Shakespearean Tragedy
and Modern Tragedy: An Inverse


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II M.A English

St. Mary’s college


            Most people know
tragedy as a disaster or misfortune but in literature it mainly refers to a
somber theme that ends in a tragic or unfortunate ending. Tragedy contains
catharsis which is when a writer evokes pity, fear and other strong emotions in
the audience.

Shakespearean tragedy is a play penned by Shakespeare himself or by
another writer in the style of Shakespeare. Shakespearean tragedy has got its
own specific features, which distinguish it from other kinds of tragedies. It
must be kept in mind that Shakespeare is mostly indebted to Aristotle’s theory
of tragedy in his tragedies. In Aristotle’s opinion a tragic hero is a man who is not eminently
good or just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity,
but by some error or frailty.

is a Greek word for “sin” or “error”, which derives from the verb hamatanein, meaning “to err”
or “to miss the mark”. In simple words, it is also called Tragic Flaw. Hamartia
is another important element of a Shakespearean tragedy. All of his heroes or
heroines fall due to some flaw in their character.

hero is another significant element of a Shakespearean tragedy. Shakespearean
tragedy is considered as a One Man Show. It is the story of one or two
characters, who may be hero or heroine. It is a story of one man or a woman,
who suffers due to some flaw in their character or due to their inevitable
fate. Whatever may be the case, the hero is the most tragic personality in his
tragedies. According to Bradley, “It is essentially a tale of suffering and
calamity conducting to death.” Usually the hero has to face death in
the end. An important feature of tragic hero is that he is a towering
personality in his state or locality. He hails from elite stratum of society
and holds high position in his state. Tragic heroes are kings, princes or
military generals, who are very important for their states. The traditional
tragic hero must be extraordinary in rank and deed of “high estate”, “great
reputation and prosperity”. For instance, in “Othello” the hero is of noble
character, a king. Othello is a highly successful general in the Venetian army
with many heroic adventures in his past.

            Shakespearean tragedies preserve the
unities of one time span, one setting, and one story. Shakespearean tragedy
contains a lot of characters. Other character shows less impact in drama
compared to the protagonist. Of social class in tragedies, Shakespearean
tragedies are mainly from the royal or elite families. For example: Othello,
Hamlet. The incident of a tragedy rotates with the protagonist. Modern
tragedies mainly focus upon the life of common people. Characters are mainly
from middle class. In modern tragedy, the style of tragedy greatly changed after
the World War II. Fewer characters, less bloodshed, off stage death and much
use of irony became trend. Each of the roles in modern tragedy became

The common elements of a tragedy are Hamartia which
means fatal flaw. Catharsis, that is purging of emotions mainly pity and fear.
Hubris shows excessive pride. Peripeteia refers to sudden turn of events.
Anagnorisis which means self-recognition. Distinguishing Shakespeare’s
“Othello” from that of T.S.Eliot’s modern drama “Murder in the Cathedral”,
Shakespeare’s tragedy contains Hamertia which leads to Catharsis that purge
emotions of pity and fear. T.S.Eliot’s drama contains the element of hubris,
Peripeteia and Anagnorisis.

            The tragic hero Othello can be
considered a noble character because of his high social ranking and he has a genuine
heart. Othello, despite coming from a rough past, is an honorable war hero and
the general of the Venetian army. Along with his social stature, Othello also
has a noble heart. Although he is sometimes portrayed as violent, Othello’s
loving nature can be seen in instances such as when he speaks about Desdemona.
These traits are greatly admired among characters of Othello including
Iago who admits that Othello is “of a constant loving, noble nature and will
prove to Desdemona A most dear husband” (2.1.290-292). Othello’s nobility is
quite evident; however, he does have traits that can be viewed as tragic flaws.

makes Othello a tragic hero is he experiences a tragic downfall. Othello’s
downfall is set into motion when the jealous Iago begins planting seeds of
doubt into Othello’s already insecure mind. Iago’s manipulative words convince
Othello that his wife is unfaithful; from then on he begins to lose his noble
traits. He treats his wife with little to no respect and eventually smothers
her to death. When Iago’s plot is finally unveiled and Othello realizes his
terrible mistake, it is evident he has reached his emotional limit: “Whip me,
ye devils, From the possession of this heavenly sight! Blow me about in winds,
roast me in sulfur, Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire!—Oh, Desdemona!
Desdemona! dead! Oh! Oh!” (5.2.286-290). In his distraught state of mind and
with his broken heart, Othello decides to kill himself. With one fatal stab,
this hero’s tale comes to a tragic end.

