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William Shakespeare is one of the most popular writers of all time. Many of the plays written by Shakespeare are known as tragedies.

Learn more about Shakespeare’s writings, including their elements and structure, and test your knowledge with a quiz.

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Introduction to Shakespeare

William Shakespeare is one of the most famous authors in English literature known for writing tragedies. Some consider Shakespeare’s play Hamlet to be one of the best plays ever written. Some of the most popular tragedies written by William Shakespeare include Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and King Lear. All of these tragedies are widely studied and performed.

Elements of Shakespeare’s Tragedies

Some of the most common elements in Shakespearean tragedies are:

  • The fatal flaw – all of the heroes in Shakespeare’s tragedies have a weakness in personality that eventually leads to their downfall.
  • Fall of the nobleman – many of the men in Shakespeare’s tragedies have extreme wealth and power, making their downfall more tragic.

  • External pressure – Shakespeare’s tragic heroes often fall victim to external pressure from others, such as evil spirits and manipulative characters who play a role in their downfall.
  • Hero – The hero has opportunities for redemption but never takes advantage of these in time, which leads to death.

Shakespeare’s tragedies usually share several features, including:

  • Shakespeare’s tragedies begin in an ordered society but end with chaos.
  • Change is often reflected by changes in the environment, with storms or other happenings in the natural world.

  • The audience often develops sympathy for the hero.
  • The protagonist is usually a person of good character who is destroyed by his own ego or desire for self-advancement.

Two Types of Shakespeare’s Tragedies

Shakespeare’s tragedies were written throughout his career, starting with Titus Andronicus and Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare’s tragedies can be divided into two groups. Some of his tragedies focus on love, such as Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, and Othello.

Each of these tragedies involve lovers who are torn apart for some reason. These tragedies involve characters who have no control over their fate and are separated by things beyond their control. They are informally known as the ‘heart’ tragedies.Shakespeare’s ‘head’ tragedies’ bring to mind the Greek philosopher Aristotle’s theories of dramatic tragedy. In a ‘head’ tragedy, the fatally flawed protagonist, or main character, is capable of free will but often has his positive traits overcome by ego. Othello and Troilus and Cressida are considered by some experts to be borderline heart/head tragedies, since they combine elements of love and drama.

Examples of Shakespeare’s Tragedies

The tragedies written by William Shakespeare are:

  • Antony and Cleopatra tells the story of the love affair between the Roman general Antony and Queen Cleopatra. The story shows how passion, power, and misunderstanding can lead to tragedy.
  • Hamlet is a coming-of-age story about a young man who wants to avenge the death of his father. Hamlet ends up being a tragic hero who perishes in pursuit of revenge.
  • Julius Caesar is a story about a man’s rise to power and his demise at the hands of those closest to him.

  • King Lear is a tragic story about an aging king who loses his power and descends into madness.
  • Macbeth is about a warrior who rises to power but has a tragic downfall because of ambition and greed.
  • Othello tells the story of a military man who falls in love with a woman and is eventually destroyed.
  • Romeo and Juliet is about a pair of ‘star-crossed lovers’ who meet a tragic end when their families disapprove of their relationship.
  • Timon of Athens is not a well-known story. It is about a man who loses his money and does not take responsibility for his actions.

  • Titus Andronicus is the bloodiest of Shakespeare’s tragedies and is about vengeful acts of violence between two generals.
  • Coriolanus is about a Roman general who was sent to exile after trying to gain power.

Lesson Summary

William Shakespeare is one of the most popular authors of English literature. Many of Shakespeare’s plays are considered tragedies because they are structured in ways that eventually lead to the demise of central characters. The heroes in Shakespeare’s plays usually undergo a transformation of character due to their own fatal flaws, external pressure, and the desire for power. Some of Shakespeare’s tragedies are popular and widely recognizable, such as Hamlet, Othello, and Romeo and Juliet, while others are less popular, such as Coriolanus, Titus Andronicus, and Timon of Athens.

Despite their varying levels of popularity, Shakespeare’s tragedies are all considered classics in English literature.

Learning Outcomes

After you have finished, you should be able to:

  • Name some of Shakespeare’s well-known tragedies
  • Identify some of the common elements and features found in Shakespearean tragedies
  • Describe the two types of Shakespearean tragedies

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