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Can We Define the Nature of Shakespearean Tragedy? Robert Ornstein To attempt a definition of the nature of Shakespearean trag­ edy, one need not assume that Shakespeare theorized about tragedy the way Jonson theorized about comedy. One need assume only that Shakespeare was a skilled as well as inspired dramatist, one who consciously refined his artistic techniques and who had, from the start, a conception of tragic drama which he sought to realize in his plays, a conception which altered and evolved as his artistic vision and powers matured. He obviously did not pay much attention to the pronouncements of contemporary literary theorists, and he had no single authorita­ tive model in tragedy which he might be tempted to imitate. The turgid academic tragedies of his contemporaries did not interest him, and he did not learn much from formless historical­ tragical-comical plays like Cambyses which took their somewhat muddled idea of tragedy from The Mirror for Magistrates and de casibus tales. Although he was impressed and influenced by the poetic and dramatic power of plays like Tamburlaine and The Spanish Tragedy, he charted his own individual course in tragedy, and we can attempt to describe that artistic progress even as we can attempt to describe his progress in the writing of comedies and history plays. It would be easier to describe his pattern of development if the greatest of the tragedies-Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth-were the final and supreme expression of his tragic art. But after Macbeth came Antony and Cleopatra, which has too much comedy and too little suffering to qualify as great tragedy; and after Antony and Cleopatra came the somewhat ROBERT ORNSTEIN, Professor of English at Case Western Reserve University, has published widely on Renaissance topics. 258 Robert Ornstein 259 chill Coriolanus and the puzzling Timon of Athens. The earlier Shakespearean tragedies pose similar problems. Titus Andro­ nicus seems to be a youthful experiment in Senecan grand guignol that has little relation to any other tragedy or indeed to any other Shakespearean play. King John is more conven­ tional, but there's the rub: its final scene reduces the idea of tragic destiny to the level and the rhetoric of pedestrian tragical complaints. While there is clearly a pattern of development in the tragedies, their number and variety are an enormous obstacle to successful generalization about their nature. If a definition of Shakespearean tragedy is to be cogent it cannot be all-inclusive; therefore, those who would define the nature of Shakespearean tragedy must of necessity be more fastidious in their judgments than Shakespeare was in writing his plays. A classic example of critical fastidiousness toward the trag­ edies is A. C. Bradley's Shakespearean Tragedy, which, despite its all-encompassing title, deals only with Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth. One can complain that Bradley's title is misleading and that he should have chosen a more accurate (and perhaps more modest) one, but he does explain the rationale of his exclusion of the other tragedies, and he assumed that he could define the nature of Shakespearean tragedy solely by reference to the four great plays because they were, he thought, the only completely mature and successful expression af Shakespeare's tragic art. Thus he does not hesitate in his first chapters to generalize about "The Substance of Tragedy'' and "The Construction of the Plays." , Few critics would argue that Bradley's study is fl.awed by the omission of plays like Titus Andronicus and Timon of Athens, though Wilson Knight considers the latter one of Shakespeare's masterpieces. Most would sympathize with the exclusion of Coriolanus, because its depiction of the Roman polity seems almost coldly analytical, and its hero more closely resembles Laertes and Fortinbras than Hamlet. Although they are splendid in their own right, Richard III and Richard ll do not stand beside the later tragedies because in each the drama of England's destiny encloses and dwarfs what is tragic in the deaths of kings. Richard's defeat at Bosworth is England's salvation, and after his deposition Richard is a passive, even peripheral, figure in the last act of Richard II, which focuses on the drama of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 258-269
Launched on MUSE
2018-07-11
Open Access
No
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