Introduction to Shakespeare Studies
[A lecture prepared for English 366: Studies in Shakespeare, by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University College, Nanaimo, BC (now Vancouver Island University). This text is in the public domain, released June 1999. It was last revised August 1, 2000 and again in December 2000. For a list of other Shakespeare lectures, click here.]
Welcome to English 366: Studies in Shakespeare. In the next three months we have the delightful prospect of studying together a selection of works by William Shakespeare, without question the presiding genius of English literature and the most famous and popular writer in the history of the world’s literature. The time we have available is all too short, but I hope we can make the best use of it, so that we emerge from this course with a richer appreciation of some of the qualities that have earned Shakespeare his reputation, together with a strong desire to maintain a study of his work in the years to come. In that sense, this course is designed as an introduction (and an inadequate one, at that) to a much longer study.
In this lecture, I wish to undertake three matters: first, to introduce and review the organization of the course, second, to offer a very quick historical introduction to Shakespeare’s works, and, third, to present an introduction to some important matters relevant to the first plays we will be studying. I’m going to be going through a great deal of material here, but we have a lot to get through, so we might as well hit the ground running.
A Lover’s Complaint
But first a commercial digression. For reasons which are too complex to explain fully here, the formal study of Shakespeare’s work in the Malaspina English department is limited to one semester, on the principle that all upper-division courses should get equal time because they are all equally important. To my old-fashioned way of thinking, that principle is foolish, since the works of Shakespeare are far more central to English literature than anything else and thus deserve far more sustained attention in the curriculum. In the tradition in which I was educated, all students concentrating on English studied Shakespeare for three years and were rigorously examined on their knowledge of the complete works. The idea was that people presenting themselves to the world as graduates in English studies or as would-be teachers of English must have, as a first requirement, a thorough familiarity with the single greatest achievement of any English writer.
That view is no longer current in many quarters, alas. In the past fifteen years, as the popularity of Shakespeare continues to grow outside the university, inside many institutions of higher learning his stock has in some places declined, so that a detailed familiarity with the works of the world’s greatest writer is, in many cases, no longer required of students in English departments. Among the reasons for this, as I’m sure you are aware, is the historical fact that Shakespeare was a European white male who died many years ago. Privileging his work is thus (by some chop logic or other) culturally oppressive, and he must be presented on a menu where everyone and everything has equal billing. I understand that at Malaspina it is possible to graduate with a degree in English without ever having studied Shakespeare at all. And a student who is motivated to study Shakespeare is permitted only one semester of credit for immersing herself in the single most important reason for studying the subject at all. This strikes me as somewhat the same as allowing someone to graduate in Biology without ever having had to understand or deal with the concept of evolution. But, as I say, I digress.
Given enough time, the best way to study Shakespeare is to read through the works chronologically, so that, over time, all his separate works become, in effect, one huge work, a house with many mansions. That is a project I hope that some of you will undertake soon enough, and the principal aim of this course is to motivate you to do so and to provide some initial interpretative assistance for such a journey. For, make no mistake about it, if you are setting yourself up as some sort of specialist in English literature and criticism, either as a teacher or writer, then, as I have mentioned already, the single most essential qualification is a thorough familiarity with Shakespeare’s works. There are all sorts of reasons for this. Among the most important are that Shakespeare’s work sets the standard by which we assess other writers, that Shakespeare’s influence on writers after him is pervasive and all-important (especially, let it be noted, among third-world writers), and that his presence in the world’s popular culture has never been stronger. To these reasons we can add the most important of all: that Shakespeare’s work is capable of generating the most intense imaginative delight and wonder in the reader or spectator. If we ever want to know more about the full imaginative potential of literature, we will most readily find it in the works of William Shakespeare.
English 366: Organizing Principles
Since we have only one semester, we have time to read only a few of the works, and this fact presents the problem of selection. On what principle can we choose one work over another? There are a number of options, from a random selection to some feeble attempt at a chronological coverage, among others.
In order to resolve this issue, I decided that it might be appropriate to select different types of plays so that we can together explore one of the most astonishing features of Shakespeare’s genius, the variety in his dramatic presentation of human actions. As most of you probably know already, Shakespeare’s work is usually divided up into three major groups: comedies, histories and tragedies (often the group consists of four types: comedies, histories, tragedies, and last plays). The reading material here invites us to sample plays from each of these traditional categories.
Thus, the major organizing principle of the plays we will be discussing will be this generic division. We will start by examining two history plays: Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry V, both taken from a sequence of plays known as the Second History Cycle. Then we will move on to look at two of Shakespeare’s greatest comedies, As You Like It and Twelfth Night. Following these comedies, we will look at three tragedies, Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth. And we will conclude our study with one of the last plays, The Tempest.
To start with we will deal with the plays in pairs, spending about three weeks on each pair. So in the next three weeks we shall be looking at the two history plays, and in the three weeks after that the two comedies. We will slow down temporarily in dealing with Hamlet and King Lear, spending two weeks on each play. That will leave us with one week for Macbeth and one week for the Tempest, with one week to use as we see fit.
This timetable will still mean that we do not spend nearly enough time on any particular play, but if we remember that the purpose of this course is not to “do” Shakespeare (that is, to pretend that we have dealt with any play conclusively) but rather to whet the appetite for further study, then we may be able to tolerate a certain superficiality of treatment. If this proposed structure proves unworkable we shall discuss ways to alter it. But for the moment it remains the basic organizing principle.
