Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
header

all about shakespeare
Click on any of the terms below to get a full explanation of that topic.
•  Shakespeare's Life & Times
•  Timeline of Shakespeare's
Life & Works
•  Shakespeare's Use of Language
•  Elizabethan Drama
•  The Importance of Words
•  Real Life Versus Stage Life
•  Aristotle
•  Symbolic Art
•  What is Tragedy Anyway?
•  Elements of Tragic Figures
•  Oedipus Rex: The Height of Greek Tragedy
•  Tragedy in the Middle Ages
•  Shakespeare and Tragedy
•  Titus Andronicus
•  Romeo and Juliet
•  Hamlet
•  Othello
•  Macbeth
•  King Lear

You know, a lot of people love and enjoy Shakespeare's plays. But, just as many people complain that they don't "get" Shakespeare. That's not surprising, because Shakespeare can be really tough to handle. But don't worry, the Standard Deviants are going to teach you Shakespeare like it's never been taught before!

There are as many ways to approach and interpret Shakespeare as there are Shakespeare scholars. Most of these interpretations are just as valid as any other. You may agree with our interpretations, and you may disagree with some of them. That's okay. The important thing is to start thinking about the plays and discovering all the great things they contain. We hope our approach will give you a good foundation to develop your own ideas about the plays.

We'll be discussing the origins of tragedy and the origins of Shakespeare as a playwright. We'll also explore Shakespeare's style—that is, his unique way of using language and other dramatic elements. We'll cover Shakespeare's life and times, what makes his plays so great—stuff like that. We'll also explore the differences between the drama of Shakespeare's time and the drama of our time.

Next, we'll discuss the ins and outs of tragedy, starting with the classical Greeks, moving to the Middle Ages, and ending up in Elizabethan times. Now, let's start things off by finding out about the life of the man whom fellow British playwright and bestest buddy Ben Jonson described as, "not for an age, but for all time!"

Shakespeare's Life and Times

Shakespeare was born in England in 1564 and died in 1616. He lived and wrote during a time known as the English Renaissance, the period during the reigns of the Tudors and early Stuarts. This general period is known as the Elizabethan Age, after Queen Elizabeth I.

The English Renaissance was a time of immense creativity in culture and the arts, which drew upon the classical world (especially the Roman), with ancient dramatists and poets influencing the English Renaissance.

Shakespeare grew up in Stratford-On-Avon, a small English town, then made his way to London, where he hooked up with an acting company. Now, theater in those days was a lot different from what we're used to today. First off, actors weren't highly regarded, falling in the social strata somewhere between pauper and assistant pauper. Acting wasn't the most respectable position around. Shakespeare was a member of one of these theatrical companies, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, who, by the turn of the century, were performing at the famous Globe Theater on the banks of the Thames River in London.

The Globe Theater was a lot different than the theaters of today. Shaped sort of like an "O", the Globe was a three-story wooden theater with an open roof in the center. Each floor had a gallery, with seats for those audience members who could afford them. The center area, known as the "pit," was where the masses watched the plays. Because they stood on the bare ground for the duration of the performances, these theater-goers were known as groundlings. These groundlings ate hazelnuts all day, and quite frankly, smelled bad.

The stage of the Globe extended partway into the audience, and had a trapdoor in the middle. Behind the stage dressing rooms were concealed, and a tower, known as the "penthouse," stood atop the thatched roof. Since this was before the days of electricity, performances were given during the day, under the sky, and usually lasted about three hours.

Shakespeare's company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, later known as the King's Men, sometimes performed at indoor theaters as well. The company also performed before the court of Queen Elizabeth (and later, King James), usually during holidays or special occasions. But let's not forget another thing about Elizabethan theater—no women actors appeared onstage. Instead, young boys played the female roles. During this time, it was considered improper for women to appear on stage. So female roles, like Juliet, Ophelia, and Cordelia, were all played by young boys.

Shakespeare wasn't just a playwright, though. He was also an actor, and a shareholder in the company that owned the Globe.

During his time as a dramatist in London, Shakespeare wrote comedies (like A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Comedy of Errors), history plays (all those Richards and Henrys) the Roman plays, (like Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra), the romances (which include Cymbeline and The Tempest), and, of course, the tragedies.

General Timeline of Shakespeare's Life and Works

Shakespeare was born on April 23, 1564, in Stratford. By 1589, when he was twenty-five, he had settled in London. His first plays are difficult to date, but they include Richard III, The Comedy of Errors, Titus Andronicus (his first tragedy), The Taming of the Shrew, and Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3 (even Shakespeare wrote sequels).

