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Shakespeare: Tragedy Class 101

If you were to walk out onto a street and get hit by a car, people might think this is a tragedy, referring to the common usage of the word as meaning anything bad that happens to a person or society. But in the days of Shakespeare, the word tragedy had on more significant meanings; it meant a drama having a disastrous or fatal ending brought about by the character?s inevitable and uncontrollable fate or conflicts within himself, or with his fellowmen (”Tragedy” 305). To better understand what tragedy truly means, we must examine the key elements of tragedy: seriousness, magnitude, unity, conflict, and suffering (Yelland 206).

As seen in Shakespeare?s tragedies, they are all serious in that they are grave and contemplative. Shakespeare flushes out the sadness that comes from a “tragic flaw” or harmatia within the character which leads to a catastrophe (Yelland 207). Hamlet, overpowered by the evil surrounding him, falls into evil himself (Boyce 653). His tragic flaw, being indecisive and too thoughtful, takes on a serious tone, compelling the audience to react accordingly. Hamlet is just one of the many central characters in Shakespeare?s plays who have fallen “victim of his own strength” (652).

Magnitude is another element in tragedy, found mainly in characterization. During the Elizabethan and Greek era, tragedies revolved around people of great importance as opposed to other ages where the protagonists were ordinary men of inconsequential titles (”Tragedy” 306). Hamlet, being a typical tragedy, evolves itself in the noble realms of Denmark where he, the prince of Denmark, was usurped of his throne by the marriage of his uncle and the Queen. Yelland said that magnitude is also “evident in the large simplicity of the action, in the power and intensity of the conflicts involved, and in the poetry and dignity of the expression” (207). In essence, it is the pieces of the plays, united together, that creates magnitude.

A tragedy without unity is a tragedy itself. Tragedy needs to consist of a central idea in order to give the play meaning and purpose. It needs to have a carefully “integrated” plot to weave in its incidents (Yelland 207). Aristotle wrote certain rule later refined by scholars into what are called the three unities which dramatists during the Elizabethan age didn?t emphasize as much. These unities were to “secure artistic completeness” (Yelland 207).

A drama is not quite complete without the internal and external conflicts encountered within the protagonist, the plot, and the various surrounding forces. As presented in Hamlet, Othello, and other Shakespearian plays, the conflict resides within; it is between the hero and his harmatia? Othello?s envy, and MacBeth?s desires (Yelland 208). A common aspect of all great tragedy is the destructive force, “one of dignity and value,” faced by the hero (208). Although he may be conquered, he did confronted the conflict.

When the protagonist becomes overpowered, he experiences a grievous and prolonged suffering which is fate for him. Shakespearian tragedy pointed out that even suffering can be experienced among people of high ranks (Boyce 653). The purpose of tragedy is to produce a catharsis– emotional purge and relief– from the audience as the hero is overtaken and suffers (208). Tragedy is derived from this suffering.

In this tragic world, we are not flawless because we are all humans, and Shakespeare?s tragic heroes manifest this unrelenting property of life (Boyce 654).


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