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‘Cuckoldry And Senility, Insomnia And Procrastination – These Are Not Proper Subjects For Tragedy’. Notes

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'Cuckoldry and senility, insomnia and procrastination - these are not proper subjects for tragedy'. [1995]

Thomas Lodge in his 'Deffnse of Poetry' (1579) described the chief themes of tragedy as "the sour fortune of many exiles, the miserable fall of hapless princes, the ruinous decay of many countries." Similarly, his contemporary Richard Puttenham added that the purposes of such writings were "to show the mutability of fortune and the just punishment of God in revenge of a vicious and evil life" (The Art of English Poesie,1589). However lacking these statements might be as a description of Elizabethan tragedy, particularly within the Shakespeare cannon, they at least depict the popular notions of what tragedy ought to be. This is of course unsurprising given their medieval predecessors who perceived the a general struggle between virtue and vice for the possession of man's soul in the Morality plays. Medieval narratives which focused upon the fall of princes from felicity to wretchedness due to the unpredictable will of Fortune's wheel were the closest common ancestors to 'tragedy' in the middle ages. "Tragedie is to seyn a certain storie" says Chaucer's Monk, "As old bookes maken us memorie, Oh hym that stood in greet prosperity,/ And is y - fallen out of heigh degree Into myserie, and endeth wretchedly / For certain, whan that Fortune list to flee, Ther may no man the cours of hire withholde. Lat no man truste on blynde prosperity; be war by thise ensamples trewe and lode (The Monk's Tale, B. 316f3f). The ideas set forth by Lodge and Puttenham reveal the how preoccupations with the lives of great men within a moral framework of providence, fate and worthy punishment explored by medieval writers remained prominent within the literature of the period. The shift in emphasis, which this quotation illuminates, is the conception of human responsibly within the events of men, a responsibility which is borne out of an essential weakness in character. Cuckoldry, senility, insomnia and procrastination, may not be suitable 'subjects' for tragedy in the sense that they are not fitting summaries of great plays - ones that deal with the fall of kingdoms, plot, intrigue, murder, betrayal and the like, yet they are essential to Shakespeare's mode of tragic writing. Rather than being the subjects of tragedy, they are indeed the substance of them, the subtle underlying characteristics of both character and form, which allow the real tragic and dramatic action to take place. The drama at the end of the 16th century, whilst still concerned with morality and the role of Fortune, showed a greater insight which focused attention upon human character; "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings. ( Julius Cesar, 1.2.140-1), "Nay, if I turn mine eyes upon myself, / I find myself a traitor with the rest."( Richard II, 4.1.247-8) "Virtue! A fig! 'Tis in ourselves that we are thus and thus".( Othello, 1.3.322). The interaction of these two aims produced images of man forced into a gallant battle of defiance against fate, fighting against "the slings and arrows of outrageous Fortune" to beat "the divinity that shapes our ends" (Hamlet 4.2.8-22). In attempting to make sense of this struggle between personal responsibility and divine intervention, particularly within a society which still believed in the soul's contract with the afterlife, Shakespeare's tragedies explore the fragility of the human condition when placed within certain circumstances. Like his medieval forbears, Shakespeare continued to focus on the lives of persons of high degrees for the purposes of heighten drama for "When beggars die, there are no comets seen; The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes. (Julius Caesar,2.3.30-1). That only the 'great' of society could be suitable subjects for tragedy was a principle as old as Greek drama and although domestic, middle class drama, such as A Yorkshire Tragedy and A Woman Killed in Kindness (obscure ancestors

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