A Renaissance of Classical Tragedy?

This is an essay that I submitted for college in 2012, feel free to weigh in! Constructive criticism welcomed

EH4002: Critical Practice 2 (Renaissance Literature)

Name: Conor Ryan

Student ID: 11116609

Course: LM032

Word Count: Approx. 1450.

Date of Submission: April 2012

How is tragedy used by Renaissance authors? Your answer should make reference to classical concepts of tragedy.

This essay will discuss the treatment of tragedy by authors of the Jacobean period of the English Literary Renaissance. In particular the tragedies King Lear and Macbeth written by the acclaimed playwright William Shakespeare will be examined. In writing these Shakespeare developed his own particular dark, dramatic style using elements of classical tragedy, but differing with the introduction of ideas from his time. Shakespeare’s treatment of tragedy is influenced by Seneca’s tragedies in particular.

The oldest surviving texts described as tragedies are from Athens sometime in the 6th Century B.C.E. These Greek tragedies contained linked stories that deal with tragic events leading to unhappy endings. Both Macbeth and King Lear owe much to these classical tragedies, though there are differences suggesting that they may be inspired by later adaptions of these ideas. A difference being that, though Shakespeare used the idea of tying in multiple stories, they were within the one play with several acts rather than sets of four plays that the classics came in. King Lear for example, features a double plot with the stories of Gloucester and Lear, the parallel narrative of Gloucester’s legitimate son and illegitimate son was added by Shakespeare to the story, the entwined double-plot concerning Gloucester and his sons is arguably the real tragedy in the play.

The role of fate in the treatment of tragedy in Macbeth draws from the classical ideas. The Greek philosopher Aristotle gave the earliest analysis of tragedy, defining it as a genre of drama gives serious treatment of the protagonist experiencing a reversal of fortune as an unforeseen consequence of their actions. Usually, chance and accident are relied on as a trigger to set in motion the events that make up the tragedy, though a tragic flaw in the protagonists’ character is what seals their fate. Shakespeare gave a greater importance to destiny as an external factor seemingly having control over the protagonist’s destiny in Macbeth, which could be considered to be the catalyst that sets events in motion. Macbeth begins with the weird sisters who seemingly represent fate, giving Macbeth a message “All hail Macbeth, that shalt be King hereafter” (103). It is this, along with incitement from Lady Macbeth, that convinces Macbeth to kill to become Thane of Cawdor. He seems convinced that he must carry out these actions as he tries to conform to the predictions told to him by the witches. The protagonist’s downfall comes later as a consequence of committing the act of regicide following the prophecy, and continuing to kill in order to maintain power despite being tormented by madness and paranoia. Albrecht speaks of adaptions that put emphasis on the idea that this seems to be for the witches own amusement (225). The treatment of tragedy differs from the older ideals in this regard as destiny represented through the witches does not act as a trigger but controlling factor. We can see similarities to Euphrides “The Trojan Woman” where Winston speaks of a similar character named Heneca that does indeed seem to be trapped by mechanisms of fate in this tragedy which is also adapted by Seneca.

Shakespeare’s treatment of tragedy in each play involves a great internal suffering by the protagonist. We see this through the narrative from the protagonist for example the ramblings of Lear as he wanders across the moors during a storm. We know that tragedy was adapted from the original Greek ideas involving such suffering, and performed across Europe and the Roman Empire. Many other characteristics of Shakespeare’s work were influenced by these later developments, especially from a stoic named Seneca who is credited as writing several of the few surviving texts from classical times. Deriving much from the Greek stories, Seneca added his own twist to tragedy with long soliloquys investigating death, the supernatural and morality. Soliloquys feature in Macbeth, providing a function in telling us what is happening in the play, and providing a window into Macbeth’s thoughts. For example the soliloquy at the beginning of 1.7 where Macbeth tries to avoid admission of guilt. “If th’ assignation Could trammel up the consequence and catch with his surcease, success” There are 3 such soliloquys in Macbeth which provide us with insight into his internal suffering.