A Note on the Style of Learning in English 366
I would like to stress at the outset in the strongest possible terms that the sole aim of this course is to read, re-read, discuss, and interpret Shakespeare’s texts. We will be spending virtually no time on anything else, that is to say, on matters dealing with the historical context of Shakespeare’s life and times, the history of Shakespearean productions, the traditions of Shakespeare criticism, in short, on anything which does not directly involve reading the text and responding to it. I will be making various recommendations and observations about some of these matters, but the only work required of students is dealing with the plays in the above list (and some selected sonnets).
The major reason for having seminars as the important forum for the class is that they foster the only form of criticism which is really useful for learning about interpreting Shakespeare (or any other great writer’s work): conversational exchanges among informed participants. The seminar process is inevitably slow, often digressive, and for some students very challenging. But we use it because the learning that takes place in seminars is vastly superior to the learning that takes place in lectures.
Difficult as it is for me to believe that you would not all much prefer to listen to my voice droning on for three consecutive hours every week, I have to face the fact that students learn far more about literary interpretation from listening to each other, putting their own views forward, and, in general, continuing a conversational approach to complex texts. Moreover, it is well known that students retain far more of what they learn in such a setting than from a lecture format.
[Students who would like some advice on seminar participation and a further explanation of how this element in the course is assessed should consult the document on the instructor’s home page called “Participating in Seminars.”]
The lectures, which form a less important component of the course, will tend to present a “big picture” summary picture of the plays we are studying. They are designed primarily to offer a map which points out the major features of the work and which explores a few interpretative possibilities and alternatives. They will not attempt to duplicate the close reading and discussion of the seminars. The texts of all the lectures will be made available on the instructor’s home page. In most cases, the text of the lecture will contain more material than the instructor gets through in the one hour in class session. Students may make use of these texts as they wish; the material is not compulsory reading.
What this pedagogy means, in practice, is that the research component of this course is relatively unimportant. Students are expected to put most of their effort into preparing for the seminar discussions by reading the texts, participating in the seminars, and reflecting on the experience afterwards. The major writing assignments in the course, the essay and the seminar notes, do not require extensive research. They are, by contrast, intended to encourage students to explore their own unmediated responses to Shakespeare’s text. Of course, some students will want to dip into various secondary sources. I would encourage you to do that only as a means of fostering or jump-starting your own awareness of what is going on in a text. Do not, under any circumstances, so immerse yourselves in all the secondary material (and there is a huge amount of it) that you are losing your own contact with the text, spending more time reading what other people have said about a text than what Shakespeare actually wrote.
By way of informing students about the interpretative methodology of English 366, I have prepared a couple of documents which are posted on my home page (“On Scholarship and Literary Interpretation” and “Critical Approaches to Shakespeare: Some Initial Observations”). If you would like a further explanation of why we are proceeding as we are, then you might well look these over. If you do not have time at the moment, you might like to print them off and read them later.
William Shakespeare: A Quick Overview
Before we settle down to some particular matters, it might be useful to offer something like a historical overview, so that we can see where the relatively few works we are studying fit into the grand scheme of the complete works. So I would like now to move to a rapid and cursory factual outline of Shakespeare and his work.
William Shakespeare was born in 1564 in the provincial market town of Stratford-Upon-Avon, in south-central England, to a middle-class family. His father was a business man, a glover, who was a respectable and, for a time, prosperous citizen. He owned property and held public office. Shakespeare’s mother, Mary Arden, came from a well-established and respected family.
Shakespeare grew up in Stratford, and in 1582 (at age 18) he married Anne Hathaway (age 26). Their first child, Susanna, was born on May 26, 1583, and two years later, twins were born to the couple: Hamnet and Judith. The record of these births is the last official evidence we have of Shakespeare’s life until we hear of him in London as a successful playwright in 1592, some seven years later.
The gap in the record is called the Lost Years, and it has provided scholars an apparently insoluble puzzle. When and how did Shakespeare become a playwright? When did he go to London? What exactly did he do in these obviously important formative years from age twenty to twenty-seven? There have been all sorts of suggestions, ranging from the idea that Shakespeare worked as a schoolteacher or tutor in a well-connected family to the proposal that he sailed around the world with Francis Drake (the dates are not quite right here, but who could resist such a romantic idea?). An enormous industry has arisen trying to penetrate this puzzle. But no definitive clue has turned up to resolve the problem. Given the scholarly energy thrown at this problem, the total silence is very strange.
At any rate, from 1592 on, when we first hear of Shakespeare as a successful playwright in London, there are frequent and regular references to Shakespeare and his works in various legal and publication records. He worked as an actor, producer, playwright, and chief shareholder of a company called the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. This company built its own theatre on the South Bank of the Thames (the Globe Theatre), which has recently been restored as a working theatre (in a slightly different location). Near the end of Shakespeare’s working life, the company acquired royal patronage (becoming the King’s Men) and began using another theatre, this time one which made indoor productions possible.
After twenty years as a working professional in London, Shakespeare evidently retired and returned to Stratford in 1611 or 1612, where he died in 1616 at the age of 56. He was buried in the local church. The first edition of his collected works (some of which had appeared separately) was put together by London friends and colleagues and appeared in 1623 (this is the so-called First Folio, in which many plays appeared in print for the first time).
This historical record of Shakespeare’s life is quite detailed but infuriatingly insufficient to give one any sense of the personality of the man. None of the historical record includes a personal communication to or from Shakespeare, a reliable anecdote, or even a well authenticated likeness (in words or pictures). Thus, we have no way of knowing anything about the character or the daily life of the man. Given the amount of scholarly digging which has gone on for generations, this absence is remarkable. But it is so.
However, this historical cloud undoubtedly has an interpretative silver lining, for the total absence of personal information means that the form of very misleading but popular interpretation which insists that we must understand the text exclusively as a commentary upon the life is impossible to pursue with much conviction (not that that stops some critics from making the attempt).
