This is our second lecture in the course Shakespeare the

Christian. In this lecture, we continue the topic of our
first lecture and consider the third of the three objections
to a Christian approach to Shakespeare. The first
objection was that Shakespeare’s plays do not present a
Christian ethic. The second was that Shakespeare’s
plays are not specifically religious. We offered brief
answers to both of these objections in our previous
lecture. Now it is time to consider the third, and
perhaps the most important objection, that Christianity
and tragedy are incompatible.
I say that this may be the most important objection
because there is so much discussion of tragedy, going all
the way back to Plato and Aristotle. As a dramatic form
tragedy has its own special attraction and its own
special riddles. The greatest riddle may be the very fact
that we are attracted to tragedy. Why should we get
pleasure from watching other people’s lives fall apart?
What is it about tragedy that is entertaining? This is one
of the basic questions about tragedy that has to be
But before we think about detailed questions, we have
to ask what exactly tragedy is. We have to ask the
question, because much of the debate about tragedy
concerns the problem of definition. You will remember
that we quoted the philosopher Karl Jaspers, who stated
that “no genuinely Christian tragedy can exist.” Jaspers
is able to make such a dogmatic declaration because he
has a definition of tragedy which, in the nature of the
case, rules out the possibility of a Christian tragedy. Of
course, if he wants to define the word tragedy in that
way, he may. But there is nothing particularly profound
about defining Christianity out of the picture. When he
goes on to claim that his definition gives us true insight
into Shakespeare’s tragedies, I have to object. I think we
can show that Shakespeare’s tragedies are clearly and
distinctly Christian.
Others define tragedy in terms of ancient Greek notions.
Fate or the gods play an important, if not decisive, role.
Good men, we are told, even apart from anything they
may have done wrong are subject to forces that
sometimes make a mockery of human life. The story of
Oedipus illustrates this ancient Greek perspective well
and is often presented as the typical ancient Greek
What we have, then, are different definitions of tragedy
that reflect different worldviews. If we consider the
basic questions that divide the various approaches to
tragedy, we will gain insight into the way worldview
and tragedy intersect and also see what kind of tragedy
Shakespeare wrote.
What, then, are the basic questions that divide these
various views of tragedy? Well, I think that we can
discuss most of the important issues by considering the
following four questions.
1.) Does tragedy require or exclude the notion
of ethical cause and effect?
2.) What is it that makes the tragedy tragic?
3.) Must the tragedy be final? May there be
hints of a brighter future or resolution of some
sort at the end of a tragedy?
4.) Why do we enjoy tragedy?
So many philosophers have discussed the basic
questions concerning tragedy that we cannot hope to do
anything like a historical survey, though we will
mention the views of a few philosophers. Our
discussion will be brief and basically topical, but I trust
it will help you think through these matters from a
Christian perspective. What I would like to show is that
our answers to questions of this sort are simply
applications of our worldview. I think that you will be
able to see that men define tragedy according to the way
they view life as a whole. Keeping these questions in
mind will allow us to consider how Shakespeare
presented tragedy and consider whether his view was
Christian or not.
1. So, we turn to the first question, Does tragedy exclude
the notion of ethical cause and effect? The question
itself may sound odd, so let me explain what it means.
There are some people who insist that if a tragedy
contains clear ethical cause and effect, it is no longer a
tragedy. It becomes a simple story of a person reaping
what he sowed. It is a mere moralistic tale and, they
say, not very interesting.
Thus, some maintain that true tragedy must be like the
ancient story of Oedipus. The hero of the story is not
without faults, but we cannot say that tragedy befell
him because of some moral failure on his part.
In the story of Oedipus, the king and queen of Thebes,
Laius and Jacosta are shocked by the word of an oracle
that their new born son will grow up to kill his father
and marry his mother. They attempt to prevent this
horror by killing the son, but the servant to whom they
committed the job cannot carry it through. Though he
has been ordered to leave the child on a mountain to
die, he gives him to a shepherd. It happens, however,
that this shepherd belongs to the house of the childless
king of Corinth, Polybus. As it turns out, then, Oedipus
does grow up as a Greek prince, but in the city of
Corinth rather than Thebes.
