The greatest master of Tragedy was Shakespeare, and in Tragedy he reached his greatest height. "Hamlet," "King Lear," and "Macbeth" are among his finest productions, and they represent the noblest pitch of English genius. Of these, "Hamlet" was perhaps most popular at the time of its production, and it has held its interest and provoked discussion as perhaps no other play of any time or country has done.
This is in part due to the splendor of its poetry, the absorbing nature of the plot, and the vividness of the drawing of characters who marvelously combine individuality with a universal and typical quality that makes them appeal to people of all kinds and races. But much also is due to the delineation of the hero, the subtlety of whose character and the complexity of whose motives constitute a perpetual challenge to our capacity for solving mysteries. "King Lear" owes its appeal less to its tendency to rouse curiosity than to its power to awe us with an overwhelming spectacle of the suffering which folly and evil can cause and which human nature can sustain. In spite of, or perhaps because of, its intricacy of motive and super-abundance of incident, it is the most overwhelming of all in its effect on our emotions. Compared with it, "Macbeth" is a simple play, but nowhere does one find a more masterly portrayal of the moral disaster that falls upon the man who, seeing the light, chooses the darkness.
Though first, Shakespeare was by no means alone in the production of great tragedy. Contemporary with him or immediately following came Jonson, Marston, Middleton, Massinger, Ford, Shirley, and others, all producing brilliant work; but the man who most nearly approached him in tragic intensity was John Webster. "The Duchess of Malfi" is a favorable example of his ability to inspire terror and pity; and though his range is not comparable to that of Shakespeare, he is unsurpassed in his power of coining a phrase which casts a lurid light into the recesses of the human heart in moments of supreme passion.
- H. C., xlvi, 93ff.
- H. C., xlvi, 215ff.
- H. C., xlvi, 321ff.
- H. C., xlvii, 755ff.