Shakespearean Tragedyand Modern Tragedy: An Inverse                                                                    L.

ShakerniII M.A EnglishLiteratureSt. Mary’s college(Autonomous)Thoothukudi            Most people knowtragedy as a disaster or misfortune but in literature it mainly refers to asomber theme that ends in a tragic or unfortunate ending. Tragedy containscatharsis which is when a writer evokes pity, fear and other strong emotions inthe audience.Shakespearean tragedy is a play penned by Shakespeare himself or byanother writer in the style of Shakespeare.

Shakespearean tragedy has got itsown specific features, which distinguish it from other kinds of tragedies. Itmust be kept in mind that Shakespeare is mostly indebted to Aristotle’s theoryof tragedy in his tragedies. In Aristotle’s opinion a tragic hero is a man who is not eminentlygood or just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity,but by some error or frailty.Hamartiais 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. Hamartiais another important element of a Shakespearean tragedy. All of his heroes orheroines fall due to some flaw in their character.Tragichero is another significant element of a Shakespearean tragedy.

Shakespeareantragedy is considered as a One Man Show. It is the story of one or twocharacters, 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 inevitablefate.

Whatever may be the case, the hero is the most tragic personality in histragedies. According to Bradley, “It is essentially a tale of suffering andcalamity conducting to death.” Usually the hero has to face death inthe end. An important feature of tragic hero is that he is a toweringpersonality in his state or locality. He hails from elite stratum of societyand holds high position in his state. Tragic heroes are kings, princes ormilitary generals, who are very important for their states.

The traditionaltragic hero must be extraordinary in rank and deed of “high estate”, “greatreputation and prosperity”. For instance, in “Othello” the hero is of noblecharacter, a king. Othello is a highly successful general in the Venetian armywith many heroic adventures in his past.            Shakespearean tragedies preserve theunities of one time span, one setting, and one story.

Shakespearean tragedycontains a lot of characters. Other character shows less impact in dramacompared to the protagonist. Of social class in tragedies, Shakespeareantragedies are mainly from the royal or elite families. For example: Othello,Hamlet. The incident of a tragedy rotates with the protagonist.

Moderntragedies mainly focus upon the life of common people. Characters are mainlyfrom middle class. In modern tragedy, the style of tragedy greatly changed afterthe World War II. Fewer characters, less bloodshed, off stage death and muchuse of irony became trend.

Each of the roles in modern tragedy becameimportant.The common elements of a tragedy are Hamartia whichmeans 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 purgeemotions of pity and fear. T.S.Eliot’s drama contains the element of hubris,Peripeteia and Anagnorisis.            The tragic hero Othello can beconsidered a noble character because of his high social ranking and he has a genuineheart. Othello, despite coming from a rough past, is an honorable war hero andthe general of the Venetian army.

Along with his social stature, Othello alsohas a noble heart. Although he is sometimes portrayed as violent, Othello’sloving nature can be seen in instances such as when he speaks about Desdemona.These traits are greatly admired among characters of Othello includingIago who admits that Othello is “of a constant loving, noble nature and willprove to Desdemona A most dear husband” (2.1.

290-292). Othello’s nobility isquite evident; however, he does have traits that can be viewed as tragic flaws.Whatmakes Othello a tragic hero is he experiences a tragic downfall. Othello’sdownfall is set into motion when the jealous Iago begins planting seeds ofdoubt into Othello’s already insecure mind. Iago’s manipulative words convinceOthello that his wife is unfaithful; from then on he begins to lose his nobletraits. He treats his wife with little to no respect and eventually smothersher to death. When Iago’s plot is finally unveiled and Othello realizes histerrible 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 andwith his broken heart, Othello decides to kill himself. With one fatal stab,this hero’s tale comes to a tragic end.Othellois a tragic hero because he is noble, he suffers from a fatal tragic flaw andhe goes through a tragic downfall. All these traits that Othello exhibits leadhim to be known as one of the most well-known tragic heroes in all ofliterature.T.S.

Eliotis a revival of an unpopular and discussed form while the others were thefavoured and popular modes of drama in their eras. They are similar, though, inthat each drew on other sources, some drew on history, like Shakespeare’shistory dramas,and some on legend or tale like Dr.Faustus. Thethematic concerns are somewhat different in that while all discuss importantweighty themes, Eliot turns his two themes of the spirit versus the flesh andobedience into vehicles that illustrate then contemporary issues such asprivacy and religious intrusion into individuals’ lives.In T.S.

Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral can detachvarious elements of tragedy. The chorus is an outstanding tragic element,foretelling what is going to happen and commenting on what has alreadyhappened. The chorus of the Women of Canterbury separates the action and actsas 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 Archbishopand consequently to the people. At the beginning of the second act, waiting ismingled with fear, to be followed by the chorus’ acceptance of the inevitable.The last pronouncement of the chorus comes when the Archbishop is beingmurdered; we can clearly feel the hopelessness in their words; the horror ofthe deed which is being performed and their cry for the cleansing of souls.            Murder in the Cathedral opens in theArchbishop’s Hall on December 2nd, 1170. A chores comprising women of Canterbury, has gathered at thecathedral 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 theirarchbishop, 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 returncould make their lives more difficult by angering the king. Three priests enterthe hall and also lament Thomas’s absence and debate the consequences of hispotential return. A series of temptersenters, one by one, each attempting to compromise Thomas’s integrity. The First Tempter remindsThomas of the libertine ways of his youth and tempts him to relinquish hisresponsibilities in favor of a more carefree life. The Second Tempter suggestsThomas reclaim the title of Chancellor, since he could do more good for thepoor through a powerful political post than he could as a religious figure. The Third Tempter positsa progressive form of government, in which a ruler and barons work together asa “coalition.

