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About this book

Thought of as Shakespeare's most powerful works, the four great tragedies, Hamlet, King Lear, Othello and Macbeth, are texts of unparalleled richness and depth, stimulating and exciting to study. This book takes extracts and examines them, explaining how the critic can use particular techniques to bring out complexities of meaning, understand the patterns of metaphor and the rhythms of the poetry and appreciate the ever-living drama. Chapters on the openings and endings of plays, heroes and heroines, society, humour, imagery and the tragic universe guide the student on a journey of inquiry into the nature of Shakespeare's tragic vision. Far from simplifying Shakespeare, the reader is challenged to confront the depth and subtlety of the dramas, and to enjoy the analytical pursuit of ever finer insight, ever fuller understanding.

Table of Contents

Analysing Shakespeare’s Tragedies

Frontmatter

Introduction: Analysing Shakespeare’s Poetry

Abstract
I have avoided technical terms as much as possible in this book; but some metrical analysis, and one or two other terms, are useful. So we should have some knowledge of the form of Shakespeare’s poetry before we start.
Nicholas Marsh

1. Openings

Abstract
We will take an extract from each of the four tragedies we are studying, in each chapter of Part I. We will begin by looking closely at these samples from the texts, finding out as much as we can by analysing how they are written. Remember that these works are ‘wholes’ in the sense that everything about them contributes to the meaning they convey: it is just as much there in the style — the way they are written — as in the subject-matter. So we can take a sample and analyse the style in detail, confident that beginning in this way will bring us insights into the meaning and artistic purpose of the whole text. We are particularly interested in any features we find that are common to all four plays.
Nicholas Marsh

2. Endings

Abstract
We have examined the first minutes of each tragedy, and found ‘wrongness’: forces of disorder had exploded or threatened to explode, and the restraints of civilisation were portrayed as weak, unable to prevent disaster from overwhelming the world of the play. Language was breaking down, proving deceptive or inadequate to express experience. In this chapter we will analyse the final minutes of each play: how is the audience left when tragedy has come to an end?
Nicholas Marsh

3. The Hero

Abstract
In this chapter we will approach the tragic heroes by analysing one major speech from each. We will concentrate on the speeches themselves, making no attempt to study a whole character. A thorough analysis of one of the heroes can be done by looking at further extracts (speeches spoken by the hero and about him) from the particular play you are concentrating on, repeating the approach shown in this chapter. Our aim is to discover how Shakespeare creates tragic character: can we recognise how words and drama combine to characterise the hero, and are there any features they, or their speeches, all have in common?
Nicholas Marsh

4. The Heroines

Abstract
All four tragic heroes are men, and we have studied a major speech from each of them. In this chapter we will approach Shakespeare’s heroines in the same way, by taking a major speech from each play as an example for analysis.
Nicholas Marsh

5. Society in the Tragedies

Abstract
In the first and second chapters we discussed something we called the ‘world’ of the play. The idea of a play’s ‘world’ was useful because it helped us to understand conflicts between order and disorder, but it was an all-embracing idea. Characters, situation, dramatic effects, references to nature and the supernatural, all the elements of the play contribute to its ‘world’. In this chapter our focus is narrower — on the social structures and social relationships found in the plays.
Nicholas Marsh

6. Humour in the Tragedies

Abstract
There are comic episodes in all four plays. These are Macbeth’s Porter, Hamlet’s Grave-digger, Lear’s Fool, and lago’s witty exchanges with Desdemona, and Cassio’s musicians, in Othello. Shakespeare has included these humorous scenes in plays whose overwhelming effect is to inspire the emotions of tragedy: pity, fear, horror, misery, despair, pain and so on. In this chapter, then, we will ask the obvious question: what is the relationship between tragedy on the one hand, and an episode of comedy on the other?
Nicholas Marsh

7. Imagery and the Tragic Universe

Abstract
We have met various aspects of a ‘tragic world’ in different chapters. We have looked at the first and last moments of these plays; and we have explored how the tragedy is dramatised through the portrayal of the protagonist, women, society, and by means of humour. Each of our chapters so far has been based on short extracts, one from each of the tragedies; and we have built our developing analysis of the plays carefully, exploiting detailed analysis of short extracts to the full and making sparing use of references to the rest of the play in each case.
Nicholas Marsh

The Context and the Critics

Frontmatter

8. The Tragedies in Shakespeare’s Works

Abstract
How many tragedies did Shakespeare write, and why have we chosen to study only four of them? Shakespeare’s plays were published together for the first time seven years after his death, in the First Folio of 1623. Twelve plays are included as ‘Tragedies’ in the First Folio. Troilus and Cressida was withdrawn and then re-inserted during printing, and is now more commonly grouped with ‘problem plays’. Cymbeline is clearly not a tragedy. It belongs with the late ‘romance’ plays or tragi-comedies. Julius Caesar, Titus Andronicus, Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra are chronicles of Roman history, but they could all make a claim to be ‘tragic’ plays. Romeo and Juliet and Timon of Athens are arguably tragedies, although Romeo and Juliet was written in the early 1590s, ten years before the earliest of the others, and is a different kind of play, being a double love-tragedy. The remaining four, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and King Lear are the subject of this volume.
Nicholas Marsh

9. The Context of the Tragedies

Abstract
This chapter discusses Shakespeare’s tragedies as they relate to the social and historical moment when they were written. Our discussion is deliberately brief, since the main purpose of this book is Part I, where we analyse the texts. If, after reading this chapter, you want to explore the historical context in more detail, look up the specialised books mentioned in ‘Further Reading’. The points discussed in this chapter are general observations.
Nicholas Marsh

10. Sample of Critical Views

Abstract
Thousands of books and articles have been written about Shakespeare’s tragedies by academic critics. Several hundred are published each year. They are often written in a confusing, over-complicated or pretentious style: academics are just as fond of showing off as anybody else! It is important to remember, then, that since you have read the tragedy, your ideas are just as valid as theirs. Always be sceptical about their ideas: you are not under an obligation to agree with them. On the other hand, your mind can be stimulated by discussing your text with your teacher, or in a class. Treat the critics in the same way: it can be stimulating to debate the text, challenging your ideas and theirs. This is the spirit in which you should read ‘the critics’.
Nicholas Marsh
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