Which Tragedy Is The "Most" Tragic?

While listening to the In Our Time episode about King Lear, I started thinking about the emotional impact of the tragedies.  They are not created equal.  Which one “gets” you, the most?  Which one tears out your heart and stomps on it?  Has the answer changed for you in the past? For me, right now, King Lear would be the clear winner.  The whole “Daughter tries and fails to save the father, father tries and fails to save the daughter” storyline just crushes me.  And it’s easy to see why — I have daughters.  When I tell them the story I simply tell it as “And then Cordelia comes back to rescue her Daddy from the forest.”  And they are happy with that ending, it pleases them that the daughters can save the daddy.  So the fact that I know what comes next makes it that much more heart-wrenching.  I’ve been in the discussion with parents about when children should learn what happens to Bambi’s mother, but never at what age they should learn Cordelia’s fate ;). Fifteen or twenty years ago, I would have said Hamlet.  Because I was the typical angsty/emo college kid doing the whole “What does life really mean?” thing.  I had a fascination with last words, dying moments, and that idea of drawing a line between “Ok, here you’re alive, and then over here, you’re dead, and right now you’re standing on the line, what do you do?”  So if you’d asked me back then, I would have told you that it was the “Flights of angels sing thee sweetly to thy rest” line that did it for me. But you know what?  Life is better now :).  When you step back from Hamlet you have to admit that he pretty much put himself in that situation in the first place.  It’s sad that he died, of course, but it’s not tragic for me in the same sense as a Cordelia, who really tried to do the right thing from beginning to end and still ended up dead.  Or Ophelia, who never really stood a chance. The others just really don’t do much for me, emotion-wise.  Sure it’s sad that Romeo and Juliet couldn’t live happily ever after, but happily ever after is a thing for fairy tales.  Then again, much like the Hamlet -> King Lear thing, maybe if you’d caught me back as a teenager in love, maybe I would have said R&J.  Who knows? This topic makes me want to go read Anthony and Cleopatra again, I haven’t read that one in a long time and I’m thinking I might find it better now (being married, and far from a teenager) than I did when I was in high school. Who’s next?

14 thoughts on “Which Tragedy Is The "Most" Tragic?

  1. There are two that really kill me–Lear and Othello.

    I remember the first time I read King Lear: I was a freshman in college, and I read it straight through one night. I have the same reaction to this day every time I read or see it–stunned disbelief. The entire structure of that play is a sucker punch. How many times has Shakespeare written this story–evil schemers sieze control of the kingdom, kill a bunch of people, and the forces of good slowly gather their powers and return to win a glorious battle and restore order and justice? But in Lear, it all goes horribly wrong. There’s that moment when Edgar comes running across the stage to grab his father and tell him that they just lost the big battle and I always think to myself, “What do you mean, ‘Lost?’ How can the good guys lose?” And, of course, it just gets worse from there.

    But I still _enjoy_ Lear. Othello, on the other hand, is just too much for me to take. It’s too powerful, too scary in its vision of evil and corruption. At least you can understand why someone like Macbeth would get into the situation he did. Richard of Gloucester’s motives are perfectly approachable–greed and power. But Iago? He just wants to destroy anything he can that is noble and beautiful. And he can corrupt virtually anyone. Look at Othello in Act I, as he serenely explains himself to the Venetian Senate–the man is a god. And look what Iago turns him into. That’s hard to take; I much prefer to hear The Winter’s Tale, in which time and providence heals (mostly) everything.

  2. I agree with everything you said about Othello, but I also think that’s why it doesn’t quite resonate with me the same way – Iago is *so* evil, I’m left at the end saying “Wait, I want to see you torture the bastard!” The fact that his punishment effectively goes unfulfilled leaves me hanging.

    In Lear, there are so many bad guys you can have your pick. The king is going senile no matter what, so there alone is something to make you depressed even under the best of circumstances. His daughter cannot save him from that. And then all the bad guys end up dead anyway, so that we can concentrate on Lear’s final words and not be thinking “What’s gonna happen to Edmund?”

  3. King Lear is on my “most tragic” list as well for all the reasons already mentioned. So many things go wrong and just at the end when things are down in the dumps you get a glimmer of hope as Lear and Cordelia reconcile that things will be okay… but instead they die. It hurts me to watch a performance of this play just because I know it won’t turn out well at all and I want it to so much!

    For different reasons Titus Andronicus is also on my “most tragic” list. The huge turn Titus takes in the first act from national hero to mud beneath Saturninus’ feet is just horrible. And so many people die in this play! Titus’ pain and sorry increases exponentially during the course of the play with the loss of his sons, his rank, his reputation, more sons, his daughter’s honor, his hand, his sanity. It’s a tragic story indeed.


