Shakespeare and the Tragic Virtue

by James P. Hammersmith

Published originally in Southern Humanities Review
Volume XXIV Number 3 (Summer 1990) pages 245-254.

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page 245

James P. Hammersmith

Shakespeare and the Tragic Virtue

[par. 1]      One of the more perplexing puzzles in teaching Shakespeare is that students still bring with them the conviction that Shakespearean tragic character is grounded firmly and eternally in the pseudo-Aristotelian concept of the "tragic flaw." This is such an odd mistake, and such a pervasive one, that perhaps it is time to make some explicit comment upon it in the hope of putting an end to its perpetuation.

[par. 2]      Aristotle's Poetics affected Elizabethan and Jacobean England scarcely at all; the Poetics remained virtually unknown throughout the Middle Ages, and the revival of the text and of interest in it in the Renaissance were continental phenomena, concentrated chiefly in Italy and France. As far as we know the text was not translated into any Western vernacular until 1549, when Segni rendered it into Italian. Greek and Latin versions slowly multiplied on the continent, and commentaries, usually mixed with Horace and other sources, flourished as well, but no English translation was made until the eighteenth century. Sidney apparently knew the original, and Jonson seems to have gotten his understanding of Aristotle from a Dutch commentary published in 1611. The first Latin translation did not appear in England until 1623, seven years after Shakespeare's death. [1] There is no evidence that the dramatists of the period, with the exception of Jonson, knew the Poetics at all, or, if they did, that they made any use of it; indeed, "during the greater part of the [seventeenth] century the popular theatre went its own way, the playwrights well knowing that classical imitations usually offer employment for the critics rather than entertainment for the public. . . . Almost as soon as the 'rules' were introduced, the popular playwrights, particularly the writers of comedies, began scoffing at the English 'Greeks.'" [2] The native tradition of drama in England served them handsomely with a rich heritage of tragedy which had nothing to do with "classical" drama in any significant sense. [3]

[par. 3]      More strangely still, the true neo-classicists of the Restoration and eighteenth century themselves understood that Shakespearean drama was not constructed upon Aristotelian principles, and they consequently attacked Shakespeare for not being more classical; so virulent grew the criticism to defend the poet against the charges that Samuel Johnson, in the preface to his 1765 edition, felt compelled to defend the poet against the charges. "Shakespeare engaged," Johnson pointed out, "in dramatick poetry with the world open before him; the rules of the ancients even yet were known to few." [4] Shakespeare's consistent "violation of those laws which have been instituted and established by the joint authority of poets and criticks" (198) is hardly to be laid to the

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fault of one who could scarcely have had access to the text in question. Yet even Gerard Langbaine, in his Account of the English Dramatic Poets in 1691, "apparently believes that Shakespeare, had he read Aristotle and Rapin, would have written better plays."

[par. 4]      Hence, the critics in the ages immediately after Shakespeare's understood plainly that Shakespeare was no classical dramatist and even went so far, some of them, to think him the worse for it. Under these circumstances it is pecular indeed that virtually every college undergraduate can assert with conviction that Macbeth's "tragic flaw" is his ambition, that Othello's is his credulity (or his jealousy), that Hamlet's is his inclination to think too much, that Lear's is his pride (or, sometimes, his selfishness or his political naïveté, or, God help us, his senility), that Romeo's is his impulsive rashness, that Antony's is his doting fondness (or his self-indulgence, or his--deep breath--lust), and so forth: neat answers with which to fill in the blank.

[par. 5]      Something has gone seriously wrong here, and my purposes are, first, to venture an explanation for the pervasiveness of the misconception, and, second, to show that the concept of the tragic flaw is not only an imposition upon the native tradition of English tragedy but is actually an inversion of the principle upon which tragic character in the Renaissance is built.

[par. 6]      The first aim can be met by providing a brief account of the history of A. C. Bradley's Shakespearean Tragedy, a monumentally influential book first published in 1904. For half a century the book pre-empted the field, justifiably in some respects, so that Bradley's views became so thoroughly ingrained in the teaching of Shakespeare as to fall into the realm of what we usually call "general knowledge." That is, the study of Shakespeare was also implicitly the study of Bradley, and those who went on to teach Shakespeare from this background inevitably taught Bradley as well, probably without fully realizing their debt to the book because they had been taught by people who had themselves absorbed Bradley, either directly or through a similar process. The reaction to Shakespearean Tragedy, when it came in mid-century or so, was strong, relentless, and, perhaps, unduly harsh and sweeping. It is certainly true that Bradley has his excesses, particularly in his "Romantic" analyses of character, but there is much in his book that remains accurate, valuable, and insightful to this day. But that is not the issue. What appears to have happened, then, is that the reactionary literature had its influence upon Shakespearean scholarship but left the domain of "general knowledge" relatively untouched. The grosser excesses, such as the romantic emphasis in the treatment of character, were removed from consideration, but on the whole Bradley remained the primary basis for the teaching of Shakespeare's tragedies.