There are a number of legends and stories about Shakespeare which have persisted, like the tale that he had a bastard son (Sir William Davenant) or the amusing story about his visiting at night a lady who had made a rendezvous with Richard Burbage (the chief actor in the company, famous for his Richard III), making love to the woman in the dark, and then, when Burbage appeared, leaping up with the words “William the Conqueror came before Richard the third!” These and other stories, however much we might like to believe them, are quite unreliable. Many can be traced back only to a period many years after Shakespeare’s death.
The Complete Works
What we do have--and what really matters in this story--is the collection of Shakespeare’s works, an astonishing achievement. I would like to focus on a chronological catalogue of the complete works for a while in order to provide something of a map for us in the coming weeks. I have attached the list I am going to be discussing to the course outline.
Comedy of Errors
Prince of Tyre
Date Written (Est. Range)
There are a number of noteworthy things about this list which I would like us to dwell upon for a moment.
The first obvious point is the amazing volume of output, thirty-seven plays and many poems in a period of about twenty years, while at the same time Shakespeare was acting, managing, producing, and helping to administer a thriving professional business. The second obvious point is the variety, everything from intense lyric poems, to witty mythological narrative poems, to farcical and robust and ironic and pastoral comedies, passionately moving tragedies, and historical chronicle plays, a wonderful variety of styles, unmatched in the output of any other playwright. From ancient classical times on there has been a view that no one writer could successfully work in such different forms as comedy and tragedy. Shakespeare’s work puts paid to that notion, and any other idea that the particular form a writer of genius selects to work in need be somehow a limitation on other similar forms.
However, the most astonishing feature of this list of the collected works is the quality. Quite apart from the plays, this list contains several of the greatest poems ever written in English. In fact, if Shakespeare had never written a single play, he would still be considered the major English poet on the strength of the quality of some of the non-dramatic verse. However, it is certainly not the case that everything Shakespeare wrote is a masterpiece. Some of the plays are clearly inferior to the others, and some have given rise to sustained hostile criticism; for example, the Henry VI plays, Titus Andronicus, and Cymbeline, and a few of the sonnets have often been called poor by any standard. But the sustained excellence of the best of Shakespeare’s work almost defies our sense of the limits of what is possible.
I will be coming back to this list in a moment, but it is now time briefly to explore a major digression which has teased historical scholars (amateur and professional) about this list, namely, the question how any one person, least of all a relatively uneducated provincial son of a small-town merchant, a writer who, good heavens, never even attended university, could have possibly produced these works
The Authorship Question
The almost miraculous achievement of the works in the above list has been the chief factor prompting theories that someone other than William Shakespeare, the citizen of Stratford, must have been the author, someone with a university education or a wider experience of the world or a much richer cultural background. You will no doubt have all heard something of the never-ending debates on this question, between the Stratfordians (defenders of Shakespeare) and the anti-Stratfordians (those proposing some other author).
It needs to be emphasized as strongly as possible that there is no hard evidence for any of these rival claimants, unless we agree that the Collected Works could not have been produced by someone with Shakespeare’s background (which seems an entirely illegitimate assumption). Whoever wrote the plays was clearly an extraordinary genius, so any assumptions about what we might or might not expect on the basis of normal background and experiences is moot. Let me cite one well known and remarkable fact: Shakespeare’s working vocabulary of approximately 25,000 words. By comparison, the major writer of the seventeenth century who comes next for the size of his working vocabulary, Milton, an immensely well-educated and well-read scholar, had a working vocabulary of about 12,000 words. And most major writers have working vocabularies far smaller than that. This fact suggests strongly that whoever wrote the plays cannot be assessed by an ordinary yardstick (although, one should note, this claim about Shakespeare’s extraordinary vocabulary has been contested).
The lack of hard evidence for any rival authors has forced the Anti-Stratfordians to use their ingenuity, and so there has been no shortage of elaborate “proofs” in favour of this candidate or another (Christopher Marlowe, who didn’t really die but wrote the plays abroad, the Earl of Oxford, Queen Elizabeth I, Francis Bacon, and so on; even Edward VI, who history tells us died when Elizabeth was still very young, has been proposed as the author). I will not bore or confuse you with the details (some of which you can check out for yourself on the Internet, if you are so inclined), but I do want to mention my favorite piece of evidence (as a sample of the nature of the debate).
Defenders of Francis Bacon make much of a long nonsense Latin word which appears in Love’s Labour’s Lost: honorificabilitudinitatibus. This, so the argument goes, is an anagram for the Latin expression: hi ludi F. Bacon nati tuiti orbi (“these plays, born from F. Bacon, are preserved for the world”). To this argument the Stratfordians reply with the title of the play written shortly after Love’s Labour’s Lost, in the original spelling, Much Adoe About Nothing which can be unpacked to read, “Bacon? O naught due to him.”
These sorts of arguments are on par with the famous “proof” that Shakespeare must have written the King James Version of the Bible. The evidence is as follows: in Psalm 46, the 46th word from the start is “shake” and the 46th word from the end is “spear.” And the King James Version was published in the year Shakespeare was 46. Quod erat demonstrandum. The interesting question about such proofs, of course, is not that they establish anything about the authorship question but that anyone could spend time coming up with them.
Shakespeare’s Collected Works: The Chronological Development
For our purposes a particularly interesting feature of the list of Shakespeare’s Complete Works is what it reveals about Shakespeare’s development as an artist. For it is possible to recognize very clear stages in the development of his art (these are indicated in the chart by the blank lines in certain places). I wish to review these stages now, playing some attention to where the plays we will be studying belong. I should stress that I have drawn these lines in myself and the positions are somewhat arbitrary, but they serve to bring out some major points about Shakespeare’s development.