is a tragic hero because he is noble, he suffers from a fatal tragic flaw and
he goes through a tragic downfall. All these traits that Othello exhibits lead
him to be known as one of the most well-known tragic heroes in all of

is a revival of an unpopular and discussed form while the others were the
favoured and popular modes of drama in their eras. They are similar, though, in
that each drew on other sources, some drew on history, like Shakespeare’s
history dramas,and some on legend or tale like Dr.Faustus. The
thematic concerns are somewhat different in that while all discuss important
weighty themes, Eliot turns his two themes of the spirit versus the flesh and
obedience into vehicles that illustrate then contemporary issues such as
privacy and religious intrusion into individuals’ lives.

In T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral can detach
various elements of tragedy. The chorus is an outstanding tragic element,
foretelling what is going to happen and commenting on what has already
happened. The chorus of the Women of Canterbury separates the action and acts
as evaluators of the events. In the beginning their speech is explanatory of circumstances.
There is expectancy on the part of the chorus as to future events. They wait;
they are passive. Their second speech, after the appearance of the tempters,
shows fear at what they feel is inevitably going to happen to the Archbishop
and consequently to the people. At the beginning of the second act, waiting is
mingled with fear, to be followed by the chorus’ acceptance of the inevitable.
The last pronouncement of the chorus comes when the Archbishop is being
murdered; we can clearly feel the hopelessness in their words; the horror of
the deed which is being performed and their cry for the cleansing of souls.

            Murder in the Cathedral opens in the
Archbishop’s Hall on December 2nd, 1170. A chores comprising women of Canterbury, has gathered at the
cathedral with some premonition of a terrible event to come. In a long speech,
they reflect on how their lives are defined by suffering and reflect on their
archbishop, Thomas Becket. He has been in exile from England for seven years,
after a terrible clash with King Henry II. The women worry that his return
could make their lives more difficult by angering the king. Three priests enter
the hall and also lament Thomas’s absence and debate the consequences of his
potential return.

A series of tempters
enters, one by one, each attempting to compromise Thomas’s integrity. The First Tempter reminds
Thomas of the libertine ways of his youth and tempts him to relinquish his
responsibilities in favor of a more carefree life. The Second Tempter suggests
Thomas reclaim the title of Chancellor, since he could do more good for the
poor through a powerful political post than he could as a religious figure. The Third Tempter posits
a progressive form of government, in which a ruler and barons work together as
a “coalition.” In effect, he offers Thomas a chance to rule and break new
ground in government. Thomas easily rejects all three tempters; after all, they
are forms of temptation that he has already rejected in his life.

A Fourth Tempter enters
and suggests the idea of martyrdom, which he notes would give Thomas the
greatest dominion over his enemies. He would be remembered throughout the ages
if he allowed himself to die for the church, while his enemies would be judged
and then forgotten by time. Thomas is shaken by this temptation, since it is
something he has often entertained in his private moments. He recognizes that
to die for pride, which is “the wrong reason,” would compromise the integrity
of martyrdom, so he must overcome that impulse if his death is to have meaning.

Between Part I and Part II, Thomas Becket preaches a sermon in an
Interlude, in which he restates the lesson he learned at the end of Part I. In
the sermon, Thomas considers the mystery of Christianity, which both mourns and
celebrates the fact of Christ’s death – Christians mourn the world that made it
necessary, while celebrating the sacrifice that enables others to transcend
that world. He suggests that the appreciation of martyrs is a smaller version
of that mystery, and defines “the true martyr as he who has become the
instrument of God, who has lost his will in the will of God, not lost it but
found it, for he has found freedom in his submission to God” (199). He closes
his sermon by admitting he might not preach to this congregation again.

Thomas arrives and is immediately insulted and chided by the knights
for what they perceive as disloyalty toward Henry and misuse of the archbishop’s
position to incite opposition to England. Thomas denies their interpretation of
events but also reveals a serenity and readiness to die when necessary. The
knights attempt to attack him but are interrupted by the priests. A more
specific political argument follows, during which Thomas continues to deny
their claims and insults them as overly concerned with petty, political matters.
Angry, the knights threaten the priests with death if they let Becket escape,
and then the knights leave.

The Chorus gives a brutal, evocative speech, and Thomas comforts
them. He acknowledges that by bearing necessary witness to the ritual of his
death, their lives will grow more difficult. But he maintains that they can
find comfort in recollection on having been here this fateful day. As the
knights approach again, the priests beg Thomas to flee, but he refuses. The
knights force him from the hall and into the cathedral, against his
protestations. As the scene changes, the women of the Chorus steel themselves
for the death soon to follow.

