Friday, 16 August 2013

Comedy of Manners


Comedy of Manners is a name given to witty, intellectual form of dramatic comedy that depicts and often satirizes the manners and affectations of a contemporary society. The plot of such a comedy usually concerned with an illicit love affair or similarly scandalous matter. It also consists witty dialogue and pungent commentary on human foibles.

Plays of this type are typically set in the world of the upper class, and ridicule the pretensions of those who consider themselves socially superior, deflating them with satire. With witty dialogue and cleverly constructed scenarios, comedies of manners comment on the standards and mores of society and explore the relationships of the sexes. Marriage is a frequent subject. Typically, there is little depth of characterization; instead, the playwrights used stock character types—the fool, the schemer, the hypocrite, the jealous husband, the interfering old parents—and constructed plots with rapid twists in events, often precipitated by miscommunications. 

Put simply, the comedy of manners is a style of comedy that reflects the life, ideals and manners of upper class society in a way that is essentially true to its traditions and philosophy. The players must strive to maintain the mask of social artifice whilst revealing to the audience what lies behind such manners. In other words it is to make: The real artificial and the artificial real.

In England the Comedy of Manners had its great day during the Restoration period. Although influenced by Ben Jonson’s comedy of humours, the Restoration comedy of Manners was lighter, defter and more vivacious in tone. The chief practitioners of this comedy were Sir George Etherge, William Wycherley, William Congreve, Sir John Vanbrugh, George Farquhar.

           In the late 18th century Oliver Goldsmith and Richard Brinsley Sheridan revived the form.

The tradition of elaborate, artificial plotting and epigrammatic dialogue was carried on by the Anglo-Irish playwright Oscar Wilde in Lady Windermere’s Fan and The Importance of Being Earnest during the 19th century.

          In the 20th century the comedy of manners reappeared in the witty, sophisticated drawing-room plays of the British dramatists Noel Coward and Somerset Maugham and the American Philip Barry and S.N. Behrman.

          Chiefly the Restoration Age (1660-1700) is associated with the rise and development of Comedy of Manners. To any other age, except this one, manners are only an artificial aspect of a personality of man, something which is acquired and learnt; therefore, Restoration Comedy also came to be known as Artificial Comedy. It tended to laugh at the people out of their follies. That is why it is called Critical Comedy too.

Realism, Social Analysis And Satire

          Unlike the Elizabethan romantic comedy, the comedy of Manners is characterized by realism, social analysis and satire. Its use of prose served to heighten the realistic effect. These dramatists held a mirror to the finer society of their age. They portrayed the sophisticated life of the dominating class of society—its gaiety, foppery, insolence and intrigue. The scene of most comedies of manners is London, more specifically its coffee-and–chocolate houses, clubs, and gambling houses which were the haunts of the corrupt and fashionable ladies and gentlemen of the age. Women, visits, conversation, wit, manners and love affairs are the chief themes of these comedies. Gallantry was the most fashionable vocation of men, and coquetry and flirtation of women.

In ‘The Way of the World’, the phrase ‘the way of the world’ has been recurrently used, for example, Fainall first uses it in Act 2: ‘the Ways of Wedlock and this World’, and repeats in the third act: ‘all in the Way of the World’ and also in the final act, and at the end Mirabell's mocking approach: ‘'tis the Way of the World, Sir; of the Widows of the World’. This repetitive motif makes it clear that the play is concerned with the problems of the social system.

Witty Dialogues

          Both the heroes and heroines are extremely witty and clever. In fact gallantry or coquetry and wit went hand in hand. The art of conversation was a weapon for a man and a ‘special grace of the lady’. In fact the age was proud of its refinement of wit and conversation. Millament, the heroine of Congreve’s ‘The Way of the World’, is perhaps the wittiest heroine in Restoration Comedy. In her Congreve’s wit reaches its highest watermark. She is not only herself witty but demands wit in others too.

In ‘The School for Scandal’ the conversation between the Teazles is one of the excellent examples of Sheridan’s wit.


