5 most-loved tragedies of William Shakespeare

Aristotelian definition of “Tragedy”: Tragedy, as defined by Aristotle in Poetics is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete inaction and of a certain magnitude and the language used is ornamental in nature whose end effect is pity and fear, which ultimately results in purgation or catharsis. To Sophocles, Oedipus the Rex was the archetype of tragedy

Shakespearean Tragedies: An Introduction:

Shakespeare, “The Bard of Avon” was a prolific playwright who wrote both comedies and tragedies. According to the playwright, a tragedy is nothing but a play that involves the fall of a man of noble stature due to external forces over which the characters have little or no control to be exact. Fate plays a huge role in the tragedies and the fall of the tragic hero is because of his own fault under the influence of external forces which invokes both the emotions of pity and fear from the audience who do not feel that the fall or death of the tragic characters in most cases is entirely wrong, in some way, they deserve it. The tone of the plays is usually sombre. Of all the tragedies Shakespeare wrote, his five great or most loved tragedies are Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, King Lear and Othello.

The five most-loved tragedies of William Shakespeare:

i) Hamlet:

Hamlet is the first of the four great tragedies written by William Shakespeare. Composed between the time period of 1599 and 1601, the play revolves around Hamlet, the prince of Denmark. This play closely follows the principles laid down by Aristotle for the “perfect tragedy”. The play not only revolves around a character of noble stature whose action affect the masses but also ends with the death of Hamlet, making him the perfect tragic hero. Like Oedipus, he also displays traits that are admirable and makes the audience respect him as a prince. The soliloquies of Hamlet bring out his complex mental state. Set on the path of taking revenge for his father’s murder, Hamlet ultimately murders his father’s murderer, his uncle and his mother but he is also killed at the end. Hamlet’s tragic flaw (an instrument necessary for his downfall) is his inaction. The play is a tragedy since the throne of Denmark is given to a foreigner at the end of the play.

ii) Othello:

Othello or The Tragedy of Othello, composed after Hamlet in 1603, is based on the Ottoman-Venetian war, which was fought for three years from 1570 to gain control over the island of Cyprus. It is an adaptation of Giovanni Battista Giraldi’s “Un Capitano Moro” (which literally translates to “A Moorish Captain”). Othello, a Moorish military commander is the general of the Venetian army, protecting Cyprus from the invasion of Ottoman Turks. Instigated by Iago, his standard-bearer, he kills his wife Desdemona after accusing her of committing adultery. However, it is soon revealed by Iago’s wife, Emilia that Desdemona was not at fault and this revelation ultimately leads to Othello committing suicide. When it comes to analyzing the play as a tragedy, it can be said that the first two great tragedies of Shakespeare are quite similar in themes and ideas. Just like Othello, here also the tragic hero is someone whose actions have a wider impact. There are also similarities in diction, versification and certain phrases present in the previous play are repeated here. Both of the characters are noble and trustworthy; however, they make a crucial error of judgement which ultimately contributes to their downfall. Othello’s fatal flaw is his inability to distinguish between truth and lies and his thought process which assumes that everyone possesses the same moral compass as him.

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iii) King Lear:

King Lear is probably the greatest tragedy ever composed by William Shakespeare. First performed in 1606, this play which features a noble-born protagonist is based on the mythological “Leir of Britain”. The main protagonist or the tragic hero of this drama is Lear, King of eighth-century England who has three daughters. Lear’s “hubris” or tragic flaw is the eagerness to see his daughters compete in the test where he gets to witness who loves him the most, popularly known as the “love test”. Even though he decides to the test, he has saved the best part of his kingdom for Cordelia. However, Cordelia decides to not take part in the test which ultimately makes the king banish and disown her. This action sets the plot of the tragedy in motion. Running parallel to this plot is the tragic fall of Gloucester whose pride, moral weakness and misjudgment of his two sons lead to a civil war that ultimately makes his kingdom vulnerable to an invasion by France. Lear’s realization of Cordelia’s worth causes catharsis. The play ends with the death of all major characters such as Lear, Cordelia, Gloucester and Edmund, the illegitimate son of Gloucester. 

iv) Romeo and Juliet:

A tragedy composed in the early part of his career, Romeo and Juliet is about two star-crossed Italian lovers whose families are engaged in feuds with each other and under no circumstances can the lovers achieve a happy ending. Originally belonging to the traditional genre of romance, this most frequently performed play after Hamlet, this play was first published in 1597. This love story is considered as a tragedy due to the tragic end that the lovers face, namely death. Unlike Shakespeare’s other tragedies, this play is not concerned with the tragic character’s appeal to the masses. This play does not display a fatal flaw of the tragic hero as Romeo kills Tybalt not because of his “hubris” but because of the feud that has been spreading throughout Florence which has been described at the beginning of the play as an “ancient grudge”.

v) Macbeth:

Macbeth was the last great tragedy composed by Shakespeare which was immediately followed by Anthony and Cleopatra. First performed in 1606, The Tragedy of Macbeth dramatizes the damaging effects of political ambition. Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy revolves around the Scottish general named Macbeth who hears a prophecy from three witches that one day he will become the King of Scotland, King Duncan. Overpowered by political ambition, his “hubris”, he murders the King of Scotland and all those who figure out that he was the one who killed the king. He, however, is overpowered with guilt and mania just like Lady Macbeth who is forever unable to cleanse the blood of the royal family from her hands no matter how much she tries. The play ends with the suicide of Lady Macbeth and the death of Macbeth, the chain of actions completing a circle.

Moubani Pal

Hello, I'm Moubani. Currently pursuing English Honours, I've a penchance for writing and reading. Working as a contributor allows me to delve deeper into the world of syntaxes and rhythms.

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