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Definition and Characteristics of Shakespearean Tragedy

Updated on December 31, 2016
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Muhammad Rafiq is a freelance writer, blogger and translator. He holds Master's Degree in English literature from University of Malakand.



The word tragedy has been derived from the Greek word tragoidia, which means ‘the song of the goat.’ It is called the song of the goat because in the ancient times the performers used to wear goatskin dress to represent satyrs. According to Webster dictionary, “Tragedy is a serious play or drama typically dealing with the problems of a central character, leading to an unhappy or disastrous ending brought on, as in ancient drama, by fate and a tragic flaw in this character, or, in modern drama, usually by moral weakness, psychological maladjustment, or social pressures.”

Shakespearean tragedy is a play penned by Shakespeare himself or by another writer in the style of Shakespeare. Shakespearean tragedy has got its own specific features, which distinguish it from other kinds of tragedies. It must be kept in mind that Shakespeare is mostly indebted to Aristotle’s theory of tragedy in his tragedies. These elements are discussed below:

According to Britannica Encyclopedia:

" Hamartia, also called tragic flaw, (hamartia from Greek hamartanein, “to err”), inherent defect or shortcoming in the hero of a tragedy, who is in other respects a superior being favoured by fortune."

Tragic Hero

Tragic hero is another significant element of a Shakespearean tragedy. Shakespearean tragedy is considered as a One Man Show. It is the story of one or two characters, who may be hero or heroine. It is a story of riyhrt one man or a woman, who suffers due to some flaw in their character or due to their inevitable fate. Whatever may be the case, the hero is the most tragic personality in his tragedies. According to Bradley, “It is essentially a tale of suffering and calamity conducting to death.” Usually the hero has to face death in the end.

An important feature of tragic hero is that he is a towering personality in his state or locality. He hails from elite stratum of society and holds high position in his state. Tragic heroes are kings, princes or military generals, who are very important for their states. Look at the personality of Hamlet, who is the prince of Denmark. He is intellectual, highly learned and sociable and holds a philosophic bent of mid. Hero in the tragedies of Shakespeare is such an important personality that his death gives rise to turmoil, disturbance and chaos in the country. In Hamlet, when Hamlet takes revenge upon the death of his father, he not only kills his uncle but invites his own death at the hands of Laertes. Due to the death of Hamlet, the army of Fortinbras enters Denmark and gets control of the affairs of Denmark.

Tragic Hero
Tragic Hero | Source
Characteristics of Shakespearean Tragedy
Characteristics of Shakespearean Tragedy | Source


Good vs Evil

Shakespearean tragedy is an example of the struggle between good and evil. Most of his tragedies deal with this the supremacy of evil and suppression of good. Edward Dowden says in this regard, “Tragedy as conceived by Shakespeare is concerned with the ruin or restoration of the soul and of the life of man. In other words, it subject is the struggle of Good and Evil in the world.” Evil in his plays has been presented in such a manner that it suggests that evil is an indispensable thing and won’t come to an end. For example, in Hamlet, the author gives us the impression that something rotten will definitely happen in of Denmark. In a Shakespearean tragedy, you might have observed that the common and simple people are unaware of the impending evil.

In Julius Caesar, the mob is unaware of the good or evil nature of the King Caesar. They are also ignorant of the furtive and sneaky motives of Cassius. Goodness has never beaten the evil in the tragedies of Shakespeare. Evil conquers goodness. The reason is that evil go in disguise, while goodness is open to everyone. Due to the supremacy of evil, the main character i.e., the most pious and honest man in the tragedy is assigned the task of defeating the evil. Resultantly, he suffers a lot at the hands of evil. In Hamlet, Hamlet says:

O cursed spite
That ever I was born to set it right.


Hamartia is a Greek word for “sin” or “error”, which derives from the verb hamatanein, meaning “to err” or “to miss the mark”. In simple words, it is also called Tragic Flaw. Hamartia is another important element of a Shakespearean tragedy. All of his heroes or heroines fall due to some flaw in their character. In this connection, Bradley asserts, “The calamities and catastrophe follow inevitably from the deeds of men and the main source of these deeds is character.” On account of a blemish in the character of a hero, he falls from his high position, which leads to his indispensable death.

His wrong judgment, blunder and vision lead him to face his death. Look at the character of Hamlet. Hamlet is suffering from procrastination. He finds a number of opportunities to kill his uncle, but he couldn’t succeed in his motives due to his procrastinating nature. Every time, he delays his actions. Once, he finds an opportunity to kill Claudius, while he was praying, yet he postpones his plan on the plea that he doesn’t want to kill him while he is praying. He wants to kill him, when he is in a state of committing a sin. Thus, it is a flaw in his character that results in his death.