          Another striking feature of the inhabitants of Restoration Comedy was their hypocrisy. As the new values took hold over the younger generation, the older generation too tried to follow suit. But as it always happens they are never the complete converts. In their attempt to become fashionable, they practice the prevalent mode of living but their basic sensibility is still steeped in the old ideals. This difference between the inner and external life of persons encouraged hypocrisy. Of course, this was more prominent in the older generation and in those who are supposed to be the inferior characters. The most memorable quotes in the Restoration Comedy are Lady Fidget’s ‘Do not use the word naked’. Again she words this spirit of hypocrisy in ‘The Country Wife’:

‘Why should you not think that we, women, make use of our reputation, as you men of yours, only to deceive the world with less suspicion’.


The intrigue, in the plot of ‘The School for Scandal’, is a significant theme, and has been used as a tool to satirize the degradation and follies in the social and individual behaviors.

This intrigue is best expressed via the hide-and-seek between the Fainalls. Both the husband and the wife lack love, faith and adjustment. They hate each other; get involved in extra-marital affair, yet, both pretend to be extremely loving to each other in front of others. Fainall bears his marital life since his sole concern is his wife's money. And, this is the money which makes Marwood play love-game with Fainall. Mirabell, too, plays with innocent Wishfort to get her niece. So, all are planning and scheming against one another for their own sake.

Plot of 'The School for Scandal'


‘The School for Scandal’ is a very skillfully constructed play. It has two separate plots which are linked together through the Teazles.

A close examination of the play will show that there are in fact three plots--- one, the marital relations of Peter and his Lady; second, the love of Charles and Maria and third, the arrival of Sir Oliver and his discovery of the true character of Joseph. One might almost add a forth- Lady Sneerwell’ attempt to secure Charles for himself. All these are cleverly woven together by the agency of the arch hypocrite Joseph who is equally at home in Sir Peter’s house and in the company of Lady Sneerwell.

Joseph is courting Maria; Joseph is making love to Lady Teazle; Joseph is plotting with Lady Sneerwell; Joseph is playing the false friend to Sir Peter; Joseph’s finger is in every pie.

          In the opening scene Snake and Lady Sneerwell acquaint us with the existing situation of affairs. Lady Sneerwell and Joseph are in league because Joseph desires Maria and her fortune, but Maria is in love with Charles whom Lady Sneerwell herself desires. Sir Peter is Maria’s guardian and has in the past held the same responsibility to the two Surfaces. Their uncle has now returned from India after an absence of fifteen years and wants to judge the characters of both his nephews. Charles is revealed as grateful and generous, Joseph as mean and hypocritical with the result that Uncle Oliver’s sympathies are towards Charles now for the hand of Maria.

          The Screen-Scene in this play has justly become famous as one of the most outstanding in English Comedy. In Joseph’s library, Lady Teazle arrives for an illicit foul meeting. When Sir Peter visits his library, Joseph puts the Lady behind a screen. She hears her husband refer to Joseph’s offer for Maria’s hand and is disillusioned. Charles arrives at this point and after a little more hides and seek with Sir Peter, Charles hearing that a little milliner is behind the screen, throws it down and reveals Lady Teazle. Joseph is now deeply in trouble. Lady Teazle now thinks much better of her husband and is reconciled to him.

          Joseph makes one more attempt to divide Maria and Charles by coming with a concocted story that Charles is entangled with Lady Sneerwell, but Snake comes in the way. Then Joseph stands completely exposed and Sir Oliver declares that Charles is his chosen nephew. The play ends with Joseph and Lady Sneerwell going together.

'The School for Scandal' as a Comedy


Sheridan’s admirers say that his comic characters go beyond others. His dialogue is wittier, is situations are funnier and his satire is more biting. ‘The School for Scandal’ is an excellent example of satirical and artificial kind of comedy, which depicts the manners, follies and hypocrisy of the age with the help of a well-constructed plot and witty dialogues.

Realism And Satire On Scandal Mongering

          Unlike the Elizabethan romantic comedy, ‘The School for Scandal’ is characterized by realism, social analysis and satire. Sheridan held a mirror to the finer society of his time and portrayed their Love-intrigues and hypocrisy. To destroy other’s characters was a favorite pass-time for the scandal mongers. In the words of Sir Peter Teazle:

            ‘Mercy on me! Here is the whole set! A character dead at every word.’

