Features of Shakespearean Tragedy

Elements and Features of Shakespearean Tragedy

The most distinctive feature of a Shakespearean Tragedy is the presence of a tragic hero who experiences a downfall due to a tragic flaw or external circumstances, often leading to a sense of catharsis for the audience.

William Shakespeare

Digitally recreated image of Shakespeare generated with AI.



William Shakespeare, the epitome of English literature, holds proudly and unquestionably the highest rank and position in the entire history of English literature. He excelled in the field of tragedies, comedies, historical plays, romances, and also in sonnet writing. As Matthew Arnold remarks:

Other abide our questions. Thou art free.

We ask and ask—Thou smilest and art still,”

Shakespeare is great not only because of his writing skills, but also because of his art of borrowing, combining and recreating something new with a twist. His true excellence reflects through his tragic plays which are read, performed and hold relevance even today.

The statement of F. Scott Fitzgerald is quite relevant and applicable in the case of William Shakespeare. He writes:

Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy.”


Shakespearean Tragedy

The word ‘tragedy’ has been derived from a Greek word ‘Tragedia’ meaning ‘the song of the goat’. Tragedy has been described by Aristotle in the following words:

A tragedy is the imitation of an action that is serious, as also as having magnitude, complete in itself, in appropriate and pleasurable language…in a dramatic rather than narrative form; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish a catharsis of these emotions.”

According to Webster’s dictionary,

Tragedy is a serious play and drama typically dealing with the problems of a central character leading to an unhappy or disastrous ending brought on….”

Shakespearean Tragedies conform very well to Aristotelian definition of Tragedy. Following are the chief characteristics or salient features of Shakespearean tragedies:

Tragic Hero

Tragic Hero is one of the most significant elements of Shakespearean tragedies. His tragedies are considered as ‘one man show’. Generally, it is the story of one or two characters, who may be hero or heroine. According to A.C. Bradley:

It is essentially a tale of suffering and calamity conducting to death.”

This tragic hero is often a towering personality in his state or locality. The hero hails from elite stratum of society and holds high position in his state. Such heroes are Kings, Princes or Military Generals.

Good versus Evil

Shakespeare tragedy is an example of the struggle between good and evil. Most of his tragedies deal with this— the supremacy of evil and suppression of good. Edward Dowden comments;

Tragedy as conceived by Shakespeare is concerned with the ruin or restoration of the soul and the life of the man. In other words, it’s subject is the struggle of Good and Evil in the world.”


Conflict is another imperative element of a Shakespearean tragedy. This is of two types:

  1. External conflict
  2. Internal conflict

External conflict: External conflict in Shakespearean tragedies refers to the conflicts that characters face with outside forces or other characters. External conflicts can take various forms, including conflicts between individuals, such as power struggles between characters like Macbeth and Macduff in “Macbeth,” or conflicts with societal norms or expectations, such as the conflict between Romeo and Juliet’s families in “Romeo and Juliet.” It is external conflict that gives rise to internal conflict in the minds of tragic heroes.

Internal Conflict: In Shakespearean tragedies, internal conflict refers to the struggle within a character’s own mind or heart. Internal Conflict is responsible for the fall of the highly genius, intellectual, noble and virtuous personality. Hamlet is a perfect example of both the conflict.

Tragic Flaw/Hamartia

According to Britannica Encyclopaedia,

Hamartia, also called, Tragic Flaw, inherent defect or shortcoming in the hero of a tragedy, who is in the other respects a superior being favoured by fortune.”

It is another important element of Shakespearean tragedy. All of his heroes or heroines fall due to some flaw in their characters. This flaw is often a personal characteristic, such as hubris (excessive pride), ambition, jealousy, or impulsiveness, which ultimately brings about the protagonist’s own destruction. For instance, in “Hamlet,” Prince Hamlet’s tragic flaw is his indecisiveness and tendency to overthink, while in “King Lear,” King Lear’s tragic flaw is his arrogance and inability to see beyond flattery, in “Macbeth,” Macbeth’s tragic flaw is his unchecked ambition, and in “Othello,” Othello’s tragic flaw is his jealousy and insecurity.

In this connection Bradley writes:

The calamities and catastrophe follow inevitably for the dead of men and the main source of their deeds is their characters.”

Tragic Waste

In Shakespearean tragedies, heroes died alongwith the death of of the opponents. The death of a hero is not an ordinary death. It is the list of exceptionally intellectual, honest, genius, noble and virtuous personality. This extraordinary loss of man of high profile is called Tragic Waste. Shakespearean tragedies are always a tragedy of Tragic Waste.

Supernatural Elements/ Machinery

Use of supernatural machinery is a common characteristic of Elizabethan drama. Shakespeare plays are not exceptions. It plays an important role in creating a sense of fear, sensation, thrill and wonder in the tragedy. It is also used to advance the story ahead. In ‘Hamlet’, for example, the ghost plays an important role in developing the internal conflict in the mind of Hamlet. It is the ghost that tells Hamlet that his father was killed by his uncle, Claudius. Similarly, there are witches in ‘Macbeth‘ which play a significant role in the development of the action in the play. Thus, supernatural elements are of paramount importance in a Shakespearean tragedy.


It is a remarkable feature of Shakespearean tragedy. A piece of literature or any art form is successful when it evokes pity, fear and other such emotions in the audience. It is known as ‘Catharsis’. A Shakespearean tragedy combines a sense of pity, fear etc. and gives a vent to these emotions.

Lack of Poetic Justice

Poetic Justice means ‘good is rewarded while evil is punished’. There is no poetic justice in the tragedies of Shakespeare. In some of his plays, we find partial justice. It is said, “Do good and have good”. This is also not observed completely in his tragedies.

If you are looking forward to prepare for UGC NET/JRF, you may find this article useful.




©2024. Md. Rustam Ansari [profrustamansari@gmail.com]


You may also like...

1 Response

  1. Shubham says:

    When I find these answers on YouTube and Google, I am confused, but englishfreshers.com provides effective answers. Thank you!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You can change the language to 'Hindi' by clicking on the 'British Flag' icon at the bottom-right corner of the page.

error: Content is protected !!