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Tragedy in Elizabethan drama evolved from the morality plays of the Middle Ages, wherein Biblical and religious dogmas were translated into ritualized stories. These morality plays often proposed that the hand of God directly intervened in human affairs and meted out justice to the wicked and the good: “the purposes of such writings were “to show the mutability of fortune and the just punishment of God in revenge of a vicious and evil life”( The Art of English Poesie, 1589). However unsatisfactory these statements may be, even if taken together, as a description of Elizabethan tragedy, they are as near as the age came to a formal definition (Holzknecht, 322).For Shakespeare, the evolution of his particular tragic idiom in darama also took as a cue certain written histories of Britain, particularly as recounted in “Lydgate, The Mirror for Magistrates which “became an inexhaustible quarry of historical tragedy. The book rapidly grew by accretion. The nineteen legends which are contained in the first edition[…] included the reign of Richard II, including, among others, Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester; Lord Mowbray; King Richard II; […] King Henry VI; George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence; and King Edward IV. All of these persons became subjects of Shakespearean drama” (Holzknecht, p. 326).In producing dramas for the stage, Shakespeare maintained discernable links to the historical works described above. His plays, while not strictly morality plays, still reveal the “hand of fortune” and the impact of justice on the wicked. “All of Shakespeare’s tragedies, in the last analysis, concern themselves either with a reversal of fortune or with a fall from happiness to misery, from high estate to low. Some, like Antony and Cleopatra, Richard II, Coriolanus, and Richard III, are stories in the tradition of the medieval Falls of Princes or The Mirror for Magistrates” (Holzknecht, 329);Shakespeare and How He Uses Tragedy In His Writing                                                 Page -2-Always innovative, Shakespeare extended the strict boundaries of the Medieval morality play by advancing character and settings which may have been hitherto more recognizable to his audience as the trappings of comedy. In Romeo and Juliet, the play’s main characters are divided into opposing groups based along generational divisions. “In fact, a conflict of generations–the different ways of viewing the world and of acting in it–lies close to the heart of this tragedy, as in many plays, mostly comedies” (Halio 31).Critics have often noted the similarities between Romeo and Juliet with “the Italian commedia dell’ arte […] Moreover, in attempting to make a tragedy out of romantic love–as opposed to the classical subjects advocated and adopted since Aristotle first formulated the qualities of the tragic personages in his Poetics–Shakespeare was engaging in something innovative and experimental” (Halio 31)Shakespeare’s use of tragedy, then, applies as much to radical individualism and sociological oppression as it does, taking a cue form the medieval morality plays, to the virtues of living a moral and God-centered life. In this way, the play Romeo and Juliet emerges as a quite risky and “modern” interpretation of tragedy, one which acknowledges the hand of Fate, but which does not admit absolutism in the moral judgement of individuals.Though capable of stretching the frontiers of tragedy and thus challenging his audience to broaden their conception of human morality and justice, Shakespeare is also quite capable of delivering quintessential tragedy, of the variety which partakes quite liberally of a traditional Christian based morality. “Titus Andronicus, Macheth, Hamlet, and Julius CFsar, relate the accompaniments and the consequences of crime. Even Othello and Romeo and Juliet, which Shakespeare and How He Uses Tragedy In His Writing                                                 Page -3-concern a more personal overthrow because of human weakness or tragic chance, conform to the general pattern” (Holzknecht 329).The most fundamental aspect of Shakespeare’s tragedies is the impact of their universalism; that is, the dramatic “magic” by which Shakespeare is able to compel his audience to identify personally with his tragic characters. “The requirements of tragic drama compel his creator to win back our respect for him before the end, to dissipate the clouds at sunset. Hamlet, we feel, is himself, or almost himself; and we begin to hope once again, though because he is the hero of a tragedy we know that our hope is vain” (Wilson 267). By delving deeply into the universal experiences of humanity and finding ade3quate dramatic representation for the particular moral and spiritual quandaries that individuals are apt to face (or which history records), Shakespeare elevated the traditional morality plays of the medieval period to a “new” form of dramatic expression which challenged the cultural and sociological preconceptions of his time.OutlineI. The evolution of tragedy.A. Morality plays and medieval background.B. Historical documents and influence.II. The use of Tragedy in Shakespeare’s plays.A. Innovation in Romeo and Juliet.B. Traditionalism in tragedies.III. Audience identification.A. As cathartic expression.B. As social commentary and radicalism.Works Cited Halio, Jay L. Romeo and Juliet: A Guide to the Play. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998.Holzknecht, Karl J. The Backgrounds of Shakespeare’s Plays. New York: American Book, 1950.Wilson, J. Dover. What Happens in Hamlet. New York: Macmillan, 1935.;

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