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And this is not altogether an evil tendency. Teachers continued, as they continue today, to teach Bradley not out of force of habit alone but out of an essentially accurate sense that Bradley's approach is a good, comprehensive one, especially suitable for providing an overview of tragedy to students the vast majority of whom are not likely to become "specialists" or Shakespearean scholars. The result, I suspect, is that Bradleyan Shakespeare is still indirectly being taught at the high-school level and at the college survey level, so that teachers are passing it on to their students, some of whom will in turn pass it on to their students as part of a general legacy.

[par. 7]      If I am correct about this chain of transmission, then the persistence of the tragic flaw theory becomes intelligible, since it is a point upon which Bradley is inconsistent, sometimes getting it right and sometimes sliding off into a classical tendency which, strangely, he himself knew was inappropriate. Bradley was well aware that the theory of Greek tragedy "applies only imperfectly in the works of Shakespeare," [6] and he was equally well aware that the true state of affairs concerning the tragic experience in Renaissance drama involves instead a kind of conspiracy between the character and circumstance; as he puts it succinctly, "in the circumstances where we see the hero placed, his tragic trait, which is also his greatness, is fatal to him" (27). The "tragic trait" Bradley defines as "a marked one-sidedness, a predisposition in some particular direction" (26). So far, so good. The term "predisposition" is an excellent one to describe the condition of the hero. It is crucial too that Bradley points out that this tragic trait "is also his greatness," for that recognition is critical to understanding tragic character in Renaissance plays. It is, however, a feature of which Bradley will gradually lose sight, and that is the crux of the matter, for a tragic trait, or a predisposition in character is not necessarily a tragic flaw, as indeed it was not for the dramatists in question here.

[par. 8]      Instead of speaking of tragic flaws, therefore, we may say that Macbeth is predisposed to seek advancement through military prowess, that Othello is predisposed to trust his fellow man, that Hamlet is predisposed to be contemplative, that Lear is predisposed to express his identity through his position as King, and so forth. In no instance, however, are there grounds for supposing the predisposition in itself to be inherently a character "flaw." Even Richard the Third's brilliant mind and dazzling wit might have served him well had circumstances been different. The trait is quite simply a "trait," and a trait may be a good one or a bad one, depending upon the circumstances in which a character finds himself. Indeed, the trait "is also his greatness" in the sense that one can easily

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conceive of circumstances under which the trait would be admirable. For example, there is nothing particularly wicked about being contemplative (except, perhaps, in the United States), and I don't think that we would usually call people "flawed" on that ground alone. Rather, it seems self-evident that under some circumstances having a contemplative predisposition would be a positive virtue, if one were, for instance, a scholar or a teacher. But once placed in circumstances which call for prompt, decisive action, the contemplative person suddenly becomes the least likely candidated for the job, and his predisposition then--and only then--works against him as an obstacle. The context for Hamlet thus requires this particular character within those specific circumstances. Both elements of the combination are essential to the tragic "fact," as Bradley calls it; there is something, he says, which bring the tragic heroes "just the one problem which is fatal to them and would be easy to another" (33), which is to say that circumstances conspire to transform the predisposition into a burden and an obstacle--but the trait is not in itself a "flaw" of any kind.

[par. 9]      So far I have rendered parts of Bradley as he ought to be understood as far as Renaissance tragedy is concerned. The problem is, however, that Bradley himself does not proceed exactly along those lines; rather, the further he goes along in his discussion the closer his "tragic trait" comes to being the Aristotelian "tragic flaw" of the commentators. He calls it "the fatal imperfection" (28) the "fault" (32), and the "marked imperfection or defect" (38), until he finally oversteps the bounds altogether when he claims that "these defects or imperfections are certainly, in the wide sense of the word, evil, and they contribute decisively to the conflict and catastrophe" (38). That the predisposition, under just these circumstances, contributes decisively to the catastrophe is undeniable, but that it is, all by itself, evil, in any sense of the word, simply cannot be so. If it were, character alone would be a sufficient condition for calamitous action, and circumstances would be ancillary at best, but Bradley himself recognizes that for the heroes "the co-operation of their characters in these circumstances" gives rise to genuinely tragic actions (20). To witness an evil man get what he deserves is perhaps to witness the workings of justice, but it is not to witness tragedy. The tragic trait is often enough the catalyst around which evil eventually arises, but if it is itself evil from the start, it is difficult to see what we would find admirable in these heroes or why, indeed, we would find even a moment's occasion to sympathize with them.