The ‘principals’ in this school for scandal are Lady Sneerwell and a man named Snake, who like to collect gossip about their neighbors and others in London society.

Witty Dialogues

          Comedy of manners depends on sparkling dialogues. In ‘The School for Scandal’ the conversation between the Teazles is one of the excellent examples of Sheridan’s wit.

          ‘Authority! No, to be sure, if you wanted authority over me, you should have adopted me, and not married me.’
Lady Teazle is one of the most important vehicles for Sheridan’s wit. Without her daily quarrel with Sir Peter, this would be a boring play.

Hypocrisy And Love Of Money

          Another striking feature of these comedies is the hypocrisy of characters. The most memorable quotes is Lady Fidget’s ‘Do not use the word naked’.

The four plots of ‘The School for Scandal’ are very skillfully connected by the agency of the arch hypocrite Joseph. Joseph is courting Maria; Joseph is making love to Lady Teazle; Joseph is plotting with Lady Sneerwell; Joseph is playing the false friend to Sir Peter; Joseph’s finger is in every pie.

Further, Joseph’s major vice is love of money. He has, apparently, no love for Maria, he only wants her fortune.

Comic Situations

          In Sheridan, all situations are comic. Many writers lose the comic touch when the business of the plots has to be move forward. In ‘The School for Scandal’ the Screen-Scene is one of the outstanding comic scenes in English Literature. Joseph’s attempt at seduction is interrupted by the arrival of Lady Teazle’s husband. She hides behind a screen, A number of laughter are produced by further situations in this scene.

Love Intrigues

          Lady Sneerwell is in love with Charles, and she joins hands with Joseph to hinder the marriage of Maria and Charles. Joseph helps her in this intrigue because he himself wishes to marry Maria. Such intrigues are an essential feature of the comedy of manners.

Craze For Fashion

          The craze for fashion receives a satirical treatment in the person of Lady Teazle. When Sir Peter criticizes her, she says

‘My extravagance! I’m sure I’m not more extravagant than a woman of fashion ought to be.’

Shakespearean Comedy / Shakespeare as a Comedy Writer


A comedy, like the drama in general, may be of two types—Classical and Romantic. The classical comedy follows the rules of dramatic composition as laid down by the ancient Greek and Roman masters. Its models are the classical dramatists like Plautus, Terence and Aristophanes. The more important of these rules are:

  1. The observance of the three unities of time, place and action.
  2. The strict separation of the comic and the tragic, or the light and serious elements.
  3. Realism. It deals with the everyday familiar life of ordinary people
  4. Its aim is corrective and satiric. Some human folly, weakness, or social vice is exposed and ridiculed. It laughs at the people and not with them. The most noted exponent of the Classical Comedy in England was a younger contemporary of Shakespeare, Ben Johnson.
          William Shakespeare's plays come in many forms. There are the histories, tragedies, comedies, and tragicomedies. Among the most popular are the comedies, which are full of laughter, irony, satire, and wordplay. Following are the salient features his comedies.

  1. A greater emphasis on situations than characters (this numbs the audience's connection to the characters, so that when characters experience misfortune, the audience still finds it laughable)
  2. A struggle of young lovers to overcome difficulty, often presented by elders
  3. Separation and re-unification
  4. Deception among characters (especially mistaken identity)
  5. A clever servant
  6. Disputes between characters, often within a family
  7. Multiple, intertwining plots
  8. Use of all styles of comedy (slapstick, puns, dry humour, earthy humour, witty banter, practical jokes)
  9. Pastoral element (courtly people living an idealized, rural life), originally an element of Pastoral Romance, exploited by Shakespeare for his comic plots and often parodied therein for humorous effects
  10. Happy Ending

The Romantic Comedy Of Shakespeare

The Shakespearean comedy, on the other hand, is a Romantic Comedy. The dramatist does not care for any rules of literary creation but writes according to the dictates of his fancy. The three unities are not given any importance. There is a free mingling of the comic and the tragic, the serious and the gay. Its aim is not corrective or satiric, but innocent, good natured laughter. We laugh with the people, not at them. In the words of Charlton ‘The Shakespearean comedy is not satiric, it is poetic. It is not conservative, it is creative. The way of it is of imagination rather than that of pure reason. It is an artist’s vision, not a critic’s exposition.’