When he has grown to young manhood, he hears that
Polybus is not his real father. He doesn’t believe these
words, but he visits the oracle at Delphi to find out the
truth about himself. Here he is told the same story that
his parents were told when he was born, that he would
murder his father and marry his mother. Like his
parents, he tries to prevent this awful outcome.
Assuming that Polybus is his true father, Oedipus
leaves Corinth and goes on a journey. Approaching the
city of Thebes he is encountered by an old man who
provokes Oedipus into a fight. He kills the old man and
goes on toward the city of Thebes. Along the way he
meets the Sphinx, a monster with a woman’s head and
the body of a lion. The monster stands outside the city
and asks everyone who travels in or out a riddle, if the
traveler cannot solve, the Sphinx eats him. Oedipus
solves the riddle and kills the Sphinx. This makes him a
hero in the city of Thebes and he is rewarded with a
bride, the queen of Thebes who was now a widow.
However, because Oedipus, however unknowingly, has
killed his father and married his mother, the city is
plagued with judgments. Everyone knows something
must be wrong, but no one knows why Thebes must
suffer. In seeking the cause of Thebe’s miseries,
Oedipus discovers the truth about himself. It is more
than his mother can bear. She commits suicide.
Oedipus puts his eyes out with her brooches and has
himself exiled to become a beggar.
It is certainly possible to find places where one might
charge Oedipus with one fault or another. But the fact is
that for the most part he is a man who only sought to do
his duty. When he heard that he might be the
perpetrator of a horrible crime, he immediately left all
the luxury and glory that belonged to the prince of
Corinth and went on a journey. The awful deeds that
brought upon himself and others the curse of the gods,
were accidents. He never intended to kill his father or
marry his mother.
The moral of the story seems to be that the world we
live in is such a place that a basically good man, seeking
to do nothing but his duty, may actually meet with the
most outrageous tragedy. Of course, in ancient Greece,
the story said something about the gods and man’s
knowledge of the gods and their ways. They seem to
play with Oedipus and bring the most awful calamity
upon him for no special reason. Is this the way the
world really is? Do we face suffering and pain just
because capricious gods or fate order it to be so?
Obviously, from a Christian perspective the answer to
these questions is no. But for some people, the world
really is the kind of place depicted in the ancient Greek
story of Oedipus. And if that is our view of the world,
our definition of tragedy will correspond. Tragedy
would be the kind of play that shows us what the world
is actually like, a place in which our goodness or
badness are irrelevant. In this view, we live in a world
in which good and bad luck are dispensed at random,
whether by the gods, by fate, or by the stars. A tragedy
is a story about a relatively good person who was
standing in the wrong line when luck was being passed
The philosopher Schopenhauer represents many who
hold this view of tragedy. According to him, “In
tragedy we are confronted with the terrible side of life,
the misery of mankind, the dominion of accident and
error, the fall of the just man, the triumph of the wicked:
thus the condition of the world that is downright
repugnant to our will is brought before our eyes. At this
sight, we feel called upon to turn our will away from
life, not to want it and love it anymore.”
Again, “What lends to everything tragic, in whatever
form it may appear, its peculiar impetus to elevation, is
the dawning realization that the world, that life cannot
grant any true satisfaction, and hence they do not
deserve our attachment: in this consists the tragic spirit:
hence it leads to resignation.”
Note that for Schopenhauer, tragedy is necessarily a
story that in which ethics cannot supply a key. The
lesson that he draws from tragedy, that we should give
up our attachment to life and the world depends upon
the fact that tragedy shows us that life in this world
does not make good ethical sense.