” In effect, he offers Thomas a chance to rule and break newground in government. Thomas easily rejects all three tempters; after all, theyare forms of temptation that he has already rejected in his life.A Fourth Tempter entersand suggests the idea of martyrdom, which he notes would give Thomas thegreatest dominion over his enemies. He would be remembered throughout the agesif he allowed himself to die for the church, while his enemies would be judgedand then forgotten by time. Thomas is shaken by this temptation, since it issomething he has often entertained in his private moments. He recognizes thatto die for pride, which is “the wrong reason,” would compromise the integrityof 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 anInterlude, in which he restates the lesson he learned at the end of Part I. Inthe sermon, Thomas considers the mystery of Christianity, which both mourns andcelebrates the fact of Christ’s death – Christians mourn the world that made itnecessary, while celebrating the sacrifice that enables others to transcendthat world.

He suggests that the appreciation of martyrs is a smaller versionof that mystery, and defines “the true martyr as he who has become theinstrument of God, who has lost his will in the will of God, not lost it butfound it, for he has found freedom in his submission to God” (199). He closeshis sermon by admitting he might not preach to this congregation again.Thomas arrives and is immediately insulted and chided by the knightsfor what they perceive as disloyalty toward Henry and misuse of the archbishop’sposition to incite opposition to England. Thomas denies their interpretation ofevents but also reveals a serenity and readiness to die when necessary. Theknights attempt to attack him but are interrupted by the priests. A morespecific political argument follows, during which Thomas continues to denytheir 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 comfortsthem.

He acknowledges that by bearing necessary witness to the ritual of hisdeath, their lives will grow more difficult. But he maintains that they canfind comfort in recollection on having been here this fateful day. As theknights approach again, the priests beg Thomas to flee, but he refuses. Theknights force him from the hall and into the cathedral, against hisprotestations. As the scene changes, the women of the Chorus steel themselvesfor 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 toomuch of cause-and-effect, rather than accepting God’s plan. Finally, thepriests open the door and the knights drunkenly enter. They demand Thomas liftall the excommunications he has put upon English rulers. He refuses, and theymurder him. While Thomas is being murdered, the Chorus gives a long, desperateaddress lamenting the life they will now have to lead in the shadow of Thomas’smartyrdom.Once the knights leave, the priests lament Thomas’s death and worryabout what the world will become. The Chorus gives the final speech, revealingthat they have accepted their duty as Christians. They acknowledge that livingup to the sacrifice Thomas made is difficult, but that they will be spirituallyricher for undertaking this challenge, and they beg mercy and forgiveness fromThomas and God.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket was exiled from England by KingHenry II due to politicalconflicts which occurred between them seven years before the beginning of theplay. Having spent those years in France, Becket has decided to return toEngland and take up his old position in the Church. Symbolically hinted at bythe fact that he’s the only character given a proper name in the play, Becketis the central pivot point of Murder in the Cathedral, meaning that every othercharacter can be defined in terms of how they relate to Becket’s character andoutlook. Becket’s staunch devotion to God and fate over anything that occurs inthe everyday world of human social and political affairs makes him intosomething of a black hole around which the otherwise ordinary humanssurrounding him revolve. Mirroring the second tempter’s position, the king istotally opposed to Becket’s devotion to God, as Henry II only cares about hisown, 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 andpolitically rebellious. Following through with his martyrdom, Becket shuns theworld of partial, human values and desires, sending a tectonic shock into thelives around him. Eliot brings the tragic element ofHubris through his character Thomas Becket as he takes excessive pride.

He hasbeen a proud man undoubtedly. In the days following his return, while he iswaiting for the attack which he knows must come, temptations throng his mind.Temptations of the past revive: the appeal to the sense which he partlyindulged in his days of wielded during his Chancellorship. But later he giveshis temporal pride and lore of power.

In his agony he acknowledges the spiritualpride within him and humbles his will, emerging with the hard-won knowledgethat, as he says in the sermon, ‘the true martyr is he who has become theinstrument of god, who has lost his will in the will of god, and who no longerdesires anything for himself, not even the glory of being a martyr’. Becket’srejection of temporal power is ideal and heroic. He declares that spiritualpower is preferable to physical power.The tragic hero of “Murder in theCathedral” Thomas Becket, differs from Aristotelian and Elizabethan tragicheroes in that Eliot leaves him free of “tragic flaw”. He has no internalweakness or failure of character that blinds him or misleads him, he commits notragic 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 onethat fills the audience with the idea of peace and hope instead of pity andagony. Eliot also divides the physical tragedy of Becket’s murder from thespiritual reality of Becket’s life, which is that his spiritual life supersedeshis physical death.

Wide contrary ideas arepresent in Eliot’s drama and Shakespeare’s drama. Eliot’s “Murder in theCathedral” is a divergent to Shakespeare’s “Othello” in a specific point that theprotagonist is from a high social rank and of good spirit. Othello beingtempted turns jealous which acts as a great flaw in his own character. His flawbrings to his own downfall.

Eliot, however, reacts against the traditionalconcept of the tragic hero. His protagonist Thomas Becket is flawless andwithout any frailty.Becket who was pride at the beginning of the play turns goodwith self realization. It is not that all tragedies bring pity and fear.

Moderntragedies are alternate as Eliot presents Becket to attain spiritual power thatbrings satisfaction to the tragic hero as well as in the heart of the audiencebeyond pity and agony.ReferenceBradley, A. C. ShakespeareanTragedy.

London: MacMillan, 1964.Eliot, T. S. Murderin the Cathedral.

Agra: Lakshmi Narain Agarwal Education pub, 1970. PrintFraser, G. S. TheModern Writer and his World. Great Britain: Penguin Books, 1972. Print.

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


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