The Romantic Setting

The Shakespearean comedy is romantic not only in the sense that it does not observe the classical rules, but also in the sense that it provides an escape from the sordid realities of life.
 Its characters are also different from us as they are denizens of not our humdrum world but the imaginary, colourful world of their own. Venice is not the real historical Venice but an ancient town of enchanting beauty in which loans could be obtained by offering the flesh of one’s heart as security. What is true of setting is also true of the characters. They too are romantic and remote from the ordinary people of flesh and blood. They are somewhat unearthly. They go about making love, dancing, feasting, engaging themselves in battles of wit with one another, singing and making merry. Life for them is one long spring. Let us quote Thorndike here

‘There are only three industries in this land, making love, making songs, and making jests. And they make them all to perfection. It is well to interrupt the love-making with a little joking and the joking with a little music and perchance some cakes and ale, and then back to love again.’

Theme Of Love In All Its Variety

A Shakespearean comedy is a story of love, ending with the ringing of marriage bells. Not only are the hero and the heroine in love, but many are in love, and so in the end there is not one marriage but a number of marriages. However, to use Shakespeare’s own words, ‘the course of true love did never run smooth’. Difficulties come in the way of the lovers before the final union takes place.

Music And Spirit Of Mirth

Since music is the food of love, the Shakespearean comedy is intensely musical. Music and dance are its very life and soul. Twelfth Night opens with music. Several songs are scattered all over As You Like It, and The Merchant of Venice, too, abounds in music.

Women In Shakespearean Comedy

Women in Shakespearean comedy constitute its very soul. George Gordon observes: ‘All lectures on Shakespeare’s comedies tend to become lectures on Shakespeare’s women for in the comedies, they have the front of the stage.’

Ruskin remarks, ‘Shakespeare has only heroines and no heroes’.

Shakespeare’s comic heroines are much more sparkling and interesting than their male counterparts. We have the vivacious and intelligent Portia, the witty Beatrice, and the charming Rosalind. Bassanio does not come to the level of Portia, Benedick pales in wit beside Beatrice, and Orlando has no comparison with Rosalind.

Though all these heroines differ in their characters pattern, yet they have in common one important characteristic—their typical womanhood. The quality makes them surprisingly modern. These are dateless.

Mistaken Identities

The plot is often driven by mistaken identity. Sometimes this is an intentional part of a villain’s plot, as in Much Ado About Nothing when Don John tricks Claudio into believing that his fiance has been unfaithful through mistaken identity. Characters also play scenes in disguise and it is not uncommon for female characters to disguise themselves as male characters. The trial scene in The Merchant of Venice is one of the finest scenes of English drama in which Portia disguises as a lawyer to save her lover’s friend Antonio from the intolerant Jew, Shylock.

Humour, Use Of Puns

A very attractive feature of Shakespeare’s comedies is their humour. It is as it should be. Ben Johnson’s humour is sarcastic, satirical, but Shakespeare’s attitude towards his fellow being is acceptive and genial. He does not laugh at others, but with others.

 Shakespeare’s comedy plays are peppered with clever word play, metaphors and insults. He was a master of wordplay, and his comedies are filled with puns and witty language games.
Sometimes silly, sometimes bawdy, yet always clever, his plays on words are a distinguishing feature of all his works. You'll need to brush up on your Elizabethan English if you want to catch all of his jokes.

Plot Construction

The plotline of a Shakespeare comedy contains more twists and turns than his tragedies and histories. Coleridge is of the view that ‘The heart of Shakespearean play lies in its characterization and not in plot’.

There is much that is superfluous, ridiculous, shapeless, grotesque and artificial. Too much depends on chance or fortune, deceits, disguises, mistaken identities are the stock devices used by the dramatist to maintain suspense or interest. How strange it seems that Portia in the disguise of a man is not recognized by any one in the trial scene in The Merchant of Venice. Further, all the ships of Antonio returns home safe just at the right moment. But these absurdities of the plot are concealed by heightening the character interest.

Shakespearean comedies also contain a wide variety of characters. Shakespeare often introduces a character and then discards him, never to be seen again in the balance of the play. Songs often sung by a jester or a fool parallel the events of the plot. Also, foil and stock characters are often inserted into the plot. All Shakespearean comedies end happily. Most often, this happy ending involves marriage or pending marriage. Love always wins out in the end.

