and Elegance.


And that says something about the role of empirical testing in literary criticism. The theory proposed in ISST has empirical backing. Does talk of “elevated language” à la Aristotle have similar backing for Shakespeare studies? If not, until such elevated criticism does produce empirical backing, it will be playing at a disadvantage for that lack.


Considering, then, these four rhetorical forms, analysis of Julius Caesar reveals a predominance of Aptness and Assessment, with exceptions into Eloquence, notably in Marc Antony’s oft-recited funeral oration. This rhetorical predominance makes the play Forceful.


Among other high-confidence STLA correlations, we found a preference for Aptness and Assessment over Eloquence and Elegance among younger people. This rhetorical preference suggests that Julius Caesar should be more generally available to younger readers than are the Great Tragedies. Our conclusion based in empirical testing supports the normal placement of Julius Caesar earlier than other tragedies in the American high school curriculum. 


Other STLA results suggest that there will be a fundamental division of rhetorical interest in the play between its general character and the Eloquence of Antony in the funeral oration scene. STLA statistical evidence suggests the possibility that male audiences will be more favorable to the general Forceful (Aptness plus Assessment) language patterns of the play and less favorable to the Eloquence of Antony.


The second critical discussion of Julius Caesar begins in literary consideration independent of empirical evidence and asserts that despite the constraints of the history of Rome, the play is a poesis, a work of art greater than a historical narrative, and that like Aristotelian tragedy it demonstrates necessity and nemesis. 


Unlike the prescribed Aristotelian tragic model, Julius Caesar is not a tragedy with a single tragic hero possessing a single, definable tragic flaw. Rather Julius Caesar presents noble, vivid, set-apart figures who are more consonant with Roman and Renaissance values than with Greek values. Furthermore, these figures do not evoke, as Greek tragedy is said to do, pity and fear. Rather the dynamis created by Shakespeare’s poesis invokes respect for sorrowful but moral actors, set apart for noble endeavor. 


For Julius Caesar then, a careful analysis of the mediating language ends up supporting the general critical consensus of the play as a play particularly attractive to men of affairs. There is a second tradition, however, that has used the play for the study of rhetorical eloquence.  With either rhetorical emphasis, Julius Caesar is a wonderful play to illustrate Shakespeare’s interest in the noble and set- apart rather than the tragically-flawed figure.


In contrast, Shakespeare’s Great Tragedies—Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, and King Lear—are much closer to the Aristotelian model of a single tragic hero. Therefore, before the search for Shakespearean tragedy is fully completed, it may be necessary to fully define not one but rather two distinct sub-genres, both of which, nevertheless, employ the same Shakespearean special tragedic language feature.