  4. I’ve always been a big fan of Titus myself, even with the couple of conspicuous rough edges left on it (the bit with the pit is almost impossible to stage in any believable way). One of the things that makes Titus so brilliant is the way that it is _two_ revenge tragedies in the same play: Titus’ and Tamora’s. Both are wronged, both exact bloody revenge, and both pay with their lives for it. It’s that kind of double-spiral structure that makes it such a gripping experience for me. Something similar happens in Hamlet–have you noticed how Laertes gets to star in his own little revenge tragedy in acts IV and V?

  5. I don’t think it is only the individual (although there is a lot about young people and Hamlet which resonates) I think it is also the times you live in: Hamlet was very ‘Romantic’ – beloved of Goethe and the 19th Century: Lear is post ‘Wasteland’.
    It is also a play about senility – so maybe as we age it gets closer to us?

  6. Anonymous says:

    i havent read hamlet or king lear, but i do have to complete a group essay on which shakespearean play is the most tragic. my choices are othello or macbeth or romeo and juliet… the rest of the group have chosen Romeo and Juliet and i would really appreciate if anyone could help me by saying whi romeo and juliet IS the most tragic? asap plz

  7. It's very difficult for me to make a choice as to why one would be more tragic than another. The end result of all forms of unfortunate circumstance, human design, and fate, explored by Shakespeare in its various forms, though they resonate in different ways, is…tragic.

    But if I were to have to argue the case for R&J being the most tragic, what occurs to me is their being caught up innocently in a very basic, strong, human emotion (Love) in the midst of another very strong human emotion (Hate). Their love seems not to be manufactured. The hate, on the other hand… What are its roots? Why does it have to persist? And what is IT worth when compared to ANYTHING else, never mind their love? Contrary to Arthur Brooke's assessment, I believe it's the "unhonest desires" not of R&J, but of everyone else around them that creates the atmosphere for tragedy to occur. To me, the real tragedy is that hate is apprised at a higher value than love. And no matter how hard those who would eschew hate might try to make it otherwise, THEY lose.
    That's very basic. There are other aspects to be explored and addressed within that basic idea.

  8. I think that of those three, and at a level appropriate to a school assignment, R+J is a relatively easy choice for the simple reason that there are kids involved. Macbeth and Othello are victims of their own flaws, be they ambition or jealousy or what have you. But Romeo and Juliet are stupid kids, because kids are allowed to be stupid. It is only because the *adults* in the play are so stupid that the kids end up dead.

    The adults in the play know better. Lord Capulet clearly says, "It is not so hard for men as old as we to keep the peace." The children in the play – and Tybalt, Mercutio and the others are children, after all – are just following along what they have seen of the adults. The adults' stupidity comes from not realizing the results of this, until it is too late.

    Hope that helps!

  9. I get the ultimate point you're making about the adults being "stupid"–it's
    essentially embodied in the idea I wrote about when it comes to their irrational hate. But the idea that Romeo and Juliet are "stupid" as well, and in the same way as the adults?
    For one, being asked to identify with being stupid removes quite a bit of
    depth of sympathy and understanding
    someone might be looking for when trying to prove R&J as the "most tragic".
    Those others you mention are the ones who seem to be truly out of control in their infantile stupidity. And, as you say, those figures are both
    children and adults. But personally, I can't include R&J in that category.

    Are R&J impulsive, sometimes rash, willful?–yes–and sometimes for very good reasons, should we examine the causes. So are we all. But I don't see
    Romeo and Juliet as simply "stupid kids" at all. The same way that I fail to see kids their age as generally and inherently stupid for whatever reason —-as I'm sure you don't either–even if somehow "allowed".
    Just a thought: Maybe so-called "stupid kids" are stupid BECAUSE they're "allowed to be"? …or something… I dunno. 🙂

  10. Fair enough, J. I was being quick and simple with throwing out the stupids. I think you got what I meant, though — from where we as grownups sit, sometimes kids do "stupid" things, but that's ok, that's even kind of the point, because they're kids. They're supposed to be allowed to make those mistakes. It is the tragedy, then, that the parents, whose role should be to love and protect the children, fail in their task? Thus the children make a mistake, and rather than surviving to learn from it, they end up dead.

  11. Hummm…
    Lear…Yep, I agree; Hamlet will always be my favorite play, but Duane, I'm going to have to agree with you that Lear is the most tragic. R&J is a hybrid; perhaps not even a true tragedy. My gosh, we spend half the class laughing as we read Mercutio and the Nurse's lines, and Romeo's whining.
    Gedaly…you have some strong arguments for Titus, but I'm going to prick the tablet for Lear!
    Cheers and good topic Duane.

  12. I know what you meant. And it made sense to me. Just trying to help cover all the bases, is all. 🙂

  13. Anonymous says:

    thanx 4 all the help on my project. i gained a high grade on it indeed. what makes romeo and juliet tragic is how the audience is bound to sympathise with them, especially when u compare it with othello and macbeth. the audience can esily relate to it..

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