The Forms of English Drama

The Forms of English Drama

The Forms of English Drama : Aristotle’s concept of tragedy, which has been worked out with great insight and comprehensiveness in The Poetics, has had a profound, far-reaching influence on the theory and practice of tragedy in England. Alongwith the Senecan (a Roman dramatist) and medieval concepts of tragedy, it went a long way towards moulding Shakespeare’s own view of it.

The Forms of English Drama


The Greek Concept of Tragedy

The Greek conception of tragedy was different from the modern conception. Today, we regard Tragedy as a story with an unhappy ending. But this was not the Greek conception. In the Greek language, the word ‘tragedy’ means “a goat song”, and the word came to be used for plays because of the practice of awarding goats to winners in a dramatic contest. On the days of their dramatics festivals, four plays were performed on each of the days, three generally serious in tone, and one satyr-play (or burlesque). For the Greeks, Tragedy simply meant, “one of the three serious plays presented before the satyr-play at a dramatic festival.” Greek tragedies were serious in tone, but many of them had happy endings. The Greek conception of tragedy should be kept in mind, for Aristotle did not consider tragedy from the modern point of view.

Aristotle’s Definition of Tragedy: Its Implications

Aristotle defines tragedy as, “the imitation of an action, serious complete, and of a certain magnitude, in a language beautified in different parts with different kinds of embellishment, through action and not narration, and through scenes of pity and fear bringing about the ‘Catharsis’ of these (or such like) emotions.” This definition has wide implications. It falls, naturally, into two parts. The first part, from “The imitation of an action” to, “and not narration”, is concerned with Tragedy as one of the imitative arts, and points out its medium, objects, and manner of imitation. The second part is concerned with the function and emotional effect of Tragedy.

First, the definition distinguishes tragedy from other forms of poetry. Its object of imitation are, ‘serious action’, and hence it is different from Comedy which imitates the non-serious. Secondly, Tragedy on the basis of its manner of imitation is distinguished from the Epic which ‘narrates’ and does not represent through action. Thirdly, on the basis of its medium it is distinguished from the lyric. It employs several kinds of embellishments in different parts, i.e. verse in dialogue and song in the choric parts.

The Forms of English Drama

Next, Aristotle examines the plot of Tragedy. Tragedy imitates ‘action’ and its plot consists of a logical and inevitable sequence of events. The ‘action’ it imitates is its plot. The action must be complete, i.e. it must have a beginning, a middle and an end. “The beginning is that from which further action flows out, and which is intelligible in itself, and not consequent or dependent on any previous situation.” A satisfying end is that which follows inevitably from what has gone before, but which does not lead to further action. It marks the completion of the tragic action. The middle is that which follows inevitably upon what has gone before, and also leads on to an inevitable conclusion. At all points, “Aristotle emphasises that the tragic action must be in accordance with the laws of probability and necessity.”

The action of a tragedy must be of a certain. ‘magnitude’, and the word may be taken to have been  used in the sense of, ‘size’ or, length’. It must be long enough to permit an orderly development of action to a catastrophe. Too short an action cannot be regarded as proper and beautiful, for its different parts will not be clearly visible, as in the case of a very small living creature. Neither should it be too long, for in that case it will not be taken in as an artistic whole by the memory. The action should be proportionate in the relation of the different parts to each other and to the whole. It must be an ‘organic’ whole.

The Plot of Tragedy

Aristotle divided the plot of tragedies, into two kinds (1) Simple, and (2) Complex. Simple and complex are technical terms. Simple plots have continuous movements, in them there are no violent changes. Complex plots are those which have Peripety and Anagnorisis or Discovery or Recognition. Peripeteia means that human actions produce results exactly opposite to what was intended; it is working blindly to one’s own defeat. It is a false step taken in the dark. The highest kind of tragedy is the tragedy of errors. Anagnorisis or recognition is the realisation of truth, the opening of the eyes, the sudden lightning flash in the darkness. There is a third kind of Tragedy also, the Tragedy of Suffering, in which the effect depends on the depiction of physical suffering, i.e. torture, wounding, maiming, murder, etc., on the stage. ‘It may be mentioned at this stage that this piling up of horrors characterises the Senecan Tragedy, but Aristotle frowns upon such sensationalism.

The plot should be so framed that it arouses the emotions of pity and fear among the spectators which is the function of tragedy. A tragic plot, therefore, must avoid (a) showing a perfectly good man passing from happiness to misery (b) showing a bad man rising misery to happiness and (c) showing a extremely bad man falling from happiness to misery. The first kind of plot will not inspire pity and fear; it will be simply odious or horrible; the second is not tragic at all, and the third will move us neither to pity nor fear. Hence the best plot is one which shows a good man, but not a perfectly good one, suffering as a consequence of some error or fault, ‘Hamartia’, on his own part. The plot of a Shakespearean tragedy is of this type. His tragic hero suffers as a result of ‘hamartia’ or tragic flaw in his character.

The Functions of Tragedy

The end of tragedy is to give pleasure, and tragedy has its own distinctive pleasure, as well as the pleasure which is common to all poetry. According to Aristotle, the function of poetry is to give a certain refined pleasure and in this he goes counter to the view that the poet is primarily an ethical teacher. Each kind of poetry has its own aesthetic pleasure. However, this proper aesthetic pleasure can be possible only when the requirements of morality are satisfied. Thus he considers pleasure as the essential moral function of tragedy, not merely incidental to it.

The peculiar pleasure of tragedy is caused by the Catharsis of the emotions of pity and fear. Humphrey House explains the point by referring to Aristotle’s Ethics, where the Greek philosopher distinguishes between (a) pure pleasure arising from the exercise of some function or human faculty, as the exercise of judgment, perception, etc., and (b) Incidental pleasure which arises from getting rid of some pain or fault or correcting some wrong. Tragedy gives incidental pleasure as it directs and controls the emotions, it guides our emotions to goals considered right and proper by the wise and the good, and hence gives pleasure. It corrects our emotional responses, it frees the individual from anxiety, worry, etc.

The Forms of English Drama

Tragedy gives ‘pure’ pleasure as well. It imitates action and life, its pain and misery, and if this imitation is well-done it is gripping and absorbing. There is a total emotional identification of the spectator with the person who suffers on the stage. Peripetia and Anagnorisis are commended by Aristotle because they heighten the seductive power, the gripping interest, of the action. Pure pleasure results from the exercise of our emotions, sense, and thoughts on the tragic action. In this way, we smile through our tears.

Tragedy gives pleasure because it results in enhanced understanding of life and its problems. It provides a kind of inner illumination.

The unity of the plot, the diction, and the spectacle, etc., are other sources of pleasure in a tragedy.

Comparative Importance of Plot and Character

Tragedy, according to Aristotle, is not an imitation of men, but of men in action. Action implies a process, the process of change from happiness to misery, and every such action is made up of a number of events and incidents. Plot is the organisation of the incidents and events which make up the action of tragedy. Further, action, in the Aristotelian sense, is not a purely external act, but also an inward process, the expression of a man’s self, of his thought and emotions, in short, of his mental processes, which are revealed in outward action.

In drama, the characters are not described, they enact their own story and so reveal themselves. Drama is performance because we know the characters from their performance before our eyes, and not from what we are told about them. Without action in this sense, without such performance, there can be no drama at all. In short, plot contains the kernel of that action which it is the business of a tragedy to represent. It is the plot which shows a character passing from happiness to misery, as a result of his own actions. It embraces outward events, as well as the motives and mental processes which determine those events. Plot, therefore, is of paramount importance. Obviously, there can be no tragedy without plot.

