Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama

Start Free Trial

What are the characteristics of Elizabethan tragedy, specifically in Shakespeare's works?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Elizabethan tragedy had several key tenets which can be observed in all of Shakespeare's best tragic works. To begin with, a tragedy always had to end in disaster, in practice almost always a death. This should certainly include the death of the main or eponymous character, but in Shakespeare's plays, it often encompasses many other characters as well. Consider Othello, which ends in a literal pile of bodies (Othello, Desdemona, Emilia, and Roderigo all die).

Importantly, this tragedy must also come about as a result of the hero's hubris, or fatal flaw. That is, there must be some element of the hero's character that leads to his downfall, his own death and that of whoever else is caught up in the play's tragic events. Othello's fatal flaw is typically held to be his jealousy, which enabled Iago to manipulate him so easily into believing Desdemona was unfaithful to him.

Despite this flaw, however, the main character in an Elizabethan drama must be somebody sympathetic in the eyes of the audience. If an obviously evil man causes his own downfall through flaws in his character, the play will not be a good tragedy. The reason the flaw is a fatal flaw is that the lead character in a tragedy must otherwise be a good person, whose Achilles heel allows him to be corrupted. We see this in Othello, who is an upstanding and respected soldier; Macbeth is a loyal nobleman corrupted by his desire for power and his weakness in the face of his wife; Hamlet is an honest prince driven to madness by his thirst for revenge. It is because of this tenet of Elizabethan tragedy that Othello cannot be called Iago, even though Iago arguably has a bigger and more important part. It is the tragedy of Othello because it is Othello who suffers, and Othello is the good man brought down by his tragic weakness.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Tragedy in the English Renaissance was heavily influenced by ancient tragedy but differed from it in salient ways. Most obviously, it lacked a chorus, and was more realistic. The plots of Elizabethan tragedy dealt both with the distant past and the near past or in distant countries but rarely with life in contemporary England. Shakespearean tragedy is notable for being a mixed genre, with the seriousness of the tragedy relieved by comic interludes, often represented by lower class characters (rustics, mechanicals). 

There are three major themes that run through many of Shakespeare's tragedies. They are love, family, and power. Often the key conflict of the tragedy is set in motion when power is used unjustly or authority is usurped. The legitimate and just use of power is a major concern for Shakespeare. When the children cast out Lear, Macbeth slaughters Duncan and becomes a tyrant, or Claudius kills Hamlet's father, we see examples of this sort of usurpation or misuse of power leading to tragedy.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial