Shakespeare is perhaps most famous for his tragedies-indeed, many consider "Hamlet" to be the best play ever written. Other tragedies include "Romeo and Juliet," "Macbeth" and "King Lear," all of which are immediately recognizable, regularly studied, and frequently performed.
In all, Shakespeare wrote 10 tragedies. However, Shakespeare's plays often overlap in style and there is debate over which plays should be classified as tragedy, comedy, and history. For example, "Much Ado About Nothing" is normally classified as a comedy but follows many of the tragic conventions.
Key Takeaways: Common Features of Shakespeare's Tragedies
- The fatal flaw: Shakespeare's tragic heroes are all fundamentally flawed. It is this weakness that ultimately results in their downfall.
- The bigger they are, the harder they fall: The Shakespeare tragedies often focus on the fall of a nobleman. By presenting the audience with a man with excessive wealth or power, his eventual downfall fall is all the more tragic.
- External pressure: Shakespeare's tragic heroes often fall victim to external pressures. Fate, evil spirits, and manipulative characters all play a hand in the hero's downfall.
Elements of Shakespeare's Tragedies
In Shakespeare's tragedies, the main protagonist generally has a flaw that leads to his downfall. There are both internal and external struggles and often a bit of the supernatural thrown in for good measure (and tension). Often there are passages or characters that have the job of lightening the mood (comic relief), but the overall tone of the piece is quite serious.
All of Shakespeare's tragedies contain at least one more of these elements:
- A tragic hero
- A dichotomy of good and evil
- A tragic waste
- Hamartia (the hero's tragic flaw)
- Issues of fate or fortune
- Foul revenge
- Supernatural elements
- Internal and external pressures
- The paradox of life
A brief look shows that these 10 classic plays all have common themes.
1) “Antony and Cleopatra”: Antony and Cleopatra's affair brings about the downfall of the Egyptian pharaohs and results in Octavius Caesar becoming the first Roman emperor. Like Romeo and Juliet, miscommunication leads to Anthony killing himself and Cleopatra later doing the same.
2) “Coriolanus”: A successful Roman general is disliked by the “play Bienz“ of Rome, and after losing and gaining their trust throughout the play, he is betrayed and assassinated by Aufidius, a former foe using Coriolanus to try to take over Rome. Aufidius felt like Coriolanus betrayed him in the end; thus he has Coriolanus killed.
3) “Hamlet”: Prince Hamlet devotes himself to avenging his father's murder, committed by his uncle, Claudius. Hamlet's quest for revenge causes the deaths of many friends and loved ones, including his own mother. In the end, Hamlet is lured into a fight to the death with Laertes, brother of Ophelia, and is stabbed by a poisoned blade. Hamlet is able to kill his attacker, as well as his uncle Claudius, before dying himself.
4) “Julius Caesar”: Julius Caesar is assassinated by his most trusted friends and advisers. They claim they fear he is becoming a tyrant, but many believe Cassius wants to take over. Cassius is able to convince Caesar's best friend, Brutus, to be one of the conspirators in the death of Cesar. Later, Brutus and Cassius lead opposing armies into battle against each other. Seeing the futility of all they have done, Cassius and Brutus each order their own men to kill them. Octavius then orders Brutus be buried honorably, for he was the noblest of all Romans.
5) “King Lear”: King Lear has divided his kingdom and given Goneril and Regan, two of his three daughters, each a part of the kingdom because the youngest daughter (Cordelia), previously his favorite, would not sing his praises at the dividing of the kingdom. Cordelia vanishes and goes to France with her husband, the prince. Lear attempts to get his two oldest daughters to take care of him, but neither wants anything to do with him. They treat him poorly, leading him to go mad and wander the moors. Meanwhile, Goneril and Regan plot to overthrow each other leading to many deaths. In the end, Cordelia returns with an army to save her father. Goneril poisons and kills Regan and later commits suicide. Cordelia's army is defeated and she is put to death. Her father dies of a broken heart after seeing her dead.
6) “Macbeth”: Due to an ill-timed prophecy from the three witches, Macbeth, under the guidance of his ambitious wife, kills the king to take the crown for himself. In his increasing guilt and paranoia, he kills many people he perceives are against him. He is finally beheaded by Macduff after Macbeth had Macduff's entire family assassinated. The “evilness” of Macbeth and the Lady Macbeth's reign comes to a bloody end.
7) “Othello”: Angry that he was overlooked for a promotion, Iago plots to overthrow Othello by telling lies and getting Othello to cause his own downfall. Through rumors and paranoia, Othello murders his wife, Desdemona, believing she has cheated on him. Later, the truth comes out and Othello kills himself in his grief. Iago is arrested and is ordered to be executed.
8) “Romeo and Juliet”: Two star-crossed lovers, who are destined to be enemies because of the feud between their two families, fall in love. Many people try to keep them apart, and several lose their lives. The teens decide to run away together so that they can wed. To fool her family, Juliet sends a messenger with news of her “death“ so they will not pursue her and Romeo. Romeo hears the rumor, believing it to be true, and when he sees Juliet's “corpse,“ he kills himself. Juliet wakes up and discovers her lover dead and kills herself to be with him.
9) “Timon of Athens”: Timon is a kind, friendly Athenian nobleman who has many friends because of his generosity. Unfortunately, that generosity eventually causes him to go into debt. He asks his friends to help him financially, but they all refuse. Timons invites his friends over for a banquet where he serves them only water and denounces them; Timons then goes to live in a cave outside of Athens, where he finds a stash of gold. An Athenian army general, Alcibiades, who has been banished from Athens for other reasons, finds Timons. Timons offers Alcibiades gold, which the general uses to bribe the army to march on Athens. A band of pirates also visits Timons, who offers them gold to attack Athens, which they do. Timons even sends his faithful servant away and ends up alone.
10) “Titus Andronicus”: After a successful 10-year war campaign, Titus Andronicus is betrayed by the new emperor, Saturninus, who marries Tamora, Queen of the Goths, and despises Titus for killing her sons and capturing her. Titus's remaining children are framed, murdered, or raped, and Titus is sent into hiding. He later cooks up a revenge plot in which he kills Tamora's remaining two sons and causes the deaths of his daughter, Tamora, Saturninus, and himself. By the end of the play, only four people remain alive: Lucius (Titus's only surviving child), young Lucius (Lucius's son), Marcus (Titus's brother), and Aaron the Moor (Tamora's former lover). Erin is put to death and Lucius becomes the new emperor of Rome.