If this were a class on religion or philosophy, we might
point out that Schopenhauer was very much influenced
by Buddhism and that his view of tragedy in particular
is Buddhist. We also might ask whether this view of the
world and tragedy are satisfying? But the question we
need to consider here is, Does this view fit the plays of
William Shakespeare? And the answer is clear. It does
not. For in Shakespearean tragedy, in every case, the
tragic hero is clearly guilty of some sin or folly. In no
play of Shakespeare are we led to conclude that we
should give up our attachment to life. Though we may
feel that a character in his play has suffered greatly and
that character’s suffering may provoke deep thoughts
about suffering in our world, nothing in Shakespeare’s
plays calls forth the despair with life that Schopenhauer
Consider just the four great tragedies. Macbeth gave in
to a sinful lust and brought destruction upon himself
and many others, including innocent women and
children. Lear lost his temper and in a fit of anger spoke
rash words that brought ruin to his kingdom. Othello
took in the false testimony of his false friend and was so
filled with jealousy that he murdered his beloved wife.
Hamlet discovered his uncle’s evil deeds and
determined to take revenge, the worst sort of revenge.
In every case, tragedy could have been prevented by
different moral choices. If the hero had been wiser, if he
had been more upright, he might have been saved from
the tragedy that befell him.
In no case do Shakespeare’s plays teach us to hate life
and this world. Nor is the Christian view “shallow,
optimistic, Protestant-rationalistic” as Schopenhauer
charged. Both Protestants and Catholics believe in a
world in which moral failure carries its own curse. In
that sense the Christian view of tragedy may be called
rational, for there is an explanation. There is what may
be called moral cause and effect. But that does not make
the Christian view shallow -- a mere moralistic
statement that evil deeds will be punished -- nor does it
erase the tragic dimension.
The view espoused by Schopenhauer seems to
undermine one of the most important aspects of tragedy
-- a point which goes back to Aristotle and one on which
we can agree with him -- that is, our sympathy with the
hero. There must be some sense in which we feel
affinity with the hero. We have to be able to relate to
him. In Schopenhauer’s view of tragedy, we view a
play in which good people suffer for no reason. Now
we do know from our own life experience that suffering
may come for apparently no reason. That is precisely
the sort of suffering which it is most difficult for us to
understand or relate to. What we more commonly
experience and what we can easily relate to is suffering
that comes from a foolish or rash decision or suffering
that comes from giving in to a sinful impulse. We can
sympathize with Shakespeare’s tragic heroes because
they live and move in the world of moral causes -- a
Christian world in which one’s actions are moral and
therefore have consequences.
This leads us to our second question, what is it that
makes tragedy tragic?
What we have said in answer to the first question is part
of the answer to the second. The fact that a hero makes
an ethical choice is essential to tragedy. But it is not
sufficient. A story of a person who makes a rash or
foolish decision, or who gives in to temptation, or who
follows his own lust would not in itself constitute a
The moral decision is necessary for the tragedy to be
truly tragic because the character who makes the tragic
decision or who does the tragic deed could have
decided or done otherwise. It is a tragedy because it
didn’t have to be. Things could have been different.
One aspect of tragedy is the pain we feel when we see
King Lear not only loose his temper and make a rash
judgment, but then become even more incensed when
Kent offers him good counsel. Lear had a second chance
and he destroyed that also. We agonize as we watch
and think, it could have been so very different.
Another aspect of this is the hero’s character. The
person who makes the tragic decision cannot be a moral
monster. If the hero were utterly evil, we would not feel
sympathy with him nor would we agonize over the
consequences. They could hardly have been different,
and we are satisfied to see him get what is coming.
But there is more. What makes a moral decision or
action tragic is that the consequences turn out to be so
much larger than one might have expected. In the kind
of simple moralism that Schopenhauer despised and
accused Christians of holding to, there is a rationalistic
distribution of poetic justice. But the notion of poetic
justice does not fit Shakespeare’s tragedies. Hamlet, for
example, makes a fateful and morally perverse decision
to seek the darkest revenge imaginable. He seeks not
merely the death of Claudius, but also his eternal
damnation. As a result, not only does Hamlet himself
die along with his murderous uncle, which might have
been a conclusion that we would call poetic justice, but
in addition, Hamlet’s young love, Ophelia, her father
Polonius and her brother Laertes also die, as well as
Hamlet’s mother. Two others, Hamlet’s friends, die
also, making the total of eight dead. These people do
not all deserve to die by any common measure of justice.