In 1592, due to an outbreak of the plague, all the theaters in London were closed for two years. Shakespeare took advantage of this break to write two book-length poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece.

By 1594 Shakespeare was back writing for the stage, completing Love's Labour's Lost, Romeo and Juliet, Richard II, and King John in the next two years. Between 1596 and 1603 (the year Queen Elizabeth died), he continued to churn out plays, including The Merchant of Venice, Henry V, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, and Twelfth Night.

During the 1590s, Shakespeare wrote his sonnets, which are a series of love poems that solidified his reputation as a great poet. After the turn of the century (1603 to be exact), King James I became the new ruler of England, and for Shakespeare the hits just kept on coming. Between 1603 and 1608, he wrote several plays, including great tragedies Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra.

After that, Shakespeare took it relatively easy. From 1608 to 1613, he wrote his last plays, including The Winter's Tale and The Tempest. After this time, the playwright retired, moved back to Stratford, and lived the life of a country gentleman. He died on April 23, 1616. He was 52 years old.

Shakespeare's Use of Language

Shakespeare was a master of the English language. But how exactly did he use the language? Well, for that we need to look at some terms. First off, you should know that Shakespeare wrote in both poetry and prose.

What is poetry? Well, one definition is that poetry is concentrated language, produced through rhythm and sound. Poetry is a heightened form of language, so it's different from the way people normally talk. Sometimes poetry is called verse. Prose, however, is the language of everyday speech; the ordinary language we would use when speaking or writing.

An example of poetry is these famous lines from one of Shakespeare's sonnets: "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?/Thou art more lovely and more temperate." An example of prose? "Get some bread and milk when you go to the store."

Let's discuss poetry a bit more, why don't we? Don't worry, we'll get in and out quickly and nobody will get hurt. Our first point: the poetry Shakespeare used is "metrical writing," which means, well, it means that poetry uses something called meter.

What's meter? Meter is the use of a regular rhythmic pattern in language. Like in this line from Shakespeare's play Richard III: "A horse, a horse! my kingdom for a horse!" Say that line to yourself, or out loud if you wish. Did you notice a rhythm to the language when you said it? Well, we hope so. That's meter.

Often, the poetry Shakespeare wrote for his plays was in blank verse, a form that usually uses a metrical pattern known as unrhymed iambic pentameter. A complex term, but the concept is fairly straightforward.

First off, "unrhymed" just means that the words at the end of a line don't rhyme. Now, an iamb is a unit of speech that contains one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. A stressed syllable is one we place emphasis on when we speak. And, quite logically, an unstressed syllable is one we don't place emphasis on.

Okay, to help you out, let's go back to that line from Richard III: "A horse, a horse! my kingdom for a horse!"

"A" is the first syllable—it's unstressed. "Horse" is the next syllable, and it's stressed. That's an iamb right there. Notice that these marks signify whether a syllable is stressed or unstressed. The next syllable, "a", unstressed, is followed by "horse" which is stressed. (Whoa, it's like deja vu!). This is another iamb. The same holds true for the rest of the line. "My king" is an iamb, and so is "dom for."

Notice that we're not concerned with where words begin or end—this is all about syllables. And then it's back to "a horse" for our final iamb. Now you can see how this line of poetry gets its rhythm—from all these terrific iambs! Say it one more time, why don't you? "A horse, a horse! my kingdom for a horse!"

So, we know that the "iambic" in iambic pentameter just means that the poetry contains iambs. Ah, but what about "pentameter"? Well, all we have to do is break it down. "Penta" means "five." And "meter"? That's what we've already been talking about! Meter is a regular rhythmic pattern in language. Putting it together, we have "five-meters," or more technically, "five metrical feet." The meter here is the iamb.

In a perfect line of iambic pentameter poetry, we have five iambs. Our line from Richard III is written in perfect iambic pentameter because it has five iambs. Now that you know all about blank verse (the other name for unrhymed iambic pentameter), feel free to use your new found knowledge to impress your friends and neighbors!

Okay, we should probably address two things before we move on. One: Why in the world did Shakespeare write in blank verse anyway? And two: How important is all this blank verse/iambic pentameter stuff?