Shakespeare began his writing career in the very early 1590’s at a time when the theatre was flourishing in London and had developed, in the hands of Shakespeare’s predecessors, some very popular genres. If we look at the first group of plays (from The Comedy of Errors to Two Gentlemen of Verona, approximately from 1590 to 1593) we can see that the list is dominated by comedies and historical chronicles. This feature is not surprising. If the first task of an ambitious young professional writer is to make his mark quickly, then the most obvious resources available are the already popular forms of art.
So we see here plays very closely patterned on popular classical originals (e.g., The Comedy of Errors, derived from the eternally popular Latin playwright Plautus) and historical chronicle plays appealing to the intensely patriotic fervor of the English audience (whose jingoistic feelings had reached an apogee of sorts in 1588 with the defeat of the Spanish Armada). This period we can, with some justification, call Shakespeare’s apprenticeship, where he is learning the craft. Some of the plays, by the standard of his later works, seem very crude (both in style and content). The Henry VI plays feature a sometimes bewildering series of battles, many often repetitive and predictable set speeches at key moments, and, in general, an often rather simple vision of experience. Titus Andronicus is the most horrifically violent and rhetorically excessive of all Shakespeare’s plays (featuring gang rape, mutilation, multiple murders, all with a high rhetoric to match--a real pot boiler). Love’s Labour’s Lost is a amazingly witty poetical tour de force, in a poetical style that seems clearly designed to show how skillful the writer can be in the approved verse forms of the day (it may well have been written for a private and very sophisticated audience). And so on.
We are not studying a play from this period, a great shame, given the interest there is in following the development of Shakespeare’s art from the beginning, to get a sense of how he experimented with the prevailing popular genres. Alas, there is insufficient time.
Following the apprenticeship period, we can distinguish a second period, which I call Shakespeare’s early maturity, characterized by a large group of plays, starting with Midsummer Night’s Dream (1594) and ending with Twelfth Night (1600). Here Shakespeare finds his authentic style and produces a rich series of plays, still largely comedies and historical chronicle plays (we will consider the differences between these shortly), but with two tragedies (Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar), both deservedly popular, but, by common consent, somewhat less impressive than the later plays in that genre. In this period, too, many of the sonnets were probably written. It appears, then, that by 1600 Shakespeare has fully hit his stride and is well launched in a professional career. We will be reading four plays from this period: Henry IV, Part 1, Henry V, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night.
What happens next is something of a puzzle. Starting with Hamlet (1601) and continuing until Measure for Measure (1604) we have a series of very troubling plays, full of harsh imagery, baffling ambiguities, and interpretative difficulties. From the robust comic affirmation of, say, As You Like It, which seems to spring from an imagination richly confident about the world’s happiest possibilities, we move to something much more ambiguously bitter (especially where relations between men and women are concerned). We see that same contrast in the sonnets (although these are not organized in a chronological sequence)--some of the most powerfully charged poems celebrating the beauty and joy of love stand side by side with poems despairing about any chance for meaningful love in a deceitful, troubling, and diseased world.
This period has come to be called Shakespeare’s Problem Period and the plays in it the Problem Plays (although the name is used a great deal less nowadays than it used to be). And the sudden change of tone has invited all sorts of biographical speculation. What could have happened to the successful poet-playwright to turn his vision of life so bleak and bitter? How can his vision of human character shift so quickly from, say, Falstaff and Rosalind to, say, Hamlet and Pandarus? We do not know. The death of Shakespeare’s father (in 1601) and of his son Hamnet a few years before might have had something to do with it. The intense love triangle depicted in the sequence of sonnets has prompted some readers to see a torrid, illicit, diseased (perhaps), and frustrating affair as a cause.
The Problem Plays include Hamlet, which we shall be studying and which is famous for the interpretative debates it (and its chief character) have always produced. The other plays in this group have generally been less popular than most of the others until recent decades (if we were undertaking this course 100 years ago, as part of my pedagogical duties I would have to be warning you, especially the ladies, not to read Troilus and Cressida). The increased popularity of the Problem Plays after World War II perhaps indicates that in the ambiguity and emotional confusion we find something particularly appropriate to modern times.
The Problem Period was followed by the most staggering outburst of high-level poetic genius the world has ever seen, Shakespeare’s great tragic period, in which, in the space of about four years, he produced, one right after the other, a sequence of tragedies unequaled in English literature for their power, dramatic intensity, and quality. Whatever had lead to the muddying of Shakespeare’s vision in the problem plays is now swept aside by a profound maturing tragic understanding of the world. From this crucial period we will be studying two plays: King Lear, and Macbeth.
But there is one more final period, that of the so-called Last Plays or (an older title) the Romances. Here again, the change in style is remarkable and wholly unexpected. Shakespeare in these plays returns to the comic vision of life, but with a new style of comedy which stresses somewhat different themes, particularly the importance of learning from experience over time, of retaining faith in one’s fellow human beings, of forgiving. The sense here is of a new mature acceptance of what life has to offer, a feeling that the suffering and loss which life inevitably brings do not therefore make it empty of all possible joys (something strongly brought out in some of the tragedies).
We will be spending very little time with this group of plays (partly because one has to see productions of them to sense their full potential and they lose a lot on the page), but we will be concluding our course with The Tempest, the last play Shakespeare wrote in its entirety.
