William Shakespeare’s tragic plays are some of the best known. Almost everyone has encountered one or another at some point – either in school or, far more likely, in popular culture.
Or, maybe if you’re a weirdo, you had your Barbies® act out Romeo and Juliet as a kid. Or so I’ve heard some people have done. Maybe.
I could go on for thousands of words, read thousands of scholarly articles, & not scratch the surface of the depths in Shakespeare’s tragedies. Whether the author intended those depths, or readers found support for unintended viewpoints,we’ll never know.
Also, every scholar & reader brings to these plays their own unique experience. The constantly changing cultural climate means these discussions may never end.
So, I’m not going to try & plumb the depths of these plays. I’ll stay in the shallow end,where most of the tragic plays share common traits:
- The main character is often sympathetic
- They have a tragic flaw that ultimate leads to their downfall
- Usually, the main character is a rich or noble person, making their downfall more significant
- Ends in death (Shakespeare was the original George R.R. Martin; seriously, don’t get attached to anyone in a Shakespeare tragedy)
I think my “favorites” list for the tragic plays are some of the most popular & well known:
- Romeo and Juliet – My Dad likes to argue that Romeo and Juliet isn’t technically a tragedy,since the main characters don’t have any discernable tragic flaws. However, some have argued that Romeo & Juliet’s impulsive behavior in meeting Juliet & Romeo’s brow-beating Friar Lawrence into marrying them could be considered flawed behavior. Also, it hardly fits into any other category. Romeo and Juliet has some of the most iconic speeches. If someone doesn’t know at least the famous balcony scene, I’d worry about the state of education from wherever that person comes. I think one of my biggest pet peeves in the entire world is people who believe “wherefore art thou Romeo”means “where are you Romeo.” It doesn’t; it means “why are you called Romeo.” I can’t stand that nonsense! The following lines, “deny thy father and refuse thy name, or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love and I’ll no longer be a Capulet” make no sense if she’s asking “where” he is.
- Macbeth– Ah, the famous 3 witches scene. One of my favorites! They also throw in some social commentary, where the witches talk about cursing a woman who refused to give them charity. During Shakespeare’s time, they made it illegal for anyone to “use magic” if refused charity – even if something unrelated tragically happened to the person, an impoverished person could be found responsible if they “cursed” them. Macbeth’s fatal flaw was his ambition; with a little prodding from the witches & his wife, he kills his King &friend, raises an army & fights to legitimize his usurpation of the throne. His wife seems the “manlier” of the couple, but she can’t stomach the bloody massacre she helps orchestrate. There’s a lot for me to pick apart in this play & I can hardly contain a fraction of it here!
- Hamlet,Prince of Denmark – One of my favorite lines, when Polonius asks him what he’s reading, is when Hamlet says, “Words, words, words.” I thought that was witty as heck. Hamlet’s fatal flaw, in most experts’ opinions, is his indecisiveness. He has a chance to murder Claudius, his father’s brother, who killed his father & married his mother, but Hamlet hesitates. He’s alternately loving & cruel to both his mother & Ophelia (his love interest). Hamlet’s most iconic speech, “To be or not to be,” supports the argument that he’s indecisive; that it ultimately leads to his downfall is proven when he – & EVERYONE – dies at the end.
- Othello,the Moor of Venice – This is another play that’s beautifully problematic. The main character,Othello, is a “Moor.” This could mean anything,from him being from Morocco to Africa. This is the only Shakespeare play with a person of color in the title role, & the first positive portrayal of a person of color in any of Shakespeare’s plays. Othello is a distinguished general & war hero, who marries Desdemona, the Caucasian daughter of a local senator. So, there are many of the racial & interracial couple stereotypes thrown about by supporting characters, even though the couple doesn’t display any of them. They seem truly happy. Unfortunately, Othello’s tragic flaw is his jealousy & the ease with which Iago can convince him his wife was unfaithful.
Having written all that out, I realize that I could present most of these fatal flaws as “deadly sins.” Then again, that’s one of the great things about Shakespeare – for almost any theory or opinion, you can find support for the argument.
Honorable mentions: King Lear, Julius Caesar
William Shakespeare wrote a whopping thirteen tragedies, including Pericles, Prince of Tyre, which wasn’t included in the original compilation of his writings:
- Troilus and Cressida
- Timon of Athens
- Julius Caesar
- Anthony and Cleopatra
- Titus Andronicus
- Pericles, Prince of Tyre
- King Lear
- Romeo and Juliet
- Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
- Othello, the Moor of Venice
Yay! We’re almost done! Next, we’ll discuss William Shakespeare’s vast body of poetry.