Number one: Why did Shakespeare write in blank verse? First off, not every line of Shakespeare is in perfect iambic pentameter. Also, his plays aren't written just in poetry; many of the dialogues in his plays are written in prose. The reason why Shakespeare wrote in blank verse is just that he did. Not a good enough answer for you? Well, how about this: it was fairly common practice to write plays in this poetic form during the Elizabethan era.

Playwrights chose this form because the rhythm of the iambs in blank verse closely resemble the natural rhythms of our speech. Believe it or not, a lot of the time we speak in iambs. Now, we don't overemphasize every other syllable, but the underlying rhythm of much of our speech is unstressed-stressed, unstressed-stressed.

Number two: How important is all the blank verse/iambic pentameter stuff? Well, you don't have to be a poetry expert to appreciate the rhythm and style of Shakespeare's language. And if poetry's not your bag, you can always delve into all the great stories and characters in Shakespeare's plays. So, unless you're going to be a contestant on some twisted poetry game show, just know that Shakespeare wrote in a poetic form—blank verse.

Elizabethan Drama

Now to really get an appreciation of why Shakespeare's plays are the way they are, we need to discuss three main differences between the drama of the English Renaissance and the drama you and I are used to seeing. They are the following: the importance of words, real life versus stage life, and symbolic art.

The Importance of Words

The theater was where drama in Shakespeare's time was presented. But it was a lot different than what we're used to today, say in fancy movie cinemas. For one, the Elizabethans didn't have any movies—no popcorn, no surround sound, no big guy came in just before the movie starts and sat right in front of you…

Although the players in Shakespeare's theater company did the best they could, they didn't have many props or much scenery at their disposal. They didn't have a lot of fancy costumes—just a bunch of "stock" costumes that they used over and over. Nor did they have elaborate lighting schemes, because they had no electricity. Duh. So, Shakespeare the playwright used the best thing at his disposal: words.

And Elizabethan audiences listened intently to his words. They didn't have any television or movies; they were used to listening to long stories and religious sermons.

As we said, Shakespeare's plays were performed during the daytime in open-air theaters with enclosing galleries. The stage was very simple and the scenery was stock scenery, which had to work for all the different plays. As far as special effects went, they might have had one of those metal "thunder sheets," but that was about it.

The upshot of all this? Shakespeare's plays are primarily verbal, not visual. The playwright used words to express the setting and mood of the dramas.

In Hamlet, for instance, the dark and ominous midnight on the battlements is conveyed through words only. Ditto with the raging storm on the heath in the middle of King Lear. Shakespeare employed words to set the scene, and the audience listened.

Now we modern audiences, we're used to seeing everything. Be it in magazines, on the television, or at the movies, we respond to the visual. So, sometimes we're not used to all that language Shakespeare uses, and it may sound quite strange to our ears.

But you know, even though Shakespeare wrote his plays in this heightened poetic language, Joe Elizabethan didn't speak this way. When you come across any "weird" language in one of Shakespeare's plays, don't sweat it—his words do take some getting used to. Most editions of his plays have glossaries that explain all the difficult words. So, if you get stuck on the meaning of a word, just check the glossary, then try rereading the line with your new-found knowledge.

Now, good drama can be made with an emphasis on the visual (which the movies use) or with an emphasis on words (which plays rely on). One is not necessarily better than the other, but the theater usually requires that the spectators use their imaginations more.

That's the first main difference between our drama and the Elizabethan's—the importance of words. The second main difference can be described as real life versus stage life.

Real Life Versus Stage Life

When we go to the theater, we all realize that the play we're watching is a fantasy. But, the lines get blurred these days in our celebrity-driven culture, especially in the movies.

Movies tend to suggest that everything is real, especially the places and the people. We all know that they're not, but Hollywood tries very hard to present these movie characters as actual living people, even though they are only illusions of actual living people. If the characters in a movie are supposed to be rich people in a mansion, we expect them to look like rich people and we expect to see that mansion.

That's not the emphasis in a Shakespeare play. This means the characters are always understood to be just characters. Extremely well-drawn and conceived ones, but characters nonetheless. They're not people, but figures that represent people.

This means that if something's not in the play, or referred to in the play, then it didn't happen! And, if something about a character in the play isn't in the play or mentioned in the play, then it isn't a part of the character! This approach will help you when you begin to study the plays.

Now, there are three main ways to gather information and gain insight into a character. One: by what they say. Two: by what others say about them. Three, by what they do.

