The Form of a Tragedy

Characteristics of Elizabethan Drama

From Elizabethan Drama. Janet Spens. London: Metheun & Co.

Of the three types of plays recognized in the Shakespeare First Folio — Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies — the last has been the most discussed and is clearest in outline.

1. Tragedy must end in some tremendous catastrophe involving in Elizabethan practice the death of the principal character.

2. The catastrophe must not be the result of mere accident, but must be brought about by some essential trait in the character of the hero acting either directly or through its effect on other persons.

3. The hero must nevertheless have in him something which outweighs his defects and interests us in him so that we care for his fate more than for anything else in the play. The problem then is, why should a picture of the misfortunes of some one in whom we are thus interested afford us any satisfaction? No final answer has yet been found. Aristotle said that the spectacle by rousing in us pity and fear purges us of these emotions, and this remains the best explanation. Just as a great calamity sweeps from our minds the petty irritations of our common life, so the flood of esthetic emotion lifts us above them.

It is really much more difficult than is always recognized to be sure what constituted Shakespeare’s view of the tragic satisfaction or even that he believed in it. It is possibly true that Lear is a better man at the end of the play than he was at the beginning, and that without his suffering he would not have learned sympathy with his kind; but this does not apply either to Hamlet or to Othello, and even in the case of King Lear it does not explain the aesthetic appeal. That depends on something more profound.

The student, after getting the story of the tragedy quite clear, should concentrate first on the character of the hero. Ask yourself whether his creator considered him ideally perfect — in which case the appeal probably lies in the spectacle of a single human soul defying the universe; or flawed — in which case the defect will bring about the catastrophe. It is true that in the Revenge Play type we have frequently the villain-hero, but the interest there depends rather on his courage and independence of man and God than on his villainy. This is particularly true of pre-Shakespearean plays. It is remarkable that the post-Shakespearean drama was apt to combine plots involving unnatural crimes and vicious passions with a somewhat shallow conventional morality.

The following pyramidal design helps the learner to understand the form of Shakespeare’s tragedies:

Elements of Shakespeare’s Tragedies

Some of the most common elements in Shakespearean tragedies are:

  • The fatal flaw – all of the heroes in Shakespeare’s tragedies have a weakness in personality that eventually leads to their downfall.
  • Fall of the nobleman – many of the men in Shakespeare’s tragedies have extreme wealth and power, making their downfall more tragic.
  • External pressure – Shakespeare’s tragic heroes often fall victim to external pressure from others, such as evil spirits and manipulative characters who play a role in their downfall.
  • Hero – The hero has opportunities for redemption but never takes advantage of these in time, which leads to death.

Shakespeare’s tragedies usually share several features, including:

  • Shakespeare’s tragedies begin in an ordered society but end with chaos.
  • Change is often reflected by changes in the environment, with storms or other happenings in the natural world.
  • The audience often develops sympathy for the hero.
  • The protagonist is usually a person of good character who is destroyed by his own ego or desire for self-advancement.The Essence of Shakespearean Tragedy is an essay that likely will assist the learner to comprehend the structure of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.