The English Literary Renaissance marked a re-emergence and renewal of ideas from classical tragedy in two distinct phases, the latter giving rise to what we know as neo-senacan tragedies. During the 14th Century the writings of the classical playwrights such as Euripides, Sophocles and Terence were translated by many humanists and became widely available across Europe. As a writer, Seneca was translated in Jacobean England much more than anyone else from the classical period. Shakespeare’s tragedies, along with many other works of this time seem to draw much from the ideas of Seneca. Winston discussed critic Thomas Nashe who argued for a lack of originality in work from this period because of the outright influence of Seneca, his assertion however is rebuked with the claim that he fails to recognize the distinct period of neo-senacan plays which Shakespeare and Marlowe would belong to (29). Though it is impossible to deny the influence of Seneca on the works, Shakespeare’s tragedies engaged with the older works and brought popular stories of his time and ideas with reference to current events.

The treatment of tragedy involved taking popular stories and changing the endings to be much more tragic. King Lear was based on a popular story told as a piece of history from pagan times, containing striking parallels to a recent case of Shakespeare’s time where two daughters tried to have a wealthy man declared insane despite protests of his third daughter (Greenblatt, 1139). It was written between 1604 and 1605 originally presented to the Jacobean court as a Christmas entertainment; King Lear is a fully developed tragedy and the only one of Shakespeare’s tragedies to end without restoration of natural order making for a complete tragic ending. A major change to the original story being the death of both Cordelia and Lear at the end. King Lear’s ending was often revised as the bleak and depressing tone shocked audiences of the day. The revision takes influence from contemporary ideas more than Seneca’s tragedies.

Macbeth as a tragedy is concerned more with the disruption of authority than death itself. Macbeth was a warrior by profession so it seems likely that he killed many men; but it seems to interfere with the natural order in killing his king and his friend Banquo that pays on his conscience. The lack of ghosts of the people killed in battle beforehand would suggest that there is little, if any, remorse shown for their deaths.  C.L Townsend makes an argument for realist approach that can be seen in Macbeth, providing several examples of modern criminals psychologically haunted by ghostly apparitions similar to Banquo and the Dagger in Macbeth, and pointing out that the character of Macbeth seems to know that the ghost is more imagined than real (202). Regardless of any realism present the idea of ghosts being used for guilt cannot be attributed as original to Shakespeare or part of tragedies treatment by Seneca because, as Winston discusses, translators of Shakespeare’s time added in similar ghosts to the Senecan Troas. Though it is plausible that Shakespeare could have attributed this idea to Seneca, it was in fact an idea of his time.

Both Macbeth and King Lear are examples from the subgenre that has since become known as Shakespearian tragedy. Shakespearian tragedies were characterized by dark plots, macabre settings and disturbing workings of fate. Though heavily inspired by Seneca’s tragedies, Shakespearian tragedies differed with the use of newer ideas, intentionally or not. In the conditions created by Shakespeare for Macbeth and Lear actions of characters can have different consequence then intended with a struggle between good and evil apparent. It is this combination of engagement with Seneca’s works and the influence of popular stories of Jacobean times that leave us with the label neo-senecan when we talk about the treatment of tragedy in both texts.

Tragedy as used in the English Literary Renaissance, in particular the Elizabethan and Jacobean period evolved from the much earlier Greek and Roman ideas revived during this period of tumultuous change across Europe. As illustrated above the treatment of tragedy in the texts of Macbeth and King Lear has characteristic engaging with the elements of Senecan tragedy with the addition of Jacobean ideas of his time. The combination of influences begets Shakespeare’s dark and dramatic style in a neo-senecan treatment of tragedy though these tragedies are often described as Shakespearian tragedy.

Works Cited

Albrecht, Daniel. “The Witches and the Witch: Verdi’s Macbeth” Cambridge Opera Journal 17:3. 2005. Web. 17 Apr. 2012.

McManus, Barbera F. “Outline of Aristotles Theory of Tragedy in the POETICS” ….1999. Web. 17 Apr. 2012.

Shakespeare, William. “King Lear” Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. London: Norton, 2012. 1139-1227. Print.

Shakespeare, William. “Macbeth” The Oxford Shakespeare. Ed. Nicholas Brooke. London: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.

Townsend, C.L.  “The Realism of Shakespearian Tragedy” The English Journal 19:3. 1930. Web 17 Apr. 2012.

Winston, Jessica. “Seneca in Early England.” Renaissance Quarterly 59:1. 2006. Web. 16 Apr. 2012.



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