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Shakespeare's Early Tragedies

Titus Andronicus to Hamlet: tragedies from the Bard's pre-1600 career

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The first collected edition of Shakespeare's plays, the First Folio of 1623, subdivided them into Comedies, Histories and Tragedies. The latter group consisted of, in alphabetical order, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Cymbeline, Hamlet, Julius Caesar, King Lear, Macbeth, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Timon of Athens, Titus Andronicus and Troilus and Cressida. Today, Cymbeline is generally regarded as a comedy (if only because of its broadly happy ending), and Troilus included in the small group of so-called 'problem plays', though the tally of a dozen is often maintained by the addition of Richard II and Richard III, the history plays including the most authentically tragic elements (not least in that they revolve around the self-inflicted downfall and death of their title characters).

Based on what we know of the date of composition, it seems likely that this group can be divided into two equal halves, based on whether they were written in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries. Most of the greatest tragedies fall into the second group, but it is worth studying the earlier works separately, not least because they illustrate how Shakespeare refined his approach to a genre that had yet to be firmly established in the Elizabethan theatre. A good working definition of tragedy is that provided in 1598 by the translator John Florio: "a lofty kind of poetry and representing personages of great state and matters of much trouble, a great broil or stir: it beginneth prosperously and endeth unfortunately or sometimes doubtfully, and is contrary to comedy."

It is likely that Richard III and Titus Andronicus were written at about the same time (certainly prior to 1594), but they sprang from different impulses. The former was a sequel to the three-part Henry VI cycle, in which Richard is the malevolent culmination of the devastating effects of the Wars of the Roses, and prior knowledge of the earlier work is recommended when tackling the full text, though most standalone adaptations (including the famous 1955 Laurence Oliver film) are drastically shortened. By contrast, the latter was a first attempt at classical tragedy, though fused with elements from current revenge-driven melodramas such as Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy, the most popular stage hit of the era. Titus, too, was a huge success, though its subsequent career has been chequered, its parade of atrocities (murder, rape, mutilation, cannibalism) so relentless that it is comparatively rarely performed today.

Romeo and Juliet stands apart from the rest of the tragic canon in that the lovers' ultimate doom is by no means inevitable from the start, and much of the first half is given over to a rapturously intense depiction of the first flush of youthful passion. Though it lacks the power of the later tragedies, the play has caught the popular imagination more effectively than almost anything else by Shakespeare, the image of Juliet on her balcony bewailing her family circumstances would be a career peak for most other playwrights.

While Richard III ended a cycle, Richard II began another, though it is strikingly different from the works that followed (the two Henry IV plays and Henry V). The only Shakespeare play written entirely in verse, it contrasts the high-flown ideals of Richard with the low cunning of Henry Bolingbroke, the man who overthrows him and later has him murdered. Right from the start it is established that Richard not just a weak king but an immature and feckless human being, over-reliant on the notion of ruling by divine right. But such is the intensity of his language that the deposition scene, where he finally relinquishes the crown, is one of the most heartbreaking in all Shakespeare.

Julius Caesar was his second Roman tragedy, though almost unrecognisably different from Titus Andronicus. One of Shakespeare's shorter plays (just half the length of Hamlet), it also has an unusually straightforward narrative. However, appearances of simplicity are deceptive: this is a rapier-sharp study of political intrigue, with each of the conspirators plotting the Roman emperor's death given a clear motive, and the over-arching philosophical issue of whether or not a civilised society needs an emperor (or monarch?) at all is threaded through every scene - as well as a detailed critique of Caesar's reign from opposing viewpoints. Almost as stylised as Richard II, even the most private conversations seem to be staged with public oratory in mind.

Finally, there is Hamlet, and we are now clearly amongst the great tragedies, though this supreme masterpiece of world literature defies such convenient labelling at every turn. Shakespeare's longest and most intricate play thrillingly blends tragedy and comedy, poetry and prose, realism and mime, the personal and the political, love and death. Though it ends with the stage full of corpses, this is no Titus Andronicus-style bloodbath but a profoundly thoughtful meditation on identity, family loyalty and even the nature of theatre itself: both its artificiality and its potential for subversion. We will never know the truth, but it feels as though it might have been intended as Shakespeare's most personal statement.

All the above have been filmed several times apiece: even Titus Andronicus has had two distinguished screen adaptations. The stylistic range on offer may be greater with these early tragedies than with any other group of Shakespeare's work: Hamlet in particular has formed the basis of several avant-garde experiments, not to mention at least four animated films. Richard III and especially Julius Caesar have been the subject of plausible modernisations set either in the present or the very recent past (Ian McKellen's 1995 Richard presents an imaginary 1930s Fascist Britain; the BBC's 1973 Heil Caesar looks at a present-day dictatorship overthrown by an alliance of big business and the military). If British Romeo and Juliet adaptations struggle to emerge from the shadow of the 1968 Franco Zeffirelli film, Richard II is ripe for rediscovery, with both the 1978 BBC Television Shakespeare production and the more adventurous 1997 Deborah Warner adaptation throwing light upon what is still a badly underrated play.

Michael Brooke

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