Sacrifice in Shakespeare?

So last night my daughter comes into the room, hurls her book to the floor, declares that she hates it and never wants to see it again, and bursts into tears. Apparently a main character sacrificed herself to save the ones she loved, and this was my daughter’s first experience with such a storyline. I’m not saying the book, but I bet people already recognize it. It’s quite popular right now. Don’t spoil it.

She’s insisting that I read her book so that I can feel her pain. I’ve already commented to her that I’ve seen Lear carry Cordelia’s lifeless body onstage in the final act, I think I know a little bit about pain.

But then I thought, did Shakespeare ever do a similar storyline? Is there any character in Shakespeare, tragedy or not, who sacrifices him/herself for the good of others? Was that even a thing, in Shakespeare’s time? Would that storyline have been recognizable to anyone?

The closest I can think is Coriolanus. He signs the treaty with Rome, knowing full well that Aufidius will end him because of it.

5 thoughts on “Sacrifice in Shakespeare?

  1. Anonymous says:

    You could kind of argue that Adam from As You Like It sacrifices himself (assuming that a given production chooses to kill him off.) And Gloucester staying behind to face Regan and Cornwall kind of counts. He doesn't break when he's questioned.

  2. Interesting thought about Gloucester. I guess my question is whether he knew what they were going to do to him? I'm going over the scene and trying to find something to signify "You know what's going to happen if you don't talk" and he still refuses to talk. Can't seem to find it. He stands up to Cornwall, Cornwall gouges out his eyes and they get rid of him.
    Gloucester was shocked that Regan pulled his beard. He wasn't thinking he was in any danger.

    Adam … you mean that he basically pulls the old "Go on without me" bit? I suppose the sentiment is there. Would be better if they were being pursued by a mountain lion at the time. ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. Shakespeare's characters exhibit sacrificial instincts frequently, but the tragic outcomes of the plays prevent the kind of melodramatic plot your daughter found so objectionable. Instead, in Shakespeare, the end is death for all. For example, Antony sacrifices his fleet for Cleopatra. He is disgraced and commits suicide. Cleopatra, in turn, would rather kill herself than be turned into a trophy for Caesar to laud his triumph over Antony. And Enobarbus recognizes his great debt to Antony and so "dies for him," presumably of a "broken heart." Romeo sacrificed his life rather than live without Juliet, and she, in turn, for him. And does not Cordelia sacrifice all for the father who rejected her, yet whom she loves and whom she knows in his heart loves her? (But, of course, unfortunately, they both die.) Even Hamlet could be said to have sacrificed himself to avenge his father, with his madcap antics, fighting a duel to the death, laying a trap for the king–what could he reasonably expect the outcome to be?
    Perhaps I am stretching the point, but the idea of sacrifice for others is, I think, quite prominent in Shakespeare's protagonists–the outcomes of the plays just need to be viewed in the tragic vein to see the resemblance to the sentiment of the melodrama.

  4. The first thing that jumps out is the last scene in RJ:

    CAPULET: As rich shall Romeo's by his lady's lie; Poor sacrifices of our enmity!

    While they obviously didn't kill themselves for the betterment of Verona, that was one of the results.

  5. I am glad you mentioned Romeo and Juliet, Noah. It, too, was the first play that come to my mind when I saw Duane's title "Sacrifice in Shakespeare," but I thought it would be more difficult to sell my argument by starting there.

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