Histories, Tragedies, and Comedies
Just as I have done in the above discussion, it is common to discuss Shakespeare’s plays in terms of three basic categories: Comedies, Tragedies, and History Plays. This is not a matter Shakespeare appears to have worried about, and the distinction is first made in the First Folio (1623) prepared after his death. So far as we can tell from the titles of his plays published during his lifetime, Shakespeare seems to have had no particular analytical conception of these differences, as a look at some of the names of the plays reveals.
The Tragedy of Richard the Third
The Tragedy of King Richard the Second
The History of King Lear
However, the common distinction has some analytical use, and we shall be exploring some of the distinctions between these three common labels as we proceed. At this time, I simply want to make some observations about the major distinction between comedy and tragedy. This will serve, in part, to outline some interpretative procedures for us to consider.
Dramatic Structure: Comedy and Tragedy
Shakespeare’s plays are all about one great general theme: disorder. This may sound like a profound statement, but, as we shall see in a moment, it applies equally well to almost all drama. Still, the point is worth stressing, for reasons we shall attend to in a moment, because the major entry into every play we read is going to be an attempt to answer some key questions associated with that notion of disorder: What is the order in this society? How is that order violated? How do the characters respond to the loss of traditional order? How is order restored? Is the new order at the end of the play something healthy or is it shot through with ironic resonance?
All dramatic stories always involve conflict. Typically, the dramatic narrative will open with some sense of a normal society: we see people of all kinds going about their business, and in witnessing this initial state of affairs we quickly ascertain the various ranks of people, the bonds which hold them together, and something about their value system. In other words, we begin with a society which is held together by shared rules. Many of Shakespeare’s plays begin with a large group scene (the king and his court, for example) in which everyone has a place and knows his or her place. The scene is offered to us as a symbol of social unity which is about to be broken and will not be restored until the closing scenes (e.g., King Lear, Macbeth, Richard II).
Then, something unusual and often unexpected happens to upset that normality. The event may be something natural, like a ship wreck (as in Twelfth Night or The Tempest), supernatural (as in Macbeth and Hamlet), a decision made by a particular character (as in King Lear or As You Like It) or a sudden quarrel (e.g., As You Like It, Henry IV, Part 1). Often this event which kick starts the action is given very quickly with no attempt to provide a detailed explanation for it or even, in some cases, instantly plausible motivation (e.g., Cordelia’s refusal to answer Lear, Oliver’s decision to seek Orlando’s death). At all events, this upset (which typically occurs very early in the action) disturbs the normal situation, creates confusion and conflict. Such conflict may be the source of much humour (for example, in the various mistaken identities which occur when a set of twins or, as in Comedy of Errors, two sets of twins, unexpectedly get loose in the community), or it may be the source of much political, personal, and psychological torment. Attempts to understand what is going on or to deal with it simply compound the conflict, accelerating it and intensifying it. Finally, the conflict is resolved.
The terms comedy and tragedy commonly refer to the ways in which dramatic conflicts are resolved. In comedy, the confusion ends when everyone recognizes what has been going on, learns from it, forgives, forgets, and re-establishes his or her identity in the smoothly functioning social group (which may return to the original normality or may be setting up a better situation than the one the group started with). Comedies typically end with a group celebration, especially one associated with a betrothal or wedding, often accompanied by music and dancing The emphasis is on the reintegration of everyone into the group, a recommitment to their shared life together. If there has been a clearly disruptive presence in the action, a source of anti-social discord, then that person typically has reformed his ways, has been punished, or is banished from the celebration. Thus, the comic celebration is looking forward to a more meaningful communal life (hence the common ending for comedies: “And they lived happily ever after”).
The ending of a tragedy is quite different. Here the conflict is resolved only with the death of the main character, who usually discovers just before his death that his attempts to control the conflict and make his way through it have simply compounded his difficulties and that, therefore, to a large extent the dire situation he is in is largely of his own making. The death of the hero is not normally the very last thing in a tragedy, however, for there is commonly (especially in classical Greek tragedy) some group lament over the body of the fallen hero, a reflection upon the significance of the life which has now ended. Some of Shakespeare’s best known speeches are these laments. The final action of a tragedy is then the carrying out of the corpse. The social group has formed again, but only as a result of the sacrifice of the main character(s), and the emphasis in the group is in a much lower key, as they ponder the significance of the life of the dead hero (in that sense, the ending of a tragedy is looking back over what has happened; the ending of comedy is looking forward to a joyful future)..
This apparently simple structural difference between comedy and tragedy means that, with some quick rewriting, a tragic structure can be modified into a comic one. If we forget about violating the entire vision in the work (more about this later), we can see how easily a painful tragic ending can be converted into a reassuring comic conclusion.. If Juliet wakes up in time, she and Romeo can live happily ever after. If Cordelia survives, then Lear’s heart will not break; she can marry Edgar, and all three of them can live prosperously and happily for years to come. And so on. Such changes to the endings of Shakespeare’s tragedies were commonplace in eighteenth-century productions, at a time when the tragic vision of experience was considered far less acceptable and popular by the general public.
Comedy and Tragedy as Visions of Experience
But the terms tragedy and comedy refer to more than simply the structure of a narrative (especially the ending). The terms also commonly refer to visions of experience (which those structures present). And this matter is considerably more complex than simply the matter of the final plot twist.
