The Purgation Of The Hero In Shakespearean Tragedy

The Purgation Of The Hero In Shakespearean Tragedy

Paul Epstein

Animus, 3 (1998)  


The career of the hero in the great tragedies of Shakespeare reveals to the audience not only the limits of a self-assertion that would make itself master of an earthly realm that includes the state, family, and private friendships, but also the utter dependence on a primary Good of these institutions and any individual who would live rightly through them. The hero begins by attempting to make himself master of this realm through one of the great subjective passions, love, honour, ambition, revenge or the like; various sub- plots trace the same theme, although less comprehensively. The failure of this attempt in the hero and lesser characters then shows the dependence of the individual and of nature on a primary Good. Then the latter part of the play shows the hero or other characters making the great institutions actual or being destroyed in their incapacity to do this. Finally the death of the central characters indicates that only the transition from these instantiations of the Good to the Good is adequate to describe human individuality.

All the great tragedies, Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth, and Othello , begin with the hero’s attempt to make himself the measure of his political and social world. This occurs with the greatest clarity in King Lear , where the King proposes to divide his kingdom amongst his daughters, in accord with their several expressions of love to himself. Macbeth’s ambition leads him to kill the reigning King Malcolm and govern in his stead. Othello has such confidence in his virtue and position that he can venture to marry the daughter of a Venetian aristocrat. Hamlet, disgusted at his mother’s hasty remarriage, hopes to flee Denmark, to enjoy the philosophic isolation and independence of Wittenberg. Whether it be love, ambition, honour or melancholy, each hero wishes to live through a subjective passion of his own.

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