What are the chief characteristics of Renaissance tragedy?
As Susan Wise Bauer explains in The Well-Educated Mind, the chief characteristic of Renaissance tragedies was personality. Medieval mystery and morality plays had emphasized universal concepts such as virtue, vice, and humanity; they did not focus on the individual. (The most popular morality play, for instance, was titled Everyman.)
The Renaissance—influenced by humanism—emphasized "a free individual with power to act in the world and change it." The main character in a Renaissance tragedy was a person "full of complexities, ambitions, and potential" (Wise Bauer, 248). In short, Renaissance drama got rid of "flat" characters and reintroduced "dynamic" ones.
Since the Renaissance was optimistic about humanity's plight, one might have expected Renaissance dramas to exhibit primarily happy endings. However, the major Renaissance playwrights—specifically William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe—seemed somewhat skeptical of humanism. Tragedy flourished during the Renaissance. As Wise Bauer comments:
Shakespeare writes comedies, tragedies, and histories—but he never writes victories....Shakespeare's heroes are free, but they are far from happy (249).
Here are two examples: Macbeth was free to pursue his ambitions, but attaining his goals did not make him happy. Hamlet was a complex individual caught in a tragic circumstance; he had autonomy (he could decide whether or not to kill the man who murdered his father), but this freedom could not stop him from ending up dead at the play's end.
This rich period in English literary history featured stage presentations that appealed to all classes of people. Following the Aristotelian rules of tragedy (a hero falling from a high place due to a flaw, etc.) and began the literary tradition of applying personality traits in full dimension to stock characters, the invention of “character”. One special feature of virtually all Elizabethan tragedies is the “personification of a tragic flaw” – for example, Iago in Othello (jealousy) and Lady Macbeth in Macbeth (ambition or pride). The structure of English tragedies called for a restructuring of historical incidents into fictive tales with cathartic endings, and were meant to frighten the audience into proper emotional behavior. Later tragedies became too “bloody” to appeal to sophisticated audiences.