Tuesday, April 20, 2010

A Word on Shakespeare and the Idea of Tragedy: David Scott Kastan

...For Shakespeare, tragedy will not easily give way to the efforts to deny it. In its endings, the exhausted survivors will inevitably seek to convince themselves that the tragedy has not only passed but also that its causes have been banished and the experience has at least taught worthy lessons. But the plays insist that tragedy is something far less reassuring, as the most seemingly reassuring of them, Macbeth, makes us see. Tragedy tells us that human cruelty is terrible and its consequences are not easily contained. This is not to say that the vision of such a world where suffering is seemingly inevitable and where nothing is offered as effective compensation or consolation is true; it is only to say that such a vision is tragic.

A coda: this understanding of tragedy may explain something about both Coriolanus and Timon of Athens that has generally been seen as a limitation of those two late plays. After the metaphysical density and poetic richness of the so-called “great” tragedies, the harshness of these two classical plays often has been taken as evidence of a decline in Shakespeare’s artistic powers or, less judgmentally, of a change in his conception of tragedy. But it seems to me that in their stylistic severity these two plays uncompromisingly display the fullest extension of Shakespeare’s tragic understanding into the drama.

If a play like King Lear devastatingly refuses any of the consolations it seemingly offers, from the happy ending promised by the historical material to the resignation that would at least leave Lear and Cordelia together “like birds i’ the cage” (5.3.9), it still offers its readers and playgoers the not inconsiderable consolation of its remarkable artistic control, what Henry James called “the redemptive power of form.”

The old conundrum about the pleasure of tragedy is answered by recognizing not only, as Samuel Johnson saw, that it “proceeds from our consciousness of fiction” but also that the fiction itself shows, in A. D. Nuttall’s words, “the worst we can imagine ennobled by form.” But the two late classical plays refuse even that. Pushing the logic of tragedy as far as it can go, they insist that we witness the disintegration of their heroes without the ennobling comforts of Shakespeare’s poetic imagination seemingly in play; they refuse even the consolations of art....

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