Character: Its Two Meanings

The word “Character”, as Humphry House emphasises, can be used in two senses. It may mean (1) Dramatic personages, or (2) the bent or tendency or habit of mind, which can be revealed only in what a dramatic personage says or does. In The Poetics Aristotle has used two words Ethos and Dionia which are two aspects or elements which constitute the character of a living person. Character in its most comprehensive sense is made up of both these elements. It is these two elements which determine the cause of action, and the quality of that action. Ethos is the moral element, the moral disposition, and Dionia is the thought, the intellectual element, which determines all rational conduct, and through which the moral self of a person finds outward expression. In drama, as in life, both thought and moral bent of a person reveal themselves in his speeches and in his action. If a person has a tendency to avoid the bad and follow the good, he is virtuous, otherwise he is wicked. Now such a tendency to good or bad is not inherent by nature but is formed as a result of past actions.

Character Subordinate to Action

We do have certain physical capacities by nature. The physical senses of seeing and hearing are in us by nature; we do not acquire these senses by acts of seeing, and hearing. In so far as we have by nature a capacity for action it is physical action, which is ethically neutral or indifferent and, therefore, does not involve character at all. Our virtues and vices, our moral self, we acquire in so far as we have acted in the past, well or badly.

“We learn to become good or bad action well or ill just as a builder learns to build by building. By repeated acts of a certain kind, we acquire a habit or bent of character. In this way, qualities of character are legacies of past acts” (Humphry House.) In each individual, character is formed by action, is dependent on action for its very being, and has its qualities by virtue of the qualities of the actions from which it is derived. In real life, quite apart from drama, character is sub-ordinate to action, because it is a product of action, is influenced by action, and reveals itself through action.

Moral Bent Revealed Only in Action

Thus in real life character is sub-ordinate to action, and Aristotle makes it sub-ordinate to action in tragedy as well. When Aristotle says the plot, is “the soul of tragedy”, and character only secondary, he uses the word character in the second sense i.e. for the moral bent of a dramatic personage. Plot is the organisation or systematic ordering of action, and it is only through such action that character, i.e. the moral bent or tendency of a particular dramatic personage, is revealed. “Character in the ethical sense is realised or actualised only in action. Action which is ethical is a movement towards an end.” It is the end “which a character desires, and if this desire or wish to bring about or achieve certain ends which distinguishes ethical action from the mere play of chance or circumstance.”

Character becomes actual only when the agent has a definite end in view, and initiates a movement to achieve his end. Thus plot brings character and hence its primary importance. In life, and so in drama it is action of plot, i.e. movement towards a desired end which reveals character or the moral nature of a dramatic personage. Character can be realised only through plot. “The mere description of certain qualities of character would be something less than the fullness of character.”

Choice: Its Significance

When Aristotle says there may be tragedies without character, he means that the dramatic personages may suffer and act, but may not reveal their character, i.e., their bent to act in a particular manner. The moral bent is revealed both by the end which a character desires and the means he chooses to achieve those ends. Their moral purpose or tendency may not be revealed, for they may never be forced with the need of making a choice; and opportunity to decide upon a particular course of action may never be offered to them. They may not deliberate and choose one out of a number of alternatives before them, and so there may be no revelation of character. It is this deliberation, this thought about the means to an end, which makes for individuality of character, even when the characters are types or representatives of some age, sex, profession or status.

The Forms of English Drama

It would be wrong to say that Aristotle minimised the individuality of character. He is not the advocate of a generalised or typical handling of character. His theory of action itself guarantees the subtlest development of character. Even when the character are typical, they would be easily distinguished from each other by the ends which they desire, and the means which they choose to achieve these ends. In every moment of crisis, they would be required to make a choice and the choice would bring out their individuality, the difference in their respective moral natures. Before making their respective choices, they will deliberate, and their deliberation may be expressed in their speeches.

It is this element of deliberation, this revelation of what they seek and what they avoid, which makes even speech expressive of character, while “there is no room for character and speech on a purely indifferent subject.” Such speeches are a form of action; they reveal the inward movement towards the choice which the character ultimately makes. The movement or action is there, only, it is internal, and will ultimately be externalised. Such internal movement can be action in the dramatic sense only when it is externalised. Thus Samson’s speeches in Milton’s Samson Agonistes are a form of action, for they help him to make his choice, and lead directly to the final catastrophe. They are expressive of his moral grandeur.

Means and Ends

In Drama, characters exist as characters only in what they say or do. They exist by virtue of their dramatic function. A character is not actualised unless it is “in action.” Just as in sports it is the movement, and not the physical built which leads to victory, so in life and in drama, it is action which leads to success or failure, happiness or misery. Thus character is subordinate to plot which is the equivalent of action in life. There may be tragedies without character in the sense that the dramatic personages may suffer and act, but they may act without knowing why, without adequately revealing their moral bent or tendency, without having their minds working upon the ‘means’ which they adopt for the realisation of their ‘ends’.

The Tragic Hero

The ideal hero should be good, but not too good or perfect, for the fall of a perfectly good man from happiness into misery, would be odious and repellent. His fall will not arouse pity, for he is like us and his undeserved fall would only shock and disgust. Similarly, the spectacle of an utterly wicked person passing from happiness to misery may satisfy our moral sense, but is lacking in the proper tragic qualities. Such a person is not like us, and his fall is felt to be well deserved and in accordance with the requirements of ‘justice’. It excites neither pity nor fear.

Thus according to Aristotle, perfectly good, as well as utterly wicked persons, are not suitable to be the heroes of tragedies. However, Elizabethan tragedy has demonstrated that given the necessary skill and art, even villains, like Macbeth, can serve as proper tragic heroes and their fall can arouse the specific tragic emotions. “There is, no doubt, that there is something terrible and sublime in mere will-power working its evil way, dominating its surroundings with a superhuman energy – (Butcher). The wreck of such power excites in us a certain tragic sympathy, we experience sense a of loss and regret over the waste or misuse of gifts so splendid.

Similarly, according to Aristotelian canon, a saint – a character perfectly good – would be unsuitable, as his spiritual victory, and the sense of his moral triumph, drowns the feeling of pity for his physical suffering. The saint is self-effacing and unselfish, and so he tends to be passive and inactive. Drama, on the other hand, requires for its effectiveness, a militant and combative hero. However, in quite recent times, both Bernard Shaw and T.S. Eliot have achieved out-standing success with saints as their tragic heroes. In this connection, it would be pertinent to remember, first, that Aristotle’s conclusions are based on the Greek drama with which he was familiar, and secondly, that he is laying down the qualifications of an ideal tragic hero; he is here discussing what is the very best, and not what is good. On the whole, his views are justified, for it requires the genius of a Shakespeare to arouse sympathy for an utter villain, and saints as successful tragic heroes have been extremely rare.

The tragic hero is not depraved or vicious, but he is also not perfect, and his misfortune is brought upon him, by some fault of his own. The Greek word used here is, Hamartia. The root meaning of Hamartia is “missing the mark.” He falls not because of the act of some outside agency or vice or depravity, but because of Hamartia or “miscalculation” on his part. Hamartia is not a moral failing, and hence it is unfortunate that it has been translated rather loosely as “tragic flaw”, as has been done by Bradley.

The Forms of English Drama

Aristotle himself distinguishes, ‘Harmartia’, from moral failing, and makes it quite clear that he means, by in some error of judgment. He writes that the cause of the hero’s fall must lie, “not in depravity, but in some error or Hamartia on his part.” Butcher, Bywater and Rostangi, all agree that ‘Hamartia’ is not a moral sate; but an error of judgment which a man makes or commits. However, as Humphry House tells us, Aristotle does not assert or deny anything about the connection of Hamartia with moral failings in the hero. “It may be accompanied by moral imperfection, but it is not itself a moral imperfection, and in the purest tragic situation the suffering hero is not morally to blame.”

