Getting started: Macbeth

1.4 Ideas of tragedy

All ideas of tragedy refer back in some way to Aristotle’s fourth-century BCE treatise Poetics.

Individual activity: Aristotle

Read Aristotle’s remarks on tragedy, which are in section VI of the text as reproduced in translation on The Internet Classics Archive website. Think about the ways in which this description of tragedy fits, or does not fit, Macbeth and make notes.

Renaissance ideas of tragedy

It’s still a moot point how aware Shakespeare was of classical literature. Ben Jonson, who was proud of his own learning, famously said that Shakespeare had ‘small Latin and less Greek’. You can look at his poem prefaced to the First Folio of 1623 in a digital facsimile of the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays from the Bodleian Archives. Others, however, have argued for a more learned Shakespeare. Here are some contemporary views of tragedy that may also have had an impact on the writing, and reading or viewing, of Macbeth:

The high and excellent Tragedy, that openeth the greatest wounds and showeth forth the ulcers that are covered with tissue; that maketh kings fear to be tyrants, and tyrants manifest their tyrannical humours; that, with stirring the affects of admiration and commiseration, teacheth the uncertainty of this world, and upon what weak foundations gilden roofs are builded.
Philip Sidney, An Apology for Poetry, c.1581, quoted in Vickers, B., ed. English Renaissance Literary Criticism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Besides these Poets Comic there were other who served the stage, but meddled not with so base matters. For they set forth the doleful falls of infortunate and afflicted Princes, and were called Poets Tragical.
George Puttenham, The Arte of English Poesie, 1589, quoted in Vickers.
Tragedies and comedies … differ thus: in comedies, turbulenta prima, tranquilla ultima; in tragedies, tranquilla prima turbulenta ultima: comedies begin in trouble and end in peace; tragedies begin in calms and end in tempest.
Thomas Heywood, Apology for Actors, 1612, quoted in Vickers.
Classical tragedy shows: ‘the disastrous miseries of man’s life and so out of that melancholic vision, stir horror, or murmur, against Divine Providence. Contemporary tragedies show ‘God’s revenging aspect upon every particular sin, to the despair, or confusion, of mortality’.
Fulke Greville, The Life of Sir Philip Sidney, c.1611 quoted in Vickers.

Optional activity: Further reading on tragedy

For more on this, read the entry on ‘Tragedy’ in The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare, and the section ‘Structure’ in Smith, The Cambridge Introduction to Shakespeare, in particular the table on p. 94. Post anything particularly useful to the Tragedy forum, and keep in your own notes.