Ever since Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy the theatrical tragedy took off exponentially quickly becoming the most popular and most common genre amongst playwrights. From Shakespeare to the Greek Classics there is an abundance of tragedies to choose from but a few live in the minds of our writers as being the ultimate tragedy.
Whenever readers think of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, the likes of Hamlet, Macbeth, and Romeo and Juliet are usually the first three that come to people’s minds. However, only slightly more obscure but not unrecognisable by any means, King Lear is a unique outing into Shakespeare’s tragic line-up for its constantly humorous undertones and offering of a narrative that backdrops the domestic against a much larger picture. A tale that chiefly concerns a love between a father and his daughters, King Lear is an excellent study of wounded pride, arrogance and blinding rage which contemplates the lengths we are willing to force unto others in order to prove our own importance. It’s a tragedy not unlike Macbeth for its scale and disaster, but what sets it apart is its stakes of love and regret that arguably rivals those of Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet. It’s a play that’s utterly gripping, as its tragic hero of Lear himself is reduced to mockery and laughter as he realises those he suspected of loving him only used him, and those who loved him were the ones he pushed away. Despite the fallout of the play’s ending, its tragedy derives from filial love, a theme that’s beautifully transposed even onto modern-day audiences.
Perhaps one of Shakespeare’s most unknown tragedies its certainly tailored to those with a high tolerance for gore, I’m talking lead-lined stomachs. The tale itself is one of non-stop pot boiling horrors which keep you on the edge of your seat during this catalogue of abominations which has a tragedy every 97 lines and scores high on the vomit meter. There’s a staggering 14 killings, dismemberment and a brutal rape, quite unappealing unless you have a flair for the melodramatic. The beginning of the play sees Titus, a Roman Emperor, returns for ten years at war with only 4 of 25 sons he originally left with (25 sons, wild right?) Hew has captured Tamora Queen of the Goths, her three sons and Aaron the Moor. In obedience to ancient Roman rituals theres a sacrifice at the very beginning in the first act which is where the evil and damning hatred for Titus manifests. In all its bloody splendour Titus is shown to spiral down a damning route of heinous murder and sacrifice in his pursuit for power and authority.
The Duchess of Malfi
John Webster’s ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ is a tragedy that is often overlooked and gravely underrated as it often finds itself wrongfully drowning in a sea of Shakespeare. ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ focuses on the title character – a fierce female protagonist attempting to escape the corrupting and controlling grasp of her two power hungry brothers. The play is quintessentially tragic, full to the brim of desire, violence, corruption and incest (Yes, incest).
Despite being a 17th century play it’s easy to read, yet beautifully rich in its language – unlike some other Early Modern plays. Webster’s characters are multi-dimensional and ultimately open to interpretation. There are many spectacular performances that have done them justice, the best being the 2014 production at The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse starring Gemma Arterton.
This is definitely one for Shakespeare lovers, will easily satisfy a drama fan and is a fabulous gateway into Renaissance drama – if it’s new to you, this is a perfect place to start.
I’ve always preferred the Shakespearian tragedies to those from the Ancient Greeks; but as much as the comedy is brash and definitely not pre-watershed material, it is the tragedies that keep us enthralled. They continue to inspire our creatives and give some explanations to the wider world.
Sadly, barely any of the Greek plays survived the two and a half thousand years between their first performances and our curious eyes, but from those that we still have we can see mythology and legends teaching and commenting on daily life – so safe to say not much has changed in that time! From Aeschylus defining what went into tragedies and his most famous play Prometheus Bound, to Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and more, we are still enamoured with the plays; there is just something about the trials and tribulations written and performed for millennia that find a small connection to peoples no longer around.
The hamartia of these tragic plots and the lessons learned they (if any at all between the murder and far worse) just go to show that, for all of our technical advancements, humans still find a fascination with the same stories.