Further, the tragic hero, according to Aristotle, must be a person who occupies a position of lofty eminence in society. He must be a highly placed individual, well-reputed. Shakespeare’s heroes also are all eminent individuals. Modern drama, however, has demonstrated that the meanest individual can serve as a tragic hero as well as a prince of the blood royal, and that tragedies of Sophoclean grandeur can be enacted even in remote country solitudes. However, Aristotle’s dictum is quite justified on the principle that, “higher the state, the greater the fall that follows,” or because heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes, while the death of a beggar passes unnoticed.

Shakespearean Tragedy

The theme of a Shakespearean tragedy is the struggle between Good and Evil, resulting in serious convulsions and disturbances, sorrow, sufferings and death. Says Edward Dowden “Tragedy as conceived by Shakespeare is concerned with the ruin or restoration of the soul and of the life of man. In other words, its subject is the struggle of Good and Evil in the world.” It depicts men and women struggling with Evil, often succumbing to it, and brought to death by it. Though their heroic struggle we realise the immense spiritual potentiality of man. “For Shakespeare tragedy becomes the stern, awful but exalting picture of mankind’s heroic struggle towards a goodness which enlarges and enriches itself as human experience grows longer and wider through the ages.” It is for this reason that Charlton calls Shakespearean tragedy “the apotheosis (or glorification) of the soul of man.” It is also for this reason that it never leaves behind a depressing effect. It soothes, consoles and strengthens.

A Tale of Suffering

Shakespearean tragedy is pre-eminently the story of one person, “the hero” or at most of two, the hero and the heroine. It is only in the love tragedies, Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra, that the heroine is as much the centre of action as the attention is concentrated on the main figure. A typical Shakespearean tragedy is single star. The story leads upto and includes the death of the hero. At the end, the stage is often littered with corpeses. ‘It is essentially a tale of suffering and calamity conducting to death” (Bradley)

Tragic Hero: His Exceptional Nature

The tragic heroes are all conspicuous persons who, “stand in high degree.” They are either kings, or princes, or great military generals indispensable for the state. These exalted personages suffer greatly; their suffering and calamity is exceptional. Thus Macbeth after the murder suffers the tortures of Hell, as if there were scorpions in his brain; Othello is on the rack with jealousy for the greater part of the play; Lear goes mad and raves; and Hamlet’s soul is torn within. Their suffering is contrasted with their previous happiness. The hero is such an important personality that his fall effects the welfare of a whole nation or empire, and when he falls suddenly from the height of earthly greatness to the dust, his fall produces a sense of the powerlessness of man and the omnipotence of Fate. This is one of the ways in which the playwright introduces an element of universality in his tragedies.

The Tragic Flaw

The tragic hero is not only a person of high degree, he also has an exceptional nature. He is built on a grand scale. He has some passion or obsession which attains in him a terrible force. He has a marked one-sidedness, a strong tendency to act in a particular way. They are all driven in some one direction by some peculiar interest, object, passion, or habit of mind. Bradley refers to this trait as the tragic flaw. Owing to the fault or flaw of his character, the tragic hero falls from greatness.

He errs, and his error joing with other causes brings on him ruin. In other words his character issues in action, or action issues out of his character. It is in this sense that “Character is Destiny” is true of Shakespearean tragedy. The character of the hero is responsible for his action; and from this point of view they appear to be instruments shaping their own destiny. As Bradley pats it, “The calamities and catastrophe follow inevitably from the deeds of men and the main source of these deeds is character.”

Tragic Waste

The tragic hero, no doubt, has this particular flaw which spells his doom, but otherwise he is an admirable character, a genius, a great warrior, or an exceptionally honest and virtuous person. But all this exceptional human material suffers and is wasted. Hence it is that a Shakespearean tragedy leaves behind a very strong impression of waste. At the close of the tragedy the Evil does not triumph; it is expelled but at the cost of much that is good and wholly admirable. For example, the fall of Macbeth not only means the death of evil in him, but also the waste of much that was essentially noble. It is in the fitness of things that Iago be punished, but it also leads to the ruin of good represented by Desdemona and Othello. So also in Hamlet and King Lear the good is destroyed along with the evil. There is no tragedy in the expulsion of Evil; the tragedy is that it involves the waste of Good.

Three Complicating Factors

As a matter of fact, the characteristic deeds of the hero i.e. deeds issuing from his character, are influenced and complicated by the following three additional factors:

  1. a)Some abnormal condition of mind as insanity, sommnambulism, or excitable imagination resulting in hallucinations. Thus King Lear suffers from insanity, Macbeth has hallucinations, and Lady Macbeth walks in her sleep. The deeds that proceed from such abnormal conditions of mind are not characteristic or voluntary. Such abnormality never originates deeds of any dramatic importance, though it may influence the course of action and precipitate the fall of the hero.
  2. b)The supernatural, ghosts and witches. The Supernatural element is not a mere illusion of the hero. The witches in Macbeth and the ghost in Hamlet have an objective existence as they are seen by others also. Further, the supernatural does contribute to the action, and is often an indispensable part of it. But it always placed in closest relation with character. It gives a confirmation and distinct form to the inner workings of the hero’s mind. The ghost which Brutus sees is an expression of his sense of failure; the witches in Macbeth are symbolic of the guilt withing his soul; and the ghost in Hamlet results from suspicion already present in his mind. But its influence is never of a compulsive kind; we are never allowed to feel that it has removed the hero’s capacity or responsibility of dealing with the situation in his own way. It is merely suggestive; the hero is quite free to accept the suggestion or to reject it. But the hero follows its suggestion because it squares with the evil within his own bosom. It is in this way that the supernatural hastens the downfall of the hero.
  3. c)Chance or accident. In most of the tragedies chance plays a prominent part, as it does in life itself. Such chance happenings always work against the hero and quicken his downfall. The dramatist makes only a sparing use of such accidents, for any large admission of it would weaken the causal connection between character and action, and so spoil the tragic effect. It is for this reason that accidents occur only when the action is well advanced and the impression of the causal sequence is too firmly fixed to be impaired.

Conflict – Internal and External

The action of a Shakespearean tragedy always develops through conflict. The conflict is both external and internal. It may be between two persons, or group of persons, representing opposing interests. The hero is one of the two persons or belongs to one of the two groups. This is the external conflict. There may also be an internal struggle in the mind of the hero between two opposite ideas or interests which pull him in different directions, so that the hero, torn and divided within himself, suffers the agonies of hell. As the dramatist’s art matured, the conflict became more and more internalised. Thus there is conflict in Macbeth between ambition and loyalty to the king; Othello is torn within himself between jealousy and love, and Hamlet hesitates and broods and does nothing. In this way, the soul of the hero is laid bare before us. This spectacle of suffering is terrible and heart-rending, and arouses the emotions of pity and terror – two tragic emotions according to Aristotle. A Shakespearean tragedy is truly “Kathartic” i.e. it purges the readers of the emotions of self-pity and terror.


It may be noted at this place that though the tragic hero cannot be saved from ultimate doom, he is granted just before the end a glimpse of what might have been, a conversion in outlook which enables him to die with a safe and cleansed mind. A true conception of their own action, painful as that may be, sheds light into their souls. They form a fresh attitude towards life which banishes a part of the evil in their beings. A sort of calm descends on the tragic hero right in the manner of the greatest Greek tragedies. It is owing to this serenity at the end that the readers are never left crushed or pessimistic, despite the tremendous waste involved.