[par. 10]      This, I surmise, is the source of the problem, the reason for the persistence of the tragic flaw theory in the study of Shakespearean tragedy. Bradley is essentially right in his analysis, but in some places he overstates

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the case, transforming his own--and accurate--character "trait" or "predisposition" into a "defect" or "fault" or "imperfection" which echoes the tragic "flaw." These latter inaccuracies seem not yet to have been purged from the Bradley we tend to regard as a storehouse of "general knowledge."

[par. 11]      That Shakespeare himself did not think of a character "flaw" and that he was keenly alert to the crucial role of circumstance in the tragic effect is plainly evident from the designs of the plays themselves. Indeed, in most cases Shakespeare takes considerable pains to build into the play some concrete evidence that there is nothing inherently defective about the protagonist at all and that his predisposition is clearly a virtue. Much of the first act of Macbeth, for example, is occupied with letting the audience know that there is nothing wrong with or evil in Macbeth's "ambition." On the contrary, he is on the rise, winning his way to new titles and honors through perfectly legitimate and recognized means--through exemplary service to his King. That is a Good Thing. It is as plain as can be that Duncan is pleased to reward Macbeth for his prowess and that Macbeth's desire to rise in his King's esteem makes him all the more valuable as a general and all the more admirable as a courageous man; and the whole process by which this is accomplished is entirely within the recognized and accepted bounds of the social and political framework. Acquiring honor "in the wars" is routine in the period; Macbeth makes it his occupation and is praised and rewarded for it. Duncan's visit to Macbeth's castle, however, provides exactly the circumstance in which Macbeth's predisposition to seek advancement can lead him to reach for a title which is not his to claim by legitimate means. The trait, the "ambition," does not turn upon the protagonist until circumstances--the King's proximity, Lady Macbeth's being who she is and no other--conspire to afford the opportunity for the hero to pervert the trait or to direct it to fatal ends.

[par. 12]      In Hamlet Shakespeare employs a somewhat different strategy, for in this case he gives us another character, Horatio, to set beside the hero for comparative purposes. Like Hamlet, Horatio has studied at Wittenberg, and both men are plainly scholars of contemplative natures. No one, however, would call Horatio "flawed" or "defective" simply because he is not, say, a soldier of Macbeth's stamp--he is not, as it happens, particularly a man of action at all. Horatio thinks a lot. He performs no action in the play which would lead an audience to regard his character as in any way superior to Hamlet's "too contemplative" nature. No one would fault him for being too passive, too reflective. Shakespeare is careful to make the two characters' "predispositions" as like as can be, and the point is thus to distinguish them by circumstances. Hamlet is no more flawed

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than Horatio, but Hamlet suddenly finds himself, as Horatio does not, in circumstances which call for a predisposition to action, for a character trait, that is, precisely opposite to his own. That is not his fault; indeed, it is the cursed spite that somehow he, Hamlet, of all people, is called upon to set the disjointed times right. As Horatio is never really called upon to do anything which would run contrary to his predisposition, his trait never rise up to confront him as a problem. Only under Hamlet's circumstances does a contemplative nature stand to become the character's undoing.

[par. 13]      In Othello we have simply the primary relationship itself to guide us in response to the hero's character; to be wildly indulgent for a moment, Othello's trusting nature would have done him no harm had he had a Horatio to counsel him rather than an Iago. But the point in this case is that his open faith in Desdemona's love, despite all the obvious evidence against it, is what makes Othello particularly admirable. And this, in the general point to be be made here, is the whole foundation of the tragic experience as the Renaissance dramatists portrayed it and as Bradley saw it when his Aristotle was not steaming up his glasses: "there is no tragedy in [the] expulsion of evil: the tragedy is that this involves the waste of good" (40). And the "good" that is wasted is precisely that character trait which, under any circumstances but those posed in the play, would certainly have issued in virtue and in the flourishing of a great man. If that predisposition is from the first regarded as a "flaw" or a "defect," then there is really nothing to lose, and there is no tragedy; there would be no reason to suppose than anything but disaster could follow from a flaw under any circumstances. The tragic experience requires that we apprehend the circumstantial conspiracy, recognizing the potential for good which lies in the character's nature but which is the price evil exacts for its expiation. Shakespeare variously but regularly builds into his tragedies some means by which we can grasp the essential rightness of the character trait or predisposition in question.