Their deaths are not so much caused by their own faults,
as by Hamlet’s. This is an important part of tragedy.
The actions of a great man can cause harm that spreads
wide. Innocent men and women may suffer for the
deeds and decisions of others, especially those in
We see, then, another important aspect of tragedy from
a Christian perspective. In a tragedy, the calamity with
which the play ends far surpasses the level of the hero’s
fault. This means that we cannot simply reduce tragedy
to the moral lesson that we reap what we sow. If we
sow a peach seed, we may get a peach tree, but we don’t
expect to return a few days later to find a whole
orchard. When the evil consequences of a rash or sinful
action seem to vastly outweigh the cause, we face
This is the reason that the hero of a tragedy is almost
always a man in high position. For his faults, even if
they are strictly personal and not so great, still may have
huge consequences. We can imagine an average man
with relatively large faults who would not be a
legitimate subject for a tragedy if he simply reaped what
he sowed, without bringing trouble on many other
people. A leader, however, is in a position to make a
mistake that has consequences which are nothing less
than awesome.
A related consideration is that the consequences are
irreversible. In other words, tragedy ends in death.
When the problems caused by one’s sin and folly can be
solved and the situation reversed, it is no longer
tragedy. Shakespeare’s tragedies, therefore, end with
the death of the hero and usually not a few others with
him. In Othello where the fault is personal and the
damage to others is relatively less in comparison with
the other great tragedies, five persons die, the hero, his
faithful wife, Desdemona, his enemy, Iago, Iago’s wife,
Emilia, and the bumbling Rodrigo. Five people die
because of Othello, because he was foolishly jealous.
There is another aspect of tragedy, one which may seem
to contradict what we have pointed out so far, but the
contradiction is only apparent. There is mystery in
tragedy. Moral explanation of a sort is necessary, but it
is a fact that things happen in a tragedy that are not
explicable. Explanation, in other words, can never be
total. If we remind ourselves of Biblical stories, we see
this dimension rather clearly. Schopenhauer’s assertion
that Christians are bound by superficial notions of
poetic justice is exposed as superficial slander. Think,
for example, of the story of Cain and Able. Here is a
tragedy. But does Cain suffer for the murder of his
younger brother? Yes, but it is slight compared to what
we might expect. Moreover, he becomes the first city
builder and apparently lives a long prosperous life.
Remember the prophecy of Habakkuk? He was deeply
troubled by what he saw God doing. It certainly did not
fit his or anyone else’s sense of poetic justice. He saw
that the Babylonians were far worse, morally and
religiously than the kingdom of Judah, but he also knew
that God was going to use the evil to judge the relatively
less evil. It troubled him deeply, “wherefore lookest
thou upon them that deal treacherously, and holdest thy
tongue when the wicked devoureth the man that is more
righteous than he?” (Hab. 1:13)
The Bible is not a book of poetic justice, often things
happen that offend our sense of what is fair. We are not
given no explanation, but neither are we given the kind
of full and satisfying explanation that we might wish.
According to the Biblical worldview, we must face the
fact that history is shrouded in mysteries that will only
find solutions in the final judgment, at the end of time
when all things are brought to light. Until then, nothing
is so fully explained that it really satisfies our sense of
poetic justice. Shakespeare has been influenced by this
worldview enough that in his plays, there are reflections
of it. Mystery remains and leaves its frustrating mark
on all of our explanations.
We have both the ethical logic of Christianity, plus the
mysterious working of a God whose ways are not our
ways. In all of Shakespeare’s tragedies, providence
interferes in wonderful ways to complicate matters, to
frustrate the plans of sinful men, and, ultimately, to
show us, as Hamlet said, “There's a divinity that shapes
our ends, Rough-hew them how we will.”
We can summarize, then, and say that what makes
tragedy to be tragedy in Shakespeare is that 1) there is a
ethical causality; 2) things could have been different; 3)
the hero is a basically decent man; 4) the consequences
of the choice overturn the scales of poetic justice; 5) the
tragedy is irreversible because it ends in death; 6) there
is that which cannot be explained. Tragedy confronts us
with the mystery of life and reminds us that God has a
plan that transcends our understanding.