The Ultimate Power: Its Moral Nature

One more question remains to be considered. What is the ultimate power in the tragic universe of Shakespeare? For example, the one definite and clear impression which a Shakespearean tragedy creates is that individuals, however great they may be, are not the makers of their destiny. We constantly feel that there is some ultimate power working through the tragic hero, influencing him from within and without, making him act in a particular manner, and driving him to his doom Shakespeare never defines this power exactly and clearly, and this intensifies the impression of some fearful mystery surrounding human life, produced by his tragedies.

No Poetic Justice: Partial Justice

But one thing Shakespeare makes quite clear – that this order or ultimate power is moral. It is just. Its justice may be terrible, but still our sense of justice is always satisfied. Of course, there is no Poetic Justice in a Shakespearean tragedy. Poetic Justice means that prosperity and adversity are distributed in proportion to the merits of the agent. The tragic heroes suffer more, infinitely more, than is merited or deserved by their faults. The good and the virtuous are often crushed and they do not get that prosperity which they fully deserve. Lear and Othello suffer terribly out of all proportion to their faults; and Desdemona and Cordelia are wholly good. “Poetic Justice” is not a fact of life and so Shakespeare, the realist, does not introduce it in his tragedies.

Sense of Mystery

The ultimate power is just and moral in the sense that it shows itself favourable and partial to good and inimical to evil and that evil is always destroyed in the end. All disturbances and convulsions are produced by evil; the ultimate power reacts against it violently and relentlessly. Tragedy in this view, is the exhibition of that convulsive reaction. The evil against which the moral order re-acts is not something outside it; it is within it and a part of it. It has engendered it along with the good. When it is expelled and destroyed the moral order expels and destroyes a part of itself. But together with evil it also expels, as we have already noted above, a part of the good which is so dear to it. But why this should be so? Why should the ultimate power generate evil and then expel it? Shakespeare provides no answer to this riddle of life. He was writing tragedy and tragedy would not be tragedy, if it were not a painful mystery. In a Shakespearean tragedy, says Bradley, “we remain confronted with the inexplicable fact, or the no less inexplicable appearance, of a world travailing for perfection, but bringing to birth, together with glorious good, and evil which it is able to overcome only by self-torture and self-waste. And this fact or appearance is tragedy.”

The Revenge Tragedy

Shakespeare’s four tragedies Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello and King Lear are among the greatest tragedies of the world. But in the post-Shakespearean era i.e. the early 17th century, tragedy degenerated into melodrama. John Webster is the only dramatist who in his The Duchess of Malfi rises to the heights of true tragedy. It is a typical example of the revenge tragedy.

A Revenge tragedy, is a tragedy, as its name implies, in which the tragedy is brought about by the pursuit and accomplishment of revenge. The revenge tragedy was very popular during the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, and it owed its popularity largely to the influence of Seneca, the ancient Roman dramatist. Kyde’s Spanish Tragedy was the first revenge play in the language and following it there was a spurt of revenge plays.

The Forms of English Drama

The chief features of the Revenge tragedy are:

  1. Some murder is committed and the ghost of the murdered person appears to some close relative or friend of his, and enjoins him to take revenge.
  2. Revenge is conceived of as a sacred duty, and not as a kind of wild justice. The Avenger is moved by a sense of sacred duty, and not out of any passion, say greed or hatred for some personal injury.
  3. There is a piling up of crude, physical horror upon horror’s head and thus there is much that is sensational and melodramatic. These terrors are intensified by the repeated appearance of the ghost.
  4. In the end there are a number of deaths, and the stage is left littered with dead bodies.
  5. There is abundant use of the imagery of violence and terror.
  6. Prominent role is assigned to some rascally servant known as the ‘malcontent’ a Machiavellian-villain, much given to reflection and satiric comments.
  7. Sympathy is aroused for the avenger.

Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi has several features of a revenge tragedy. There is a free exploitation of crude, physical horror, like the dance of madmen, the presentation of a dead man’s hand to the Duchess, the showing to her of the wax figures of her husband and children as if they were dead, the appearance of the tomb-maker and the executioner with all the apparatus of death. There are a number of murders including murders by strangling and poisoning. Imagery of violence, decay and corruption, has been abundantly used to intensify the atmosphere of horror. There is also Machiavellian Malcontent, Bosola, a rascal who also indulges in satiric reflections on life.


“Melodrama occurs when the playwright sacrifices truth to life (consistency, verisimilitude) in either character or event, for the sake of theatrical effect.” This sacrifice of truth often involves violence in language or action; but it does not necessarily include violence, and it is important to recognize that violent words and deeds are by no means always or necessarily melodramatic. Lear’s curse upon Goneril is violent and theatrically effective, but not melodramatic, because it is what a man like Lear would say in Lear’s situation. So with Othello’s murder of Desdemona, and with most of the deeds of violence in Shakespearean tragedy; they are not melodramatic because they are the natural results of character and situation. “Violence has always been there in tragedy, no great tragic writer has been afraid of violence. Only it should not be merely theatrical; it should arise naturally out of character and situation.”

In the Jacobean age tragedy degenerates into melodrama. It now lacks in subtlety and depth of characterisation, and the dramatist depends for his effects on the exploitation of crude physical horrors. There is much in The Duchess of Malfi that is merely melodramatic and sensational, lurid and gruesome. All kinds of fearful things – waxen-images counterfeiting death, the wild masque of mad men, the tomb-maker, the bell-man, the strangling of the Duchess, of her children and the poisoning of Cariola – things that make the flesh creep and the blood run cold, are presented before the audience to make horror tenfold more horrible. There are conventional murderers in the dark to effect their evil-purpose, and by the end the sage is littered with dead bodies. There are deaths by poisoning, by strangulation and by the dagger of the assassin. All these are crude devices freely exploited by the contemporary writers of revenge and horror tragedies.

The Heroic Tragedy

Another kind of tragedy, a tragedy which held the day in the later half of the 17th century, is the Heroic Tragedy. The Heroic Tragedy is basically different from the older tragedy, and is to be understood with reference to the laws of the epic or heroic poem rather than to those of the tragedy. Dryden defined it, “as an imitation, in little, of an heroic poem.” He noticed the great affinity between the two genres, the end is the same, the characters are the same, the action and passions are the same, only the manner of conveying them is different. Epic does it through narration, while the heroic play uses action and dialogue for the purpose.

Just as in the epic so also in the heroic plays, probability is stretched to the farthest limit. The heroic playwright enjoys, “a greater liberty of Fancy”, than the writer of a conventional tragedy. Things raised far above the ordinary proportions of the stage. As in the epic, the writer in not limited even by, “the extremest bound of what is credible.” The introduction of the supernatural is, therefore, justified on the same grounds as in an epic. Thus, “ancient critical doctrines” are used to justify the use of the improbable to satisfy restoration, “craving for romance.”

The heroic play was invested with, “the greatness and majesty of heroic poem. It does not hold merely a mirror to nature, but magnifies reality. It is the representation of nature, “but a nature raised to a higher pitch.” The plot, the characters, the wit, the passions, the descriptions, are all exalted above the level of common converse. The style is also made epical. It does not imitate conversation of real life too closely, since sublime subjects ought to be adorned with the sublimest, and the most figurative, expression.

The She-tragedy or The Sentimental Tragedy

The heroic tragedy was the artificial product of an artificial age, and soon there was a re-action against it. The reaction assumed various forms, one of them being the She-tragedy or the Sentimental tragedy, which was popular during the early years of the 18th century. It is called ‘She-tragedy’, because in it the central figure is a woman, and It is sentimental because in it there is excessive indulgence in emotion. Dryden’s All for Love is a transitional play, showing the features both of heroic play and the new She-tragedy. Nicholas Rowe’s The Fair Penitent and Jane Shore are the finest examples of the She-tragedy in England.


