Major Themes in Shakespearan Tragedy


Major Themes in Shakespearan Tragedy

What is a tragedy?

A tale of serious and important actions having a disastrous end of the central character is termed as a tragedy in English literature. Most popular themes of it includes murder, revenge, ghosts etc.

Tragedies in English Literature

Tragedies prior to Elizabethan Age were confined to the simple stories of suffering and misfortune, as is evident among the Medieval tragedies narrating the downfall of a person by an unpredictable turn of the wheel of fortune. It was with the Elizabethan Age came the beginning and acme of dramatic tragedy in England, under the influence of the Senecan tragedy. This great period of English tragedy started formally with 'GORBODUC' by Sackville and Nortan in 1562, and witnessed a brief flowering period between 1585 and 1625 in the hands of Marlowe, Kyd, Shakespeare, George Chapman, Webster, Sir Francis Beaumont, John Fletcher and Philip Massinger.

Shakespearean Tragedy

Shakespeare occupied an unrivalled place as a dramatist with the best tragedies of all time. Shakespeare had to his credit nine remarkable tragedies- 'Hamlet' , 'Othello', 'King Lear', 'Macbeth', 'Julius Caesar', 'Romeo and Juliet', 'Antony and Cleopatra', 'Timon of Athens' and 'Coriolanus' .

Themes of Shakespearan Tragedy

Shakespeare's tragedy is concerned with the fate of persons of high degree often with king or princes and with leader in the state, like Coriolanus, Brutus and Antony. Shakespeare in his tragedies made conspicuous persons suffered so that the tragedy may have powerful effects on the readers mind.

Shakespearean tragedy is pre-eminently the story of one person, the hero, or the utmost of the two, the hero and the heroine. The concentration is on these central characters, of which the heroine had a better end. The story led up to and includes the death of the hero.
The suffering and calamity are always of exceptional characters. The hero has to pass through thorns of pain and suffering, represented through an abnormal conditions of mind such as insanity as in the case of Lear, hallucinations as in the case of Macbeth and so on. Thus, Hamlet in the state of his vacillation is literally on the rack. Othello in the disturbed state of mind finds a house divided within himself. King Lear in the afflicted state of his insanity rapes and Macbeth feels the pangs of murdering deep down in the heart. These abnormal states of the hero and the heroine depends on the gloom of the tragedy.

The cause of tragedy in Shakespeare's plays is some fatal flaw in the character of the hero and the heroine. Shakespeare believed in the principle "character is destiny' for which he made a man responsible for his own actions. In each of his tragedies the hero is presented in the grief of some fatal flaw in his character, which inspite of external circumstances, leads him to his fatal doom.

Shakespeare introduces some form of supernatural agents such as ghosts and witches, which are placed in close relation with the main character. The supernatural agents give a confirmation and inner working of the hero's mind. Thus, the witches in 'Macbeth' and the ghost in 'Hamlet' mould the character of the hero to some extent and prepare him for his tragedy.

In Shakespearean tragedy chance or accident plays an important role in the beginning about the tragic end. For example in 'Romeo and Juliet' it is just a chance that Romeo never got the Fairy's message about the poison and Juliet didn't wake from her long sleep a minute sooner. In 'Hamlet' too it was merely a chance that the pirate ship attacked Hamlet's ship so that the prince was back in Denmark.

In Shakespearean tragedy there is always a conflict and struggle. The conflict takes two forms, firstly, there is the hero with the external circumstances and secondly, the conflict is within the soul of the hero and the heroine. Both the external and internal conflicts have their significance in bringing about the tragedy.


A Shakespearean tragedy, inspite of it's tragic end never depresses us. Though there may be heart rendering suffering for the hero, yet all through it leaves upon us the impression of greatness. Macbeth in the last act of his life redeems his character and makes the readers think highly of him. Thus, the spectacle of Shakespearean tragedy is never depressing.
In this article I have tried to give as much as I acquired during my study on Shakespeare.

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