“The view that Shakespeare’s tragedies offer us timeless and universal predicaments is misleading.

We can only understand the experience of his heroes in terms of their rank and status and in relation to the societies of which they are a part”

Shakespeare’s tragedies are known to offer us timeless and universal dilemmas. Whilst this may be true, it is worth considering why such a breadth of people over an expansive time period can relate to his characters’ failings. In this essay I would like to suggest that Shakespeare’s universality arises from the reader’s (perhaps unconscious) ability to consider the characters within the context of the play which they command. That is to say, whilst we can sympathise with the tragedies of the heroes, we do so on their terms, rather than applying their life to our own. Although there may be parallels between our lives and their stories allowing for an ultimate catharsis, it is only when we interpret the experiences of the heroes in terms of their social and cultural framework (as set out in the play) that we can truly relate to and understand their plights. I am inclined to agree that Shakespeare’s heroes can only be understood in terms of their rank, status and in relation to the societies of which they are a part. Although, from a new historicist perspective, I would argue that we must also understand the characters in terms of the society which Shakespeare was writing for and lived in. Historicism as a literary theory encourages the critic to read the text against the historical context in which it was written, so when considering Shakespeare’s tragedies we must also take into account what was going on in the author’s world. It also questions the relationships between the characters and power, and how those relationships relate to any historical or cultural events. Not only do I think that the historical context of the drama must be taken into consideration in order to understand the heroes experiences, but also the context in which the play itself was written. According to the materialist perspective, what we make of texts is completely conditioned by our sense of our own historical moment and location, so it would therefore be impossible for us as readers to be able to truly understand the plight of a hero whose experiences are set in a completely different time and place. The materialist argues that there is no standard universal that we can all relate to, but rather that each different time period has its own different universals. With that in mind, in order to understand what Shakespeare’s heroes’ were experiencing, we must


counter the intuitive urge to measure the heroes’ experiences against our own values, and attempt to imagine their situation in terms of the context of their (fictional) existence.

I will begin by discussing King Lear. Our current social and ethical framework would cause us as readers to interpret the plight of Lear and the major themes within the play completely differently than the Elizabethan audience for whom it was written. To the modern audience Lear is a humanistic tragedy about the foolish desire of a father to have the love of his daughters vocalized. To the Elizabethans however, this drama dealt with key cultural and historical issues of the time. The play was written at a time where there was a great emphasis on the “chain of being”, actions, and their consequences. It also emphasized the problems with dividing a kingdom, at a time in which King James was calling for a united Great Britain. We can not understand the gravity of Lear’s actions without understanding the conventions of the time in which the play is set, and the time of its intended audience. Lear makes three mistakes that lead to his tragic fall that the modern reader would probably take no great notice of without applying a historicist reading and considering the values of the time in which Lear is intended to exist. Firstly, he hands his kingdom over before his death, when at the time doing so was against convention, and against the standard order of the “Elizabethan World Picture”1. A king remains the most powerful authority over his land, so chaos ensues if there is a king without land to reign over (as Lear had decided to be), and if there is a kingdom under the rule of an authority lesser than a king, whilst the previous and capable king is still alive. Secondly, Lear errs in dividing his kingdom into parts instead of allowing it to remain whole. Not only must we consider the gravity of this action in terms of the fictional world which Lear inhabits and its social conventions, but also in terms of the world which Shakespeare was writing for. At the time of this play, King James I, the patron of Shakespeare’s theatre company was attempting to create a United Kingdom, and so we can see why Shakespeare would be warding off separatist ideas by showing the destruction and chaos that occurs with a kingdom divided. Lastly, Lear hands his kingdom over to daughters, when the convention was to pass kingdoms down to male