Comedy in Ancient Times

Comedies have been written since times immemorial. Among the ancients, Aristophanes, Plautus and Terence were great writers of comedy whose comedies have been a source of inspiration to subsequent practitioners of the art. Meander, Moliere, Shakespeare and Ben Jonson are some modern writers of comedy. But while much has been written on Tragedy since the times of Aristotle down to present day, not much attention has been given to the art of comedy. Comedy has been treated as mere amusement, its purpose being generally considered as that of merely giving relief to tired minds. The general view has been that comedy provides laughter, and laughter serves as a sort of change from the serious pre-occupations of life.

For these reasons there has been a tendency among scholars to dismiss comedy as a sort of inferior art. This is also the view of Aristotle who devotes practically the whole of his Poetics to the study of Tragedy, and summarily dismisses comedy in a brief paragraph. According to the Greek philosopher, Comedy is a representation of character of a lower type, worse than the average. By ‘lower’ or ‘worse’ Aristotle does not mean morally ‘bad’ but only ridiculous. He then defines the ridiculous, “as a species of the ugly. It is that species of the ugly which does not cause any pain or harm to others. Rather, it is productive of laughter. He has not much more to say about the nature and function of Comedy.

Meredith’s View of It

It is only in comparatively recent times that critics like Meredith and Bergson  have devoted due attention to a consideration of the nature and function of comedy, and subsequent discussions of comedy have generally followed these critics. George Meredith in his Idea of Comedy is firmly of the view that Comedy appeals to the intelligence pure and simple, and aims not at our ribs or armpits but at our heads. In other words, Comedy is artificial and its main function is to focus attention on what ails the world. It “strips folly to the skin.” And upon vice wields a, “shrieking scourge”.

Comedy is critical, but in its scourge of folly and vice there is no contempt or anger. As Meredith puts it, “Derisive laughter thwarts the comic idea. The laughter of Comedy is impersonal, and of unrivalled politeness, nearer a smile.” The Pure or High Comedy, as Meredith calls it, is entirely free from the wrath or zeal of the reformer or the moralist, for them Comedy would degenerate into satire. Comedy exposes and ridicules folly and vice, but without the anger of the reformer.

The Forms of English Drama

In thus making his Comedy critical, Meredith is merely describing his ideal of Comedy, for he must have been fully aware of the kindly and generous laughter which is aroused by the comedy of Shakespeare. By not including such generous laughter in his account, he deliberately narrows down the range of Comedy. This is so because the purpose of his essay on Comedy is mainly social. He was writing in the Victorian Age, in the age of Ruskin and Arnold, when literature was required to serve the ends of culture, and Victorian view of literature frequently carries him off his feet. Hence he demands from Comedy “thoughtful laughter”, laughter which would make us think of the ills of society; merely hearty, kindly and generous laughter is not enough for him.

In all this he reveals the influence of Moliere; his idea of comedy is largely Frenchified. It is only towards the end of his essay that he recognizes the power of Shakespeare to rouse rib-shaking laughter and calls him the unapproachable monarch of the world of comedy. But this is so because his laughter is, “the laughter of heart and mind in one.” Shakespeare is great because he provides that laughter of the mind which true comedy should arouse. But the trouble with Shakespeare is that there is so much else in his comedy. There is also much laughter of the heart, “and the laughter of the heart and mind are often so inextricably interfused.” Meredith’s conception of comedy is a narrow one; it does not include in its sweep the Shakespearean comedy, or, for that matter, the comedy of Aristophanes and Cervantes.

Bergson’s View

In this essay On Laughter, Bergson take a position quite close to that of Meredith. In his view also the laughter of Comedy appeals to, “intelligence pure and simple,” and is characterised by an absence of feeling. Comedy laughs at some person or incident out of keeping with our social mode or habit, and the purpose of this laughter is always corrective. It asserts instructively, and without benevolence – for such laughter cannot be kind, no laughter can – the surprise of society that anyone should so isolate himself, and with such unconsciousness of his oddity, from the ordinary responses, the customary give and take, of the community in which he lives. Thus the laughter of Comedy is not kind or sympathetic, and it is aimed at some oddity in character and behaviour, so that, that particular deviation from what is normal or usual may be reformed and corrected. To quote Bergson himself, “Laughter is above all corrective ……… by laughter society avenges itself for the liberties taken with it, it would fail in its object, if it bore the stamp of sympathy or kindliness.”

Criticism of It

No doubt, many forms of vanity, self-love and affectation are covered up by this view of the comic, but there is much else in English Comedy, specially Shakespearean Comedy, which is excluded from the Bergsonian world of Comedy. Says Gordon: “Whatever his sense of humour, he has none of the simple fun (of Shakespeare) and is bounded in his view of Comedy by the classical stage of France – by that comedy of types of which Moliere is the acknowledged master, and to which Shakespearean Comedy offers the boldest antithesis. How, otherwise, can he define Laughter as by its nature devoid of feeling, or if tinged at all with feeling, then unbenevolent? There is friendly as well as unfriendly laughter, as we, rude island-readers of Shakespeare, know; nor can anything exceed in that way the kindness, the rejoicing and protective kindness, which we feel for the humorists and grotesques of the Shakespearean stage.

So little is our laughter on those occasions a social gesture, a social corrective, a lash of the whip to bring anomalies into the social fold – so little do we feel this that, on the contrary, we would not have them altered by a hair, and desire nothing so much as that they should go on ad infinitium being precisely the absurd anomalies they are. The reason for this, though it escaped Bergson, is that Shakespeare habitually creates not types, but men and women that are as real to us to-day as when Shakespeare made them – and have acquired in our companionable affection as historic as well as a dramatic being.”

Bergson’s idea of the nature and function of Comedy is a narrow one for he does not take into account that entirely joyous and sympathetic laughter, without any sense of social responsibility, which is such a marked feature of Shakespearean Comedy as distinguished from the classical comedy, best represented in England by the comedy of Ben Jonson. The rib-shaking hilarious laughter of Shakespeare may be irresponsible, but all the same it has been a perennial source of delight and amusement. It satisfies some deep and permanent need of human nature, the need to relax and forget the burden of living.


To sum up: there are two views of Comedy. According to the first view the function of Comedy is neither to arouse the emotions nor to correct and reform. Its function is merely to provide lighthearted fun, and the more hilarious the laughter the better. This is the English or Shakespearean idea of Comedy. According to the second view, the function of Comedy is mainly corrective. This function is performed by laughing at vanity, affectation, and other forms of deviation from the expected and the normal. This is the classical or the French concept of Comedy. The second kind of comedy, the corrective comedy, is distinguished from satire by an absence of the warth or indignation which characterises the satirist. Its laughter is thoughtful, but it is impersonal. In the comedy of Shakespeare there is often an intermingling of both these species much rib-shaking fun is entwined with thoughtful laughter.

Classical Comedy

In other words, a comedy, like the drama is general, may be of two types – Classical and Romantic. The classical comedy follows the rules of dramatic composition as laid down by the ancient Greek and Roman masters: its models are the classical dramatists like Platus Terence and Aristophanes. The more important of these rules are (1) observance of the three unities of time, place and action (2) The strict separation of the comic, and the tragic, or the light and serious elements (3) Realism. It deals with the everyday, familiar life of ordinary people and (4) Its aim is corrective and satiric. Some human folly, weakness, or social vice is exposed and ridiculed. It laughs at people and not with them. The most noted exponent of the classical comedy in England was a younger contemporary of Shakespeare, Ben Johnson. His comedy mirrors the life of the times, he depicts and satirises a number of follies of his age, his purpose being to,

Strip the ragged follies of the time,
Naked, as at their birth, and with a whip of steel,
Print wounding lashes in their iron ribs.