But the philosopher Karl Jaspers will not be satisfied
with this kind of explanation. And that leads to our
third question, Must the tragedy be final. May there be
hints of a brighter future, or a resolution of some sort at
the end of a tragedy? From the Christian perspective
the answer to these questions is clear. Tragedy is not
final in so far as its consequences are limited to this life.
Hints of a brighter future and resolution at the end of a
tragedy do not undermine tragedy as tragedy. On the
contrary, they should be seen as essential.
But again we are confronted with a difference in
worldviews and definitions.
Jaspers insisted that Christians do not understand
tragedy and that to be genuine, the tragedy must be
final. In Jasper’s words, “there is no way out
whatsoever.” Now, as far as this life is concerned death
is irreversible, but for Christians there is another world
to come. That is a problem for Jaspers. To him, tragedy
is undermined and rendered void by the idea of future
world in which the awful consequences of this world
can be reversed, a world in which the problems caused
by the tragedies of this life may be solved. For Jaspers,
Christianity and tragedy are mutually exclusive.
But this view is shallow and dogmatic. And that it does
not apply to Shakespeare, in spite of Jasper’s assertions
to the contrary, should be obvious. Think about it.
Jaspers and others who deny that Christians can truly
understand tragedy know very well that while
Christians do not believe that death is a final end, they
also believe that death can be eternal. The idea of an
everlasting hell means that tragedy may be real beyond
our ability to imagine.
We need to keep the idea of hell in mind when we see
that Shakespeare’s great tragedies end at least with
judgment of evil — and even with hope. This is true in
each of the four major tragedies. Macbeth is killed and a
new king is crowned. King Lear dies but Edgar and
Albany live to rebuild the land. Hamlet seeks revenge
and dies with the king, his uncle, but Fortinbras, the
prince who forsook revenge, inherits the land. Othello
commits suicide after murdering his faithful wife, but
Cassio did not die which means that Iago does not gain
a complete victory. Of course, Iago himself faces the
severest earthly judgment. Already it is clear that
Jaspers’ view does not work, for in every case, there is
resolution and an element of hope at the end.
Furthermore, and even more significant, in none of
these examples would the audience assume that the
judgment of death was either final or most important.
Nor do the characters in the play. For Othello, for
example, death is not the end, it is the beginning of an
eternity in which, as he says, he will be roasted in sulfur
and washed in liquid fire. Hell and only hell is tragedy
with no way out. If we take that into account, we may
fairly say that it is not the Christian but the modern anti-
Christian who denies tragedy because they deny that
human action is fraught with the weight of eternal
But we need to add more. From the Christian
perspective the life of the world to come does not render
life in this world irrelevant or somehow unimportant.
After all, the choice for eternal life or death is something
that we can only do in this life. And there is also a
degree of eternal blessing or curse that is based upon
what we have done in this life. Compared to the non-
Christian views of men like Jaspers, the Bible treats our
life in this world as profoundly significant precisely
because the consequences do not end at death, but
extend into eternity.
Nor do the facts of the future life and the comfort it
offers to those who suffer imply that the suffering of this
life is somehow less than the real thing. Jesus suffering
on the cross is sometimes referred to in this context, but
Jesus suffering on the cross is never treated as a light
thing or as insignificant simply because he was raised
from the dead three days later. On the other hand, Jesus
suffering is not a tragedy for Him or from His
perspective because it was brought on by His
righteousness, not through folly or sin. And he gave
Himself willingly. Thus, Jesus told the daughters of
Jerusalem to weep for themselves and their children.
His death was a tragedy for them, for they killed their
own Messiah and lost the promised blessing of the
It is evident that the sufferings that Christians endure in
this life are treated in the Bible as most real and
meaningful, because they are part of God’s eternal plan
and because they are related to eternity. One of the
most tender expressions of this is the Biblical promise in
the book of Revelation: “They shall hunger no more,
neither thirst any more; neither shall the sun light on
them, nor any heat. For the Lamb which is in the midst
of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto
living fountains of waters: and God shall wipe away all
tears from their eyes.” (Rev. 7:16-17).
