Shakespeare’s Tragedies

Shakespeare Tragedies Blog Post Image

In this post I present a brief description of each of William Shakespeare’s famous tragedies. At the end of each description I provide a link to download a free copy of each play discussed.

William Shakespeare’s Most Successful Plays

William Shakespeare is best known for his tragedies. Of the 38 surviving plays we have, 12 were tragedies. What’s more, for many, these plays represent the Bard’s best work. Scholar’s almost universally cite “Hamlet” as potentially the greatest play ever written.

Necessary Features Of Shakespeare’s Tragedies

Despite ongoing modern attempts to redefine the genre, all true tragedies must involve three key elements.

A Great And Noble Hero

All genuine tragedies begin with a great tragic hero. Traditionally, such heroes nearly always came from the nobility or achieved comparable status through divine intervention or great achievement. Shakespeare’s tragedies are no exception here. Since Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman in 1949, however, contemporary “tragedies” try to dispense with this requirement. The traditional noble hero of great accomplishment is too elitist.

The Failure Of Modern Tragedy

Instead, the modern “tragic hero” becomes an everyman character of more common gifts and accomplishments. His or her nobility becomes largely symbolic. Unfortunately, people don’t truly empathize with abstract symbols. Audiences need a distinct human personality to identify with. Shakespeare understood this. His tragic characters, while undeniably exceptional, are nevertheless universally and intimately human. As such, the grand fall in each of his tragedies devastates both literally in social scope and emotional impact. Modern alternatives, while perhaps tragic, fail as true tragedies because they lack the scale and depth of Shakespeare’s work.

The Tragic Flaw

Another key feature in all Shakespeare tragedies are the notable tragic flaws present in his great tragic heroes. Like the classical tragedies of ancient Greece, overwhelming outside forces may indeed be the agents of the hero’s fall. However, while classical Greek tragedy presents heroes destroyed by the gods or unavoidable fate, Shakespeare’s heroes clearly doom themselves. From Hamlet’s indecision, to Macbeth’s excessive ambition, or Lear’s blinding vanity, it is the deeply human nature of Shakespeare’s flawed characters that we remember most.

Empathy And Catharsis

By writing characters who are both exceptional and intimately flawed, Shakespeare causes his audience to identify deeply with his heroes. Through this identification the audience shares empathetically in the hero’s suffering and final self-awareness. It is this audience participation in the hero’s struggle that leads to an emotional release and increased understanding for the playgoer known as catharsis.

Read Shakespeare’s Tragedies For Yourself

In the end, the only way to fully appreciate Shakespeare’s tragedies is to read them for yourself. Therefore, simply go through the brief summaries I provide. Then, follow the links at the bottom of each description to download a copy of the play itself. Everything is free. Enjoy.

Be Persistent

If you have never attempted to read anything by William Shakespeare before, however, a word of caution is in order. While everything Shakespeare wrote is in English, modern readers often find his plays and poetry difficult to understand at first. Be persistent. People in our present culture give up too easily when things become difficult. Don’t quit. Most things of lasting value are rarely easy.

You May Not Understand Everything At First

Shakespeare wrote in a style like that found in the old King James Bible. That’s Okay. You may not understand all the words at first. Don’t worry about it. Just slow down, and keep going. After a few pages, you’ll begin to understand enough to figure out what’s going on.

Try Watching Shakespeare Movies

Remember, Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be performed rather than merely read. With this in mind, try watching a movie of one or more of his plays. When you see the action matched to the words, the stories become easier to follow. Movies with Kenneth Branaugh are especially good, because he follows the original plays more closely than other productions.

Shakespeare’s Tragedies Made Easy

With practice most people do begin to comprehend what Shakespeare was saying when he wrote. Still, there is a solution available at reasonable cost for those who cannot get past the language issue without a modern “translation” to refer to as they read. That solution is the Shakespeare Made Easy series available through amazon.com.

These special editions of the poet’s works feature Shakespeare’s original lines on the left-hand page, and a modern, easy-to-understand “translation” on the right. The price per play for these versions runs about $7.99 a piece.

See The World In A New Way

Once you begin to let Shakespeare’s stories rattle around in your head, congratulations! You’ll begin to see the world in a whole new way, and many modern stories will begin to seem shallow by comparison. Read and watch enough, and you may even begin to see just how broken our current culture really is.

Please subscribe to be notified of future posts if you like this content, and don’t forget to check out my YouTube channel as well. That said, let’s begin our review of William Shakespeare’s 16 comedies.

1. Antony And Cleopatra

Image for Antony And Cleopatra
Scene from Shakespeare’s “Antony And Cleopatra” Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Antony And Cleopatra was first performed in 1607. The First folio collection of Shakespeare’s works from 1623 includes it as well. The play follows the relationship between Cleopatra and Mark Antony from the time of the Sicilian revolt to Cleopatra’s suicide during the Final War of the Roman Republic. Many consider Shakespeare’s Cleopatra to be one of the most complex and fully developed female characters the playwright ever wrote. Download your free copy of Antony And Cleopatra here.

2. Coriolanus

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Scene from Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus” Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Scholars believe Shakespeare wrote Coriolanus between 1605 and 1608. The play is based on the life of the legendary Roman leader Caius Marcius Coriolanus. When Volscian invaders attack Roman territories, Marcius helps lead the Roman forces in repelling the invaders. He earns the name Coriolanus for his role in conquering the Volscian city of Corioles. When rejected for Consul and banished from the city, he joins forces with a former enemy to conquer Rome. On the brink of success, his mother persuades him to spare the city. He returns to Corioles where he is assassinated. Coriolanus is one of last tragedies Shakespeare wrote. Download your free copy of Coriolanus here.

