When we use the word tragedy to describe a Shakespearean play, we are referring to its designation in the First Folio, but more importantly, we mean that the play fits a set of dramatic conventions established by the ancient Greeks. Calling King Lear a tragedy doesn’t just mean that it is sad, (although it is.) Lear is a tragedy because, like all the Shakespeare’s tragedies, it tells a story of an admirable character who makes a terrible mistake. This mistake causes suffering for the character and chaos for his community. In King Lear, Lear gives his kingdom to the wrong heirs. By the time he realizes his mistake many characters are dead, and Lear dies of grief. The ancient Greeks believed tragedy was useful because the audience experienced catharsis, or emotional release, through the hero’s suffering. The mistake that the hero makes is called a hamartia. Hamartia comes from a Greek word that can be translated as to err, or to miss the mark. Most classic tragic heroes suffer from hubris, or the arrogant belief that they are immune to negative consequences for their actions, and this hubris contributes to their hamartias. Fate also often plays a role in the hero’s actions: many tragedies explore the tension between the role of fate versus free will.
Similar to the classic Greek plays, Shakespeare’s twelve tragedies almost always feature a noble-born hero who makes a mistake, with disastrous consequences for both the hero and the larger community. In addition to hubris, Shakespeare’s tragic heroes often suffer from symbolic blindness. Othello’s blindness to an enemy’s malevolence leads him to trust the enemy more than his own wife. Lear’s blindness to his daughters’ true feelings causes him to gives his kingdom to the wrong heirs. Macbeth’s blindness to the meaning of the witches’ prophecies convinces him he is invincible. Fate, often represented by the supernatural (such as the witches in Macbeth ,) still plays a role, although many of Shakespeare’s plays emphasize the protagonists’ inner turmoil more than external forces. Romeo and Juliet proves the exception to many of these rules: the heroes are not royals, and it is arguable whether they have made a fatal error leading to their downfall, or whether their tragic ends function as sacrificial deaths necessary for the warring families to acknowledge the folly of their feud.
Shakespeare’s Tragedies: Titus Andronicus , Romeo and Juliet , Julius Caesar , Hamlet , Othello , King Lear , Troilus and Cressida , Macbeth , Antony and Cleopatra , Timon of Athens , Coriolanus , Cymbeline