Shakespeare was not a philosopher but a dramatist and a poet who wrote for the stage, and he had to follow the rules of dramatic propriety and be entirely impartial and equally sympathetic to all. The truth is that Shakespeare never bothered himself with any theory of Tragedy, nor did he invent a tragic conception for himself. He got the clue of high tragic conception from eminent classical scholars like Aristotle, to which he added his own grandeur and luster. He expressed his ideas of life in his tragedies, represented its terror and mystery as he observed and contemplated upon them. Yet, in spite of his universality and variety, he employed much the same effects in different plays to serve the same or similar ends. His characters must do and say what is proper to their respective natures in the circumstances in which they are placed, and not what their creator feels to be right and suitable. It would, therefore, be rash to draw any conclusions regarding Shakespeare’s own views and philosophy from the stray utterances of particular characters. Still when particular thoughts and opinions are repeated in one play after another, we may be excused if we read into them as Shakespeare’s own beliefs and take them to be his answer to the riddle of life.
The first main point common to all Shakespeare’s tragedies is that the themes of all his tragedies are essentially stirring and often melodramatic. On the basis of a study of his works as a whole, one thing may be safely asserted without any fear of being contradicted, that the playwright’s thoughts rarely went beyond earthly life, “that if he which seemed to him man’s all.” The ghost, the madness or semi-madness of Ophelia, Hamlet and Lear; the yard scene in Hamlet, the witches, ghosts, apparitions and numerous murders in Macbeth,: the drunken scene and riots in Othello, the blinding of Gloucester–these are all sensational and melodramatic scenes common to all his great tragedies. Obviously, Shakespeare’s primary thought was dramatic effectiveness, for which he introduced a rich series of excitement to cater for the low taste of the common Elizabeth spectators.
Entering into the inner spirit of the Shakespearean tragedy, we find that they present conflict between good and evil. Shakespeare seems to believe that evil does exist–evil that is in perpetual conflict with good. The conflict between good and evil involves sacrifice of the good and also punishment to the evil. It brings us into the very root of things that confront us with the deepest mystery of life. Having exalted our deepest emotions so far, Shakespeare’s tragedy offers no final solution and leaves us in a solemn atmosphere of awe and grandeur. Dwelling upon this element of Shakespearean tragedy, Dowden says, “Tragedy as conceived by Shakespeare is concerned with the ruin or restoration of the soul, and the life of Man. In other words, its subject is the struggle of good and evil in the world. He does not, like Dante, pursue the soul of man through circles of unending fortune, or sphere made radiant by the eternal presence of God. No great deliverer of mankind descends from the Heavens. Here, upon the earth, evil is–such was Shakespeare’s declaration in the most emphatic accent. Iago actually exists. There is also in the earth a sacred passion of deliverance, a pure redeeming ardour. Cordelia exists. That Shakespeare can tell for certain. But how Iago can be, and why Cordelia lies strangled across the breast of Lear–Shakespeare declines all answer to such questions. He prefers to let you remain in the solemn presence of a mystery.” While we feel Shakespeare’s deep sympathy for the nobility and grandeur of life, we can hardly say that in his view the gods are on the side of good:
As flies to wanton boys,
Are we to gods,
They kill us for their sport.
So remarks Shakespeare in King Lear. Desdemona dies in spite of her spotless chastity; Cordelia is murdered inspite of her unwavering filial devotion and kindness; Duncan is killed in spite of his noble qualities of head and heart. It appears as if there is no justice in the divine court of justice and that God is not in Heaven and all’s not right with the world. He no doubt feels with Hamlet, the dread of something after death,” and is also conscious of something mysterious and unseen surrounding man on all sides: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio; than are dreamed of your philosophy? Yet he agrees with Hamlet when he says, “To die; to sleep, no more.” This denial of life after death, the feeling that this life is the end all and be all, persists in one play after another. Macbeth, for example, comments on the fleeting and futile human life in the following words:
Life is but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more, it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing
Touchstone, the fool–and it must be remembered that it was through his fools that Shakespeare often aired his own views–feels life to be equally insignificant:
And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe,
And then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot;
And thereby hangs a tale.