Take Hamlet, the character. He may seem almost real, but he doesn't exist apart from what is in the play. So, as readers of the play, we shouldn't, for instance, wonder what kind of relationship Hamlet as a child had with his mother—because it's not presented in the play. Similarly, we needn't wonder whether Macbeth prefers maple syrup or fresh strawberries on his waffles! So, how do we analyze a character in one of Shakespeare's plays?

Well, we go back to our three ways of gathering information about a character. One, by what they say. Two, by what others say about them. And three, by what they do. And that means sticking to the text. If we direct our attention to just one place—the actual words Shakespeare wrote—then we know we're not making anything up when we study and analyze his plays.

Now, this is different from what a theatrical company tries to do when they produce one of Shakespeare's plays. It's their job to interpret and, if they want to, update these plays. So, a particular production might do things that aren't expressly in the play. They might remove lines from a play, or even remove entire characters. They may even set the play on the moon and dress all the actors in spacesuits.

To repeat, we all know that the characters on stage are not real, but sometimes that distinction is lost in our modern-day forms of entertainment. Aristotle knew all this to be true—that stage life is just an illusion. He also described tragedy as "an imitation of an action."

Aristotle

Who was this guy? Aristotle, an ancient Greek philosopher, was, like Shakespeare, a classic overachiever. During the fourth century BC, he studied under Plato, then opened up his own school of philosophy, the Lyceum. In between, he developed his own system of logic, and wrote groundbreaking works on ethics, rhetoric, and politics. Oh, yeah, and in his spare time he tutored that young upstart, Alexander the Great.

Aristotle also wrote The Poetics, in which he spelled out his ideas on tragedy. According to Aristotle, drama, including tragedy, is "an imitation of an action." This is just Greek-philosopher-speak for saying what we've been saying: that life in a play is not real life, it's an imitation of life. We'll meet Aristotle again later when we explore his ideas on tragedy.

That's the second difference between our modern drama and Elizabethan drama: real life versus stage life. Now let's look at the third major difference: symbolic art.

Symbolic Art

Shakespeare and his buddies were very influenced by medieval art. That is, art that was created during the Middle Ages in Europe (from about A.D. 500 to A.D. 1500). Medieval art was deeply symbolic, which means that it focused on universals, by presenting them through particulars.

Don't worry! We'll give you some examples so you'll understand what we mean by "symbolism," "universals," and "particulars." Say we have a villain in a play, running around doing all sorts of bad stuff. Well, in a symbolic work of art, that villain wouldn't just be one bad guy, he would also represent "evil" in the world. That's symbolism in action. The universal is evil, and it's presented in the particular, the villain.

Here's another way to think of it. You know all those medieval and Renaissance paintings that have the saints with halos? We know we're not supposed to take that gold ring literally and wonder how it stays up behind the person's head. No, we take it figuratively, as a symbol of the saint's holiness. In this case, the universal is holiness or goodness, and the particular is the saint with the halo. In addition to evil and goodness, other universals are truth, beauty, justice, and purity.

Symbolism, in this case, is how universals are presented through particulars. But we're trying to learn about Shakespeare, aren't we? How does this fit in? Here's one example. In King Lear, there's a scene with a raging storm. Well, it's an actual storm (at least within the play!), so that's the particular. In a universal sense, this tempest symbolizes the storm raging inside King Lear's mind, as well as the universe reacting to Lear's violation of moral order. Pretty heavy, don't you think? Well, that's symbolism a la Shakespeare.

These are the differences between Elizabethan drama and our drama that you should keep in mind as you read a Shakespeare tragedy. Hmmm, tragedy.

What is Tragedy Anyway?

You know, we say something is a tragedy pretty casually in daily life. If we drop ice cream cone on our shirt, we say it's a tragedy. If our team loses an important game, we say it's a tragedy. If a pelican steals our beach hat, we say it's time to get a new beach hat.

What does tragedy mean in our context, like when we describe King Lear as a tragedy? Well, we mean that King Lear is a work of art (in this case, dramatic art, because it's a drama) and its form is that of a tragedy. Though the play can be described as sad or depressing, because it's a great work of art we can also describe it as intellectually enlarging, ennobling, and uplifting. Why do you think that is?

Well, real life is disordered and jumbled. Art doesn't have to be. So, when crafting a tragedy (or any piece of art), the artist can focus on the essentials of the story, consider causes, and reasons, and make the experience of the tragic character our experience.

