Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Shakespeare Tragedy Themes and Analysis

 There are many issues, situations, and traits that create most of the elements of tragedy that are featured in the literary works William Shakespeare. These common elements include poor leadership decisions, abdication of power, prophetic warnings, identity struggles, and preservation of honor at all costs. .The people in these tragedies are often victims or creators of these issues and circumstances causing their eventual downfall and destruction.
Poor leadership is a theme that is found throughout the Shakespearean tragedies that are being discussed in class. Titus Andronicus demonstrates poor leadership when he decides to refuse the throne of Rome yielding to the evil Saturninus. The theme of poor leadership runs throughout Titus Andronicus as the tragic hero continues to make one poor leadership decision after another. The war hero Titus Andronicus returns victorious in his wars against the Goths. He executes one of the sons of the Queen of the Goths in an act of revenge and a display of state sponsored revenge. This seals his fate because it sets the wheels of doom in motion. Likewise, Cassius persuades Brutus to join a conspiracy to kill Julius Caesar. Brutus’ tragic error in Julius Caesar was to trust Cassius, but even after the murder, Brutus allows Mark Antony to speak, further convincing the people that his cause was not just. This was just a poor leadership decision on Brutus’ part. In King Lear, the tragic King divides his kingdom among his daughters, Regan and Goneril, and sends Cordelia, the only daughter with actual loyalty away from him forever to be banished. The result is tragic for King Lear after his daughters take control of his Kingdom and cast out their father. When Lear rages against the storm he states, “I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness. I never gave you kingdom, called you children, you owe me no subscription” (3.2.16-18). He expects harsh treatment from the storm but not his own daughters. Poor leadership leads to Macbeth’s demise in Macbeth. He allows Lady Macbeth to convince him kill the Duncan so that he might take the throne. Macbeth has given up his leadership for a thirst for power. He convinces himself that he is invincible and believes that no man born of a woman can kill him. A poor leadership decision has led him to the final battle with Macduff.
  Shakespeare explores the concept of abdication of power and responsibility in his tragic work, Hamlet. The Prince of Denmark is being called upon to avenge the death of his father and remove the usurper of the throne. Hamlet can make no decisions concerning revenge and abdicates his power in exchange for non-commitment to do what is right. Hamlet trades his potential for power for weakness as he states, “Out of my weakness, and my melancholy, as he is very potent with such spirits, abuses me to damn me, (2.2.600-05). The abdication of power is Mark Antony’s undoing in Antony and Cleopatra. Antony refuses to take responsibility for Rome and its protection, preferring Cleopatra’s companionship over power. It is only after it is too late that he makes an appearance in Rome. He certainly abdicates his power when he leaves a battle on the sea to follow a fleeing Cleopatra. In the same spirit of the willful loss of power, Titus Andronicus chooses to retire rather than claim the throne which appears to be the will of the people. He excuses himself using his age as a reason when he proclaims, “A better head her glorious body fits than his that shakes for age and feebleness” (1.1 187-88). King Lear relinquishes his power and his throne when he attempts to illicit flowery responses from his daughters. He gives up responsibility as King as he listens to his daughters falsely flatter him one by one.
Prophetic warnings are a common element in Shakespearean tragedy. The most famous prophetic warning in Julius Caesar of course is spoken by a soothsayer when he warns, “beware the ides of march” (1. scene 2. 15–19). The prophesy warning of Caesar’s impending doom went ignored. In contrast, the witches in Macbeth, prophesy to the tragic hero that he will be named Thane of Cawdor. Macbeth is very interested in this prophesy and goes about to do whatever it takes to get to the throne. His lust for the throne is his destruction. Prince Hamlet is warned from beyond the grave by his dead father and a task is given to Hamlet when he admonishes him to, “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder” (1.5.5). Hamlet does not heed the otherworldly orders for revenge and pays with his life at the end of the play. In Romeo and Juliet, the prophetic nature of what is yet to come is only known by the audience and the characters do not share this knowledge. The prologue narrator ominously warns, “A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life” (pro.6). He further prophesies that only through this action will the two warring families make peace with each other.
Many of Shakespeare’s tragic characters struggle with personal identity. The search for who they are and their place on the earth often ends poorly. Julius Caesar has convinced himself that he is a god, and that he is invincible and never changes. He states with an arrogant demeanor, “"I am constant as the northern star, Of whose true-fix'd and resting quality There is no fellow in the firmament”(3.1.60-62). Othello deals with the demon of jealousy throughout the entire play, as the evil Iago plants doubt in Othello’s mind. This otherwise brave and honorable military hero is transformed into a jealous, murdering wreck of a man. His struggle with identity is hampered by his belief in the truthfulness of Iago. The most famous Shakespearean struggle with identity is Prince Hamlet. His inability to execute his plan for revenge and his question “to be or not to be”, is evidence of a personal struggle with identity. He is unable to take decisive action until these things are resolved. Likewise, Mark Antony’s identity was wrapped up the success of Roman conquests until his meeting with Cleopatra. His identity now is being with the Egyptian queen and her desires. His attitude toward Rome is summed up in the statement, “Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch Of the ranged empire fall! Here is my space. Kingdoms are clay” (1.1.33-35).
The preservation of honor at any cost is the cause of the sad ending of many of the tragic Shakespearean heroes. In regards to Othello, he is proud of his honor and his conquests in battle, and especially proud of the appearance that he presents with the beautiful daughter of an Italian Senator. Iago’s inference of Desdemona's affair with another man injured his pride more than jealousy. The killing of his wife is to preserve honor as well as the result of jealousy. Another example of this concept is the understanding that Romeo must preserve his honor in response to the killing of Mercutio.  He kills Tybalt, one of Juliet’s kinsmen in response causing a series of catastrophic events. Romeo realizes his mistake when he cries, “O, I am fortune's fool, (3.1.132). Titus Andronicus attempts to preserve his honor through a series of bad ideas designed to make him look honorable in the eyes of the people. He refuses the crown, and submits to Saturninus. He executes Tamora’s son in a ritual killing to preserve the honor of his dead sons. Titus gives Lavinia to the evil emperor and later kills her to defend her honor.  Julius Caesar was warned of his impending doom by a soothsayer and also the promptings of his wife that he should not go to the Roman Senate on that day. Caesar is sure that he will be offered the crown on this day and has been issued a challenge of one his decisions and does not wish to be dishonored by not attending  His need for preservation of honor is what forces him to the place of his assassination.
     There are many issues, situations, and traits that create most of the elements of tragedy in the works discussed in class. These common elements include poor leadership decisions, abdication of power, prophetic warnings, identity struggles, and preservation of honor at all costs.