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Shakespeare's Late Tragedies

Othello, King Lear, Macbeth and more: the great post-1600 tragedies

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The half-dozen tragedies that William Shakespeare wrote after 1600 include several of his greatest plays, with Othello, King Lear and Macbeth ranking amongst the highest peaks of English and indeed world literature.

Othello was Shakespeare's second great tragedy (after Hamlet), and is thought to have been written between about 1601 and 1603. A relatively small-scale, almost domestic piece, it derives its immense dramatic force from the power and universality of its central themes: race, jealousy and the consummate ease with which the evil-minded can manipulate people to their own advantage. Iago ranks with Richard III as Shakespeare's greatest villain, and has fewer redeeming features, while Othello himself is an endlessly complex and controversial figure. Even at the time of composition, it was daringly novel for Shakespeare to write a play with a black man as its tragic hero, and in the last few decades the casting of the part has become a political minefield: even actors of the calibre of Laurence Olivier and Anthony Hopkins have been criticised for taking it on.

King Lear (c. 1605) has never been as popular as the tragedies that bookend it chronologically, which given its bleakness is hardly surprising. While the other tragedies generally elevate their heroes before letting them fall, Lear's trajectory is downwards from the start, as he makes the fateful decision to divide his kingdom up amongst his three daughters without recognising the likely consequences of such an apparently selfless gesture. He only realises the full extent of his folly after he has been reduced to a gibbering wreck on a wind-blasted heath, by which time it is far too late.

Macbeth (c. 1606) is darker still, though in this case it's because of the play's relentless examination of the nature of evil in both its supernatural and corporeal forms. Like Othello, Macbeth is manipulated both by the witches and their prophecy, and by the malign influence of his ambitious wife; like Lear he makes a fateful decision without foreseeing the likely consequences, and drives himself mad with guilt as a result. Although comfortably the shortest of the major tragedies it is also one of the most intense, thanks to the poetic potency of its language.

The two final great tragedies both returned to the Roman setting of Julius Caesar. Indeed, Antony and Cleopatra (c. 1606-07) is explicitly a sequel to the earlier play, in which Mark Antony has frittered away the reputation won by the successful completion of the civil war through his dalliance with the Egyptian queen Cleopatra and his entry into a decadent world that he more than appreciates but does not fully understand. It's also a successor to Romeo and Juliet - though the lovers here are middle-aged and experienced, they are just as vulnerable to impulsive passion, though in this case their political stature ensures that it will have far greater impact.

Coriolanus (c. 1608-09) is widely recognised as Shakespeare's last major tragedy, and although it has never been as popular as its predecessors, this has little to do with its intrinsic qualities. One of Shakespeare's most ambitious political parables, it shows how even the almost superhuman military talents of Caius Martius (renamed 'Coriolanus' after a famous victory) count for nothing when he reluctantly goes into politics and ends up comprehensively outmanoeuvred by his wilier colleagues.

The odd play out in this group is Timon of Athens, a very minor work that may even have been a collaboration (Thomas Middleton is the most frequently-cited suspect as co-author) - though it's not without interest as being Shakespeare's most comprehensive examination of the corrupting effects of money. Wealthy nobleman Timon discovers too late that his impulsive generosity has caused him to live far beyond his means, and when his former friends fail to support him, he disowns them and goes to live in exile as a virtual hermit.

Aside from Timon (which has only been filmed once, and that thanks to the BBC Television Shakespeare's completist), there have been numerous film and television adaptations of the late tragedies, with those of Othello, Lear and Macbeth running comfortably into double figures apiece. Major productions include Laurence Olivier in a big-screen Othello (1965) and television King Lear (1983), Peter Brook's stark, spare King Lear (1970) with Paul Scofield, Roman Polanski's gory Macbeth (1971) and a memorably vivid trio of television adaptations of Royal Shakespeare Company productions directed by Trevor Nunn (Antony and Cleopatra, 1974; Macbeth, 1979; Othello, 1990).

There have also been several modern updates, with Macbeth staged as a New York gangster film (Joe Macbeth, 1954), relocated to a Birmingham housing estate populated by street gangs and drug warlords (Macbeth on the Estate, 1997), and even transplanted onto the literally cut-throat world of the celebrity chef (Macbeth, 2005). Not to be outdone, King Lear has also been given a gangster spin (My Kingdom, 2001) and Othello turned into a politicised parable about racial tension within London's Metropolitan Police force (Othello, 2001) - all of which suggests that the plays' themes remain as universal today as they have ever been.

Michael Brooke

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