If the Bible teaches that God Himself takes our suffering
seriously, how can we say that future hope means that
in Christianity there can be no true tragedy?
So, returning again to Shakespeare, Desdemona,
Othello’s faithful wife, was murdered and went to
heaven, as her servant Emilia said. But does anyone
watching the play feel that the fact that she is going to
be with Christ somehow makes her death less tragic.
She was murdered by a man that she loved and to
whom she was perfectly devoted. She died at the hand
of her beloved with the word whore ringing in her ears.
Is this tragedy? Yes. And the fact that she will shortly
be in heaven does not render the tragedy void. Only
God can wipe away her tears.
This brings us to our fourth question. Why do we enjoy
tragedy? Why should anyone enjoy watching a play in
which human suffering is acted out right in front of us?
What is it that we enjoy about seeing these people suffer
exquisite anguish?
The Scottish philosopher David Hume offered an
interesting answer.
To begin with Hume denies that pain and pleasure are
true opposites. It is an interesting point. Tickling, for
example, is pleasant, but pushed too far, it becomes
painful. In the same way, sorrow, in a small enough
dose, is actually pleasurable rather than painful. When
we view a tragedy, we are not experiencing the
suffering of the hero, we are just viewing. The real
events are far enough away and they evoke so little pain
that our watching a tragedy on stage provokes only
slight anguish, just enough to be pleasurable.
If we were too close to the events, we could not enjoy
them. If we were part of the history in which the
tragedy occurred, we would not have enjoyed it while it
was happening and we would probably not be able to
enjoy seeing it on stage either. It would be too close for
comfort. But when we view a play about something
that happened a long time ago, far away from us, we
can enjoy the slight sorrow it brings. Besides, we know
that it is a mere imitation of tragic events and imitation
itself has a certain kind of attraction, especially if it is
well done. Add to this the fact that the actors make fine
speeches that appeal to our aesthetic sense. The
beautiful oratory, even of a suffering man, can move us
Now what Hume has to say is true as far as it goes, but
it doesn’t go far enough. It doesn’t really focus in on
tragedy per se. We watch dramatic reenactments of war,
we see action movies, suspense thrillers, and so on.
Most of us would prefer never to be in the kind of
circumstances that these movies depict. War, murder,
and extreme suspense are never enjoyable in real life, at
least not for most people. Hume’s principle applies to
all of these. But that means that it explains tragedy only
in so far as tragedy is just another one of those things
that is better seen than suffered.
We need to add that not everyone likes tragedy. This is
especially clear in our day when people can choose
between so many types of plays and movies. People
have much more to choose from in the way of
entertainment than they did in Shakespeare’s day. We
don’t have to watch tragedy and allow ourselves to be
confronted with the kinds of deep questions it poses.
Other options like thrillers or action moves provide the
pleasure of limited tension without being serious and
demanding. With modern movies, we don’t have to be
confronted with life’s painful questions. We are not
haunted by the hard reality of irreversible moral
choices. Even when it is just on stage or in a movie,
tragedy has a depth that is difficult for many to bear. I
think that we have to say that many people can enjoy
mystery, suspense, or almost any other genre (except
possibly horror) more easily than they can tragedy and
there are no doubt some people who would avoid
tragedy altogether.
Hume’s answer, then, is too general, at best. It seems to
apply better to genres other than tragedy. We have to
ask, is tragedy really a matter of a little pain bringing
pleasure? Does Hume’s explanation really apply well?
We need to consider again, what tragedy is, in particular
what Shakespearean tragedy is, in order to understand
why we enjoy it.
Here our Christian perspective sheds the light we need
to see the issue clearly. Shakespeare’s tragedies are
stories of the fall. The first tragedy in the world is the
story of the fall of Adam and Eve. Though the Bible
tells it succinctly and it might be difficult to turn it
directly into a Shakespearean play, the story of Adam
and Eve is the paradigmatic tragedy upon which
Shakespearean tragedy as a whole is based. The most
obvious example of Shakespeare retelling the story of
Adam and Eve is, of course, the tragedy of Macbeth.