How did Shakespeare make the experience of the tragic figure our experience? Through his imagination, which he expressed through (you guessed it) language. Remember, the one thing Shakespeare had an unlimited supply of was words! This is some pretty heavy stuff, don't you think? Let's put it all together.

Elements of Tragic Figures

Here are the four main elements of tragic figures.
One: tragic figures are noble figures who are somehow better than we are.
Two: they suffer a reversal of fortune and recognize the consequences of their actions.
Three: In art, a tragedy is the imaginative depiction of the tragic figure.
Four: Shakespeare depicted his tragic figures through language.

One of the elements of the tragic figures is that they face uncommon suffering with uncommon dignity. The poet William Butler Yeats described the kind of tragedy such as a "terrible beauty," and even though it's a paradox, it gets right to the heart of the matter.

The "terrible" part is the extreme suffering the tragic figure faces. The "beauty" part is the dignity with which the tragic figure endures that extreme suffering.

Aristotle believed that when we see a tragedy and experience what the tragic figure experiences, we undergo a purging of emotions. He called this catharsis.

Now, why in the world would we be interested in seeing a tragic figure suffer so much? Why would we want to see what happens to King Lear? He goes mad, two of his daughters betray him, his best friend has his eyes gouged out, his youngest daughter dies, and he dies at the end. This is just totally depressing, isn't it?

Well, no, there's more to it than that! It's the "beauty" side of Yeats' "terrible beauty." We see King Lear fight and fight and fight against all his suffering. He maintains his dignity in the face of great calamity, and through this process we see the true measure of his character. That's what impresses and moves us.

Okay, we can better understand Shakespeare as a writer of tragedies if we put his work in perspective. To do that, we'll look at what dramatic tragedy was like before his time.

Oedipus Rex: The Height of Greek Tragedy

Oedipus Rex, a tragedy by the Greek playwright Sophocles, was first performed in the fifth century B.C., about 2000 years before Shakespeare was born.

Great. Does this have anything to do with Shakespeare and our discussion of tragedy? You bet it does! We can use Oedipus Rex as a model—a prototype for what makes a great tragedy. Let's take a look at the plot of this play.

According to a prophecy, Oedipus is born destined to commit the most horrible of crimes. Is it running with scissors? No. Not refilling the ice cube tray? No again. He's destined to kill his father and marry his mother.

As the play opens, we watch as Oedipus, the King of Thebes, deals with a plague that has struck his city. It turns out the city is cursed because the murder of the previous king has gone unsolved. The city will continue to suffer until the murderer is punished. So Oedipus investigates, and in so doing, he finds out some terrible facts about himself. He realizes that the people that raised him in his childhood home of Corinth aren't his real parents. Second, he realizes that, in an earlier disagreement, he killed a man who was the king—his biological father. Third, he realizes that the woman he married and had children with was his biological mother. How did all this happen?

Well, as a young man, after Oedipus was told by an oracle about the prophecy of his father-killing and mother-marrying tendencies, he vowed never to return to Corinth to see the people he thought were his parents. The only problem was, those guys weren't his parents, buuut Oedipus didn't know that. Anyway, he traveled far from his home, and one day he found himself at a crossroad, arguing with a drunken man about who has right-of-way. Things turn ugly, like most traffic incidents do; the man insulted Oedipus and Oedipus killed him. A little excessive, don't you think?

Well, Oedipus took off and made it to Thebes, where the citizens there were oppressed by this monster—the Sphinx. The Sphinx is this weird creature with the body of a lion, wings, and the face of a woman. She was terrorizing Thebes, and until someone answered her riddle, she vowed to wreak havoc on the city.

Oedipus, Mr. Smart Guy, answered the riddle. This freed Thebes from the plague, and the citizens were very happy. So happy in fact, that they made Oedipus their king, and they let him marry their widowed queen, Jocasta.

Back to the present day. All's well that ends well, right? Uh-uh. We've got this plague, remember? The plague that's hanging around because the murderer of the old king hasn't been punished. Well, the facts of Oedipus's investigation basically tell him this: "Oedipus you know that nice couple who raised you in Corinth? Well… they're not actually your parents. And, you know that guy, uh, you killed at the crossroads? Guess what—that was your dad—the King of Thebes. And Jocasta? Jo mama!"

Oedipus is totally devastated when he learns this. He can't believe he's the guy who killed the former king, his father, and is responsible for the plague on Thebes. In his horror, he decides to punish himself by putting out his eyes with two long pins he takes from Jocasta's robe.