Of the two, the comic vision is easier to explain, since, as we shall see, it corresponds to the way most of us think (or like to think) about life. Stated most simply, the comic vision celebrates the individual’s participation in a community as the most important part of life. When the normal community is upset, the main characters in a comedy will normally have the initial urge to seek to restore that normality, to get back what they have lost. Initially, they will be unsuccessful, and they will have to adapt to unfamiliar changes (funny or otherwise). But in a comedy the main characters will have the ability to adjust, to learn, to come up with the resources necessary to meet the challenges they face. They may also have a great deal of luck. But one way and another, they persevere and the conflict is resolved happily with the reintegration of the characters into a shared community. Often an important point in the comedy is the way in which the main characters have to learn some important things about life (especially about themselves) before being able to resolve the conflict (this is particular true of the men in Shakespeare’s comedies).
This form of story, it will be clear, is an endorsement of the value in the communal life we share together and of the importance of adjusting our individual demands on life to suit community demands. In a sense, the comic confusion will often force the individual to encounter things he or she has taken for granted, and dealing with these may well test many different resources (above all faith, flexibility, perseverance, and trust in other people). But through a final acknowledgment (earned or learned) of the importance of human interrelationships, a social harmony will be restored (commonly symbolized by a new betrothal, a reconciliation between parents, a family reunion, and so on), and a group celebration (feast, dance, procession) will endorse that new harmony.
Tragedy, by contrast, explores something much more complex: the individual’s sense of his own desire to confront the world on his own terms, to get the world to answer to his conceptions of himself, if necessary at the expense of customary social bonds and even of his own life. The tragic hero characteristically sets out to deal with a conflict by himself or at least entirely on his own terms, and as things start to get more complicated, generally the tragic figure will simply redouble his efforts, increasingly persuaded that he can deal with what is happening only on his own. In that sense, tragic heroes are passionately egocentric and unwilling to compromise their powerful sense of their own identity in the face of unwelcome facts. They will not let themselves answer to any communal system of value; they answer only to themselves. Lear would sooner face the storm on the heath than compromise his sense of being horribly wronged by his daughters; Macbeth wills himself to more killings as the only means to resolve the psychological torment he feels; Othello sets himself up as the sole judge and executioner of Desdemona.
Tragic heroes always lose because the demands they make on life are excessive. Setting themselves up as the only authority for their actions and refusing to compromise or learn (except too late), they inevitably help to create a situation where there is no way out other than to see the action through to its increasingly grim conclusion. Hence, for most of us tragic heroes are often not particularly sympathetic characters (not at least in the way that comic protagonists are). There is something passionately uncompromising about their obsessive egoism which will only accept life on their own terms--in a sense they are radically unsociable beings (although they may occupy, and in Shakespeare almost always do occupy, important social positions).
The intriguing question is the following: Why would anyone respond to life this way? That question is very difficult to answer. The tragic response to life is not a rationally worked out position. For any rational person, the comic response to life, which requires compromise in the name of personal survival in the human community (or which sees the whole question of personal identity in social terms), makes much more sense. What does seem clear is that the tragic response to life emerges in some people from a deeply irrational but invincible conviction about themselves. Their sense of what they are, their integrity, is what they must answer to, and nothing the world presents is going to dissuade them from attending to this personal sense of worth. Hence, tragedy is, in a sense, a celebration (if that is the right word) of the most extreme forms of heroic individualism. That may help to explain the common saying “Comedy is for those who think, tragedy for those who feel.”
One way of clarifying this is to think how we construct for ourselves a sense of who we are, of our identity. Most of us do that in terms of social relationships and social activities. In traditional societies, one’s identity is often very closely bound up with a particular family in a specific place. We define ourselves to ourselves and to others as sons, daughters, husbands, wives, members of an academic community or a social or religious group, or participants in a social activity, and so on. In that sense we define ourselves comically (not in a funny way but in terms of a social matrix). The tragic hero is not willing or able to do this (although he or she might not be aware of that inability at first). The tragic personality wants to answer only to himself, and thus his sense of his own identity is not determined by others (they must answer to his conception of himself). Given that his passions are huge and egocentric and uncompromising, the establishment of an identity inevitably brings him into collision with the elemental forces of life, which he must then face alone (because to acknowledge any help would be a compromise with his sense of who he is).
We might also ask why we bother paying such attention to a tragic character. What is there about the tragic response which commands our imaginative respect? After all, many of these characters strike us as very naive and full of their own self-importance (in some ways, perhaps, quite childish), not the sort of people one would like to have as next door neighbours or dinner companions. Incapable of adapting to unexpected changes in life, they often seem so rigid as to defy credibility and curiously blind (a key metaphor in many tragedies). Characteristically, they don’t listen to others, but rather insist that people listen to and agree with them (the pronouns I and me are very frequent in their public utterances--Lear is one of the supreme examples of this tendency).
Why are these people worthy of our attention? We shall have much to explore on this question in dealing with Macbeth and Lear, but for the moment we might observe that we don’t have to like these people particularly in order for them to command our attention. What matters is their willingness to suffer in the service of their own vision of themselves. They have set an emotional logic to their lives, and they are going to see it through, no matter how powerfully their originally high hopes are deceived. They are also, in a sense that we can imaginatively understand, although rarely if ever attain in our own lives, truly free, since they acknowledge no authority other than themselves. Macbeth is a mass murderer (of women and children, among others); no one watching the play will have any sympathy for his bloody actions. And yet as he faces and deals with the grim realities closing in on him, his astonishing clear sightedness, courage, and willingness to endure whatever life loads on him command our respect and attention. The same hold true for Lear, in many ways a foolish father and king and an inflexibly egocentric man, whose sufferings and whose willingness to suffer inspire awe.
