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What are Shakespeare's Tragedies?

Jessica Ellis
Updated May 23, 2024
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The most famous of all plays, some experts suggest, are William Shakespeare’s tragedies. These plays were written throughout his entire career, beginning with one two of his earliest plays, Titus Andronicus and Romeo and Juliet. Between 1600-1607, a period that coincided with the end of the glittering Elizabethan age and the rise of the Stuart Monarchy, Shakespeare wrote seven more tragic works: Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra, Timon of Athens, and Troilus and Cressida.

Shakespeare’s tragedies can be divided into two distinct groups. The love, or “heart,” tragedies of Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra and Othello, involve a pair of lovers torn apart by fate and society. In these three plays, the main characters are not masters of their own destiny, but pawns pulled along toward death or permanent separation by forces beyond control. Othello and Troilus and Cressida are considered by some experts to be borderline heart/head tragedies, as they combine elements of both genres.

The remaining “head” tragedies are defined by their relationship to Greek philosopher Aristotle’s theories of dramatic tragedy. They feature a fatally-flawed protagonist fully capable of free will who unfortunately has his good traits overcome by ego. The hero of Shakespeare’s tragedies is always faced with opportunities for redemption, but never is able to take them in time, leading almost always to death.

Hamlet, and Macbeth both revolve around themes of when and under what circumstances it is correct to seize power. Hamlet, faced with the knowledge that his uncle the king is a traitor and murderer, is still unable to convince himself to take any action, from suicide to regicide. Macbeth is fully aware that King Duncan is a good man and king, but allows prophecy and his own ambition to convince him to kill Duncan and take the throne. Both characters ignore their moral impulses and take the path to their own deaths.

The aging and possibly insane king undertakes a completely different tragic journey in King Lear. In this play, Lear gives away or loses his throne, land, shelter, and even clothes after he fatally misjudges his youngest daughter, Cordelia. King Lear is often considered the most tragic of Shakespeare’s tragedies, as Lear ultimately redeems himself, only to suffer the death of Cordelia and himself.

The bloodiest of Shakespeare’s tragedies is his earliest, Titus Andronicus, believed to have been written in the 1590s. Titus Andronicus involves a Roman general who sacrifices the son of a defeated enemy. This begins a cycle of vengeful acts, ending with Titus’ daughter having her hands cut off and tongue cut out, and her attackers baked in a pie and served to their mother. Titus Andronicus is not typical of Shakespeare’s style in any other plays, and is often considered by experts to be Shakespeare’s attempt to write an Elizabethan Revenge Play, a popular style in his youth.

Timon of Athens is perhaps the least known of Shakespeare’s tragedies. It involves a Greek misanthrope, Timon, who loses all of his money and chooses to blame the city, rather than himself. Timon dies in the wilderness after paying a rebel to continue his assault on Athens. This play is generally disliked by scholars, and some even believe it may be the result of a poor collaboration between Shakespeare and another author.

Shakespeare’s tragedies usually share several features. Most begin in an ordered society and move toward chaos, as the hero allows his flaws to rule him. Often, this chaotic change is reflected in the natural world, with storms and strange mists being characteristic. Most importantly, the plays feature heroes whom audiences can identify with and feel sorry for. The protagonist of Shakespeare’s tragedies are not villains or saints but generally good people destroyed by their own ego or ill fate.

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Jessica Ellis
By Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis brings a unique perspective to her work as a writer for Language & Humanities. While passionate about drama and film, Jessica enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics, creating content that is both informative and engaging for readers.
Discussion Comments
By ellis — On Sep 20, 2010

Excellent point, krisl. Several of the history plays are certainly tragic in nature. Shakespearean scholars tend to call the plays that concern England's royal lineage the "histories," although two, Macbeth and King Lear, are not classified as such, probably because they are based on legends rather than direct relations to the English throne. Richard III is about an established event in English history, therefore scholastically considered a history first and a tragedy second.

By krisl — On Sep 19, 2010

I've always found it strange that Shakespeare's Richard III is only ever classified as a history play. It is as tragic and brutal as any of his other tragedies. I guess because it concerns known historical events (though who can be sure how accurate Shakespeare's telling is) it is most easily slotted into the historical plays category. Richard III is as tragic as a play can get. Almost everyone that has a role in the play gets killed by the manipulative title character. Richard III himself also fits very neatly into the framework of the "tragic hero". His selfish decisions lead to his own downfall in the end, despite the fact that he thinks he is trying to do good for his kingdom by taking the throne.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis...
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