What is Shakespeare's concept of tragedy?

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Doug Stuva | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Shakespeare inherited his concept of tragedy from ancient Greece and Rome, as well as contemporary writers that wrote just before him or simultaneously with him.  Tragedy should involve a tragic figure with great power.  The figure must possess enough power to do great harm.  The average individual doesn't have that kind of power, so a member of royalty usually serves as the tragic figure.

This tragic figure must possess a tragic flaw that leads to his downfall.  Ambition, for example, is Macbeth's flaw.  Hamlet's inability to act is his.  If Hamlet were more single-minded and had achieved his revenge as soon as he was sure Claudius was guilty, the tragedy at the conclusion of the play could have been avoided. 

Macbeth is a more traditional tragedy, more classical.  Hamlet, however, transcends the traditional.  Shakespeare takes what he inherited from others and goes beyond it in Hamlet by creating a tragic character who is extremely complex.

Finally, the tragedy should create a cleansing, a catharsis, not only in the play's setting (Denmark in Hamlet), but in the audience.

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