Monday, August 15, 2016

The Tragedies - Shakespeare

I have, after some time, finally finished writing about Shakespeare's tragedies.  Five of them were covered earlier in the year and I finished the other five later.  The full list (in rough chronological order of writing):

Titus Andronicus
Romeo and Juliet
Julius Caesar
King Lear
Timon of Athens
Antony and Cleopatra

As a set, this is the weightiest of Shakespeare's works.  The Book 'Drama 100' which tries to rank the 100 best plays of all time has no fewer than four of these tragedies in the top seven.  These are the works that Shakespeare is best remembered for. 
I won't try and rank them (though Timon and Coriolanus would be at the bottom if I did).  Several of them were new to me.  I'd never read King Lear before and I think I need to go through it about three more times before I even begin to have my head around it. 
Of the other new ones, Antony and Cleopatra might be my favorite.  Cleopatra is just incredible.  She makes the stage sizzle.  It's enough to make you envious Antony and pity his helplessness.  This must be an incredible role to play.
The most surprising to me was probably Titus Andronicus.  This is one of Shakespeare's earliest plays and it doesn't have the gravitas of his latter, better works.  But it does have a heat to it.  The play works.  It's almost Shakespeare by way of Stephen King, but that's ok. 
I also admired the artistry of Othello.  Iago is a master conjurer of jealousy.  A top five villain (though behind Aaron from Titus).  I also had more respect for the role of Desdemona.  That's another wonderful part.

For some time, there was a theory that every subject of a tragedy must have a 'fatal flaw' that creates their own downfall.  This theory is a tough one to stick with if you ready a number of the plays in a short time.  The main subjects are certainly flawed, but some flaws are huge and others are minor. 
Take Othello, for instance.  He (perhaps) allowed jealousy to destroy him because he had a certain uneasiness with his place in society.  That wasn't his fault.  He was distrusted an maltreated simply because of his skin color.  The fault for that lies in the larger society. 
Not to mention that such a reading lets Iago off of the hook completely.  In fact, there are villains in almost all of the tragedies beside the title character.  We can't really go after Macbeth without talking about what a piece of work Lady Macbeth was.  Romeo and Juliet came to a tragic end, but the main fault lies with their parents and the overall war between their families.  Timon of Athens, does not deserve the same type of blame as Titus Andronicus. 
That entire theory is flawed, probably beyond repair.


  1. It's so interesting to hear about your favourites and no-so-favourites of the tragedies and why. Coriolanus was one of my favourites, but I must admit there are so many other of the tragedies that are above it. I was less than enthused with Romeo and Juliet, but I'm probably in the minority. I still am not convinced that Othello's race played a large part in the play. The only one who seems to disparage him is Iago (and he is pure evil) --- everyone else seems to respect him. Othello himself seems to have self-doubts .... but why? So I still can't find anything in the play to determine that race was a large factor.

    I haven't read Titus, Timon, Anthony & Cleopatra or MacBeth in full yet (can you believe the last one?!). I need to pick up the pace on my Shakespeare challenge!

    1. One of the great things about Shake's plays is how much room there is now for interpretation. It's been a couple of months now, so I'm uncertain just how much of Othello's uncertainty is based on overt prejudice. You could be absolutely correct.
      I'm glad to have read them in close time frame as I did. I think there was some value that I would not otherwise have gotten. And don't beat yourself up about Macbeth. Before this year, I'd never read Lear before. (But do yourself a favor and read Macbeth! And maybe see it too.)