When we use the word tragedy to describe a Shakespearean play, we are referring foremost to its designation in the First Folio, which divided Shakespeare’s body of work into three genres: tragedy, comedy, and history. In Shakespeare’s time, the term “tragedy” was most closely associated with a set of dramatic conventions established by the ancient Greeks and most famously theorized by Aristotle in his Poetics. According to Aristotle, a tragedy should center on a protagonist of noble birth, such as a prince or a queen. Though high born, the protagonist of a tragedy has what Aristotle called hamartia, or a tragic flaw. A tragic flaw is a negative character trait, like excessive pride or jealousy, which causes the protagonist to follow a dangerous path in pursuit of something they aren’t supposed to want. Along this path, the protagonist makes errors of judgement that bring chaos to their community, resulting in the protagonist’s own isolation, suffering, and eventual downfall. Typically in tragedy the protagonist recognizes their mistakes, but only once it’s too late. The ancient Greeks believed tragedy had a social value because the audience shares closely in the hero’s suffering and, once the drama is over, experiences an emotional release known as catharsis.
Similar to the classic Greek tragedies, Shakespeare’s tragedies almost always feature a noble-born hero who makes a mistake, with disastrous consequences for both the hero and the larger community. King Lear, for instance, tells the story of a well-respected ruler who has an unreasonable desire for his daughters to express their unconditional love for him. Unable to see through his eldest daughters’ lies, he makes the terrible mistake of bequeathing his kingdom to the wrong heirs. Lear’s error of judgment causes a great deal of suffering, and by the time he realizes his mistake many people have died, including Cordelia, his only honest daughter. Faced with his downfall, Lear himself dies of grief. Like Lear, many of Shakespeare’s other tragic heroes suffer from symbolic blindness. Othello’s blindness to an enemy’s malevolence leads him to trust the enemy more than his own wife. Macbeth’s blindness to the meaning of the witches’ prophecies convinces him he is invincible. In both cases, the protagonists’ failure to discern truth results in widespread confusion and multiple deaths—including their own.
Though Shakespeare was influenced by the norms of Greek tragedy, his tragedies do not adhere formulaically to the norms of Greek tragedy. For one thing, Shakespeare’s tragedies frequently contain many elements more typical of comedy. This endows Shakespearean tragedies like Hamlet with more psychological complexity and emotional variety than traditional Greek tragedies. Shakespeare also gives traditional tragic themes a new spin. Consider the theme of fate. In conventional tragedies fate often plays an important role in determining the hero’s actions. Shakespeare certainly uses fate as a theme in his tragedies, though sometimes in unexpected forms. In Macbeth, for instance, fate assumes a supernatural form in the trio of prophesying witches. Shakespeare also complicates the theme of fate by emphasizing the protagonists’ inner turmoil more than the play of external forces. In Romeo and Juliet, though the famed lovers are described as “star-crossed” and hence marked for a tragic fate, it remains debatable whether they have made a fatal error that led to their downfall, or whether their tragic ends represent the sacrifices necessary to get the warring Montagues and Capulets to acknowledge the folly of their feud. Such complications make it unclear whether Shakespeare’s tragedies offer the same kind of catharsis that Greek tragedies were said to provide.