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Elizabethan England
Shakespeare's Tragedies

by Andrea Elliott and Mahvash Gandhi

William Shakespeare started writing tragedies because he thought the tragic plots used by other English writers were lacking artistic purpose and form. He used the fall of a notable person as the main focus in his tragedies. Suspense and climax were an added attraction for the audience. His work was extraordinary in that it was not of the norm for the time. A reader with even little knowledge of his work would recognize one of the tragedies as a work of Shakespeare.

A hero today is seen as a person who is idolized. Nowadays, a hero does not have to have wealth or certain political beliefs, but instead can be regarded as a hero for his/her actions and inner strength. However, in the plays of Shakespeare, the tragic hero is always a noble man who enjoys some status and prosperity in society but possesses some moral weakness or flaw which leads to his downfall. External circumstances such as fate also play a part in the hero's fall. Evil agents often act upon the hero and the forces of good, causing the hero to make wrong decisions. Innocent people always feel the fall in tragedies, as well.

The four most famous Shakespeare tragedies are King Lear, Hamlet, Othello, and Macbeth.

Hamlet is about an emotionally scarred young man trying to avenge the murder of his father, the king. The ghost of Hamlet's father appears to Hamlet, telling him that he was murdered by his brother, Claudius, who has now become the king. Claudius has also married Gertrude, the old king's widow and Hamlet's mother.

Hamlet is appalled by his mother's actions and by what the ghost tells him about Claudius's cold-blooded murder of his own brother. To buy time to plot his revenge, Hamlet takes on an "antic disposition," acting like a madman and alienating himself from the young woman he loves, Ophelia. Finally, his opportunity to publicly reveal Claudius's guilt comes when a troupe of actors come to Elsinore. Hamlet gets them to stage a play which parallels the murder of his father. The play itself reveals that Hamlet knows the truth about his father's death; the king's horrified reaction reveals his guilt.

Furious and alarmed, Claudius decides to send Hamlet to England with orders secretly demanding Hamlet's death. Hamlet confronts his mother about her role in his father's murder and her marriage to Claudius, which Hamlet sees as incestuous and a betrayal of his father. As tempers, emotions, and voices rise, Hamlet hears a noise from behind the arras (tapestry) in the room. Thinking Claudius is in hiding, Hamlet thrusts his sword through the tapestry, killing Polonius, an agent of the king and the father of Ophelia and her brother, Laertes.

The ship on which Hamlet travels to England is boarded by a band of pirates, who release him (but not before Hamlet substitutes his own death order with an order for the execution of his "friends" who were taking him to his death). Hamlet returns to Denmark just in time to see the funeral procession of Ophelia, who has drowned. It is suspected that Ophelia's death is a suicide. Hamlet is confronted by Laertes, who holds him responsible for the deaths of his father and his sister.

A "sporting" duel between Hamlet and Laertes is set up, but Laertes poisons the tip of his sword in order to kill Hamlet during the fight. Claudius, too, wants to take no chances, and he prepares a poisoned cup for Hamlet to drink from. During the fight, Gertrude accidentally drinks from the poisoned cup and collapses. The swords of Hamlet and Laertes are switched, and both Hamlet and Laertes are mortally wounded. Before he dies, however, Hamlet stabs Claudius and also forces him to swallow the poisoned drink.

Othello , a Moor serving as a general in the military of Venice, is victimized as a result of his love for Desdemona, the daughter of a Venetian statesman. The villain of the play is Iago, a career military man who plots revenge against Othello, Desdemona, and Michael Cassio because Othello has promoted Cassio to lieutenant, a position to which Iago feels he is entitled.

Othello's elopement with Desdemona sets in motion a long line of devious scams orchestrated by Iago. The action of the play moves to Cyprus, where an anticipated military battle is over before it begins. Iago manages to get Cassio drunk at a celebration where he had strict orders to refrain from drinking and to be on guard. When a fight breaks out (again set up by Iago) and the alarm bell is rung, Othello angrily strips Cassio of his title of lieutenant.

