An essay on Shakespearean Comedy and Tragedy
The editors of the 1623 Folio, in which most of Shakespeare’s plays were first published together, divided them into Comedies, Tragedies and Histories. The ten plays included among the tragedies, in rough order of composition, are Titus Andronicus, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Timon of Athens; the four great tragedies - Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth - and then Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus. The Folio’s method of dividing them has so influenced subsequent views of the plays that it is easy to forget that it was an interpretation of the relationships between them that was based on the conventions of classical drama. In many cases the categorisation does not tell us much about the play. The range of genres that Shakespeare actually used and the difficulty of distinguishing them is better suggested by Polonius’ famous description of the players in Hamlet:
‘the best actors in the world either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, or tragical-historical-pastoral...‘
Although in his earliest plays Shakespeare followed the generic conventions of classical models, he gradually learned how to mix the genres, introducing comic elements into tragedies and sadness into comedy.
Why was Shakespeare not content simply to operate within inherited conventions? The answer lies in the way genre determines the subject matter of a play and limits the range of ways that subject matter can be explored within the conventions of plot, characterisation within a genre. Oscar Wilde wittily said that Hamlet’s description of art ‘holding a mirror up to nature’ is intended by Shakespeare to show that Hamlet really has gone mad. Art, as a Renaissance playgoer would have understood, does not reflect external realities, it creates its own, and writing within a genre means accepting a set of rules about the nature of the reality that can be created. A work of art is a world in itself, that strives for internal consistency and characters can only operate within the terms of that world. A character in a comedy inhabits a comedic world; a character in a tragedy inhabits a tragic one, and it is absurd to imagine a character being transposed from one to the other.
The simplest definition of dramatic comedy, for example, might follow another Wildean witticism - Lady Bracknell’s definition of fiction in Wilde’s pastiche of Shakespeare’s comic forms, The Importance of Being Earnest: ‘The good end happily and the bad end unhappily. That’s why it is called fiction.’ In creating a character in a play written according to such a formula the writer would be constrained by the need not to bring the attitude underlying it into question, and would be forced to tailor their characterisation accordingly. This would impose limits on the range of experience that it was possible to portray in such a context - and this might indeed be said of characters in early comedies such as Much Ado About Nothing, or A Comedy of Errors.
As Shakespeare developed, however, he explored an increasing broad, and deep range of experience and he developed ways of expanding the possibilities of comedy and tragedy so that they could accommodate this expanded range of experience. The happy endings of the later comedies are profoundly qualified by the deep and unresolved ambiguities in the plays. Jokes after all are usually at another person’s expense, and happy endings imply unhappy beginnings and middles. In the later comedies we are unable to forget the perspective of the character who are the butt of our laughter, or to ignore the sufferings that precede the final resolution. The unhappy endings of tragedies also possess a greatly expanded significance that take the plays far beyond the bare outlines of what makes a play a tragedy - that it depicts the suffering and fall of a great man.
One way Shakespeare was able to allow the plays to outgrow their schematic foundations was in the development of his characterisation. It is surely these characters, who are so compelling and have provesd so real to audiences and readers for four centuries, and who have the unprecedented quality of changing in the course of the plays, that mark out what is truly distinctive in these plays. Shakespeare’s genius was to seize upon a characteristic of drama that helped in the creation of autonomous characters - the absence of an authorial voice. All we have in the plays are the words and actions of individual characters. Shakespeare never speaks in his own voice, we are not told by him how to interpret what the characters say and none of his characters, not even Hamlet or Prospero, can be entirely seen as a self portrait. Shakespeare exploited this in learning to create characters who possessed greater and greater powers of introspection and interpreted their roles for themselves. The Merchant of Venice, marks a crucial stage in this development in Shakespeare’s characterisation. The Folio editors categorised it as a comedy, presumably because the two lovers at the play’s centre survive the difficulties the plot throws up and marry at the end. However, Shylock, the play’s Jewish villain-victim, is himself a complex character who articulates a quite different interpretation of what happens. It is therefore possible to look at the play’s events from his perspective, in which case it appears as a tragedy
An interest in exploring the protagonist’s experience was crucial from the outset of Shakespeare’s career as a writer of tragedy. In Titus Andronicus Titus loses wealth, position and status and witnesses the sufferings of his family that culminate in the rape and mutilation of his daughter Lavinia. This all happens in the first half of the play, and does not make convincing drama, but it seems that Shakespeare is interested in something other than telling a believable story. In the manner of God heaping sufferings on Job, it seems that Shakespeare wants to place Titus under the greatest imaginable strain and then see how he responds. Or rather, as Shakespeare is the author of Titus’ character as well as of his torments, he wishes to test his own ability to encompass such suffering, to articulate it, and to explore its implications.