Characters in plays, as in life, do not decide to be tragic or comic heroes. What they are emerges as they respond to the unexpected conflict which the opening of the drama initiates. Their response to the dislocation of normality will determine which form their story will take. To the comic hero, undertaking what is necessary for the restoration of normality is important, and that may well require serious adjustments to one’s opinion of oneself, an ability to adopt all sorts of ruses and humiliations (disguise, deceptions, pratfalls, beatings, and so on), a faith in others, and some compromise in the acknowledgment of others. Comic heroes and heroines learn to listen to others and respond appropriately. The tragic hero, by contrast, takes the responsibility fully on himself. In his own mind, he is the only one who knows what needs to be done, and if circumstances indicate that he may be wrong, he is incapable of acknowledging that until it’s too late. His sense of himself is too powerful to admit of change. Tragic heroes do not listen to others, only to themselves (or to others who tell them what they want to hear). People who tell them they are acting foolishly are simply part of the problem.
Tragic heroes and heroines, in other words, do not answer to community morality; they do not accept the conventional vision of things which reassures most of us by providing a group sense of what is most important in life. For that reason (as I shall mention in a moment) the tragic vision is potentially very disturbing, because we are dealing with a character who is not satisfied with traditional group explanations, with the socially reassuring rules and habits, and whose life therefore tears aside momentarily the comforting illusions which serve to justify life to us as a meaningful moral experience.
For that reason inquiring into the motivations of tragic characters is often difficult. Why do they behave the way they do? Why can’t they just be reasonable and act normally? Why doesn’t Lear take up his daughters’ offer? Why doesn’t Othello just ask Desdemona about her “affair” with Cassio? Why does Macbeth kill Duncan? Often we seek simple rational moralistic explanations: Lear is too proud, Othello is too angry, Macbeth is too ambitious. Such simplistic answers (which cater more to our desire for a reassuring reason than to the complex details of the play) are an attempt to cope with the unease which the tragic character can generate.
The critic Murray Krieger has suggested that the comic and tragic visions of experience correspond to the two things we all like to think about ourselves and our lives. Comedy celebrates our desire for and faith in community and the security and permanence that community ensures (if not for us, then for our families). To become cooperating members of the community most of us spend a lot of time educating ourselves, compromising some of the things we would most like in life, and rebounding from disappointments and set backs with a renewed sense of hope (and perhaps some new ways of dealing with things). Tragedy, by contrast, celebrates our desire for individual integrity, for a sense that there are some things which we are not prepared to compromise, even if asserting our individuality fully brings great (even fatal) risks. The tragic hero has this sense to an excessive degree, just as many comic heroes display an astonishing flexibility, adaptability, and willingness to learn and change.
An alternative formulation of this difference (prompted by the writings of Stanley Cavell) might be to characterize it as arising from two different ways of approaching the world we encounter: acceptance or avoidance. The first way accepts the world (including the various explanations of it offered by our culture) and seek to be accepted by it. This response clearly requires us to place ourselves and our thinking within a community (even our challenges to accepted ways of thinking will be directed by how the community allows for such disagreements) and, equally, to limit the demands we make on understanding the world (keeping such demands within conventional boundaries).
The second way (avoidance) is, in some fundamental way, suspicious of, unhappy about, afraid or contemptuous of acceptance, since that means answering to other people, letting them take full measure of us, and limiting our understanding of the world to what is available to us from our surrounding community. This response prompts the individual to powerful self-assertion in a rejection of any compromise in the direction of common social interaction. Hence, this method of encountering the world leads to isolation, suffering, and eventually self-destruction (since the reality of the world can never be known by nor will ever answer to one person’s imagination).
Since one of the most common ways of representing acceptance of the world is human love, that experience is a prominent feature of plays which endorse such acceptance (i.e., comedies). For the same reason, it is a marked feature of much Shakespearean tragedy (starting with Richard III) that the hero suffers from an inability to love or else loses that capacity.
This last point introduces a gender differentiation which is important in Shakespeare (and elsewhere) and raises some important questions about contrasting male and female principles, the former associated with the origins of tragedy in some dissatisfaction with the given world and the latter associated with an acceptance of that world. I don’t propose to pursue that here, but as you read these plays you will see that characteristically Shakespeare associates the drive to impose order (political or personal) on the world with men and measures the nature of this drive often by the way in which it affects (or arises out of) their ability or, rather, inability to love.
For those interested in psychoanalytic origins of behaviour, this distinction, too, offers potential insight. If the fundamental experience of life in men is a separation from and a desire to repossess the mother (Freud’s Oedipal conflict) then we can see in these plays a clear distinction between those who have overcome this separation and integrated themselves into the community happily and those whose life is characterized by a continuing sense of separation from what they sense they most fully need on their own terms. I offer this here as a fertile suggestion which we may take up later on.
By way of clarifying the distinction between the comic and tragic visions further, we might consider the different emotional effects. While the ending of a comedy is typically celebratory, there is always a sense of limitation underneath the joy (how strong that sense is will determine just how ironic the ending of the comedy might be). The human beings have settled for the joys which are possible and are not going to push their demands on life beyond the barriers established by social convention. Hence, comedy, in a sense, always involves a turning away from the most challenging human possibilities. Tragedy, on the other hand, although generally gory and sad in its conclusion, also affirms something: the ability of human beings to dare great things, to push the human spirit to the limit no matter what the consequences. Hence, beneath the sorrowful lament for the dead hero, there often will be a sense of wonder at this manifestation of the greatness of this individual spirit.
This sense of potential sadness or limitation in the conclusion of a comedy may help to account for one of the most intriguing figures in our cultural traditions, the clown with the broken heart, the sad clown, the professional funny man who brings laughter to others because, although he knows that the social order he is serving may be an illusion, it’s all there is between us and the overwhelming and destructive mystery of life. The tradition of the sadly wise professional funny man stems from this awareness: settling for the joys that are possible (like shared laughter) is a way of screening from us the tragic suffering at the heart of life. We see this in at least two of Shakespeare’s most famous clowns: Feste in Twelfth Night and the Fool in King Lear. We also see it, incidentally, in the sad lives of many other famous clowns, fictional and otherwise (Pagliacci, Rigoletto, Tony Hancock).