Romantic Comedy

The Shakespearean Comedy, on the other hand, is Romantic Comedy. It grew out of national tastes and traditions. The dramatist does not care for any rules of literary creation, but writes according to the dictates of his fancy. The three unities are carelessly thrown to the wind. There is a free mingling of the comic and the tragic, the serious and the gay, for Shakespeare instinctively realised that life is a mingled yarn of joys and sorrows, and it would be unnatural to separate them. Its aim is not corrective, or satiric, but innocent, good natured laughter. Follies are, no doubt, exposed and ridiculed, but the laughter is gentle and sympathetic, and there is no moral indignation, or the zeal of a reformer. The dramatist sympathises even when he laughs. We laugh with people and not at them. In the words of Charlton, “The Shakespearean Comedy is not satiric, it is poetic. It is not conservative; it is creative. The way of it is that of imagination rather than that of pure reason. It is an artist’s vision, not a critic’s exposition.”

Shakespearean Comedy

Shakespearean Comedy is Romantic not only in the sense that it does not observe the classical rules of dramatic composition, but also in the sense that it provides an escape from the sordid realities of life. The world of a Shakespearean Comedy, says Raleigh is a, “rainbow world of love in idleness”. The action takes place in some distant, far off land, and on the wings of his imagination he transports us to the forest of Arden, to the shores of Ilyria, to Messina or to an ancient forest in Greece. Though critics have tried to locate these lands they exist nowhere but in the imagination of the poet. “In this land, of romance and enchantment, the inhabitants have no other business but that of love-making. The intensities and realities of life simmer into smoke and film in that delicate atmosphere.” Except in The Merchant of Venice and the Comedy of Errors which open on a public mart, nobody ever goes to business or even thinks of business. A Midsummer Night’s Dream reaches the very height of romance owing to the presence of the fairies, bright, beautiful, idealised beings of Shakespeare’s poetic fancy.

Mingling of Romance and Realism

In this world of romance, realism enters by a few deft and subtle touches. Indeed, the mingling of romance and realism is one of the salient features of the comedy of Shakespeare. The characterisation is realistic. His personages are ordinary human beings, and incidents are such as are possible in common everyday life. The poet may soar high but his feet are always solidly fixed on the earth. There is a confrontation of the romantic main-plot with a realistic sub-plot. In the idyllic As You Like It there is the realistic Jacques to remind us of the ingratitude of man which is more painful than winter wind or the frozen-sky. In Midsummer Night’s Dream, the homely Bottom and his companions are constant reminders of the realities of life. In Twelfth Night the Malvolio-episode and the wise comments of the Fool serve the same purpose. The setting is poetic and romantic, but it is skilfully related to real life.

The Love-Theme; Romance of Love

A Shakespearean comedy is a story of love ending with the ringing of marriage bells. Not only are the hero and the heroine in love, but all are in love, and so in the end there is not one marriage but a number of marriages. The entire atmosphere is surcharged with love. The lovers are all young people and they fall in love at first sight. The line of Marlowe, “who ever loved that loved not at first sight” is perfectly applicable to Shakespeare’s lovers. Their love is engendered in the eye at first sight. This desire of the eyes is exhibited in many beautiful and fanciful guises, transforming itself into passion or caprice, and leading its victims to unexpected goals. “This youthful love has no commerce with reason: It is “high fantastical.” It can lead to Titania’s infatuation for an ass, so that we agree with Helena when she says;

“Things base and vile, holding no quantity,
Love can transpose to form and dignity.”

This true and constant love which is not, “Time’s Fool” and which does not alter when it alteration finds, ennobles, uplifts and inspires both the lover and the beloved. Each tries to outshine the other as Beatrice and Benedick do in Much Ado About Nothing, and seem to have greater strength, charm or wit when in the presence of the object of love than otherwise. Rosalind is at her most charming when talking to Orlando, Portia more poetic in the company of Bassanio, Olivia gay only before Viola disguised, Beatrice more witty when faced with Benedick. “Love is the means of all human fulfillment and the source of all natural fruition.”

Music and Song

Since, “music is the food of love”, Shakespearean Comedy is intensely musical. Music and dance are its very life and soul. Twelfth Night opens with music which strikes the key-note of this merry tale of love. In the end there is always music, dance and merry-making with Hymen, the God love, presiding. Indeed, Shakespeare is a prodigal in the provision of light-hearted mirth and revelry in his comedies. This all pervasive spirit of mirth gains much from the presence of the Fool, or some clownish characters, whom the dramatist introduces into his love tales.

Difficulties and Conflicts

“The course of true love never did run smooth” wrote Marlowe and the remark is particularly applicable to Shakespeare’s love tales. Difficulties soon come in the way of the lovers. Misunderstandings arise, or there is the hostility of parents, friends or other relatives and consequently there are much tears and sighs, before the final union takes place. Thorndike rightly remarks, “The course of true love for each couple is crossed by separation, misunderstanding, disguises, magic, and perhaps the temporary unfaithfulness of one or the other. Lovers and ladies must pass through adventures, combats and risks, to final reunion.”

The Role of Goddess Fortune

But all these difficulties, which beset the path of the hero and the heroine, are unexpectedly end unaccountably removed. Things turn up by the chance at the right moment and all ends well. It is as if some unseen power, some friendly God, watches benignly over the lovers and helps them when they stand in need of it. As in the Tragedies, so in the Comedies, Fate takes a hand in the human action. But, says Raleigh, “Fate in the realm of comedy, appears in the milder and more capricious character of Fortune whose wheel turns again and again, and vindicates the merry heart”. This Fortune of the comedies, or, “Circumstance, the mirthful God”, as Dowden would have it, is a kindly and sympathetic being, who only enjoys a bit of fun, like Puck or Ariel, at the expense of poor mortals, but is never unfavourable to them.

The plots of his comedies are not original; he did not invent them but borrowed them indifferently from English or foreign sources. While in the great tragedies action issues out of character and develops naturally without being forced or twisted, there is no such logical development of plot in the comedies. There is much that is superfluous, ridiculous, shapeless, grotesque and artificial. Much is improbable, unconvincing and absurd. Too much depends on chance or Fortune. Deceits, Disguises, mistaken identities and cross purposes are the stock devices used by the dramatist to maintain suspense and prolong the interest. But the absurdities of the plot are concealed by heightening the character interest, and the whole effect remains gracious and pleasant.

The Characters

The characters of Shakespearean comedy are kindly, lighthearted and humorous. They are lovable creatures, who win our sympathies so that we share their joys and sorrows and wish them all success. The women especially are winning and charming. They dominate the action and are always in the front. An array of glittering heroines, bright, beautiful and witty, enlivens the world of the comedy of Shakespeare. The remark of Ruskin, “Shakespeare has only heroines and no heroes”, is certainly true of his comedies. In this connection Gordon writes: “All lectures on Shakespeare’s comedies tend to become lectures on Shakespeare’s women, for in the comedies they have the front of the stage. Of most of Shakespeare’s play no such feminine pre-dominence can be asserted. It is absent from his English histories and from most of his tragedies also. In the world of the comedies, on the other hand, he may gratify his bent to the utmost. For it is true of most of Shakespeare’s comedies, as it is of daily life, that where the woman is, there also, probably, is the root and heart of the matter.”


Shakespearean Comedy has been loved and enjoyed in every age and country. Its charm is as fresh as ever even today. Its sunny atmosphere, its idyllic nature, its spirit of kindliness, its humanity, etc, have all combined to endear it to all his readers.

