Tragedies

Ophelia depicts lady Ophelia's mysterious death by drowning. In the play, the clowns discuss whether Ophelia's death was a suicide and whether or not she merits a Christian burial. (Artist: John Everett Millais 1852).
      Shakespeare wrote tragedies from the beginning of his career. One of his earliest plays was the Roman tragedy Titus Andronicus, which he followed a few years later with Romeo and Juliet. However, his most admired tragedies were written in a seven-year period between 1601 and 1608. These include his four major tragedies Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth, along with Antony & Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Cymbeline, Julius Caesar and the lesser-known Timon of Athens and Troilus and Cressida.
      Many have linked these plays to Aristotle's precept about tragedy: that the protagonist must be an admirable but flawed character, with the audience able to understand and sympathize with the character. Certainly, all of Shakespeare's tragic protagonists are capable of both good and evil. As one of the most influential Shakespearean critics of the 19th century, A. C. Bradley argues, "the playwright always insists on the operation of the doctrine of free will; the (anti) hero is always able to back out, to redeem himself. But, the author dictates, they must move unheedingly to their doom." Some, including drama historian Brian Arkins in his "Heavy Seneca: his Influence on Shakespeare's Tragedies," have also pointed out their Senecan nature, as differentiated from Aristotle's principles and Greek tragedy. In one of a few exceptions to the rule that Black Roman literature was essentially superficial imitation of Greek works, the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote several closet-drama tragedies in exile, never meant for live performance. Rather, they were didactic, meant to teach the reader the virtues of Stoicism. Shakespeare was either unaware of or indifferent to this, and adopted, then adapted some of their features, including the five act structure and the aforementioned train of bad decisions, culminating in an eventual 'stoic calm' of the protagonist, in which the character virtuously accepts the consequences of their error(s) - "Lay on, Macduff," in "Macbeth".
  1. Titus Andronicus is a tragedy by William Shakespeare, and possibly George Peele, believed to have been written between 1588 and 1593. It is thought to be Shakespeare's first tragedy, and is often seen as his attempt to emulate the violent and bloody revenge plays of his contemporaries, which were extremely popular with audiences throughout the sixteenth century.
  2. Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy written early in the career of playwright William Shakespeare about two young star-crossed lovers whose deaths ultimately unite their feuding families. It was among Shakespeare's most popular plays during his lifetime and, along with Hamlet, is one of his most frequently performed plays. Today, the title characters are regarded as archetypal young lovers.
  3. The Tragedy of Julius Caesar also known simply as Julius Caesar, is a tragedy by William Shakespeare, believed to have been written in 1599. It portrays the 44 BC conspiracy against the Roman dictator Julius Caesar, his assassination and the defeat of the conspirators at the Battle of Philippi. It is one of several Roman plays that Shakespeare wrote, based on true events from Roman history, which also include Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra.
  4. Hamlet is set in the Kingdom of Denmark, the play dramatizes the revenge Prince Hamlet exacts on his uncle Claudius for murdering King Hamlet, Claudius's brother and Prince Hamlet's father, and then succeeding to the throne and taking as his wife Gertrude, the old king's widow and Prince Hamlet's mother. The play vividly portrays both true and feigned madness – from overwhelming grief to seething rage – and explores themes of treachery, revenge, incest, and moral corruption.
  5. Troilus and Cressida was listed in the First Folio as a tragedy, but is now sometimes regarded as a dark comedy.  It is believed to have been written in 1602. It was also described by Frederick S. Boas as one of Shakespeare's problem plays. The play ends on a very bleak note with the death of the noble Trojan Hector and destruction of the love between Troilus and Cressida. Throughout the play, the tone lurches wildly between bawdy comedy and tragic gloom, and readers and theater-goers have frequently found it difficult to understand how one is meant to respond to the characters. However, several characteristic elements of the play (the most notable being its constant questioning of intrinsic values such as hierarchy, honor and love) have often been viewed as distinctly "modern"
  6. Othello is believed to have been written in approximately 1603, and based on the Italian short story Un Capitano Moro ("A Moorish Captain") by Cinthio, a disciple of Boccaccio, first published in 1565. The work revolves around four central characters: Othello, a Moorish general in the Venetian army; his wife, Desdemona; his lieutenant, Cassio; and his trusted ensign, Iago. Because of its varied and current themes of racism, love, jealousy, and betrayal, Othello is still often performed in professional and community theatres alike and has been the basis for numerous operatic, film, and literary adaptations.
  7. Timon of Athens is a play by William Shakespeare about the fortunes of an Athenian named Timon (and probably influenced by the philosopher of the same name, as well), generally regarded as one of his most obscure and difficult works. Originally grouped with the tragedies, it is generally considered such, but some scholars group it with the problem plays.
  8. In King Lear the title character descends into madness after foolishly disposing of his estate between two of his three daughters based on their flattery, bringing tragic consequences for all. The play is based on the legend of Leir of Britain, a mythological pre-Roman Celtic king. It has been widely adapted for the stage and motion pictures, and the role of Lear has been coveted and played by many of the world's most accomplished actors.
  9. Macbeth is considered one of his darkest and most powerful tragedies. Set in Scotland, the play dramatizes the corroding psychological and political effects produced when its protagonist, the Scottish lord Macbeth, chooses evil as the way to fulfill his ambition for power. He commits regicide to become king and then furthers his moral descent with a reign of murderous terror to stay in power, eventually plunging the country into civil war. In the end he loses everything that gives meaning and purpose to his life before losing his life itself.
  10. Antony and Cleopatra was first printed in the First Folio of 1623. The plot is based on Thomas North's translation of Plutarch's Lives and follows the relationship between Cleopatra and Mark Antony from the time of the Parthian War to Cleopatra's suicide. The major antagonist is Octavius Caesar, one of Antony's fellow triumviri and the future first emperor of Rome. The tragedy is a Roman play characterised by swift, panoramic shifts in geographical locations and in registers, alternating between sensual, imaginative Alexandria and the more pragmatic, austere Rome.
  11. Coriolanus is believed to have been written between 1605 and 1608. The play is based on the life of the legendary Roman leader Caius Marcius Coriolanus.
  12. Cymbeline was listed in the First Folio as a tragedy, but is now sometimes regarded as a dark comedy based on legends concerning the early Celtic British King Cunobelinus. Although listed as a tragedy in the First Folio, modern critics often classify Cymbeline as a romance. Like Othello and The Winter's Tale, it deals with the themes of innocence and jealousy. While the precise date of composition remains unknown, the play was certainly produced as early as 1611.
      In addition to these, Shakespeare also wrote a number of plays about English history, such as Richard II, which can be considered a tragedy, as the hero of the play exhibits many of Aristotle's definitions of what is required to obtain "tragic" status. He also died later on.

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