Witches, the instruments of the devil, tempt a husband
and wife to sin in order to become king and queen, to
become like gods. As we shall see later, Shakespeare
quite self-consciously uses details from the Biblical story
to make sure that we notice the obvious parallel.
This means that tragedy offers us meditation on real life,
that it can truly depict a world that has fallen into sin.
And this is a world that we know by experience.
It is possible, therefore, for us to sympathize. We can
identify with the events and characters in
Shakespearean tragedy because we, too, know tragedy.
Our tragedy is usually on a small scale, but that does
not make it less real to us. Even though our tragedies
may be small in comparison with Macbeth, the same
principles apply. We know people, for example, who
have had to confront consequences that seemed to
outweigh the fault so far that it was overwhelming. To
speak concretely, it is a fault in a man to drive his car
beyond the speed limit. And for the most part we can
all agree that it should be punished, at least some of the
time. But that relatively small fault has often brought
about staggering consequences. That a little extra speed
going around a corner might bring about the death of a
young man seems incongruous, but it is a sort of
tragedy that we all know about. In addition to the
personal loss of a friend, we feel devastated when we
see the lost potential and think about the fact that just a
little more care would have saved his life. Things could
have been so different.
Because tragedy is so real, we can identify with it deeply
and sympathize with the characters in the play.
But this means that for Christians tragedy is edifying.
For many non-Christians edification is the very last
word that they would associate with tragedy, but that
only illustrates again that one’s world view and one’s
view of tragedy are intertwined.
Solomon was not talking of the theater when he wrote,
“The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but
the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.” Ecc. 7:4. But
the principle applies. The house of mourning is a place
where we meditate on life, where we are forced to face
the fact that we, too, will die. We ask ourselves hard
questions about who we are and why we are living.
This is what tragedy does for us and some people,
though not all, are wise enough to appreciate the
challenge that tragedy presents. It is not, however, a
universally appealing genre.
Tragedy edifies also by warning us to flee from sin and
error and to seek wisdom. All of Shakespeare’s
tragedies, as we have said, result from the folly or sin of
the hero. When we see these men fail and consider the
horrific consequences of their failure, we are warned to
take our sins seriously. We are encouraged to be
patient, to be humble. A wise and mature man
appreciates a warning. When it comes through a play
that is also aesthetically appealing, the warning is even
enjoyable. It is edifying in a way similar to a sermon.
Tragedy also edifies by reminding us that we are not
alone in our suffering. Paul told the Corinthians that
the temptations which they face are common to men. A
similar point may be made about tragedy. When we see
that others suffer, our own sufferings are mitigated.
Tragedy reminds us of the human condition, of the fact
that Adam’s fall is repeated again and again in history,
of the fact that all men suffer. We are reminded to weep
with those who weep. More fundamentally, we are also
reminded that God takes our suffering seriously and
that we can cast ourselves upon Him, for He cares for
I trust that you can see that rather than tragedy being a
genre that Christians cannot appreciate or understand,
tragedy is a genre than Christians should be able to
appreciate more than non-Christians. Nothing about
tragedy is necessarily contrary to Christian faith. And
Shakespearean tragedy in particular should be seen as
an expression of Christian faith. For Shakespeare’s
tragedies are stories of the fall of man. They are all
based upon the truth that we live in a world of moral
causality, a world in which our sins and foolishness
have consequences. But this is also a mysterious world,
a world that transcends our understanding because it
moves according to the plan of God. It is a world in
which each one of us has committed sins. We have all
been foolish. We have all experienced tragedy of one
sort or another.
Hume’s explanation is too shallow, though it is not
entirely irrelevant. Where he errs is in seeing it in terms
of pleasure and pain, rather than in terms of edification.
Schopenauer and Jaspers, too, err in a similar way.
Though Schopenauer might see the lesson he draws
from tragedy as edification of a certain sort. But
despairing of life in this world and concluding that
there is nothing here that really means anything is not
the edification Shakespeare intended. Christians would
not consider Schopenauer’s message edifying.
