Core Decorum: Lessons from Shakespeare


Seeing as I entered Lit Trad I recently, Lit Trad II more recently, it seems only fitting that I delve into the depths of Lit Trad III to investigate the twisted tragedies and the complicated comedies of The Bard himself, William Shakespeare. 

But in what way will we wander through Will’s works? It is nearly impossible to select one way to examine the mind of such a brilliant man, but it seems as though we must.

 We shall examine tragedies today, for when Dr. Scott Crider taught me in Rome, he included only a single Greek comedy, instead throwing us into a world of mothers dismembering sons and sons getting way too friendly with mothers (thank you, Oedipus). 

What really makes something a tragedy? If we believe Aristotle, it is the hamartia, a fatal flaw or mistake made by the “hero” of a tragedy. Aristotle seems to suggest that tragedies are about who are people better than averag. These both seem lacking in describing Shakespeare’s tragedy. 

One could certainly see Hamlet as being better than the average man. But it would be a pretty poor argument, one which most likely comes from one who has never met an actually decent man. 

Shakespearean tragedy seems to be built on a hamartia, but this hamartia seems to be less of an event and more of a character flaw.

To demonstrate this, we can reference the tragic characters of three of these plays. 

The first would be “Hamlet.” Hamlet, unlike most tragic characters, has total control over his own tragedy. He is the solitary cause of tragic events. He has an unholy desire for vengeance, and this drives the tragic action.

In “King Lear” however, Lear exhibits pridefulness unmatched. When his daughter tells him she loves him as she should, he grows angry because she does not exaggerate her feelings and stoke his ego. This leads to his slow descent, as his other daughters take his power and leave him a wretch. Lear seems to have the most Grecian hamartia, for his tragedy does stem from a single moment, but it is based on an inherent character flaw. 

In “Othello,” however, the titular character has no say in his demise. His jealous nature is maliciously exploited by Iago, driving Othello to eventually kill his own wife. Certainly, he makes the decision to kill Desdemona, but he is placed in this position through the actions of another who understands his nature. 

It seems that these characters fall based not on their own actions, per se, but on inherent character flaws that lead to the tragic action. Shakespeare is giving us a rather dire warning here about the issue of vice. Aristotle tells us that vice is corruptive and that it can take over the life of an individual until they are left in shambles. Shakespeare is offering the reader stories of warning—what ought to happen if we indulge hate, pride, or jealousy. We will see our lives sink down, maybe not in as dramatic a fashion as the tragic characters of Shakespeare, but in a way that consumes us and ruins us. 

Take heed, oh wise UD student. Fix yourself while you can.


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