Table of ContentsPrevious PageNext Page

Bradley, A. C. Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth.
2nd ed. London: Macmillan, 1905.
PAGE 9

THE SUBSTANCE OF TRAGEDY

     For whan men trusteth hire, thanne wol she faille,
     And covere hire brighte face with a clowde.

A total reverse of fortune, coming unawares upon a man who 'stood in high degree,' such was the tragic fact to the medieval mind. It appealed strongly to common human sympathy and pity; it startled also another feeling, that of fear. It frightened men and awed them. It made them feel that man is blind and helpless, the plaything of an inscrutable power, called by the name of Fortune or some other name -- a power which appears to smile on him for a little, and then on a sudden strikes him down in his pride.

     Shakespeare's idea of the tragic fact is larger than this idea and goes beyond it but it includes it, and it is worthwhile to observe the identity of the two in a certain point which is often ignored. Tragedy with Shakespeare is concerned always with persons of 'high degree'; often with kings or princes; if not, with leaders in the state like Coriolanus, Brutus, Antony; at the least, as in Romeo and Juliet, with members of great houses, whose quarrels are of public moment. There is a decided difference here between Othello and our three other tragedies, but it is not a difference of kind. Othello himself is no mere private person; he is the General of the Republic. At the beginning we see him in the Council Chamber of the Senate. The consciousness of his high position never leaves him. At the end, when he is determined to live no longer, he is as anxious as Hamlet not to be misjudged by the great world, and his last speech begins,

     Soft you; a word or two before you go.
     I have done the state some service, and they know it.1

     1Timon of Athens, we have seen, was probably not designed by Shakespeare, but even Timon is no exception to the rule. The sub-plot is concerned with Alcibiades and his army, and Timon himself is treated by the Senate as a man of great importance. Arden of Feversham and A Yorkshire Tragedy would certainly be exceptions to the rule; but I assume that neither of them is Shakespeare's; and if either is, it belongs to a different species from his admitted tragedies. See, on this species, Symonds, Shakspere's Predecessors, ch. xi.

Table of ContentsPrevious PageNext Page