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Tragic Waste

You might have seen in the Shakespearean tragedies that a hero dies along with the death of his opponent. The death of a hero is not an ordinary death. It is the loss of exceptionally intellectual, honest, genius, noble and virtuous personality. This extraordinary loss of a man of high profile is called tragic waste. In a tragedy, when good is destroyed along with the destruction of evil, then such a phenomenon is called tragic waste. It can also be termed as the waste of Good. Shakespearean tragedy is always a tragedy of tragic waste. Almost every tragedy of Shakespeare is a play of tragic waste. Hamlet is a perfect example of tragic waste. Though, Hamlet succeeds in uprooting the evil from Denmark, yet at the cost of his death. In this case, the Good gets destroyed along with the destruction of evil. Neither of them wins, rather, they fail together.


Conflict is another imperative element of a Shakespearean tragedy. There are two types of conflicts:

External Conflict

External conflict plays a vital role in the tragedies of Shakespeare. External conflict gives rise to internal conflict in the minds of a tragic hero. Every tragic hero in a Shakespearean tragedy is confronted with some external conflicts, which he has to solve by hook or by crook. Hamlet is confronted with external conflict in the shape of his uncle, Claudius. He has to take revenge upon him, but due to strong security and cunning nature of his uncle, he isn’t able to translate his ideas into action. This external conflict gives rise to internal conflict, which hinders Hamlet from taking any action.

Internal Conflict

Internal conflict is the most essential element in a Shakespearean tragedy. Internal conflict is responsible for the fall of a highly genius, intellectual, noble and virtuous personality. Internal conflict is the confusion in the mind of a tragic hero. The tragic hero is always on the horns of dilemma. He cannot make a decision, which brings about his fall. The Tragedy of Hamlet is a perfect example in this regard. Hamlet is a man of action and a man of high caliber, but one thing that prevents him from taking any bold step is his procrastination and highly philosophical bent of mind. His philosophical nature of attitude is a great hurdle in his way. It is this internal conflict, which hinders Hamlet to spare the life of Claudius, when he was praying.

Thus, conflict assumes a key part in the tragedies of Shakespeare.


Catharsis is a remarkable feature of a Shakespearean tragedy. Catharsis means purgation of one’s emotion. In simple words, it means expression of one’s emotions through the aid of tragedy. A Shakespearean tragedy gives catharsis to our emotions i.e., it gives us an opportunity to feel pity for a certain character and fear for another. Catharsis is the most important function of a tragedy. When, we watch a tragedy, we identify ourselves with the characters. We feel as if we are performing the role in the tragedy. Thus any trouble, misery or hardship of a hero compels us to feel pity for him. Similarly, we also express our wrath at the cruel deeds of the villain. Tears begin to roll down our cheeks, when a hero like Hamlet dies along with the death of Claudius. On the one hand, we feel sorry for Hamlet; while on the other hand, we feel happiness for the death of a villain. This creation of pity and fear is called Catharsis.

History of English Literature

Shakespearean Tragedy

Supernatural Machinery

Supernatural machinery is an integral element of a Shakespearean tragedy. Supernatural elements play an import role in creating sense of awe and wonder in the tragedy. Supernatural elements are used to advance the story ahead. In Hamlet, the ghost plays an important role in developing the internal conflict in the mind of Hamlet. It is the ghost that tells Hamlet that his father was killed by his uncle, Claudius. There is no one to inform him about the murder of his father. It is the ghost that informs him and assigns him the duty of taking revenge upon the death of his father. Similarly, there are witches in Macbeth, which play a significant role in the development of action in the play. Witches are responsible for motivating Macbeth to take resort to murdering and ascend to the throne of Scotland. Witches lead him to his ultimate destruction. Thus supernatural machinery is of paramount importance in a Shakespearean tragedy.

Poetic Justice

Poetic Justice means that good is rewarded, while evil is punished. There is no poetic justice in the tragedies of Shakespeare; rather, there is a partial justice in his tragedies. Shakespeare knew that in the real world the result of virtue and evil is opposite. You might have seen in your real life that it is very rare that you will get rewards for your goodness or good deeds. Sometimes, those who are morally bad and don’t do any good to any person enjoy their life in its full essence. “Do good and have good” is an antediluvian maxim. That is why; we don’t find any poetic justice in the tragedies of Shakespeare. Good is crushed along with evil as well. For example, Hamlet dies along with the death of Claudius.