[par. 14]      The application of the tragic flaw theory will more or less misrepresent any Renaissance tragedy, but I shall illustrate the point with but one non-Shakespearean play, Marlowe's Dr. Faustus, which I choose for several reasons: it is, first of all, also a popular play to teach at several educational levels; second, Faustus' character is also commonly explained in terms of a tragic flaw, in this instance the flaw of pride in the pursuit of knowledge; and, most importantly, it is a play to which the tragic flaw theory can be applied with apparently perfect success.

[par. 15]      That the pursuit of knowledge is not inherently evil was not a self-evident truism in the Renaissance. Francis Bacon's opening paragraphs in The

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Advancement of Learning (1605) are designed to answer anticipated objections that a book such as this ought not to have been written in the first place, and those paragraphs deserve a close look because they describe the issues of knowledge as we find them in the world of Faustus, written some dozen to fifteen years earlier. Anticipating his detractors, Bacon says he has heard some people claim "that aspiring to overmuch knowledge was the original temptation and sin whereupon ensued the fall of man; that knowledge hath in in somewhat of the serpent, and therefore where it entereth into a man it make him swell,"
[7] in short, that the aspiring to overmuch knowledge constitutes the deadly sin of Pride. He counters this argument by explaining that it was "the proud knowledge of good and evil, with intent in man to give law unto himself" that occasioned the fall (7), and he goes on to point out that "there is no danger at all in the proportion of quantity of knowledge, how large soever, lest it should make it [the mind] swell or outcompass itself; no, but it is merely the quality of knowledge, which, be it in quantity more or less, if it be taken without the true corrective thereof, hath in it some nature of venom or malignity, and some effects of that venom, which is ventosity or swelling" (8-9). This true corrective, he says, is charity, and he concludes by asserting that no one ought to maintain "that a man can search too far, or be too well studied in the book of God's word, or in the book of God's works, divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavour an endless progress or proficience in both; only let men beware that they apply both to charity, not to swelling; to use, not to ostentation; and again, that they do not unwisely mingle or confound these learnings together" (11).

[par. 16]      I have quoted Bacon at some length because, on the face of it, it appears that by applying his comments to Faustus' character we could sum up very neatly by saying that Faustus is "flawed" by pride or ambition--that he employs his knowledge for selfish ends, that he is ostentatious rather than humble or altruistic, and that he confounds divinity with philosophy, all of which tendencies Bacon identifies as symptoms of pride. By so summing up, however, we ourselves confound the elements of the play, emphasizing the morality features at the expense of the tragic features; that is, we shift the emphasis from Faustus' admirable predisposition to pursue knowledge to some inherent flaw in his character without paying any attention whatever to the circumstances which bring about his disaster. To see the character as a moral exemplum is to reduce the play from tragedy to morality play, to a more elaborate and consequential retelling of something like Wager's The Longer Thou Livest, The More Fool Thou Art. Still, Bacon sets three limits on the pursuit of knowledge, all of which Faustus exceeds: "the first, That we do not so

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place our felicity in knowledge, as we forget our mortality: the second, That we make application of our knowledge, to give ourselves repose and contentment, not distaste and repining: the third, That we do not presume by contemplation of nature to attain to the mysteries of God" (9). These limitations--and their source--are the real issues of Dr. Faustus; the restrictions upon the pursuit of knowledge are theological, and they are at odds with the aspiring mind so much admired in the Renaissance.

[par. 17]      Despite its morality elements, the play presents us a hero in whom "intellectual curiosity is now the activitating force," along with "the will to power and the appetite for sensation," with the result that the "inter-relationship of thought and action is the major problem for Dr. Faustus, as it can be for Shakespeare's heroes." [8] To put all this down to the flaw of pride is to miss the Renaissance scheme of things, at least since the time of Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) and his Oratio on the dignity of man. The tragedy of Faustus is that he meets precisely those circumstances in which his intellectual curiosity confronts its moral limits. The limits are set, however, in such a way as to invite speculation concerning Faustus' responsibility for his own transgression: Faustus' sin "has revealed the limiting structure of Faustus' universe for what it is, namely, 'heavenly power.'"[9] In the opening chorus of the play we hear that "heavens conspired his overthrow." [10] Created with the faculty to pursue knowledge and then ordered not to pursue it beyond certain limits, "Faustus registers a sense of human-kind as miscreated."[11]

