Four tragedies - Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Othello, the Moor of Venice, Macbeth and King Lear - David Bevington and David Scott Kastan 1988, 2005
Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth form a cohesive group in Shakespeare’s dramatic production. They rank among the greatest tragedies he wrote—indeed, that anyone ever wrote. Shakespeare produced them all in one period of his life, in a steady outpouring of tragic eloquence: Hamlet (by 1601), Othello (c. 1603—1604), King Lear (c. 1605), and Macbeth (1606—1607). He also wrote several dark comedies and problematic plays—All’s Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, and Troilus and Cressida—during the early years of this tragic period; they too are touched by a dark view of humanity’s carnality and penchant for self-destruction. We encounter quite a separate tragic world of political struggle and social disillusionment in Titus Andronicus (c. 1589—1591), Julius Caesar (1599), Timon of Athens (c. 1605—1608), Antony and Cleopatra (1606—1607), and Coriolanus (c. 1608), plays where Shakespeare, in other periods, turned to the ancient classical world for tragic material.
The four tragedies in this volume are linked in a number of thematic ways. They all confront the nature of evil, as Shakespeare’s classical tragedies generally do not. Human failure is often measured in terms of good and evil. Claudius, in Hamlet, confesses in soliloquy to being guilty of “the primal eldest curse” (3.3.37) of having killed his own brother, thus reenacting the crime of Cain against Abel (see Genesis 4) that began the history of human violence on earth. Othello, realizing too late what he has done in killing his innocent wife, begs divine punishment: “Whip me, ye devils, / From the possession of this heavenly sight! / Blow me about in winds! Roast me in sulfur! / Wash me in steepdown gulfs of liquid fire!” (5.2.286—9). The appalling evil manifested in King Lear by Goneril, Regan, Edmund, and others obliges Albany to question what will become of the human race if some restraint is not found: “If that the heavens do not their visible spirits / Send quickly down to tame these vile offenses, / It will come, / Humanity must perforce prey on itself, / Like monsters of the deep” (4.2.47—51). Macbeth is painfully aware that every decent consideration argues against the murder he is contemplating: “this Duncan / Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been / So clear in his great office, that his virtues / Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against / The deep damnation of his taking-off” (1.7.16—20). These four plays center on crimes that strike at everything civilization holds most dear: murder of a brother, usurpation of a crown through murder, murder to obtain one’s brother’s wife, murder of a wife, abandonment of a parent to lifethreatening circumstances, adultery, conspiracy against a brother and a father, murder of one’s king and one’s guest.
Notably, these crimes are all contained within the family, which is one reason, perhaps, that we find Shakespeare’s great tragedies so moving; they embody with such fearful clarity the struggles and rivalries within the family group. Hamlet must avenge his father’s murder by killing his own uncle, and in doing so he must also confront the contrast between these two parental figures, his father and his stepfather. “Look here upon this picture, and on this,” he urges his mother, as he shows her likenesses of the two. “Could you on this fair mountain leave to feed / And batten on this moor?” (3.4.54—68). It is as though Hamlet’s father and Claudius personify what is best and worst in humanity, “Hyperion to a satyr” (1.2.140). Iago’s rivalry with Cassio for Othello’s favor, and his own hostility toward Othello, suggest a kind of family in which destructive anger has gone amok. King Lear structures its two parallel plots on two family groupings, in both of which the innocent child is betrayed by siblings and rejected by credulous and willfully unknowing parents. Macbeth’s crime is domestic, not only in that it is shared with such terrible intimacy by husband and wife, but in that the victim is a parental figure. “Had he not resembled / My father as he slept, I had done ’t,” says Lady Macbeth (2.2.12—13). Part of what is so frightening about Shakespeare’s tragic vision is that it locates hatred so centrally in the struggle to survive within the family.