For Oedipus, there is no relief from the agony of his situation. As the last lines of the play tell us so fittingly: "Call no man fortunate that is not dead. The dead are free from pain."

This is a tragedy all right. But why should we care? We've just witnessed the story of a man who, when he found out he killed his father and married his own mother, gouged his eyes out. That's not "ennobling"—that's just gross, right?

Well, there's more to it than that! The play explores the depth of human suffering and the responses to that suffering. Oedipus's suffering and actions set him apart from us and make him worthy of study. As with King Lear, we see a character maintaining his dignity in the face of great calamity.

Oedipus is responsible for his actions, even though they were prophesized. The prophecy did not cause Oedipus to kill his father and marry his mother. When Oedipus discovers the facts, he confronts them with courage and integrity. He doesn't shrink from the knowledge of the horrible things he has done. He faces them, and by blinding himself, takes responsibility for his actions.

Let's examine Oedipus as a tragic figure by asking some key questions.

One: Is he a mighty figure, someone who is better than us?
Two: Does he suffer a reversal of fortune?
Three: Does he endure uncommon suffering?
Four: Does he recognize the consequences of his actions?
Five: Does his plight ennoble and enlarge us?

Let's take them one at a time.

One: Is he a mighty figure, someone who is better than us?
Well, that Rex on the end of Oedipus isn't his nickname or anything. Rex means "king," so we know Oedipus is the ruler of Thebes. Truly a mighty figure.

Two: Does he suffer a reversal of fortune?
You bet. When the play opens, Oedipus is the king; when the play closes, he's banished from the city. That's a real 180 degree turnaround.

Three: Does he endure uncommon suffering?
Finding out you killed your father and married your mother definitely qualifies.

Four: Does he recognize the consequences of his actions?
Yes. Oedipus realizes he has brought the plague upon the city and punishes himself violently.

Five: Does his plight ennoble and enlarge us?
This is the clincher! Witnessing this story touches something deep inside us, the part of us that makes us human. The experience of Oedipus hits us to the very core.

A big reason his experience moves us is that, for pure economy in tragedy, Oedipus Rex wins hands down. Ah, what do we mean by "pure economy," you ask? Well, we'll tell you. Basically, it means that there's nothing extra going on in the play. We do hear of Oedipus's personal history, but we only get it as he unravels the mystery. So, the focus of the play is on Oedipus's self-discovery. Everything that happens in the play is crucial to the development of this one theme.

You see, because we're along for the ride, we confront the same things Oedipus confronts and in doing so, we've grown in our understanding of what it means to be human to an extent we would not otherwise know. Such an encounter is ultimately transforming. This intense experience both shatters and inspires us. It's a peculiar but extraordinary experience.

That is why we can describe tragedy in art as a terrible beauty. We've discovered truths about the depths of the human soul. Now, this tragedy stuff can be difficult to get the hang of at first. So don't worry if it seems a bit heavy. We're dealing with the limits of human potential; we see characters in situations we probably wouldn't even be able to deal with. But, guess what? If you understand the story of Oedipus, you understand tragedy. Let's leave ancient Greece now, and move onto the Middle Ages.

Tragedy in the Middle Ages

The tragedies, or "tragical tales," of the Middle Ages were really teaching stories rather than straight dramatic plays. One of the most influential of these is Boccaccio's De Casibus Virorum Illustrium. Yup, it was written in Latin. This book gave its name to a type of tragedy, called… a De Casibus tragedy. A medieval De Casibus tragedy has three main features.

One: These tales are in the form of narratives or stories, rather than dramatic plays.
Two: The fall or death of the main character (usually from a high position) was enough for the tale to be considered tragic.
Three: These tales were meant to teach the reader various lessons, for instance humility or caution.

This form of tragedy continued into the 1500s, the most notable example being The Mirror for Magistrates, which was an immensely popular series of cautionary tales about the fall of famous English figures.

These plays are warnings. They're telling us, "You'd better watch it buddy, I've got my eye on you!" It was all about the Wheel of Fortune, a concept which was very popular with the Elizabethans. Here's the concept in simple terms: One day you're sailing along pretty good and everything's fine—that's when you're at the top of the Wheel of Fortune. But, the next day, everything is rotten and you can't buy a break—that's when you're at the bottom of the Wheel of Fortune. And let me tell you, life stinks down here. Just ask Oedipus.