The Comedy of Humour

Ben Jonsonian Comedy, classical, realistic and satirical is also called the Comedy of Humour. In a Comedy of Humour, “Each one of the character is the representative of some ‘humour” i.e. some over-mastering passion which governs all his action. Thus humanity is reduced to particular types, and the characters lack that all round development which we associate with Shakespeare. Shakespeare is nearer and more true to nature and so he is a greater classic then Ben Jonson in this respect. The scene of Jonson’s comedies is real, familiar London, rather than romantic Venice or the forest of Arden or the shores of Ilyria. The purpose of the writer is to satirise the follies and foibles, the weaknesses and vices of contemporary society, and his satire is generally coarse and brutal. Each of his characters is taken from low-life and represents some particular social vice or folly. We miss the fine, romantic, idealised men and women of Shakespeare.

The Comedy of Manners

In the Restoration Era (1660-1700) there flourished another type of comedy, called the Comedy of Manners. The Comedy of Manners, “reflects the culture of the upper classes in which manners are supreme.” Prof. Nicoll defines manners, “as something brilliant about a man or a woman, not a humour but a grace, or a habit of refined culture,’, and it is this something brilliant or distinguishing quality which the new comedy of manners tries to catch. It deals with the gallantries, intrigues and affectations of distinctive feature of that culture, “its breeding, gallantry and wit”, its brilliance, freedom excesses and eccentricities.

The Forms of English Drama

It deals with the brilliant surface of Restoration high-ups. It avoids all that is mean and low. It avoids low and mean characters and their “mechanic-humours”. Everything low and vulgar in conversation is painstakingly eschewed and an unprecedented refinement of language is achieved. Thus words like “whore”, “pimp”, etc., are avoided. Indeed, wit, the saying of fine sparkling things, emerges as the leading characteristic of Restoration comedy, while plot and characterisation are its weakest points. Though it eschews the use of improper words, it is extremely obscene and immoral. Congreve, Dryden, and Wycherley are its most important practitioners, Sheridan, and Goldsmith also wrote comedies of this type, and it has again been revived in the modern age.


Farce is a low kind of Comedy which seeks to provide boisterous laughter by the use of absurd characters, situations and dialogue. The word comes from the Latin word “to stuff”, and a farce is stuffed with absurd characters and incidents. It is characterised by exaggeration and extravagance, and there is much in it that is merely nonsense. It does not require much intelligence to be understood and appreciated. There is much that is farcical in the comedies of Shakespeare, for Shakespeare wrote for the public stage and he had to satisfy even ‘the groundling’, the uncultured and the illiterate. Thus in Midsummer Night’s Dream, the scene in which Titania, the Fairy queen, makes love to Bottom, the ass, is entirely farcical. Duke of Buckingham’s The Rhearsal (last decade of the 17th century) is one of the finest examples of a full length farce.


The Masque was a kind of dramatic entertainment popular in the age of Shakespeare. It was called a Masque or a Masquerade because the actors wore masks or vizards on their faces. In the beginning, it was merely a series of dances which also illustrated some story, as if in dumb show, but gradually it came to be a play with a good deal of music, dancing and scenic display. Ben Jonson was its chief exponent, and the masques penned by him are still good entertainment. The salient features of a Masque are:

(1)      The use of Allegorical and mythical subjects.

(2)      The characters are usually gods and goddesses of classical mythology, or personified qualities such as Delight, Grace, Love, Harmony, Revel, Sport, Laughter.

(3)      The number of characters is usually small and often equally divided between males and females.

(4)      The entertainment is much shorter than the regular drama.

(5)      The scenes are laid in some ideal region, such as the Hill of Knowledge, the House of Chivalry, the House of Oceanus, the Fountain of Light, or at least in some far off region, picturesque and romantic.

(6)      Rhymed verse is used.

(7)      The Masque were performed privately and the actors and actresses were amateurs.

(8)      Their object was usually to celebrate marriages in high life. They were written for particular occasions. Hence they were characterised by music and dance used on a lavish scale.

(9)      Most costly and elaborate scenery and costume were employed, so that the Masques were characterised by spectacle and scenic display.

(10)   Within the masque proper there is usually a ridiculous masque or “anti-masque” performed partly by servants, partly by actors hired for the purpose, and generally separated from the actual masque by a change of scene.

Milton’s Comus is one of the finest masques in the English language. Its superb poetry has made it immortal.


A Tragi-Comedy is a play with a double ending i.e. the ending is happy for some characters and unhappy for others. Thus there is a mingling of comedy and tragedy. Moreover, there is an infusion of the comic in what is essentially a tragedy, and an infusion of the tragic gloom in a Comedy. Aristotle condemned such a mixture because he felt that such mixture spoils and weakens the tragic effect. In his view a tragedy should be tragic throughout. But Shakespeare has proved that a Tragi-Comedy also is a great work of art. Merchant of Venice is a great play, it ends unhappily for Shylock and happily for Antonio, Bassonio, Portia and others. Similarly, in his tragedies, he provides comic relief by bringing in the Fool or some other comic characters. The grave-digger’s scene in Hamlet readily comes to mind in this connection.

The Forms of English Drama

Ever since Shakespeare’s great masterpieces were hotly debated. Both Dryden and Dr. Johnson strongly defended this form of drama, for its nearness to life and nature and regarded it as one of the chief glories of the English stage. “The fact is,” Allardyce Nicoll points out, “that tears and laughter, lie in close proximity. It is but a step from the one to the other ……… We feel nothing incongruous in practice in laughing at the jests of Mercutio and at the same time witnessing the tragic story of Juliet and her Romeo, just as we feel nothing incongruous when in a novel of Dickens we pass from hilarious laughter to the most tearful forms of the pathetic.” The effect produced by Tragi-Comedy is not a ludicrous mixture of tears and laughter, but a delightful alternation of the two and a consequent heightening of effects.


The Historical drama is based upon the facts of history but these facts are imaginatively treated. The characters are historical, but by the power of his imagination the dramatist breathes new life into them so that they live once again in his pages. The dry bones of history live once again in this kind of drama. There is sifting and ordering of reality, but no falsification of it.

The Forms of English Drama

The history play was not Shakespeare’s invention. On the contrary, as Sydney Lee points out, this kind of drama was already ‘rousing immense enthusiasm in English audiences.” It owed its popularity to the fervour of Armada patriotism. The newly awakened national spirit made the people take a keen interest in the records of bygone struggles against foreign invasion and civil disunion. Marlowe’s Edward II already enjoyed wide popularity when Shakespeare began to write. In this matter, as in others, he moved with the fashion of the times; he was writing for the public stage and had ever to keep his audience in mind. He took what he found, and gave what he was asked for. It is another matter that he “converted what came to him from hack dramatists and crude tastes of raw playgoers into a product of genius and a possession for all time.”

His Concept of History

Shakespeare’s concept of history, as developed in the plays, is old-fashioned and outdated. He was not a man born in advance of his times, one who could anticipate the thoughts of the future generations. In one sense, he was a man purely of his age, sharing the views and prejudices of his contemporaries and moving with the times. The modern historian devotes his chief attention to the social, economic and political changes of the period he deals with. He is more concerned with the life of the nation and the spirit of the times, than with the fortunes of rival sovereigns. The achievements of the nation during peace are often of more interest to him than periodic wars and upheavals. But in the age of Queen Elizabeth the history of England was the story of the doings and sufferings of the royal house, and more specially of its wars at home and abroad. This is exactly the story which is unfolded by the English Histories of Shakespeare.

Indictment of Monarchy

All this does not mean that Shakespeare’s histories are merely a courtier’s history of England. He was a broad-minded person, a man of imagination and wide sympathy, who could see both sides of the picture. Despite all his loyalty for his queen, he was fully alive to the faults and weaknesses of the monarchs of his country. His plays provide a severe indictment of the English monarchy and English aristocracy. The incompetence, the treachery, the cruelty and indifference to all interests but their own, of the kings of England is fully exposed. They are a treacherous, faithless and selfish lot. The nobles are equally bad; they are loyal neither to each other nor to their king. Every man plays a game in which his own head is one of the stakes; so oaths are broken and friendship forgotten in a moment, at a changing breath of fortune. The entire play King John ‘is a carnival of treachery.” Richard III presents the picture of cunning and violence hurrying from murder to suicide. In Richard II everybody is false to everybody else. “so in Henry IV, the treachery of the king is rewarded by treachery, and that treachery is tricked to its punishment by a peculiarly base breach of honour on the part of the virtuous prince John.”