In writing tragedy, therefore, it seems that Shakespeare was seeking a way to explore human experience, by creating circumstances that would take that experience to its limits. Lear, Hamlet, Macbeth and Othello pass through some form or other of madness, and each is driven by internal and external compulsion to extreme action and this affords a unique perspective on each of them and the worlds they inhabit. Titus’ circumstances are comparably extreme, but his experience is none the less limited, because he is limited. The difference in the later figures is their complex, and diverse minds, and the consequent expansion of their capacity for emotion and reflection. Their ‘tragic’ situations mean that the potentialities of those minds are explored and articulated to the fullest degree imaginable.
Each of these characters possesses, to a greatly expanded degree, the quality of self-awareness that stops Shylock from being a straightforward comic stage villain. Each is able to consider his experience, in particular through soliloquy. These famous speeches are moments at which, by definition, nothing is happening in an external sense, and yet they are the centre of the plays providing their most vivid language. They represent an unprecedented depiction of human thought process and an examination of human psychology.
Each of the great tragedies takes one into a distinct world that is not simply the world of historical and empirical realties. It is a world in which action and thoughts resonate with psychological, ethical, indeed symbolic meanings. The soliloquies are dramatic poems describing intense processes of image-thinking. To understand the thoughts of Hamlet or Macbeth in their soliloquies we must attend to their metaphors in their own terms, seeing the images those metaphors create. These image-thoughts are concerned with the great themes of time, loss, death, impermanence, desire, duty conscience, and so on, that pervade the Tragedies. Their intensity compels one to consider these themes in the light of the images.
Macbeth stricken by conscience while contemplating Duncan’s murder does not speak abstractly about right and wrong. He imagines an apocalyptic future in which knowledge of his crime is spread by the trumpets of angels and by:
‘pity like a naked new-born babe
striding the blast...’
Hamlet, mortified by the unseemly haste of his mother’s re-marriage wishes viscerally that:
‘ this too, too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew...’
Othello is a somewhat lesser imaginer than either of these, more constrained by the conventionality of his metaphors. And yet, tormented by jealousy, his description of his perceived dishonour has a comparable intensity:
‘alas to make me
The fixed figure for the time of scorn
To point his slow and moving finger at.’
Lear does not have many soliloquies, but once he has withdrawn into the solitude of madness, all of his speeches have this quality of visionary metaphor. His denunciation of the libidinous selfishness of his daughters becomes an eschatological vision:
‘Down from the waist
They’re centaurs, though women all above,
But to the girdle do the god’s inherit
Below is all the fiend’s. There’s hell, there’s darkness,
There is the sulfurous pit, burning, scalding, stench, consumption...’
Such metaphors (and not only those of the soliloquies) induct one into a vision of existence in which the literal setting is perceived symbolically as a cosmological battle-field where Shakespeare’s universal themes can be fully unfolded.
Another dimension is added to the plays’ symbolic character as, especially in Macbeth and King Lear, the literal settings themselves take on a symbolic force. Shakespeare’s geographical and historical settings always have a profound influence on the kind of experience the plays contain. Thus the Roman world of Julius Caesar and Coriolanus offers a setting where political and social questions can be considered. The fantasised settings of Ilyria and Bohemia are the appropriate location for the liberating possibilities of romance and pastoral. By setting King Lear in prehistoric Britain, Shakespeare found an imaginative space in which it was possible to explore primal themes of humanity and inhumanity outside the conceptual frameworks of Christian ethics or historical societies. This is epitomised by the blasted heath to which Lear is exiled, that comes to represent a primal wilderness, emptied out of all social forms and meanings, that offers a resting place from which those forms can be reviewed. Macbeth is set on the cusp of the pre-historic and the historic and depicts a world that contains both Christian values and pagan alternatives and whose entire character changes depending on their relative ascendancy. The supernatural is a reality in Macbeth’s Scotland in ways that are not possible in plays set in Shakespeare’s own time.
In these plays the whole drama becomes a giant metaphor, or at least a metaphorical canvas that expresses and contains the conflicts that are focused on the experience of the hero. This is less the case in Othello, set in a modern world, albeit on the geographical frontier between Christian civilization and its enemies. Othello is a domestic tragedy that gains much of its strength from its translation of Shakespeare’s exploration of violence and evil to a familiar setting.
Hamlet is set in a court, an imaginative space in which its hero’s hyper-sophisticated and perpetually modern mind might exist, and yet in which it cannot have free rein. The reverberations of Macbeth’s tragedy are externalised in the chaos his world is swept up in. The reverberations of Hamlet’s tragedy have as much force, but the more naturalistic setting means that they are turned inwards, and this emphasises their origin in the imagination. ‘Denmark’s a prison’. Hamlet tells the courtier Rosencrantz, who has been sent, along with his friend Guildenstern, to find out his intentions. ‘Then is the world one,’ Rosencrantz replies, seeking to deflect the force of Hamlet’s metaphor. But that metaphor actually gains force from Rosencrantz’ parry. Hamlet’s world is, indeed, a prison in the same way that Blake’s London is filled with the sound of ‘mind-forged manacles’. The world a prison?