The comic vision of experience is common to many cultures. Our traditions of comic drama originated with the ancient Greeks, but the form never really had to be reinvented or passed down, because it is a vital element in most dramatic rituals which communities routinely celebrate on important occasions (in harvest pageants, celebrations of spring, and so on). Any pagan culture based upon the cycles of nature which turns to some form of ritualized drama, usually as part of the celebrations associated with an agricultural or hunting festival, will almost certainly produce some form of comedy.
Tragic drama, by contrast, has a very different history. The ancient Greeks developed the vision and the style in a way unheard of in other ancient cultures. And its unique presence there is a tribute to the way this culture originated a preoccupation with the lives of heroic individuals, whose very greatness brings upon them unimaginable suffering and an early death, something very strong in our Western traditions. The Greek tradition of tragic drama was not available to Shakespeare; he knew some of the stories from various sources other than the Greek originals, but had no direct experience of what tragedy really meant to the Greeks. Hence, he had no inherited sense of the full potential of the tragic vision in drama.
A Note on Tragi-Comedy
A third label often applied to the structure of drama, especially in modern times, is tragi-comedy. This label, whatever else it may mean, tends to refer to a dramatic structure in which there is no firm sense of closure. In other words, the dramatic conflict is not resolved, and the audience is left with the sense that the conflict (and the suffering it occasions) will just continue, more or less without end.
This form of a story is (for obvious reasons) generally very pessimistic, since it refuses to confer upon the narrative a distinct ending which will give shape and significance to the action. Hence, the tragic-comic form is quite common in those modern dramas we have come to call collectively the Theatre of the Absurd (Waiting for Godot is the most famous representative of the genre). Since the nature of the ending of an action determines its significance, the absence of a firm ending is one way of evoking strongly a sense of absurdity--the action has no final meaning; it is just going to continue without resolution. Meaningless and eternal conflict is the state of human experience.
Shakespeare’s works do not exemplify this tragic-comic form, with perhaps one very notable exception, Troilus and Cressida, and the particularly bitter tone of that play arises, as much as anything, from the way in which the suffering actions find no final meaning in a tragic or comic conclusion. We are left where we started: in the midst of a war full of betrayal, disease, killing, and pointless debates (full of high rhetoric but not leading to actions which match the lofty language). It’s not surprising perhaps that this play became much more popular in modern times than it had ever been before.
The History Play
The label History Play or Chronicle is sometimes a disputed category. What exactly does the term denote? It seems that a clear sense of the meaning of the term History Play is not something that Shakespeare or his contemporaries shared, since they applied the term freely to all sorts of plays we would now exclude (e.g., Doctor Faustus is called a “tragical history,” The Merchant of Venice “a most excellent history,” the first published versions of Hamlet were termed “tragical history,” the first printed version of King Lear called it a “History”; the second printed version called in a “Tragedy”). Designating some plays as belonging to a specific group called History Plays, as opposed to Comedies and Tragedies, starts only with the publication of the Collected Works after Shakespeare’s death (in the First Folio). Since that time, and especially nowadays, there is a considerable debate about just what the term might mean as an important literary genre in Elizabethan culture and how we should place Shakespeare’s so-called History Plays into the development of that cultural form.
Without going into the arguments scholars wage over this question, we might note that for us the term means nowadays primarily a play (comedy or tragedy) in which the scope of the action is by and large restricted to the political-historical dimension. In other words, in a History Play, the central focus falls squarely on the social and political aspects of the action and characterization and does not explore too deeply any other possibilities raised by the story.
For example, the Henry IV plays are clearly Histories rather than, say, the Tragedy of Bolingbroke or the Happy Comedy of Henry V. The focus in these plays does not permit us to wander far from the political concerns raised by the action. It would have been possible for Shakespeare to take us deep into the personal feelings of guilt which Bolingbroke (Henry IV) has for what he has done to gain the throne and to link his suffering to issues far more profound than the immediate political context. There are many hints that all is not well in Bolingbroke’s mind. However, the play does not take us in that direction; it keeps us firmly on the plane of the political consequences of Bolingbroke’s usurpation, putting at the forefront questions of political power, legitimacy, rebellion, and obligation. For instance, we have no idea when or why Bolingbroke decides to usurp the throne.
Similarly, the “happy” resolution of Prince Hal’s story is kept always in the political realm. By the end of Henry V, the character is little more than the sum total of his political achievements and skills (and there may be a powerful irony in that). What this all means to Henry V as a particular person remains almost entirely hidden. No character in a Shakespeare has a more significant share of a play (Henry speaks approximately one third of the lines of the play), but there is no major character whose personality is more elusive--even though he does address the audience in soliloquies.
This quality of restricting the action and the characterization to the political realm clearly sets the Henry IV plays or Henry V apart from, say, Macbeth and King Lear. These plays also have an important political-historical dimension, but they move far beyond that into the deep personal suffering of the main characters and, through that, into an exploration of matters which leave mere political issues far behind. They are raising issues about the nature of the universe and human life in it, rather than with the state of the political realm at a unique historical moment or specific issue of authority and political power.
Richard II, of all the plays conventionally called History Plays, is the one which probably comes closest to a tragic conclusion. But, here again, the focus tends to be more squarely on the political consequences of Richard’s actions than on their tragic implications.