Tillyard, E. M. W. The Elizabethan World Picture. Penguin, London 1972


heirs. Again, this can be analyzed against the cultural and historical events of Shakespeare’s time, in particular, Elizabeth I’s reign, and her ascension to the throne due to an absence of a male heir. In these three errors committed by Lear we can only comprehend the gravity of their consequences in terms of the context created by the play. That is, to the modern reader, it is not such a detrimental action to pass down assets to the female gender, and in general, the division of assets is expected between siblings. To grasp the predicament that Lear places himself in by committing these three errors we must interpret his experience in terms of what it would be like to be a king at the period of time in which King Lear is set. In that time period it was simply unacceptable to do what Lear did, and the chaos and turmoil Lear suffers as a direct result exemplifies the errors he commits and their social unacceptability. Likewise, when we consider the parallel plot of Gloucester and his two sons, it would be impossible to understand Edmund’s motivation for his actions without considering the implications of being a bastard son during the period of the play. In our modern society there is far less emphasis on the social implications of being a bastard son, but in Lear’s social context, the fact that Edmund is a bastard as well as the youngest son condemns him to receive none of his father’s wealth, creating a clear motivation for his evil plans. If we consider Shakespeare’s Roman tragedies we find more examples in which the universality of the misfortunes depicted is only thus because we take into account the social and cultural background which they are set in. These plays are all set in a world of classical antiquity, as opposed to the Christian world which Shakespeare was writing in. Because of this, the views held within the plays are greatly different in fundamental issues than the views of Shakespeare’s audience and the modern reader. Coriolanus, for instance, is set in the aftermath of Tarquin’s fall, and focuses on the struggle between the patricians and the plebeians during Rome’s evolution from monarchy to republic. Knowledge of the historical context for the play’s setting would be essential in understanding why there is so much tension between the two groups. From a historicist point of view, Shakespeare is paralleling the early 17th century struggle between King James and Parliament that left similar partitions within London’s social classes. It would be impossible for the modern reader to understand Coriolanus’ experiences in battle and his patriotism without considering the traditions and key values of Rome at the time the play is set. 3

Similarly, without considering Coriolanus’ social position it is difficult to understand his contempt for the plebeian people. Once we regard Coriolanus as a member of the Roman military we can see how the immobility of the Roman plebeians frustrates him. The same holds true when we look at Titus Andronicus. It would be unrealistic for the modern reader to understand why Titus kills his daughter without taking into account the fundamental principles held at the time it is set. A deep sense of pride and family honour drives Titus to commit his daughter’s murder, which at our present day would be unacceptable and unheard of, yet was completely acceptable within the play. Had Titus let his daughter live, she would be forever branded with the physical reminders of her rape and mistreatment. Titus kills her out of fatherly love, choosing to preserve what’s left of her honour rather than allowing it to slowly fade away. In our modern day there is a higher regard for the value of life and far more contempt for death, so the reader would have difficulty with the concept of paternal piety without placing Titus’ actions in the context of his historical world.

To conclude, if we consider our interpretation of literature from a materialist perspective we must recognize that our “universal” values are limited to our particular place and time, thus making literature set in a different historical and cultural context difficult to relate to. To remedy this, literature must be read not only from a new historicist perspective in which we consider the time and place the author was writing for, but also the actual time and place that the work is set in. The experiences that lead to each hero’s hammartia within Shakespeare’s tragedies can only be understood in terms of their social status, cultural norms and historical background. We cannot reasonably expect to have the same norms as characters set in completely different historical time periods. Because of this, in order to relate to the characters and understand their predicaments and failings we must effectively try to “walk a mile in their shoes” and consider the values that would be important to them, even if they are irrelevant to us as the readers. In doing so, we perhaps acquire an even broader experience of universality- as each play acts as a link between our ideals and cultural standards and those of another historical period.


Bibliography and Works Cited Tillyard, E. M. W. The Elizabethan World Picture. Penguin, London 1972

Geertz, Clifford.The Interpretation of Culttures: Selected Essays. Basic Books, New York 1973

Shakespeare, William (Edited by Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor). The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works. Oxford University Press 1998


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