Comic Relief

Comic relief is another element of a Shakespearean tragedy. Shakespeare didn’t follow his classical masters in writing tragedies. He tried to deviate from his classical masters, who detested any sort of comic relief in their tragedies. Greek and Roman writers didn’t use comic relief in their tragedies. Shakespeare went against them and made use of comic relief for certain purposes. He wanted to include comic scenes in his tragedies so that to relieve the tension of the reader and provide them a little bit of relief. There are many comic scenes in Shakespearean tragedies. There is a Grave Digger Scene in Hamlet, the drunken port scene in Macbeth, the fool is smarter than the king dialogue in King Lear, the Polonius in the wings speech in Hamlet. We have the following scene in Romeo and Juliet:

MERCUTIO: “No, ‘tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church-door, but ‘tis enough; ‘twill serve. Ask for me to-morrow, and you shall find me a grave man. I am pepper’d, I warrant, for this world.”
In Hamlet, we find the following humorous scene:

HAMLET: Whose Grave’s this, sirrah?
HAMLET: What man dost thou dig it for?
CLOWN: For no man, sir.
HAMLET: What woman then?
CLOWN: For none neither.
HAMLET: Who is to be buried in’t?
CLOWN: One that was a woman, sir; but, rest her soul, she’s dead.
HAMLET: How absolute the knave is! We must speak by the card, or equivocation will undo us.

(Hamlet: Act 5, Scene i)


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    • Glenis Rix profile image

      Glenis Rix 19 months ago from UK

      Excellent explanation of the tragic hero. I feel very sorry for Hamlet in many ways, as he has many redeeming characteristics (particularly in the Kenneth Brannagh film production) but think that Macbeth had a well-deserved end (difficult to find and redeeming features in his personality!)

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      Muhammad Rafiq 19 months ago from Pakistan

      Thanks Glenis Rix for your comments. I agree with you. However, I like it. He is a real tragic hero.

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      captan Muhammad Hassan (SSG) 13 months ago

      it is too good & every one know easily

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      Muhammad Rafiq 13 months ago from Pakistan

      Thanks Hassan for stopping by and commenting. I have also served at NDU, Islamabad. Have you been over there?

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      Ritu 11 months ago

      Thank you very much Rafiq g.

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      Muhammad Rafiq 11 months ago from Pakistan

      You are welcome!

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      hi 5 months ago

      yes i lik the words on this page

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      Burcu Biçer 4 months ago

      Thanks for your article. Two days later I have a exam about this subject and I only study this article because I believe it will be enough because it has very detailes. You are lifesaver :) thank you again. Hello from Turkey

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      Muhammad Rafiq 4 months ago from Pakistan

      You are welcome, Burcu Bicer! I'm glad it helped you. Wish you best of luck.....

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      Sangita paul 3 months ago

      Thnxx for this...its really very helpful...I got all the information in one..only...thank u soo much

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      Muhammad Rafiq 3 months ago from Pakistan

      You are welcome!

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      Noha 2 months ago

      Thanks muhammad .. it is really helpful

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      Noha is here 2 months ago

      Thanks muhammad ... it is really helpful

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      Muhammad Rafiq 2 months ago from Pakistan

      Thanks Noha for your comments.

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      Muhammad Rafiq 2 months ago from Pakistan

      OK, I will help you. Please, provide your email to contact you.

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      xavier sebastian 2 months ago

      it is really nice, short but elegant. very useful for a quick understanding. thank you.

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      Muhammad Rafiq 2 months ago from Pakistan

      You are welcome.

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      Hassan 2 months ago

      Good information butt bro you mostly fouced on hamlet you have to give example from hool of his tregdy

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      Arosma! 6 weeks ago

      Sir, please help me with 'Othello as a typical Shakespearean tragedy' . Thank you!!

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      Asbah 5 weeks ago

      Thank you for this very useful explanations.

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      amit kumar 3 weeks ago

      thank u so is quite interesting and helpful

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      Muhammad Rafiq 3 weeks ago from Pakistan

      Thanks Amit Kumar for your comments. I'm glad it helped you.

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      adfgdsfg 3 weeks ago

      this helped

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      Muhammad Rafiq 3 weeks ago from Pakistan

      Thank you.

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      jess 3 weeks ago

      What is his flaw

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      Mahua 2 weeks ago

      Macbeth is a tragedy created by Shakespear. The character has a negative role with a motive. how will you count out the elements of tragedy from this play.

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      Divya vishwanathan 25 hours ago

      It Is a fantastic explanation in its simplest way which can be understood by any of the needy person .... Thank u Muhammad Rafiq

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      Muhammad Rafiq 25 hours ago from Pakistan

      Thanks for your comments. I'm glad it helped you.

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