Cassio is devastated and humiliated by Othello's action, and Desdemona intervenes on his behalf to convince Othello that Cassio's punishment does not fit his crime. At the same time, Iago begins to imply to Othello that Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio. Iago continues to manipulate Othello, raising his suspicions until he is in a jealous rage. At the same time, Iago is also manipulating both Desdemona and Cassio.

At Iago's prodding, Othello demands that Desdemona produce a handkerchief which was Othello's first gift to her (and which he has caused to be dropped during his first fit of rage). Desdemona cannot comprehend Othello's fury and his public mistreatment of her. The handkerchief actually has fallen into Iago's hands, given to him unwittingly by his wife Emilia, Desdemona's lady in waiting. Iago has managed to plant it in Cassio's chamber as "evidence" of the affair between Cassio and Desdemona. Othello becomes convinced that Iago is right about Desdemona and Cassio and vows that Desdemona must die. Iago promises to take care of Cassio for him.

In the final act of the play, Othello awakens the sleeping Desdemona with a kiss and finally accuses her outright of infidelity. Although she denies any involvement with Cassio and swears her love for her husband, Othello refuses to believe her, suffocating her with a pillow. Emilia enters the bed chamber and insists to Othello that Desdemona was a faithful wife. Emilia soon realizes that the villain behind the false accusations is her own husband. When she defends Desdemona's honor and blames her husband to the officials who gather at the scene, Iago stabs her in the back and escapes. In anguish, Othello kills himself, asking that he be remembered as one who once did good service for Venice, and one who "loved not wisely, but too well." In an unusual twist for a Shakespearean tragedy, the true villain, Iago, does not die at the end, although he is to be taken away and tortured.

Macbeth is about a noble warrior who gets caught up in a struggle for power. Supernatural events and Macbeth's ruthless wife play a major role in his downfall.

The play begins by immediately linking Macbeth to the forces of evil and the supernatural in the form of three witches. Macbeth has demonstrated his bravery and loyalty by leading King Duncan's armies to victory over a the forces of a scheming traitor. Shortly afterwards, he and his friend Banquo are confronted by the witches, who tell him that he will be given the title of Thane of Cawdor and will become king. The witches' message to Banquo is not clear: he will be "lesser than Macbeth, but greater," and his sons will be kings. Macbeth takes the witches' statements as truth when he is given the title of Thane of Cawdor as a reward for his valor in battle.

Macbeth realizes that the only way he can become king is to kill Duncan, and he is torn between his ambition and his fear that one murder will lead to many others. Lady Macbeth,just as ambitious and more ruthless than her husband, finally goads him into committing the murder, devising a plan for Macbeth to kill the king as he sleeps and put the blame on Duncan's guards.

Macbeth goes through with the murder of Duncan, but the act marks the beginning of his descent into guilt, paranoia, psychological disturbance, and tyranny. He is taken over by a relentless ambition for power and continues to eliminate everyone that he regards as a threat. His worst acts are the hired assassination of his friend Banquo and the slaughter of the family of Macduff, a noble who has been openly opposed to him. Macbeth's first fear proves true: the murder of Duncan teaches "bloody instruction," and Macbeth finds himself getting deeper and deeper into his tyranny and its bloodbath. Macbeth publicly reveals his guilt when the ghost of Banquo appears to him (and to him only) at a celebration feast; Macbeth's bizarre behavior as he "confronts" the ghost makes it clear to everyone that he has been involved in the murders of Duncan and Banquo.

In desperation, Macbeth returns to the witches for more information about his future, but rather than telling him anything directly, they conjure several apparitions which seem to reassure him. He is told to beware Macduff, but he is also told that "no man born of woman" will harm him and that he will never be defeated until the trees of Great Birnam Wood come to Dunsinane castle. The witches' last apparition seems to reemphasize the first prophecy that Banquo's sons will be kings.