The Forms of English Drama

Shakespeare almost makes, “the history of England a Chronicle of royal and noble crimes” (John Bailey). Henry V is the one honourable exception. The play is the culmination and glory of the Histories; in it the trumpet of the national spirit sounds its loudest and most heroic blast. “All the pride of England is in it and all the valour, concentrated in the most incredible of English victories and in the English king who united in himself those qualities of youth and victory and early death which make heroic legend” (John Bailey). Henry V is the dramatist’s most monarchical play and Henry the most royal, masterful, and victorious of his kings. He is his ideal of a man of action; he is the hero king of all the line, as well as the most subtly studied human being of them all.

The Theme of the Histories

What is the theme of the histories? What was the dramatist aiming at? In the tragedies the playwright was concerned more with what a man is than with what he does. In each of the tragedies he explores the questions of life and death and leaves in impression of “measureless pathos, or pain dissolved in perfect joy.” In the historical plays, his aims are entirely different. He is no longer concerned with the spiritual significance of life, but with the materialistic issues of failure or success in the achievement of practical ends. Man is measured by his positive achievements. The question is not what the life of a man’s soul has been, or what he has thought and suffered, but what he has actually done. The theme of the histories, in the words of Edward Dowden, is, “How a man may fail and how a man may succeed in attaining a practical mastery of the world.” Evil in the histories is wrong-doing which is followed by inevitable retribution. With an unfaltering hand, the dramatist exposes the consequences of weakness, of error, and of crime.


The dramatic unities are three: the Unity of Action, the unity of Time, and the unity of Place. Ever since the Renaissance two reasons were advanced in support of the three unities. First, that Aristotle had enjoined them, and secondly, that they are necessary to create dramatic illusion and in this way to make the drama credible and convincing. During the Pseudo-classical era, the unities were made into rigid rules and their observance was considered essential.

The three unities were deduced from Aristotle, but the Greek philosopher has stressed only one Unity, the unity of Action. The Action of a tragedy, he says in The Poetics, must be a, “complete whole,” and it must have, “organic unity.” Aristotle compares the plot of a tragedy to a living organism and says that just as in a living organism every part is harmoniously related to each other, and to the whole, so in tragedy also the various incidents and events must bear a proportionate and harmonious relationship. Just as in a living organism no part is superfluous, and each part is essential for the life of the organism and cannot be removed without causing injury to it, so also in the plot of a tragedy every event and every incident must be necessary and essential. There should be nothing superfluous, it should not be possible to take out any character or incident, without causing any injury to the plot. Digressions and episodes may be introduced, but then they should be integral to the plot and must contribute to the effect which the dramatist wants to create.

The Forms of English Drama

Aristotle rules out plurality of Action. There should be one Action or Plot, and not two Actions. Thus he is against the introduction of a sub-plot. Similarly, he is against a double-ending i.e. tragic end for some of the characters, and a happy end for the others. Plurality of action and such double ends distract attention and weaken the tragic effect. They defeat the very purpose of a tragedy, which is to arouse the emotions of pity and fear. Aristotle thus rules out tragi-comedy and the introduction of comic relief. In this respect it should be noted that Elizabethan drama, more particularly the plays of Shakespeare, have demonstrated, without a shadow of doubt, that the introduction of comic relief increase the entertainment value of tragedy, and heightens the effectiveness of the Catastrophe by contrast. Tragi-comedies are nearer to nature; tears and smiles, joys and sorrows, mingle in life, and so they must also mingle in drama. Aristotle’s rigid separation of the comic and the tragic, the gay and serious, is not justified.

Aristotle has stressed only the unity of Action, he says nothing about the other two unities. However, the  unities of Time and Place have also been derived from him. Aristotle’s comment on the length of tragedy gave rise during the neo classic period to the doctrine of Unity of Time. According to this doctrine, which became literally a critical dogma in seventeenth century France and in Restoration England, when Aristotle asserts that, “tragedy attempts as far as possible to remain within one revolution of the sun”, he is referring to the time covered by the dramatic action of the play. This interpretation accords with the rationalistic bias of neo-classic critics. Spectators, they argued, would not believe in the reality of an action that compressed several days (or, in the case of Shakespearean drama, several years) into a three-hour drama.

The Forms of English Drama

And if the spectators did not believe in the reality of the action, the tragedy would not have its proper effect. The idea was carried to absurd extremes. In France, the critics began debating earnestly as to whether, “one revolution of the sun,” meant a twenty four hour day or the twelve-hour period of daylight. Ideally, of course, the neo-classicists believed that there should be an exact correspondence between the time of the dramatic action and the action and time of the events being imitated, so that a play lasting three hours would depict events that took only three hours to work themselves out.

Unity of time is one aspect of a larger neo-classic concern for what is called versimilitude, or likeness to truth. This concept is based equally on a highly rationalistic theory of what audiences will and will not believe and a Platonic (not Aristotelian) theory of imitation as mimicry. It underlies all the three “unities” attributed to Aristotle by neo-classical critics – unity of action, unity of time, and unity of place – and it also has important implications for characterisation, language, and even versification.

The tendency of the twentieth century critics has been to reject the notion that Aristotle formally advocated Unity of Time in the Poetics. In the first place, not all Greek tragedies confine their action to a, “single revolution of the sun”, in this sense. The Agamemnon and Enumenides are well known examples of plays that cover several days. In the second place, neo-classic verisimilitude is a demonstrably false doctrine and one that is inconsistent with Aristotle’s explicit rejection of the theory that poetic imitation is a “copying” of the facts of nature.

The Forms of English Drama

The Unity of Place Aristotle does not even mention once. While comparing epic and tragedy, he merely says that the epic may narrate several actions taking place simultaneously at several places, but this is not possible in tragedy which does not narrate, but represents through action. This chance remark led Renaissance and Neo-classic critics to hoist the unity of place on Aristotle, and on the basis of his authority to make it into a rigid rule for dramatic composition. It was said that in the drama there should be change of place, and even if the scene changes it must not be to too great a distance. It was laid down that it should be confined to the limits of a single city. No doubt, the Unity of Place was generally observed by the Greek Tragedians for several obvious reasons. There were no drop-scenes, and no division into Acts and scenes, and so naturally the action was continuous and unbroken.

Moreover, as Lessing suggests “the limitations of Time and Place were necessary in order that the Chorus might not seem to be kept too long away from their homes.” The same group of persons could not be transported to different places, too distant from each other, without violating, dramatic illusion too flagrantly. Whatever may have been the practice of the Greek drama, Aristotle does not prescribe the Unity of Place, and Shakespeare’s plays demonstrate that the unity of atmosphere is not violated and the dramatic illusion can be kept up, even when the scene shifts from Sicilia to Bohemia, or from Venice to Cyprus. Further, the Shakesperean drama is entirely free form the narrow and cramping effect of the unities, which mars a number of French plays.

The Forms of English Drama

Unity of Action, which Aristotle rightly emphasised, is the higher and controlling law of the drama. If the unity of Action is maintainted, the other two unities will take care of themselves. The unities of Time and place are only of a secondary and purely derivative value. In England, Dr. Johnson gave a death blow to the unities, and nothing has been heard of them ever since. Their interest now is merely historical.

Read it also:  Relation of Literature to Life

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