7 Essential Characteristics That Define a Shakespearean Tragedy

Characteristics of a Shakespearean Tragedy
William Shakespeare! The epitome of English literature is great, not only because of his writing skills, but also because of his art of borrowing, combining, and recreating something new with a twist. His true excellence reflects through his tragic plays which are read and performed even today. Let us try to find out the characteristics of his tragedies that made them stand out from other literary works.
Penlighten Staff
Last Updated: Mar 26, 2018
Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy ~ F. Scott Fitzgerald

I think the above quote applies very well to William Shakespeare's works, for he has created such beautiful pieces of literature in the form of tragedies. However, the attempt of putting his works under a category is quite difficult because every work of art created by him is an experiment to create something different from the previous ones, and he achieved success every time. There are certain aspects that he has followed consistently in each of his tragedies and we shall look at each of them in detail for different Shakespearean tragedies.
Shakespearean tragedies are highly influenced by Greek drama and Aristotle's notion of tragedy. It was Aristotle who had first described the genre in his 'Poetics' which is followed even today to analyze modern drama. Take a look at the following characteristics shared by most Shakespearean plays.

Most of the tragedies written by Shakespeare are revenge and ambition tragedies. For instance, Othello, Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth are dark tragedies showing revenge and ambition. However, there is an exception to this in the form of a romantic tragedy, which is Romeo and Juliet. Unlike the revenge/ambition tragedy, there are two tragic characters in Romeo and Juliet. Romeo becomes impulsive and acts without thinking about consequences, which causes the separation and ultimately the death of the two lovers. In each revenge/ambition tragedy, there are some noticeable features which are typical of a Shakespearean play.
Tragic/Fatal Flaw
a quote on tragic flaw from othello
A 'tragic flaw', by definition, is a personality trait that leads to the downfall of the protagonist. It can also be a wrong action performed by the protagonist that results in his own ruin. It is the most important element in the tragedy and almost every hero/heroine of a Shakespearean tragedy possesses a tragic flaw. Examples of tragic flaws in Shakespearean tragedy are: Macbeth's obsession with power, Othello's jealousy, and Hamlet's indecisiveness.
Supernatural Elements
a quote on supernatural elements from macbeth
Use of super-natural elements is a common characteristic of Elizabethan drama, to which Shakespeare's plays are no exception. Supernatural powers contribute to the fate of the protagonist. However, they are not solely responsible for the downfall of the hero; it still lies in the deeds/actions of the hero. Usually, these actions are the outcome of the protagonist's over-ambitious nature (as in Macbeth where he wants to become the king) or the feeling of revenge. Furthermore, they are not illusions in the mind of the hero because they contribute to the action of the play with their presence in more than one or two scenes. The effective use of witches in Shakespeare's plays reflect the ancient social beliefs in the evil powers who practice evil rites to affect the central character(s). For instance, in Macbeth, when Macbeth encounters the three witches, he starts believing whatever they say without questioning their existence. This is what the ancient social belief in the evil spirits reflected in Shakespeare's tragedy.
Internal and External Conflict
quote on internal and external conflict from king lear
The external conflict, as we can easily make out, is the conflict between two people, the tragic hero and another main character of the story. It can also be the conflict between two parties, one of which is led by the tragic hero. The result of the external conflict is always in favor of the other party as it is the good party. When talking about the inward struggle of the hero, the conflict represents the struggle of thoughts in his mind. The result of this struggle, many a time is that the hero goes insane (as in King Lear, the king becomes mentally ill). The inward struggle also includes the action of spiritual forces which work against the hero.
Fate/Fortune
quote on fate from macbeth
As the tragic hero/heroine is of high estate and is a public figure, his/her downfall produces a contrast which affects not only his/her personal life, but the fate and welfare of the entire nation or the empire. It reflects the powerlessness of human beings and the omnipotence of fate that a personal story of a peasant or a worker cannot produce. The adverse effects of fate on the empire are evident in Macbeth, when Duncan's sons Malcolm and Macduff are planning to defeat Macbeth and at the same time trying to support the collapsing kingdom. Macduff suggests that Malcolm take the throne, but Malcolm is not mature enough to hold the falling empire.
The Theme of Foul and Revenge
a quote on the theme of foul and revenge from macbeth
As it is a tragedy, foul has to counterfeit fair; an unwritten rule of a Shakespearean tragedy. In fact, "fair is foul and foul is fair" is the refrain of the play. The entire play revolves around the theme of foul turning fair. The very first line of the first scene of the play spoken by the three witches shows the intensity of the theme. Similarly, in Hamlet, revenge is the theme built cleverly right from the beginning of the play and making it the driving force behind the character of Hamlet.
Paradox of Life
a quote on paradox of life by macbeth
Shakespeare's tragedies reflect the paradox of life, in the sense that the calamity and suffering experienced by the tragic hero are contrasted with the previous happiness and glory. This paradox is very clear in Macbeth. Initially, Macbeth is portrayed as the most brave and loyal soldier of the nation and is rewarded by king Duncan for his bravery and love for the nation. However, Macbeth is not satisfied with whatever he gets and desires more. This desire or over-ambitious nature leads him to think evilly and act on it, which is an extreme end of his real personality.
Catharsis
Any piece of literature, or any art form for that matter, is successful when it evokes pity, fear, and other such emotions in the audience. It is known as catharsis, where the audience feels sympathy for the character and empathize with his/her sufferings. If the play has the capacity to move the audience by its plot, people who are reading the play or watching it in the theater can identify with the characters and feel that they have similar experiences in their life.
Tragic Structure
A tragic story (Shakespearean) can be divided into four parts and they are as follows:
  1. Exposition: Exposition is the beginning of the play where the reader/audience gets to know the characters and their traits, the general setting of the story, the major conflict in the story and most importantly, the tragic flaw of the hero. Normally, exposition begins and ends in the first act itself, however, sometimes there are some characters who enter late into the story.
  2. Rising Action: Rising action develops through the second act and extends up to the third and the fourth act. This is the time when the plot gathers momentum and the action increases. The plot eventually reaches the crisis where the hero makes a decision that changes the course of the play, sealing his own fate. For example, Macbeth kills Duncan in act II whereas Lear's foolish decision to divide the kingdom occurs in act I. This is how the location of the crisis differs from play to play. By the end of the rising action, the hero is left alone for the rest of the story.
  3. Falling Action: From the beginning of the fourth act, the opposite forces become active and start an open resist. They also start plotting
    the removal of the hero as a result of which the power of the tragic hero starts declining.
  4. Resolution: In the last and final act, the opposite forces reach the full power and defeat the isolated tragic hero. This is the time when the hero recognizes his faults, yet, cannot do anything about it.
Shakespeare wrote 10 tragedies in all namely, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Hamlet, Julius Caesar, King Lear, Macbeth, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Timon of Athens and Titus Andronicus, out of which the four dark tragedies, Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and King Lear are the most admired. Apart from tragedies, important works of Shakespeare include romantic comedies, historical plays and 154 love sonnets.