Jaspers insists that tragedy must be final because in his
worldview, life is ultimately absurd. For him, nothing
points to that fact more clearly than tragedy -- but only a
certain kind of tragedy. In spite of what Jaspers himself
thinks, Shakespeare’s tragedies end in resolution and,
thus, offer hope; the tragedies express Shakespeare’s
faith that good triumphs over evil.
Now all of this means that Christianity offers what we
might call a theology of tragedy. To begin with, the fall
of Adam into sin is the first and greatest tragedy of
human history. It is the greatest tragedy in the sense
that every other tragedy in human history is grounded
in Adam’s sin. Because of his sin, we are all born into
the world sinners. Because of his sin, the whole
creation, as Paul says in Romans 8:20, has been
subjected to vanity. What does that mean? Well,
among other things, that so-called natural catastrophes
like floods and earthquakes are not really “natural.”
They express the perversion of the created order that
resulted from man’s rebellion against God.
Man-made catastrophes express this even more clearly.
The oppressive tyrant in a home or at the head of the
kingdom brings suffering to those under his rule. War
ravages the earth and all in its way. Revolutions
promise freedom, but usually offer more of the same
misery. We see men in bondage everywhere.
If Adam had not sinned none of this would be.
If the suffering and misery of the world were the whole
story, we might follow Schopenhauer’s views. The
tragedies of real history would tell us that human life is
meaningless and teach us to give up our attachment to
this world.
But according to the Bible, suffering and misery are not
the whole story. There is redemption. From the very
beginning when Adam sinned, God gave him the
promise of salvation to come when He spoke the curse
against the serpent: “I will put enmity between thee
and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed: he
shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.”
Note that the seed of the woman who will save the
world must also suffer. Though I don’t believe that
Christ’s suffering can be called tragedy for the reasons
that I specified before, the fact that salvation can only
come through suffering is part of the theology of
tragedy. In a fallen world, in a world of suffering, there
are no simple solutions. The problems of sin cannot be
solved by comic means. It takes death to remove death.
We conclude our discussion of Christianity and tragedy,
then, not merely by denying the assertion that
Christianity is incompatible with tragedy, but by
affirming that only Christianity offers a worldview in
which tragedy makes sense and tragedy as a literary
genre is edifying.
Only one more point about Shakespeare's tragedies
need to be added. That is that they are not merely
philosophy or theology acted out in story form. Hegel
put it well when he contrasted Shakespeare to the plays
of the French and Italians, who imitated the ancient
The first distinction that strikes us
immediately is that between abstract and
therefore formal characterizations on the one
hand, and individuals who confront us as
concrete and living human beings, on the
Hegel went on to explain that the French and Italians
imitated the ancient Greeks and wrote drama that
amounted to “mere personifications of certain passions
for love, honor, fame, domination, tyranny, etc.” But
Shakespeare, he says, depicts “full individuals.” And he
does it so well that, according to Hegel, “he excels all
others and is almost beyond reach.” Shakespeare’s
characters express themselves in a manner that is
“individual, real, directly alive, supremely manifold,
and yet, when it seems necessary, of such sublimity and
striking power of expression, of such fervor and
inventiveness in images and metaphors produced on
the spur of the moment, of such rhetoric, bred not in
schools but by true feeling and the consistency of
character . . . that one will not easily find another
modern dramatist who could be placed beside him.”
The point that Hegel makes is important. Shakespeare’s
plays seem to confront us with real people, characters
that come across as having real personalities. Think
about what this means. If we felt that the characters
were unreal or simply the embodiment of some idea, we
could not get involved with them or the story. They
would come across as mere symbols of something else
and the dramatic power of their words would be lost.
The genius of Shakespeare is that his plays do
communicate ideas and contain symbolism and
allusions to other stories, but they also function
dramatically at the level of a story with characters so
real that we see them and their stories as unique.
Let me just suggest that perhaps the “full individuality”
of Shakespeare’s characters comes from his borrowing
so much from the Bible rather than merely imitating the
ancient Greeks.
That brings us to the topic of our next lecture --
Shakespeare and his use of the Bible -- and to the end of
this lecture. Thank you for listening.

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