The formulation of Elizabethan Tragedy

While the significance of the Aristotelian formulation of tragedy is immense for the Elizabethans, the immediate fascination for the Elizabethans may have been the Roman models of tragedy like those of Ovid, Plutarch and Seneca, who gave a Roman sense of virility, dignity and energy to the Greek tragic sense.

The Elizabethan fascination for the tragic form as it comes to them through the Greeks and Romans is an account of their love for the regenerative force of life, coupled with a sense of wonder and mystery at the forces inherent in the world and human life. The tragic dilemma as dramatized in the Greek plays came to characterized the new ambivalence felt by the Elizabethans in the midst of individual and national prosperity and achievement.

On the one hand, the need for a new definition of individual and public morality, and on the other hand, for which the orthodox Christianity offered no satisfying solutions. If we look as the dominant motifs of Elizabethan drama, the revenge motive, modelled after the Senecan plays, running through Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (1589) Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (1589) and The Massacre of Paris (1592), Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1601), Cyril Tourner’s The Revenger’s Tragedy (1606-7) and John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (1613-14).

What is accepted as a retributive justice in Seneca for an order of justice and individual morality becomes, unlike Seneca, the essential question in Elizabethan drama about the very stability of the social moral system.

The Elizabethan where increasingly burdened with a Renaissance inspired man-centered world where human possibilities assume the force of a moral axiom distorting the distinctions of good and evil or right and wrong. The human potentialities flower in an inextricable admixture of good and evil.

In a mature play of Shakespeare like King Lear (1605) the radical questioning extends to the cosmic forces inherent in nature, morality and justice. The inevitable tragic assumption is a non- absolutist view of the world and acceptance of the dialectical functioning where in the good and evil interact in a mutually supportive manner.

The central paradox of Elizabethan tragedy in particular seems to be that it sees the god and valuable as at least in part, actually nourished and supported by chaos and evil. Nevertheless, there is a sense in which the Elizabethans generally to experience the tragic and the chaotic at the same time experience energy and richness of life. Shakespeare has seen in the chaos and destruction of tragedy, even possibly in evil itself a source of energy and vitality greater than any found elsewhere. Less, richly, and in greatly varying emphases the writing of other Elizabethan dramatists bears out the truth of the central paradox. The deepest response to evil and good or to the valuable and chaotic, sees them as in the sense, dependent on each other for their form, substance and the very existence.

The basic question Elizabethan tragedy raises is a relational one between man nature. Nature in the larger sense of cosmic force external to man, and nature embedded in the human condition.

The Renaissance which brought a keen awareness of the infinite human potentialities makes this question a very poignant one for the Elizabethans.

How does or should man relate himself to the forces within himself and to those external to him in the environment? The orthodox Christianity skirted the issue under the obligation imposed on man to obey the moral laws stipulated by it. Could the moral law be at variance with the natural law evolved by the same author of moral law i.e. God. Moral law should synchronize with the natural law in order to avoid a disjuncture between man and his situation. However, the condition of nature within man cannot be a law unto itself, as Marlowe was to dramatize in his powerful Renaissance play of infinite human ambitions and adventure, Tamburlaine. But moral law, independent of human nature, could not be the regulating factor.

A correlation within nature, between nature within man and the one external to him in environment regulates human condition. The correlation is of very complex nature without being restrictively adversarial or benevolent to man. it provides a framework of mutual support and opposition, the only framework for human growth.  Writing about Shakespeare’s dramatic world, Tomlinson points out the essential dynamics in Shakespeare’s dramatic world that explains considerably the whole of the Elizabethan dramatic perception.

The point, rather is that in the fabric of Shakespeare’s verse, the world of nature is given us as having an existence which paradoxically, is at once independent of and intimately related to man’s status and worth. Any full realization of nature, Shakespeare is saying, must ultimately be in terms of man’s consciousness; but the Shakespearean tragic paradox includes also a demonstration that nature, so far from being a mere background or illustration of morality or goodness truly grounded in man alone, is in itself an indispensable source of nourishment, the given body of experience and substance sustaining and supporting human life. The tragic hero often fails to see this and sees it only imperfectly. But the playwright sees it.

The richness Of Elizabethan tragedy is not simply ideational. The tragic form in the Elizabethan plays more so in Shakespeare’s play which present the apotheosis of the growth of the complex and sophisticated Elizabethan world view, itself structures the Elizabethan thought and speaks more eloquently than what the characters articulate.

The Greeks formulated the tragic form through their experiences of life. The discipline of the tragic form evolved by them is essentially an aesthetic value deeply cherished by them.

The Elizabethan Age, a step further and make the dramatic art of tragedy a key to understanding the rich complexity of the Elizabethan mind and life. They endeavoured more in the direction of the evolution of the art of tragedy that mirrors their cultural and intellectual ambivalence than in the direction of the intellectual exercise of their minds. The strength of the Elizabethan mind lay in an intellectual understatement and in finding metaphors of dramatic action which speak out their minds eloquently.

The Elizabethans have immensely enriched the Greek tragic form both in their adherence to dramatic form and in the liberties that they have taken from the rigorous discipline of the Greek dramatic art.

The Elizabethan tragic protagonist is an Aristotelian hero, usually of a noble birth, blessed with outstanding qualities but suffers from a serious tragic flaw or hamartia in his character that sets the play in motion.

The chorus plays the introductory and summative function as in Greek Drama. Plot is a major elements as in a Greek Drama using the devices of peripeteia and anagnorisis. The interest of the audience is sustained by the spectacular action and dramatic irony whereby the audience knows the predicament of the protagonist that the latter fails to understand. The plot leads the protagonist to a tragic recognition of his weakness while the audience gains a cathartic experience of the feelings evoked in the course of the play.

The Elizabethan drama abounds in the number of dramatic characters in a play while their number was limited in the Greek Drama. The dramatic unities are followed more in their breach by the Elizabethans who try to encompasses a larger and larger framework of time and place, for their renaissance aspirants drive them to boundless action.

Similarly, a zest for a diversity of experiences always haunted the Elizabethans making it impossible for them to stick to the Greek dramatic distinctions of tragedy and comedy. Consequently, Elizabethan drama intermixed tragic and comic experiences, a practices so abhorrent to the Greeks.

For the Elizabethans, more specifically for Marlowe and Shakespeare is, a tragedy is not a restrictive view of human excellence or weakness as the Greeks are often inclined to present but an affirmative view of human aspirations whose pursuit brings a glory to the definition of man. Struggle, conflict, suffering and failure may be the inescapable attendants but the human spirit is not stifled in its pursuits by what attends to them. The ability to withstand them is the tragic glory of man.


What the Elizabethans have done in formulating a tragic method and vision is the definition of a modern scientific temper and attitude to life that began with the Renaissance and extends itself to contemporary times.

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