Evil is frightening in these plays also because it operates so insidiously, makes such canny use of false appearances, knows how to tempt human weakness at just the right time, and triumphs with such lamentable ease and frequency. Hamlet is obsessed with the human and especially feminine susceptibility demonstrated by his mother and by Ophelia. “Frailty, thy name is woman!” he exclaims in soliloquy (1.2.146). Yet men are no better, as Hamlet knows from the example of Claudius or even of himself. “We are arrant knaves all; believe none of us,” he urges Ophelia (3.1.130). “Use every man after his desert, and who shall scape whipping?” he observes to Polonius (2.2.529—30). Custom is a “monster” (3.4.168) in Hamlet’s view, something that too readily produces the heavy drinking and lechery of his uncle or the sliding into complicity of his mother, though habit can also be enlisted more laboriously in the slow work of reform. Othello quickly surrenders to the evil innuendos of Iago—despite the happiness of Othello in his marriage and his awareness of what losing Desdemona will cost him—because Othello is all too ready to believe what Iago proposes: that women are corruptible, and that it would be “unnatural” for an attractive young white woman to continue loving an older black man once the novelty has worn off. Edmund’s practicing of evil against his brother and father in King Lear succeeds so well because Edmund, like Iago, is diabolically skillful at deception, and because villains who readily dispense with moral compunctions enjoy and inherent competitive advantage over those who obey an ethical code. The witches in Macbeth offer temptations that are explicitly diabolical: they entice Macbeth into giving his “eternal jewel,” his soul, to “the common enemy of man,” the devil, and they win because Macbeth consents knowingly to evil. The perpetrators of evil in these tragedies bear responsibility for their own crimes, and yet their inability to resist evil seems so profoundly human that their failure touches us all. The bleak prospect of a world in which there may be no gods and hence no restraints on human conduct is equally dismaying; the villains prosper, for a while at least, guided by this unsettling credo.
Shakespeare’s great tragedies do nonetheless offer a countervailing vision of goodness in which his virtuous characters believe, no matter what the cost to themselves. Hamlet knows that he is capable of evil like most people, that he can be vindictive and ruthless—indeed, he is commanded to avenge his father’s murder through some violent action. Yet he yearns to think well of the human race, so “noble in reason,” so “infinite in faculties,” the “beauty of the world” and the “paragon of animals” (2.2.305—8), and the resolution of his dilemma comes paradoxically when he has laid aside scheming and is ready to affirm that “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will” (5.2.10—11). Othello destroys Desdemona but cannot destroy her innocence. She must suffer, but her reputation is at last vindicated, while Iago’s evil is disclosed. Iago had wished to poison Othello’s mind forever against Desdemona, and to that extent he has failed. King Lear, though nominally pagan in setting, is filled with images of grace and charity offsetting those of depravity and hatred. Cordelia is, in the words of her husband-to-be (and of the Beatitudes, Matthew 5:1—12), “most rich being poor, / Most choice, forsaken, and most loved, despised” (1.1.254—5). She too must be sacrificed wantonly and unnecessarily, but the unselfish love she offers is a gift that no evil can undo. Erotic love and marriage are presented in negative terms in King Lear, as are many filial and parental relationships as well, but the devastating selfishness in such instances is at least partly countered by other generous and unselfish attachments between parent and child, master and follower. King Lear leaves us in no doubt that we should prefer to be a Cordelia rather than a Goneril, an Edgar rather than an Edmund—however much innocent “fools” may suffer in the world. Macbeth’s crime unnerves us because it is so representatively human, and yet this play shows that humanity can also produce a Duncan, a Macduff, and an English king able to cure by the touch of his hand (43). The tragic world of these plays is a spiritual battleground in which failure is nearly universal, but in which our tragic response is tempered by the realization that one must understand evil if one is to resist it.
This early copy of a drawing by Johannes de Witt of the Swan Theatre in London (c. 1596), made by his friend Arend van Buchell, is the only surviving contemporary sketch of the interior of a public theater in the 1590s.