Shakespeare’s Tragedies

All But One Shall Live
Article by: Witney Seibold


            The realm of comedy presents the audience with a kind of self-mocking view of human nature; pointing out our own human weaknesses and making us laugh at them. It is, however, what we experience in tragedy; the viewing of people in pain, making mistakes, and coming about untimely ends, that we more often consider defining factors of human existence. We are gluttons for punishment, in a way. We distract ourselves with joy, but find truth in misery. This is not necessarily a bad thing. By subjecting ourselves to the things that we fear, we learn to conquer them. No one knew this better than Shakespeare.
            Shakespeare wrote 12 tragedies in all. I have seen and read most of them (he said with a hint of smugness). Some of them considered the best pieces of art in the English language. Others, of course, are gory shapeless messes. Both were often well received by the groundlings. Back in the 16th century, as today, we, the groundling, while not always the smartest bunch, know a presentation of truth when we see it. And we love the blood. One can never forget the blood.
            Shakespeare’s first tragedy was Titus Andronicus (1593-94). It’s most certainly the bloodiest of all his plays. The story follows the titular Roman general after he kills the son of the Gothic Queen, Tamora. Tamora then proceeds to methodically kill or maim Titus and pretty much all of Titus’ family. Titus gets the last word when he cooks the queen’s sons into pies, and serves them to her. I swear I didn’t make that up. It’s a revenge story so dark that some scholars are embarrassed to admit that it was written by Shakespeare at all. Three hands chopped off, multiple beheadings, a rape, adultery, infidelity, revenge, and cannibalism. The things that make Shakespeare great. Or at least prove he had a flair for horror. I recommend Julie Taymor’s film version, Titus.
            Next in line is one of my personal least favorites of Shakespeare’s tragedies, Romeo and Juliet (’94-’97). Least favorite because it is always played as a romance, and not the tragedy it is. Two kids fall in love/lust. Get married, come up with a cockamamie plot to fake deaths to escape, and then, when it goes wrong, caught up in some adolescent haze, kill themselves. This one is often taught to schoolchildren (I read it every year from 7th grade to my second year in college). This seems wrong to me. It’s a play about how kids make bad choices, have fleeting love, and never think for themselves, placing their fate in the hands of an inept and proud priest. Why teach kids a play about how dumb kids are? But I digress.
            Third in line is the classic Julius Caesar (’98-’99). Cassius wants Caesar dead. He appeals to Brutus’ vanity, attacking him in the logic, forcing him to commit regicide. The killing starts a series of political events that, of course, lead to his death. Was Cassius in love with Brutus? I love that we can interpret that sort of thing. The role of The Public is strongest in this play, and we, the groundlings, see ourselves the most clearly. We also get regrets, prophecy (Ides!), politics, and a war! Exciting stuff!
            Fourth was Hamlet (1600). What can I say about this except that it shall always remain one of the best plays ever written? A confused college kid who is too moral to act, sees his morality as weakness, and begins to see his role in the world (and maybe even in the play?). Hamlet is Shakespeare’s first real introspective characters. Others had speeches on their nature (Falstaff, Gloucester/Richard III), but none had this level of insight. We see Hamlet, we see ourselves, we see beyond ourselves.
            Troilus and Cressida. (’01-’03) is weird and murky. The story meanders from the Trojans to the Greeks. We get a love story, a homosexual general who doesn’t want to fight anymore (Ajax!), a woman pretty much giving her body to the Trojan army, and a long, long breakup scene with a lot of weeping. The story is a prequel to The Iliad, which, at the time, was just reaching Shakespeare. It contains a lot, but still doesn’t feel like much. And then, it just sort of peters out, not coming to a conclusion, but (presumably) segueing into the first book of The Iliad. Feel free to skim the breakup scene.
            We then get the three-punch of Othello (’04-’05), King Lear, and Macbeth (’05-’06). All three written about the same time, and all three considered Shakespeare’s best. Othello, a small, very intimate tale of jealousy and murder. Very few scenes, and all in cramped rooms, spoken in whispers. Iago is the hero of all tragic villains. Every time I see it, I hope that Othello will catch on, or Iago will come out that he’s kidding. It hasn’t happened yet.
            King Lear, opposite of Othello in scope, covers about as much ground as Hamlet. Divide we our kingdom in three. Sorry, dad, can’t do that. Not when you’ve raised your daughters to be sharks. Machiavelli would be proud. Madness, eye-gouging right on stage, stocks, disguises, politics, and ethical imperatives, good or bad. Plus there’s that great subplot involving the justified ambitious bastard, and his mistreated legitimate brother.
            Most of Shakespeare’s tragedies depict their heroes making bad decisions, forced by their personalities through the play, to the inevitable bloody end, forcing them to kill and/or die. Macbeth starts with the bloody deed, regicide, and sees what happens when he tries to dig himself out. Blood begets blood. Man it’s fun. Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy. Plus there’s witches. Almost as bloody as Titus Andronicus. Almost.
Antony and Cleopatra (’07-’08) is a play not so much about story, but character. All the decisions are based on character, and the love story between a smitten general and a sassy queen is real and grown up. If you want a romantic tragedy, go here. Forget the star-crossed kids. Also, not a bad sequel to Caesar.
            Timon of Athens (’07-’08) (we’re getting obscure here) is another intimate one. The story follows a prodigal man who loses all his money, and is then betrayed by his pals. He spends the rest of the play, naked in a cave lamenting his loss of faith in humanity. He uses money he finds buried on the beach (!) to incite a general to destroy Athens. A good play for the issue of homelessness. Compassion, friend.
            Coriolanus (’08-’10) follows a violent general who knows war and only war. When those in charge try to make him a pundit, he essentially makes a fool of himself, ends up defecting to the enemy (who has a crush on him?), but is never really sure of anything he does. Very strong meat here. Tackles the idea of indifference in responsibility. Think teens need that? I hope so. Avoid the BBC’s Moshinsky production.
            The final tragedy was The Two Noble Kinsman (’13). I haven’t gotten to that one yet.


            The body is the best, most entertaining, most enlightening body in English, and indeed the world’s, literature. So stand below the stage heckling. Cheer on, ye masses. Let us see the loving not wisely, but too well. Let us cheer! They’re in the pie! Let us revel in the dead for a ducat! Dead! Die, sweet Lavinia, die. Here lies the cursed usurper’s head. Die! Die! Die! Die! Die! Here’s to my love!

Published in: on May 4, 2009 at 9:29 pm  Leave a Comment  

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