Shakespearean Tragedy – Meaning and Elements

What is a Tragedy?
The word tragedy was derived from the Greek word tragoidia, which means ‘the song of the goat.’ It is called “the song of the goat” because in ancient Greece the theatre performers used to wear goat – skin costumes to represent satyrs. Today in theatre and literature a tragedy is a work that has an unhappy ending. The ending must include the main character’s downfall.

Shakespearean Tragedy

The term “Shakespearean tragedy” refers to the majority of tragedies produced by the playwright William Shakespeare. Many of his history plays have the characteristics of a Shakespearean tragedy, yet they were categorised as “histories” in the First Folio since they are based on historical individuals from England’s past. Although the Roman plays—Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus—are also based on real characters, they are nearly always regarded as tragedies rather than histories due to their source stories being foreign and ancient. Shakespeare’s romances (tragicomic plays) were written in the latter stages of his career and were initially released as either tragedy or comedy. They contain aspects of tragedy due to the presence of a prominent focal figure, yet conclude happily, as Shakespearean comedies do. Several hundred years after Shakespeare’s death, scholar F.S. Boas coined a fifth category, the “problem play,” for works that do not fit neatly into any of the previous four categories due to their subject matter, setting, or ending. Certain Shakespeare plays continue to be classified differently by experts.


When Shakespeare was writing, the English Renaissance was fueled by a resurgence of interest in Roman and Greek classics, as well as surrounding renaissance literature written in Italy, France, and Spain years earlier. Shakespeare authored the majority of his tragedies during James I’s reign, and their darker themes may reflect both the country’s general mood following Elizabeth I’s death and James’ theatrical preferences. Shakespeare, like other playwrights of his day, drew inspiration for his plays from history, other plays, and non-dramatic literature. Because there was no copyright or protection against plagiarism in Elizabethan England, characters, themes, and even entire lines of poetry were considered common property. With the exception of Romeo and Juliet and Othello, which are based on Giraldi Cintio’s narrative fictions, the majority of Shakespeare’s plays are based on historical persons.


Shakespeare’s Roman plays are based on Plutarch’s The Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans, but his British plays including Hamlet (based on the Danish Prince Amleth) are based on Holinshed’s Chronicles. Additionally, in 1582, the French author Belleforest published The Hystorie of Hamblet, Prince of Denmarke, which details everything from how the prince pretended to be insane to how he stabbed and killed the King’s counsellor who was eavesdropping on Hamlet and his mother behind the arras in the Queen’s chamber. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regium Britanniaec. 1135 was followed by John Higgin’s poem The Mirror for Magistrates in 1574, as well as Holinshed’s Chronicles in 1587. Certain events in Shakespeare’s King Lear were inspired by various parts of Philip Sydney’s Arcadia (1590), while Edgar’s “poor Tom” senseless musings heavily resemble Samuel Harsnett’s 1603 book, A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impersonations.

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Tragedies from these ages traced its philosophical roots to Senecan tragedy, which is based on nobles who suffer from a tragic fault or commit a severe blunder (hamartia) that results in their fortunes being reversed (peripeteia). (However, some critics have contended that Shakespeare’s tragic figures lack the “pseudo-Aristotelian” concept of the tragic fault. Revenge tragedy was also gaining popularity during this period, as demonstrated by Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Additionally, plays of this era were largely secular, in contrast to religious morality plays, which were forbidden by Elizabeth I at the time. The usage and popularity of violence and murder on stage was a clear distinction between English renaissance dramas and the classics that inspired them.

Elements of Shakespearean Tragedy

Shakespearean tragedy has got its own specific features, which distinguish it from other kinds of tragedies. It must be kept in mind that Shakespeare is mostly indebted to Aristotle’s theory of tragedy in his works. The elements of a Shakespearean tragedy are discussed below.


1. Tragic Hero


One of the most important elements of a Shakespearean tragedy is the tragic hero. This style of tragedy is essentially a one-man performance. It tells the storey of one or two characters. The hero might be either male or female, and he or she must suffer as a result of a weakness in character, fate, or both. The hero has to be the most tragic character in the drama. A Shakespearean tragedy, according to Andrew Cecil Bradley, a famous 20th century Shakespeare scholar, “is essentially a tale of suffering and calamity leading to death.” (Typically, the hero must meet death at the end.)

One distinguishing feature of the tragic hero is that he or she is a towering figure in his or her state/kingdom/country. This individual is from the upper crust of society and holds a high position, sometimes one of royalty. Tragic heroes are monarchs, princes, or military generals who hold great importance in the eyes of their subjects. Take, for example, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark; he is clever, well-educated, social, charming, and philosophical. The hero is such a significant figure that his or her death causes widespread upheaval, unrest, and catastrophe. When Hamlet seeks vengeance for his father’s death, he not only murders his uncle but also invites his own death at the hands of Laertes. As a direct result of his death, Fortinbras’ army invades Denmark to seize power.

2. Good Versus Evil

Shakespeare’s tragedies depict the clash of good and evil. The majority of them are concerned with evil’s supremacy over good. According to Edward Dowden, a notable nineteenth-century poet and literary critic, ” “Tragedy as conceived by Shakespeare is concerned with the ruin or restoration of the soul and of the life of man. In other words, its subject is the struggle of Good and Evil in the world.” In Shakespeare’s plays, evil is depicted in such a way that its existence is assumed to be an unavoidable and eternal fact. For instance, in Hamlet, the reader is led to believe that something heinous would undoubtedly happen to Denmark (foreshadowing). While the reader is aware of the approaching evil, the play’s common folk are often clueless.