Shakespeare’s comedy plays have stood the test of time. Today his plays like The Tempest, The Merchant of Venice and Much Ado About Nothing  continue to enthrall and entertain audiences worldwide – but these plays are not comedies in the modern sense of the word. His 17 comedies are the most difficult to classify because they overlap in style with other genres. Critics often describe some plays as tragi-comedies because they mix equal measures of tragedy and comedy. For example, Much Ado About Nothing  starts as a Shakespeare comedy, but takes on the characteristics of a tragedy when Hero is disgraced and fakes her own death. At this point, the play has more in common with Romeo and Juliet, one of Shakespeare’s key tragedies.

A Character Sketch of Antonio


Antonio is the title character in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. He is a middle-aged bachelor and merchant by trade who has his financial interests tied up in overseas shipments when the play begins. He is kind, generous, honest and confident, and is loved and revered by all the Christians who know him. Even Portia, who sees Antonio as a rival for her husband’s affections, reveres his character and appreciates his willingness to die for Bassanio.

Passive And Non-Combative

The key-note of his character is melancholy, and it is struck in the very first words he utters: In sooth I know not why I am so sad’. And again

            I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano
A stage where every man must play a part
And mine a sad one.

There is a lack of combativeness and self-assertion in his character. In the process of the trial, while friends and lawyers are doing their utmost for him, there is little show of fight in Antonio. All he can say is

                    Most heartily I do beseech the court
                        To give the judgment

‘This melancholy, faint-heartedness, carelessness of life, call it what one will, certainly makes Antonio a pale and somewhat uninteresting figure to us.’
(Spilsbury and Marshall)

          However, it should be remembered that he has been made a passive character for dramatic purpose. The signing of the rash pound of flesh bond seems credible only on the part of a man so given to a nameless melancholy and so careless of life itself.

His Popularity, A Generous Friend

Antonio is a rich merchant of Venice. It is to be noted that all, except Shylock, speak most highly of him. Gratiano calls him, “The royal merchant, good Antonio”. To Bassanio he is a “dear friend”. Besides being a general favourite with the magnificoes of Venice, he entertains a truly noble affection for Bassanio.  Not only does he assure his spendthrift friend. ‘my purse, my person, my extreme means, lie all unlocked to your occasions’, but he goes to such lengths of self-sacrifice as to risk his very life to assist him.

His Religious Intolerance

          It is just because Antonio has such an excellent character in every respect that we may forgive him for his ungentlemanly behavior towards the Jew. Shylock protests:

                   Fair sir, you spit on me on Wednesday last:
                        You spurn’d me such a day; another time
                        You call’d me dog.

And Antonio answers at this

                   I am as like to call thee so again
                        To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too.

These remarks of Antonio destroy in us all possibility of sympathy for him. According to Spilsbury and Marshall, this is the only fault of his character, but it is a grave one.

Dramatic Significance

          Antonio is certainly a passive character, colourless and unimpressive. He is a mere shadow besides Shylock and Portia, and unsubstantial, even in comparison with his Venetian friends. But dramatically he is of the greatest importance. He is the very core and centre of the play. He is related to all the characters of the play in one way or the other. Bassanio, Gratiano, Salarino, Salanio and Lorenzo are his friends. Shylock is his enemy. Portia is his savior. He is the centre of interest in the play. It is he who helps Bassanio to go to Belmont and win the hand of Portia there. His pound of flesh bond leads directly to the trial scene where Portia comes to his rescue. 

A Character Sketch of Portia


Portia has been called by critics one of the most perfectly developed female characters of Shakespeare. S. A. Brooke has called her, “the queen of beauty”. Jessica calls her beautiful “past all expressing”. She possesses physical as well as the beauty of character. She is so beautiful that suitors come to woe her from distant lands like so many Jasons in search of Golden Fleece.