[par. 18]      If the play is to remain a tragedy, Faustus' predisposition to seek knowledge can in no sense be regarded as a flaw in his character. If it is so regarded, the play is thrust back into a medieval framework of thought in which man's depravity is innate and in which the only knowledge worth having is the kind of Knowledge which accompanies Everyman in his play: that which prepares and perfects the would for the Kingdom of God. That is certainly an issue in Dr. Faustus, but that which makes the play distinctively a Renaissance tragedy rather than a medieval morality play is exactly the elevation to respectability of what we would call scientific knowledge, an elevation which pits the two forces (or kinds) of knowledge against one another in a confrontation at the tragic center of which lies Faustus himself, in all the splendid potential of secular man gone to waste and ruin through a trait which might, under other circumstances, have made him the paragon of men.

[par. 19]      Marlowe, like other dramatists of the period, builds into his play a means of focusing upon the tragic conspiracy. Whereas Shakespeare put

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Horatio into Hamlet to distinguish Hamlet by circumstances, Marlowe puts Wagner and Robin into Dr. Faustus to distinguish Faustus by character. The two minor characters also dabble in the black arts, but Robin especially is easily frighted away by Mephistophilis and is easily dissuaded from pursuing such knowledge further. Mephistophilis finds Robin a mere annoyance because he knows that Robin has not the strength of will to pursue the case to his own ruin. Faustus, on the other hand, is not so readily put off. He is worth pursuing precisely because his character trait is such that he will run the risk to its uttermost. If we understand the black arts to be a metaphor for scientific knowledge, the conflict emerges clearly. The play questions whether man can, in a universe delimited by theological knowledge, ever reach the full potential for which he was created. The tragedy of Faustus, in one way of looking at it, is the waste of that potential in the process of discovering the answer to the question.

[par. 20]      I would like to suggest, then, that in speaking of tragic character in Renaissance drama we adopt a term used by R. J. Dorius in a somewhat different context. "The 'sin' or weakness of the hero," Dorius writes, "is often inextricably associated with the strength which enables him to struggle or endure; it is a condition of his being. . . . It might therefore be more helpful to speak of tragic virtue than of a tragic flaw, of the hero as a man elected or selected for his fate because of his greatness, rather than spotted because of his folly.[12] The phrase "tragic virtue" strikes me as exactly the one wanted for discussion properly the essence of tragic character in Shakespearean tragedy, or, indeed, in any Renaissance tragedy. Ironically to my purposes here, Dorius is writing about classical tragedy, so his comments about "election" and "selection" are less apt; in Renaissance tragedy the character's greatness rather emerges from his contention with great forces than preordains him to be chosen for it, but the Bradleyan "predisposition in some particular direction," rightly understood, is just such a "tragic virtue" as Dorius identifies. It is precise and accurate, justly representing the case with Renaissance tragedy, whereas the concept of the tragic flaw, foreign to the whole endeavor, does nothing but distort and subvert our perspective on what the English Renaissance dramatists understood themselves to be doing. The "tragic flaw" does violence to the mode of thought concerning the tragic experience in the period, whereas the "tragic virtue" captures the essence of that mode perfectly.


1. These salient features are summarized from James Hutton's survey in the introduction to his edition of the Poetics (New York: W. W. Norton, 1982), 29-31. Back to text
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2. Marvin Theodore Herrick, The Poetics of Aristotle in England (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press; London: Oxford University Press, 1930), 52-3. Back to text
3. This simplification of course ignores the "influences" of Roman writers, especially of Seneca, but the point is that even Thomas Kyd absorbed the "Senecan elements" so thoroughly into his English sensibility that The Spanish Tragedy has little about it that one would call essentially "classical." It is typical of the English dramatists to dress their borrowings in native habit. Back to text
4. The Plays of William Shakespeare, edited by Samuel Johnson and George Stevens, 15 vols. (London, 1793), 1:192. Back to text
5. Herrick, 75. Back to text
6. Shakespearean Tragedy (New York: Ballantine Books, 1983), 24. This is the most recent and accessible reprint. Back to text
7. The Advancement of Learning and The New Atlantis (London: Oxford University Press, 1951), 7. Back to text
8. Harry Levin, The Overreacher (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1952; Boston: Beacon Press, 1964), 110. Back to text
9. Jonathan Dollimore, Radical Tragedy (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984), 118. Back to text
10. Dr. Faustus, edited by Roma Gill (New York: Hill & Wang, 1965), Prologue, 22. Back to text
11. Dollimore, 114. Back to text
12. Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, edited by Alex Preminger (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1965), 861. Back to text

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