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The mob in Julius Caesar is oblivious of King Caesar’s internal conflict between good and evil. Additionally, they are unaware of Cassius’s stealthy and cunning motives. In Shakespeare’s tragedies, good always triumphs over evil. Goodness is defeated by evil. This is because evil is constantly concealed, whereas goodness is always apparent and open to all. Due to his righteousness, the protagonist (the most devout and upright figure in the tragedy) is tasked with conquering the supreme evil. As a result of his fatal fault, he suffers tremendously and eventually fails.

3. Hamartia

Hamartia is the Greek word for “sin” or “error,” and it comes from the verb hamatanein, which means “to err” or “to miss the mark.” In other terms, hamartia is the tragic defect of the hero. Another crucial element of a Shakespearean tragedy is the use of irony. Each hero perishes as a result of a character defect. I will refer to A. C. Bradley again here, who asserts, “The calamities and catastrophe follow inevitably from the deeds of men and the main source of these deeds is character.” The hero falls from a great height as a result of the fatal fault, which almost always results in his/her unavoidable death.

Hamlet provides a good illustration of hamartia, as Hamlet’s faulty judgement and inaction ultimately result in his premature demise. Procrastination is a weakness of his. He discovers numerous possibilities to assassinate his uncle but fails due to his indecisive and delaying personality. He consistently postpones action. He discovers a chance to murder Claudius when he is praying in one instance. Nonetheless, Hamlet passes up a great opportunity to accomplish his purpose, claiming that he does not wish to murder a man while praying. He wishes to assassinate Claudius while he is engaged in a sinful behaviour. This perfectionism, inaction, and ambiguity about the proper route finally end in Hamlet’s death and lead Denmark into turmoil.

4. Tragic Waste

The hero frequently perishes alongside his adversary in Shakespearean dramas. A hero’s death is not an ordinary death; it signifies the passing of an unusually intellectual, honest, intelligent, heroic, and moral individual. When good is annihilated with evil in a tragedy, the resulting loss is referred to as a “tragic waste.” A tragic waste of goodness is a constant feature of Shakespearean tragedy. Hamlet is the epitome of tragic squandered waste. Even though Hamlet succeeds in purging Denmark of evil, he does so at the cost of his own life. In this instance, both the good and the bad (Hamlet) are destroyed (Claudius). Neither of them has a chance of victory. Rather than that, they co-fail.

5. Conflict

Another essential element of a Shakespearean tragedy is conflict. Conflicts can be divided into two types:

External Conflicts

External conflict is a recurring theme in Shakespeare’s dramas. External conflict contributes to the tragic hero’s interior conflict. Every tragic hero in a Shakespearean play must resolve external conflicts. External conflict, for example, confronts Hamlet in the form of his uncle, Claudius. He must avenge his uncle, but Hamlet is incapable of doing so due to his uncle’s cunning and tight security. External conflict causes internal conflict, impeding Hamlet’s ability to act.

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Internal Conflicts

Internal conflict is a necessary component of a Shakespearean tragedy. This is a reference to the hero’s mental anguish. Along with fate or destiny, internal conflict contributes to the hero’s downfall. The tragic hero is perpetually confronted with a moral quandary. Frequently, he is incapable of making a choice, which ultimately leads to his failure. Once again, Hamlet serves as an excellent illustration. He is often a doer, but his uncertainty and frequent philosophical musings provide a roadblock to action throughout the play. Hamlet us internal conflict is what motivates him to spare Claudius’ life while he prays.

6. Catharsis

Catharsis is an exceptional characteristic of a Shakespearean tragedy. It alludes to the audience’s pent-up emotions being cleansed. In other words, through the use of tragedy, Shakespeare’s tragedies assist the audience in experiencing and releasing emotions. When we observe a tragedy, we develop an emotional attachment to the characters and feel their pain. A Shakespearean tragedy enables us to empathise with one character and fear for another, almost as if we were performing the roles ourselves. We empathise with the hero because of his difficulties. We feel fury toward the villain because of his brutal crimes. When a hero such as Hamlet dies, tears well up. Simultaneously, we feel terrible for Hamlet and relieved that Claudius has been punished appropriately.

7. Supernatural Elements 

Elements of the supernatural are another critical component of a Shakespearean tragedy. They contribute significantly to the aura of awe, wonder, and, occasionally, dread. Typically, supernatural elements are used to advance the storyline and advance the storey. Hamlet’s encounter with the ghost is critical in igniting internal conflict. The ghost informs Hamlet that his father has been murdered by his uncle Claudius and charges him with avenging him. Similarly, in Macbeth, the witches play a pivotal role in the plot. These witches are responsible for Macbeth resorting to murder in order to rise to Scotland’s throne.

8. Absence of Poetic Justice 

Poetic Justice is a term that refers to a situation in which good is rewarded and evil is punished; it refers to a situation in which everything works out properly and justly. Shakespeare’s tragedies are devoid of poetic justice; rather, these works contain merely a semblance of justice. Shakespeare recognised that outside of fiction, poetic justice is an uncommon occurrence. Good deeds frequently go unrecognised, whereas immoral individuals frequently enjoy life to the fullest. The concept of “do good and have good” was regarded as outmoded during Shakespeare’s lifetime, which is why his tragedies lack poetic justice. Together with evil, good is crushed. Along with Claudius, Hamlet perishes.

9. Comic Relief 

Our final critical component is levity. When it came to composing tragedies, Shakespeare did not follow his classical forefathers. Neither the Greeks nor the Romans used comic relief. Shakespeare, on the other hand, desired to ease the reader’s tension and lighten the mood on occasion. The gravedigger scene in Hamlet, the drunken port scene in Macbeth, and the fool in King Lear are just a few instances of comedic relief sequences.

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