Though the Shakespearean tragedy brings before us a considerable number of persons, it is predominantly a story of one Shakespeare’s heroes, one and all, are, as a rule, men of high nobility and eminence, ending in destruction caused by a failing, a fatal flaw, in their own characters. Lear was a noble king, Macbeth, a great general, Othello an unchallenged warrior and Hamlet a noble prince. The tragic hero, says Aristotle’ “Should be someone of high fame and flourishing prosperity.” Prof. Nicoll observes, “The presence of a person of prominence as a hero gives the sense that more is involved than is apparent on the surface.” With the fate of a king or emperor is attached the fate of millions and therefore his fall implies the fall of a whole nation. This gives a vivid impression of universality of appeal to a Shakespearean tragedy. Prof. Bradley remarks, “His fate affects the welfare of a whole nation or empire, and when he falls suddenly from the height of earthly greatness to the dust, his fall produces a sense of contrast, of the powerlessness of man, and of the omnipotence, perhaps the caprice–of Fortune or Fate, which no tale of private life can possibly rival.” But with all his grandeur and nobility, every Shakespearean hero possesses a ‘tragic trait’ in Macbeth in his insatiable ambition; in Othello it is suspicion; in Hamlet his brooding nature and in Lear his pride and vanity, The calamities, therefore, do not simply happen, nor are they sent from above–they are the direct and inevitable consequences of the hero’s own deeds and these deeds issue out of character. There is, therefore, something inevitable in every tragedy of Shakespeare.
To this ‘tragic trait’ Shakespeare adds on an element of fate and supernatural elements to make the tragedy possible and complete. The tragic trait though not very great in itself becomes fatal to the hero in the circumstance in which he is placed. Hamlet in Othello’s place and Othello in Hamlet’s place would have let to no tragic action. “Shakespeare’s conception of tragedy involved,” says Bradley, “Over and above character, the suggestion of fatal forces, operating on the action of mankind. Placing these men of power nobility, strength and courage, in just those situations with which they are incapable of dealing.” His tragedy implies “the ruin of a grave and noble nature to through coming into contact with the special circumstance calculated to defeat it.” This element of fate so subtly introduced is intensified by other modes of supernatural elements. In place of ‘character and destiny’ theory Shakespeare suggests the doctrine of character and destiny.’ The ghosts in Macbeth and Hamlet, the many references to the divine in King Lear, the free use of tragic irony in Othello–all call forth visions of the superhuman agencies operating on the actions of man. Fate appears above the stage like an invisible actor, playing a principal part, operating, deceiving, betraying and watching with a grim smile, the blundering actions of the miserable hero.
The Shakespearean tragedy is, above all, a drama of conflict. The conflict is both internal and external. The inner conflict exists alongside the outer conflict, but rarely coincides with it. The conflict may be between two individuals or two groups or between two principles, passions or ideals animating the two groups. To one of these groups belongs the hero and the hero is defeated in the conflict. But, the inner conflict is psychology, moral or spiritual and it takes place in the hero’s soul or mind. The mind or the heart of the hero is made an arena of powerful and torturing opposing thoughts and passions. The defeat and death of a Shakespearean hero is nothing in comparison with the terrible torments of the soul and mind through which the hero has to pass. Who comes for the fight between Macbeth and Macduff? That Macbeth will be defeated is a foregone conclusion. But, Shakespeare has laid bare before us his soul torn by inner conflict and we know not, whether to hate Macbeth or pity him. “Better be with the dead,” says Macbeth as if bitten at once by a hundred scorpions. So ultimately, a conflict within the mind of the hero is one of the prime essentials in Shakespeare’s conception of tragedy. We have in Hamlet’s mind a conflict between his desire for revenge and the moral or religious scruples which withhold him from executing his purpose; in Macbeth’s mind there is a struggle between his ambition and his loyalty towards his king, Othello is torn between two powerful passions of love and suspicion and Lear, between pride and fatal ingratitude meted out to him.
Shakespeare’s Christian morality insinuates itself quite unobtrusively and unknowingly. His superiority as a teacher of goodness lies in this, that he keeps our moral sympathies in the right place without discovering his own. From his description we cannot know whether he takes part with the good or with the bad; nevertheless he so puts the matter that we cannot help taking part with the good. We are led to side with the good, not because he does but simply because it is the good. “Thus his moral lessons and inspirations affect us as coming, but from him, but from Nature herself, and so the authority they carry is not his, but hers (of nature) which is infinitely better”–(Hudson). He moves us as draws us, without seeming to do so, towards moral beauty and truth. He believed in a moral government of the world, by the time we have finished with him, we share his belief.
