Being a former English teacher, I am an unrepentant Shakespeare fan. While all of his works are enjoyable, I’m a big fan of the tragedies. When I taught high school English, I made sure my students knew the literary definition of tragedy. It’s not just something sad and awful, it’s something sad and awful that is brought about by the protagonist’s tragic fall, which is often simple hubris.
When people talk about Shakespeare’s enduring appeal, they often point to his use of language, his understanding of the human condition, his sense of humor — but I think his secret is in his tragedies.
Shakespeare’s tragedies — King Lear, Othello, Macbeth — were all focused on the aristocracy and the ruling class. For commoners in the 16th century, and people today, where else can you see someone with power and influence make terrible, ridiculous decisions and then swiftly and immediately be faced with the terrifying consequences of their own actions?
Shakespeare showed his audiences the true faces of the venal, incompetent, manipulative elites in his society, and then he showed them all meeting a terrible, bloody end, hoisted on their own petard.
It’s a message that resonated with audiences then, and still does today. Look at current headlines and see if you can’t find Lear, vain and doddering, or Lady Macbeth, greedy and scheming, or even a Iago, just insane and vicious, spewing lies and venom for no purpose other than chaos and misfortune.
The best part of Shakespeare’s tragedies, as the nobility murdered themselves, was the token commoner character he would add, generally for comedic effect — the folks who had to toil day in and day out for survival while the decisions in their world were made by people obsessed with their own petty self-interests. Juliet’s nurse, Emilia in Othello, these sensible, salt of the Earth characters stand in stark contrast to the excesses of their masters and mistresses.
When looking at the election fraud headlines and the hyper-partisan coverage of these issues, I think the drunk porter in Macbeth said it best. “Faith, here's an equivocator, that could swear in both the scales against either scale; who committed treason enough for God's sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven: O, come in, equivocator.”
— Staff notes originally run in our daily email newsletter, Indy Now, along with news updates, photos of the day, a weekly poll and more. Sign up below.