The priests bar the doors, which the knights then begin to besiege.
The priests’ arguments do not convince Thomas, who accuses them of thinking too
much of cause-and-effect, rather than accepting God’s plan. Finally, the
priests open the door and the knights drunkenly enter. They demand Thomas lift
all the excommunications he has put upon English rulers. He refuses, and they
murder him. While Thomas is being murdered, the Chorus gives a long, desperate
address lamenting the life they will now have to lead in the shadow of Thomas’s

Once the knights leave, the priests lament Thomas’s death and worry
about what the world will become. The Chorus gives the final speech, revealing
that they have accepted their duty as Christians. They acknowledge that living
up to the sacrifice Thomas made is difficult, but that they will be spiritually
richer for undertaking this challenge, and they beg mercy and forgiveness from
Thomas and God.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket was exiled from England by King
Henry II due to political
conflicts which occurred between them seven years before the beginning of the
play. Having spent those years in France, Becket has decided to return to
England and take up his old position in the Church. Symbolically hinted at by
the fact that he’s the only character given a proper name in the play, Becket
is the central pivot point of Murder in the Cathedral, meaning that every other
character can be defined in terms of how they relate to Becket’s character and
outlook. Becket’s staunch devotion to God and fate over anything that occurs in
the everyday world of human social and political affairs makes him into
something of a black hole around which the otherwise ordinary humans
surrounding him revolve. Mirroring the second tempter’s position, the king is
totally opposed to Becket’s devotion to God, as Henry II only cares about his
own, political power over and above that of God. The knights follow in the king’s footsteps,
murdering Becket because they think his devotion to God is too radical and
politically rebellious. Following through with his martyrdom, Becket shuns the
world of partial, human values and desires, sending a tectonic shock into the
lives around him.

Eliot brings the tragic element of
Hubris through his character Thomas Becket as he takes excessive pride. He has
been a proud man undoubtedly. In the days following his return, while he is
waiting for the attack which he knows must come, temptations throng his mind.
Temptations of the past revive: the appeal to the sense which he partly
indulged in his days of wielded during his Chancellorship. But later he gives
his temporal pride and lore of power. In his agony he acknowledges the spiritual
pride within him and humbles his will, emerging with the hard-won knowledge
that, as he says in the sermon, ‘the true martyr is he who has become the
instrument of god, who has lost his will in the will of god, and who no longer
desires anything for himself, not even the glory of being a martyr’. Becket’s
rejection of temporal power is ideal and heroic. He declares that spiritual
power is preferable to physical power.

The tragic hero of “Murder in the
Cathedral” Thomas Becket, differs from Aristotelian and Elizabethan tragic
heroes in that Eliot leaves him free of “tragic flaw”. He has no internal
weakness or failure of character that blinds him or misleads him, he commits no
tragic error in judgment; he has no ambitions that drive him into vain misdeeds,
etc. in addition, Becket’s death sets a new heroic style when his death is one
that fills the audience with the idea of peace and hope instead of pity and
agony. Eliot also divides the physical tragedy of Becket’s murder from the
spiritual reality of Becket’s life, which is that his spiritual life supersedes
his physical death.

Wide contrary ideas are
present in Eliot’s drama and Shakespeare’s drama. Eliot’s “Murder in the
Cathedral” is a divergent to Shakespeare’s “Othello” in a specific point that the
protagonist is from a high social rank and of good spirit. Othello being
tempted turns jealous which acts as a great flaw in his own character. His flaw
brings to his own downfall. Eliot, however, reacts against the traditional
concept of the tragic hero. His protagonist Thomas Becket is flawless and
without any frailty.Becket who was pride at the beginning of the play turns good
with self realization. It is not that all tragedies bring pity and fear. Modern
tragedies are alternate as Eliot presents Becket to attain spiritual power that
brings satisfaction to the tragic hero as well as in the heart of the audience
beyond pity and agony.


Bradley, A. C. Shakespearean
Tragedy. London: MacMillan, 1964.

Eliot, T. S. Murder
in the Cathedral. Agra: Lakshmi Narain Agarwal Education pub, 1970. Print

Fraser, G. S. The
Modern Writer and his World. Great Britain: Penguin Books, 1972. Print.

Steiner, George. The
Death of Tragedy. London, Boston: Faber and Faber, 1978.


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