Shakespeare’s attitude towards love is also that of a devout Christian. He deals with all shades and types of love, and is often coarse and brutal in keeping in touch with the tastes of his audience and the standards of the age, yet as C.H. Herford shows, it is never sensual and merely physical. His lovers all look forward to marriage as a matter of course and they never anticipate its rights, nor turn their affection elsewhere. They are always true and faithful; their love is an ever fixed mark which does not alter when it alteration finds. It is not Time’s Fool. From a study of Hamlet, which has been called a second Bible, we learn Shakespeare’s idealistic views on marriage–that in the purity and sanctity of the marriage bond alone could–true love find full expression. “His standard of wedded conduct,” writes Cumberland Clark “was vastly higher than that of his contemporaries, as it higher than our modern standards. He would countenance no anticipation of the rights and privileges of marriages and makes Prospero threaten Ferdinand that his union with Miranda will not be blessed unless first, all sanctimonious ceremonies may with full and holy rites be ministered.” Shakespeare’s religion was essentially a way of life. His philosophy of life was essentially Christian and owed its origin and influence to the Gospel. His religion is evidenced in his never failing sense of right and wrong and his demand for a high standard of conduct, so much so that he has been called, the “greatest moral genius of history.” In the universe of Shakespeare, many do not often get what they deserve and there is much needless and unmerited suffering, but so in the case with life, too. There is also much waste of good which, as Bradley points out, is the real tragedy. But as Cumberland Clark tells us, “Evil doing and evil thinking are always punished as they deserve and it has been truly said that in no other writings in the world, with the single exception of the scriptures, has the contrast between good and evil been painted so magnificently.
In the tragedies he goes from one failing to another in his exposure of the wickedness of the human heart. In Othello, he shows that all jealousy is sin and when carried to an extreme it results in crime and tragedy. In Macbeth, he teaches a sublime moral lesson. Ambitition is good only when it aspires for the spiritual and the eternal. It results in tragedy, when like Macbeth’s ambition, it is directed towards the flesh and the devil. In King Lear he attacks the sin of ingratitude, in Antony and the Cleopatra lust, and in Timon of Athens misanthropy and intemperance. Shakespearean tragedy teaches us that even one slight flow in an otherwise upright and noble character can cause ruin all around and so, in Biblical terms,” Be ye, therefore, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” The theme of his last plays- Cymbeline, The Winters’s Tale, and The Tempest-is forgiveness and reconciliation, an essentially Christian doctrine. If man follows the Good and thinks rightly, he is sure to overcome Evil in the long run. Shakespeare’s unerring sense of right and wrong shows that he was nearer the truth than any priest, philosopher or who has ever lived.
Shakespeare loved his country and considered patriotism a cardinal virtue; his historical plays reflect his patriotic spirit. The following words of Coriolanus do very well apply to the dramatist:
I do love
My country’s good with a respect more tender,
More holy and profound, than mine own life.
Elizabeth was the symbol of English nationalism and love of the country meant obedience and loyalty to its Queen. In this connection Thomas Heywood writes: “The historical plays teach history to those who cannot read it in the Chronicles: these plays are written to teach subjects obedience, to represent the untimely ends of such as have moved insurrections and the flourishing estates of such as prove themselves faithful and keep clear of traitorous stratagems.”
All this clearly shows that Shakespeare was proud of his country, proud of his sovereign, and could not tolerate any act which was even remotely anti-national or anti-patriotic. As Herford has conclusively shown, he unmistakably prefers order to turmoil and revolution, for normal life is not possible under the circumstances.
As a means to securing the unity of effect and of tone the inner conflict is normally confined to one figure in each drama. Even in Othello and Macbeth where the struggle is found in other then the central figure, there is an exception made in favour of the hero. All the women characters of his tragedies are quite unimportant in comparison with those who fill romantic comedies of his earlier or later years. The women characters are either mere puppets or shadows as the queen in Hamlet or Ophella or they are fitting foils for the heroes like Desdemona and Lady Macbeth or they are simply undistinguished monsters like a Goneril and Regan.
Shakespearean tragedy ultimately leaves two kinds of feelings in the heart of the readers–feeling of awe and of sympathy. We feel awe at the fall of the great hero while the feeling of sympathy is evoked in the way in which the hero meets his end. When a Shakespearean hero dies “a medley of emotions is left in our heart, pain at his tragedy, admiration for the noble qualities in him and the promise of better things to come.” We may conclude this account of Shakespeare’s view of man and life with a note of caution struck by Legouis, “philosophers constructed from the ideas scattered through the plays are frail and mutually contradictory, they are incoherent like reality, itself. They return disappointed who go to his plays for a message. His stray reflections, bewildering in their variety and profession are wise and penetrating. Each temperament and every circumstance has in the plays its appropriate philosophy.”