As the forces of good, led by Macduff and Malcolm, Duncan's son and the rightful heir to the throne, gather strength and prepare to attack Macbeth's castle, Macbeth's world begins to fall apart. Lady Macbeth goes insane, overwhelmed by guilt for the actions that she helped to start. The woman who once told her husband that "a little water will clear us of this deed" walks in her sleep, wringing her hands and trying to wash away the blood and guilt. She eventually takes her own life, and Macbeth begins to sense the futility of his evil actions, realizing that he has lost everything, including his soul, in his bloody pursuit of power.

When the approaching army camouflages itself in tree branches from Birnam Wood to invade the castle, Macbeth finally comes face to face with Macduff. Desperately clinging to his last hope, Macbeth tells Macduff that no man born of woman can kill him. However, Macduff reveals that he was "untimely ripped" from his mother's womb, and proceeds to attack. Macbeth faces his now-certain death with his original bravery, but the reign of terror is ended when Macduff brings in Macbeth's severed head at the end of the play. Malcolm takes his rightful place as king, and peace is restored in Scotland.

King Lear is a tragic story of an old man's descent into madness as his world crumbles around him. It is also a tale of Lear's pride and his blindness to the truth about his three daughters and others around him. A subplot of the play involves another family (that of the Earl of Gloucester) torn apart by a scheming child (Edmund plots against his half-brother, Edgar). Both fathers suffer a great deal for their inability to see the truth about their children.

As the play opens, Lear has ruled well and is regarded highly in his kingdom. However, he has reigned for a long time and wants someone to take over his duties as he moves toward his last years. He announces that he will divide his kingdom among his three daughters on the basis of how much they can gush about how much they love him.

The two eldest, Goneril and Regan, know exactly what they are to say in order to win over their father and a big share of his wealth and power. The youngest daughter, Cordelia, is the most sincere and true to her father. She knows what her sisters are doing and decides not to flatter her father with overwhelming complements, but instead to tell him that she "loves his majesty according to her duty, neither more or less." Angered by what he sees as ingratitude and Cordelia's refusal to play the game of flattery, Lear gives her none of his wealth and cuts her off entirely. Lear even banishes his faithful friend Kent, who tries to intervene on Cordelia's behalf. The King of France comes to Cordelia's rescue by offering to marry her.

According to the arrangement with his daughters, Lear will divide his time equally between them, living with each daughter and her husband for a month at a time. He also will bring along a retinue of one hundred knights. Lear lives first with Goneril and her husband, the Duke of Albany. However, Goneril soon tires of the burden and argues with Lear, sending him off to her sister, Regan. Regan, too, wants no part of caring for her father, and she and her husband, the Duke of Cornwall, leave home to stay at the castle of the Earl of Gloucester.

Eventually, Goneril and Albany , Lear and his Fool, and Kent (now in disguise but determined to help Lear) all arrive at Gloucester's castle,where the sisters and Lear engage in a bitter confrontation. Infuriated by Goneril and Regan's repeated attempts to strip him of his knights and his dignity, Lear realizes that Cordelia was the only daughter who actually loved him, and he runs out into a violent thunderstorm. Cornwall, Goneril, and Regan shut the doors of Gloucester's castle against the frail old man, leaving him to fend for himself against the elements of the storm. Cornwall and Goneril show the true extent of their awful cruelty when, in the next act, they pluck out Gloucester's eyes and leave him for dead because he has confessed (to Edmund, who has then immediately reported it to Cornwall) his sympathy towards Lear and Cordelia. Cornwall is mortally wounded in this scene, stabbed by a servant who tries to stop his cruel attack on Gloucester.

In the midst of the storm, Lear rails against the elements, but he begins to become aware of the suffering of mankind in general, as well as his own. He also loses his sanity, but he is lovingly cared for by Kent, the Fool, and Edgar (Gloucester's exiled son who, like Cordelia, has been tricked by his unscrupulous sibling and now is posing as a lunatic, "Poor Tom" as he waits for an opportunity to put things to rights). The four take refuge from the storm in a hovel on the heath. Later, the blinded Gloucester is reunited with Lear, as well.

