The Plays of Shakespeare: A Thematic Guide

By Victor L. Cahn | Go to book overview

Fate

Perhaps the most important thematic difference between the tragedies of Shakespeare and those of the great classical Greek dramatists Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides is the freedom that individual characters possess. In Greek tragedy, the gods can ordain the outcome of events, and no matter how human beings struggle, divine will is irresistible. Such is the case, for example, with the title figure of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. Because of transgressions committed before he was born, Oedipus is condemned by the gods to murder his father and marry his mother, and despite his parents’ attempts to spare themselves this fate, Oedipus does indeed kill his father, Laius, and marry his mother, Jocasta. The tension of the play is Oedipus’s gradual discovery that these crimes have plunged his city into suffering, and that he himself is the purveyor of the evil that he seeks to purge.

In Shakespeare’s tragedies, on the other hand, we are always conscious that characters are free to determine the course of their own lives. True, certain figures look to the heavens to explain or excuse their own blunders or the missteps of others, and at times supernatural elements seem to control events. Ultimately, however, Shakespeare insists that human beings are responsible for their own actions.

In Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s first tragedy, the tribune Marcus, brother of the title character, has witnessed a series of horrors, including the rape and mutilation of Titus’s daughter, Lavinia. In the depths of his misery, Marcus cries out:


O why should nature build so foul a den,

Unless the gods delight in tragedies?

(IV, i, 59–60)

The audience, however, realizes that blame for the brutality that has preceded does not lie with the gods. To the contrary, we have seen Titus

-63-

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