An excerpt from “What is Shakespearean Tragedy?” forthcoming in The Oxford Handbook of Shakespearean Tragedy

The question “What is Shakespearean Tragedy?” can understandably prompt one to start listing distinctive features of various plays by Shakespeare — as if a successful enumeration of its characteristics would amount to an understanding of the genre….

…However, rather than approach Shakespearean tragedy as the sum-total of certain features or “facts,” or as a generic object of study, I propose that we see Shakespearean tragedy as a discrete form of art — as the birth of a distinctive art form, the same way we think of “painting on canvas” or “symphonic music” as art forms that arrived on the world stage at a particular place and time.[1] Whereas a “genre” purports to be a collection of objects that share common, taxonomically graspable features or techniques, there is no exhaustive list of features that ‘add up’ to Shakespearean tragedy — since, for a start, it is up to us to discern, decide, or debate, what will even count as features of this art form. Moreover, if Shakespearean tragedies all shared certain inherent, generic characteristics, then it would be difficult to distinguish between Macbeth and Hamlet and Othello — but of course we all know that each of these is an entirely different play; each brings to light new features or expressive possibilities for Shakespearean tragedy, helping us to better discern the art form as such, to better see its purview or expressive task. Shakespearean tragedies show what they are, as an art form, in light of one another. For the same reason, though it is unconventional to say so, we should probably regard Shakespearean tragedy not just as a finite, canonical collection of plays by William Shakespeare [Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, King Lear and so forth] but as a novel, modern artistic practice — instanced with special power in a range of works by Shakespeare, but still practicable by others afterwards. Shakespeare may have been the first, or the most successful or the most indispensable, to work in the medium of Shakespearean tragedy, but he was not the last.[2]

To see Shakespearean tragedy as art form, then, is to see it a practice that, having originated somewhere and sometime (with Shakespeare, in this instance), takes on a life of its own by generating new features, techniques and characteristics — thereby resisting any final taxonomy, at least so long as the art form remains vital as a human practice. If to delimit a “genre” is to circumscribe a domain of objects or experiences according to constitutive traits or attributes, then art forms or practices take it upon themselves to “work through,” or make sense of, their own socio-historical and material pre-conditions — as if expressing a newly discovered need for such sense-making.

All this gets me to the question that I really want to raise in this brief essay: What does the art form of Shakespearean tragedy “work through,” respond to, and make sense of?

"Macbeth seeing the ghost of Banquo" by Théodore Chassériau. Oil on wood, 1854. © Public Domain | Wikimedia Commons
“Macbeth seeing the ghost of Banquo” by Théodore Chassériau. Oil on wood, 1854. © Public Domain | Wikimedia Commons

In what follows, I will propose at least one answer to this:Shakespearean tragedy works through the loss of any “given” — nature, or God, or “fate” — that might explain human societies, histories, actions, destinies, relationships and values. Shakespeare challenges us to understand tragedies not as responding to existential facts (desire, or mortality) or historical situations (Henry V’s invasion of France, or the fate of the Roman republic), but as responding to the fact that there are no givens that fully govern our activities. At the same time, Shakespearean tragedy works through the loss of social bonds on which we depend for the meaning and worth of our lives together — showing those bonds to be, in spite of that dependence, fully dissolvable. In this way, Shakespearean tragedy helps us make sense of how we interact one another — without the help of any Archimedean standpoint, with only the interactions themselves as sources of intelligibility and meaning. In Shakespearean tragedy, our actions (must) explain themselves…. To say it all at once: Shakespearean tragedy displays our provisional self-determination as subjects in the world — while at the same time asking us to see our actions as intelligible, as somehow meaningful, as something more than the vanity of “so-and-so” doing “this-or-that.” The loss of “givens” (the death of old gods, the devaluation of our highest values) that Shakespeare “works through” does not leave us with a desperate nihilism — but rather with the sense that it is precisely this loss of “givens” that, finally, allows us to see ourselves as provisionally free in the world, and as reckoning with the implications of this new self-understanding….


[1] Having said this, I must quickly add that I am not concerned with establishing which play is the “first” Shakespearean tragedy, any more than I would want to fix a precise date or origin for painting on canvas, or for orchestra music. Such matters are subject to debate, and we can change our minds about the particulars. The larger point is that every artistic medium emerges historically — it was not always “there” — and unfolds through a certain historical development that can be examined. Which means the point of “changing our mind” about the particulars, or dates, would be the new historical-self-understanding such a change of mind would amount to (and not just a different chronology).

[2] By “indispensable,” I mean that we need Shakespeare’s work, especially, in order to understand later developments in the “art of Shakespearean tragedy.” Though I do not have the space here to discuss what might be called the history of Shakespearean tragedy since Shakespeare, I would note that Friedrich Schlegel and Goethe — like many German romantics — saw modern drama, the novel and romantic literature as developments of Shakespearean drama; just as Jan Kott saw Beckett’s work as traversing the terrain of King Lear; just as Stanley Cavell sees Hollywood comedies of remarriage as extending Shakespearean romance — a suggestion that is being developed by Sarah Beckwith in her recent work on The Winter’s Tale and its inheritors. [To say nothing of the New York Times, in which one reads recently, “Haven’t you heard TV is the new Shakespeare?”] My suggestion, at any rate, is that we regard Shakespearean tragedy as inaugurating an artistic form whose possibilities have been explored by other artists in Shakespeare’s wake — from Ibsen and Beckett, to Sarah Kane and Pedro Almodovar and on and on — though obviously one can regard Shakespeare as a “master” of the form. [See Charles Isherwood, The New York Times, “Too Much Shakespeare? Be Not Cowed,” 12 September 2013.]