It's a short step from the De Casibus tragedies to plays that Shakespeare wrote—like his history plays about the fall of kings (for instance, Richard II and Richard III).

Now, let's dive in all the way and see what Shakespeare's tragedies are like.

Shakespeare and Tragedy

Hamlet: "To be or not to be, that is the question."

King Lear: "You do me wrong to take me out o' th' grave: thou art a soul in bliss; but I am bound upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears do scald like moulten lead."

Macbeth: "Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

Othello: "It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul. Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars. It is the cause."

These are some of Shakespeare's best and most famous lines, spoken by great tragic figures, in tragedies that have remained popular and affecting for hundreds of years.

Shakespeare, as a writer of tragedy, was very influenced by the kind of storytelling found in those De Casibus tragedies we discussed earlier. Often, Shakespeare's tragedies reflect the theme of life as a pattern controlled by Fortune.

Generally speaking, Shakespeare wrote ten tragedies: Titus Andronicus, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, and Timon of Athens. Let's touch briefly on six of these tragedies, so that we can track Shakespeare's development as a tragedian.

Titus Andronicus

Titus Andronicus was the first tragedy William Shakespeare ever wrote. Written around 1590, it's actually not that great a tragedy. That's right—even Shakespeare wrote mediocre stuff!

The play is the sixteenth-century equivalent of a slasher horror movie. It concerns this guy, Titus Andronicus, who has a bunch of bad stuff done to him and his family by the Emperor: like decapitation and mutilation. Eeeechhh. Well, Titus gets his revenge in a gruesome way, with several stabbings and more decapitations. Pretty gruesome, eh?

At this point, Shakespeare was just starting out as a playwright, and his command of theatrical conventions and poetry was still being perfected. You know what, though? Even though Titus Andronicus has a lot of flaws, it was actually quite popular in its day.

Romeo and Juliet

Things improve a lot by the time of Shakespeare's next tragedy, Romeo and Juliet, written about six years after Titus Andronicus. This second tragedy is the very famous and much-loved story of those "star-cross'd lovers," Romeo and Juliet. Interestingly, Shakespeare took a plot structure (young lovers who try to overcome parental disapproval) that was more commonly found in comedies than tragedies.

Also, the playwright focused on the doomed love of the two main characters, rather than probing a single tragic figure's extreme suffering, something he didn't often do in his mature tragedies. After Romeo and Juliet, he usually focused on just one tragic figure of mighty proportions, instead of two doomed-lover types.

Hamlet

The next tragedy Shakespeare wrote, Hamlet, is probably the most famous tragedy ever written in the English language. The play concerns the young Prince Hamlet, who must decide whether or not to avenge the murder of his father, the king of Denmark.

The problem is, Hamlet can't seem to act; he thinks everything through, wondering about the ethical, moral, and spiritual consequences of his possible vengeance. Containing the full range of human emotions, Hamlet is a complex character in a complex play. Philosophical and cerebral, Hamlet is a thinking person's tragedy.

Othello

Othello, written around 1603, is a tragedy that rivals Sophocles's Oedipus Rex for sheer economy of plot. The emotional impact of Othello is stunning, as we follow the heartbreaking fall of a good man, destroyed by his obsessive jealousy. Here, Shakespeare really probes the suffering of his tragic figure, Othello, creating a devastating effect on those who see or read the play.

Macbeth

The tragedy of Macbeth is much different. This play, written between 1603 and 1606, concerns the overly ambitious Scottish ruler Macbeth, a man who destroys his soul to gain power. Macbeth is an examination of evil from the inside; Shakespeare probes the conscience of a tragic figure who knows full well the consequences of his actions.

Macbeth can be considered Shakespeare's zenith as a writer of blank verse. The poetry in the play is extraordinary, and the characters (especially Macbeth) are very well-drawn. All in all, it's a spooky, chilling play.

King Lear

King Lear was actually written before Macbeth, but many experts believe King Lear to be Shakespeare's crowning achievement in tragedy. Sprawling, metaphoric, and poetic, this play is the almost fairytale-like story of a king who exiles all those close to him, but through extreme suffering, and ultimately madness, achieves redemption.

Coming after the experimentation and promise of Titus Andronicus and Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, and King Lear are the height of Shakespeare's achievement as a tragedian. These six plays explore a variation on the theme of the tragic figure and his suffering. They are truly supreme examples of that unique work of art, the tragedy.

Now that you've read All About Shakespeare, test your knowledge with our Sample Test.

Back to Top