3. Cymbeline

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Scene from Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline” Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

We do not know when The Tragedy Of Cymbeline was actually written. It was first produced, however, in 1611. Although listed as a tragedy in the First Folio, the play shares many characteristics with Shakespeare’s comedies. Set in ancient Britain, the play depicts a vassal king to ancient Rome named Cymbeline. Hidden identities, extraordinary schemes, and violent acts fill the tale.

Cymbeline has two sons who are abducted as infants. When his daughter Imogen marries without approval, Cymbeline exiles her husband Postumus. Meanwhile, Rome invades, because Cymbeline refuses to pay his tribute to the empire. He defeats the Romans, however he agrees to pay the tribute. He reconciles as well with Imogen and Posthumus. His sons are also restored. Download your free copy of Cymbeline here.

4. Hamlet

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Scene from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Hamlet, The Prince Of Denmark was probably written between 1599 and 1601. Many consider it to be the greatest and most influential works of fiction ever written. When Hamlet’s father, the King of Denmark, suddenly dies, Hamlet’s uncle Claudius becomes king and quickly marries Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude. As Hamlet mourns, his father’s ghost appears naming Claudius as his murderer. Hamlet vows revenge but is brought down in the end by his own indecision. Download your free copy of Hamlet here.

5. Julius Caesar

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Scene from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Julius Caesar was first performed in 1599. Despite its title, Julius Caesar is not primarily about Caesar directly. Instead, the play depicts Brutus’s moral dilemma and eventual downfall when he is persuaded by Cassius to join the conspiracy to kill Caesar. It is in this tragedy that the famous “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech appears. Download your free copy of Julius Caesar here.

6. King Lear

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Shakespeare’s “King Lear” Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The earliest recorded performance of King Lear was in 1606. The play story depicts an aged king of Britain who decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. In making his decision, he tests each daughter by asking how much she loves him. The two older daughters, Goneril and Regan flatter the old king, but the youngest, Cordelia, does not. Enraged, Lear banishes Cordelia and divides his kingdom between the older daughters. Once in possession of the kingdom the older two turn on Lear, leaving him to wonder madly in a storm. Cordelia returns with a French army to save her father, but the army is defeated. She and Lear are imprisoned. Cordelia dies tragically in her father’s arms before he too dies as well. Download your free copy of King Lear here.

7. Macbeth

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Scene from Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Macbeth was first performed in 1606. Some believe the play is cursed. As such, they refer to it simply as “The Scottish Play.” In the play, three witches appear to Macbeth and tell him he will become king of Scotland. Filled with ambition and prodded by his wife, he murders King Duncan and takes the throne. Wracked with guilt and paranoia, he becomes a murderous tyrant in an effort to silence other’s suspicions. This causes a civil war, and he is ultimately killed in the end and loses everything. Download your free copy of Macbeth here.

8. Othello

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Shakespeare’s “Othello” Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Tragedy of Othello, The Moor Of Venice was probably written in 1603. Othello is a Moorish general in the Venetian army. He is married to a beautiful Venetian woman named Desdemona. A jealous and ambitious underling of Othello’s named Iago tricks Othello into believing his wife is unfaithful. In a fit of blind rage, Othello kills Desdemona. When he learns he was tricked, he is filled with remorse. He then kills himself as well. Download your free copy of Othello here.

9. Romeo And Juliet

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Shakespeare’s Romeo And Juliet Original painting by J. Northcode, R.A., engraved by P. Simon, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Romeo And Juliet is a tragedy written early in Shakespeare’s career. It tells the tragic tale of two young star-crossed lovers whose mutual suicide ultimately reconciles two feuding families. Romeo and Juliet was among Shakespeare’s most popular plays during his lifetime. It remains popular today and was even the inspiration for the Broadway musical West Side Story. Download your free copy of Romeo And Juliet here.

10. Timon Of Athens

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Shakespeare’s Timon Of Athens Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Shakespeare probably wrote Timon Of Athens in 1606 with Thomas Middleton. It is one of Shakespeare’s least known works. The tragedy depicts a wealthy Athenian named Timon. Despite repeated warnings, he lavishly squanders his fortune on corrupt and parasitic companions and hangers-on. When no one helps after he runs out of money, he rejects mankind and goes to live in a cave. Later, when Athens is attacked, Timon refuses to come to their aid and the city is defeated. Download your free copy of Timon Of Athens here.

11. Titus Andronicus

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Scene from Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

William Shakespeare likely wrote Titus Andronicus between 1588 and 1593 in collaboration with George Peele. Scholars believe it to be the first tragedy Shakespeare ever wrote. Many believe it was his attempt to emulate the popular, violent, and bloody revenge plays of his contemporaries. The play tells the fictional story of Titus, a general in the Roman army during the latter days of the Roman Empire. Initially popular, the tragedy’s appeal declined over time due to its prolific graphic violence. Download your free copy of Titus Andronicus here.

12. Troilus And Cressida

Image for Troilus And Cressida
Troilus And Cressida Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Troilus and Cressida was probably written in 1602. The action unfolds during the later years of the Trojan War. It follows the plot line of Homer’s Iliad from Achilles’ refusal to participate in battle, to noble Hector’s death. Additionally, the play recounts the love affair of its title characters inside the besieged city of Troy. The tone of the play swings wildly between bawdy comedy and despair. Its final tone is bleak, ending with the death of Hector and the destruction of the love between Troilus and Cressida. Download your free copy of Troilus And Cressida here.

To download all of Shakespeare’s plays and poetry including his comedies, histories, sonnets, and longer narrative poems, go to my Shakespeare Plays And Poetry page.

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