‘Hamlet: A goodly one in which there are many confines, wards and dungeons, Denmark being one of the worst
Rosencrantz: We think not so, my Lord.’
Indeed not, and by now Rosencrantz can no longer keep up with the game. Thinking in terms of Hamlet’s metaphor would mean submitting to the vision of life it entails. But there is no escape for Rosencrantz back into the literal because Hamlet knows that such literalism is merely a metaphor for a lack of imagination.
‘Hamlet: Why then ‘tis not so to you. There’s no thing good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me ‘tis a prison.’
Unable to cope with Hamlet’s image, Rosencrantz can only protest that if Hamlet’s mind feels trapped in a prison, it must be that the mind is a too big, rather than that the world is too small. He hopes to deny the imaginative necessity of Hamlet’s metaphor, by asserting that the mind can itself be seen in the metaphor’s terms.
‘Rosencrantz: Why then your ambition makes it one; ‘tis too narrow for your mind.’
What he has forgotten is the imaginative priority of Hamlet’s vision. His view of Denmark as a prison is not a whimsical fancy. Hamlet is compelled to view it in that way, because that way of viewing it is more true. Denmark is indeed more like a prison than it is like liberty. Hamlet cannot determine what he imagines, and the imagination cannot offer any consoling solipsistic alternatives to this implacable image:
‘Hamlet: Oh, God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself the King of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.’
Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, that sees the events of Hamlet from the viewpoint of the courtiers seeks to establish their imaginative perplexity as a norm against that the rest of the play should be measured. This is an attempt to read the play as a Becketian irony rather than a Shakespearean tragedy. Hamlet himself is wiser than Stoppard or Becket, Rosencrantz or Guildenstern and when he tells them that the mind makes the difference between tragedy and travesty also implies that the deepest perspective will be found in the deepest mind. This depth is what Hamlet searches for, what he sometimes speaks from, and is the only norm that the play provides. However illusive this quality of consciousness may be, it none the less underlies the sense that the play reveals the significance of the events it describes. This quality is itself an argument against the Becketian meaninglessness of the world of Stoppard’s play. This is why Hamlet is a tragedy and his Tragedy.
If we wish to apprehend the significance of Hamlet we must firstly attempt the difficult task of opening ourselves to the compelling yet vertiginous perspectives that are revealed by its hero. And if we wish to gain an alternative perspective on Hamlet himself we must conduct a similar process of engagement with Ophelia, Polonius, Gertrude and Claudius - indeed, all of the other characters, who possess their own, though lesser subjectivities.
Shakespearean Tragedy remains the crucial imaginative test for any reader, critic, actor, director or theatergoer. The point is not so much the unhappy endings of the protagonists; so much as the intensity that is created by their sufferings. On the basis of this intensity the imaginative significance of those sufferings is revealed through the heroes’ perception and by the context of the play. The test is of one’s ability to apprehend that significance - and it is a test that one inevitably fails.
Hamlet’s mind, like the mind revealed in Macbeth, King Lear, and Othello, is not only too big for Denmark, it is too big for us.
One way that Shakespeare and especially King Lear, is a masterpiece of parallel plotting, in which the protagonists experience is balanced and tested against the experience of others. Lear’s experience is counterpointed with Gloucester’s, underscored by Kent, the Fool and Poor Tom, and mirrored in Edgar’s conflict with Edmund. Lear has a dominating, centripetal presence, and yet the experience of the other characters, even the most minor, is not wholly absorbed into his. Towards the end of the play a soldier is dispatched to murder Cordelia in prison. This is surely a ‘small part’ for an actor, and yet his response intimates a world of experience:
‘I cannot draw a cart
Nor eat dried oats. If it be man’s work, I’ll do it.’
However without the depth of the central characters, all of this perspectivising would leave us with epic rather than tragedy - vast stories told on vast canvasses. We would have something akin to the emphasis in Brecht’s epics on the social context within that individual struggles are enacted. Brecht’s Coriolanus may even be an improvement of Shakespeare’s play of the same name, but this is precisely because of the limitations of Shakespeare’s protagonist, ‘a character without an inside’, in the words of one critic. A Brechtian Macbeth would be a mere shadow because Shakespeare’s play is so profoundly concerned with the hero’s subjective experience.
In seeking to identify the distinctive genius of these plays one may, therefore, look to the tension between the breadth created by the multiplication of perspectives and the depth created by the protagonists’ huge capacity for experience. Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth and Othello each charts the suffering and eventual demise of a central protagonist. This is largely what gives them a more defined focus and there fore a greater intensity than the love tragedies, Romeo and Juliet, and Antony and Cleopatra that have two central characters. Each of the protagonists of the great plays undergoes a journey that makes possible an enlarged understanding of human experience, and any reading of the plays that hopes to learn from that enlarged understanding must seek to follow those journeys. It must explore the imaginative world that the plays create through exploring their suffering.
© Vishvapani, 2006
Buddhism and the Arts: http://web.mac.com/vishvapani/iWeb/writingonbuddhism/Arts.html