Hearing that her father is in trouble, Cordelia comes from France with an army to fight against Goneril and Regan and their husbands. With the help of Kent, she is reunited with Lear, though in the battle between England and France, the forces of Albany and Cornwall are victorious, and Lear and Cordelia are taken prisoner. Edmund, who has allied himself with both Goneril and Regan and has led each to believe he will marry her, secretly orders that Cordelia and Lear be killed in their prison cells.

Albany reveals his true nobility when he turns against his scheming wife, Goneril, and accuses her of treason, along with Regan and Edmund. Edmund refutes the charge, and his guilt is to be determined by duel, with an unknown warrior representing Albany and his charge. The "agent" is Edgar, who has come into possession of a letter from Goneril to Edmund and has given it to Albany; in the letter, Goneril outlines their plot to overthrow Albany once the battle with Cordelia is over. The trumpet is sounded, and Edgar appears to fight Edmund. His true identity is not revealed until he has won the fight and Edmund lies dying.

Edgar then tells Albany his account of the period of exile with Lear and of his own reunion with Gloucester. Edmund appears to be moved by Edgar's story of compassion and suffering, and when Kent arrives on the scene, Edmund suddenly remembers his order for the deaths of Lear and Cordelia. At almost the same moment, Albany is informed that Goneril has taken her own life and has also poisoned her sister as a result of their bitter rivalry for Edmund's affections.

Tragically, Edmund's "recollection" is too late--Lear enters carrying Cordelia's body. He is a pitiful picture--a frail old man who has suffered terrible losses, in part because of his own pride and blindness, and in part because of the evil of Cornwall, Edmund, and his two daughters. Lear himself dies in the final moments of the play, heartbroken and beaten by the bitter and cruel storms he has endured.

Although the main characters of these tragedies possess different traits, they all can be described as tragic Shakespearean heroes: they are basically good and noble men whose tragic flaw leads to their destruction.

Works Consulted

Barnet, Sylvan. A Short Guide to Shakespeare. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,Inc.,1976.

This book gives extended information on Shakespeare's tragedies. It gives descriptive details on the the four most famous tragedies, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, and Hamlet.

Fido, Martin.Shakespeare. Maple wood,N.J.: Hammond Inc., 1978.

This book gives the readers an idea of how tragedy was characterized in the Elizabethan times. It explains the importance of a person's social status in society and how it affected their way of living.

Haines, Charles.William Shakespeare and his Plays. New York: Franklin Watts, Inc.,1968.

This book contains illustrative pictures that help further one's understanding of the plays and the tragic events that take place within them. It also gives information on the plays as well as background information on William Shakespeare and the conditions under which he wrote.

Hamlyn,Paul.The Life and Times of Shakespeare. Italy: Arnoldo Mondadori., Verona,1968.

This book gave us visuals to use to help us understand more about the tragedies.

Hill, Frank Ernest. To Meet Will Shakespeare. New York: Dodd, Mead &Co. , 1949.

This book gives descriptive details on the elements of tragedy. It helps one to understand the common themes used in tragedies during Shakespearian times.

Keach, William, John Richetti and Bruce Robbins, eds. Adventures in English Literature.

Orlando: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1980.

This textbook informs the reader of the audiences and the theater where the tragic plays were performed. It includes a detailed analysis of Macbeth.

Lamb,Charles and Mary. Tales from Shakespeare. New York: Bantam Books,1963

This book summarizes the four famous tragedies which we are researching.

Rurr, Andrew.William Shakespeare: The Extraordinary Life of the Most Successful Writer of all Times. New York: Harper Collins, 1995.

This book summarizes all of the Shakespearean tragedies. It guides us through each story, pointing out all the tragic details.

Authors' note: Mahvash Gandhi, one of the authors of this report, speaks with an authentic English accent, having been raised and educated in London before moving to Springfield, Illinois.

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