Cultured And Learned

Portia is one of the most prominent of Shakespeare's heroines in his mature romantic comedies. She is beautiful, gracious, rich, intelligent, and quick-witted. Born in rich, aristocratic family, she is noble, generous and large-hearted. She has been given the best of education by a wise father, and so is cultured and refined. She represents all that is sweetest and best in womanhood. She can quote with perfect ease from classical writers, and frequently alludes to classical mythology. With all her refinement and love of learning, she is a typical product of Renaissance.

Her Sense Of Humour

Her character is a clever blending of opposites. The gay and the serious, the feminine and the masculine, elements are skillfully mixed up in her character. The key-note of her character is her sprightly wit and humour and this trait is kept prominent throughout the play. Her wit and humour is first seen in her remarks to Nerissa about her various suitors. Her love of fun asserts itself even during the trial scene, and she cannot help joking with Bassanio, when he says that he will sacrifice even his wife to save his friend. She says: ‘Your wife will give you little thanks, for that, if she were by, to hear you make the offer.’

Her Intellectual Ability

          Portia has great intellectual ability. She is shrewd judge of human nature. Her remarks to Nerissa about her six suitors reveal a keen intellect and a true understanding. She shows wisdom and resourcefulness in carrying out her plan of appearing in the court of Venice, disguised as a lawyer. She arranges all the necessary details with an almost masculine self-confidence and practical common sense.

          Indeed, her intellectual ability has led critics, like Hazlitt, to accuse her of being unfeminine, masculine and pedantic. They point out that it is immodest and masculine on her part to appear in the court in man’s clothing. No woman in the world would act in this way. She is entirely lacking in maidenly modesty. However, all such criticism is unjustified.  Her truly feminine nature is seen even in the trial scene. Only a true woman, with a deeply religious nature can make the famous “quality of mercy” speech. She remains faithful to the will of her father.

Her Passionate Love

          Her womanly nature is best displayed by her love of Bassanio. Her love of him is deep and passionate, sincere and true. In the expression of her love she is self-restrained and modest as a maiden should be.

          She is self surrendering and humble in her love. When Bassanio has made the right choice, she surrenders herself completely to his direction and calls Bassanio her lord and master. She places her own self and all that belongs to her, at the disposal of her husband.

Her Poetic Imagination

          Another quality to note about her is her poetic imagination. This is best seen in her speech at the time when Bassanio proceeds to make her choice. She compares him to Hercules, Nerissa and others to the weeping Trojan women, and herself to the ‘Virgin tribute’ whom Hercules had saved from the sea monster. She has artistic taste. She loves music and has her own band of musicians. 

Comparison With Shylock

Critics liked to compare Portia with Shylock, and the comparison brings out the salient traits of her character. One of them has said that while ‘Portia is the beauty of the play, Shylock is its strength’. She stands for everything bright, generous and noble, while Shylock is dark, evil and mischief-making. She represents the forces of good, while he stands for those of wickedness.

A Character Sketch of Shylock


Shylock is a fictional character in William Shakespeare's play The Merchant of Venice. Because of the character's notable request of a "pound of flesh" for security interest, individuals considered to charge excessive interest on loans are sometimes called "Shylock." The creation of Shylock is one of the triumphs of Shakespeare’s art of characterization.  He is highly complex nature, and hence most varied and contradictory estimates of his character have been given. Shakespeare has shown the Jew as cruel, savage, relentless, vindictive and greedy, with all the atrocity traditionally associated with the Jewish character; and yet he has succeeded in enlisting our sympathies for him.

His Passion For Money

Passion for revenge and passion for money are the two leading traits of his character. He is a miser who hoards, and for him even to spend a single penny is a torture. He lives for money; money is his life and soul. Money is the standard by which he judges others. His greed has destroyed in him even his affection for his daughter, since his solicitude at his daughter’s loss is as nothing compared with his rage at the loss of his money:

My daughter!—O my ducats!—O my daughter!
Fled with a Christian!—O my Christian ducats.

His Vindictiveness

          Perhaps even stronger than his love of money is his hatred of Antonio as one of the Christians who had persecuted his tribe so cruelly. And one cannot help feeling a natural sympathy with the Jew, a sympathy which Shakespeare evidently felt himself and presumably intended his audience to share. How pathetic these lines of Shylock are:

‘Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, sense, affections, passions? …………. If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that also.’

Here Shylock is not speaking in his own person, but as the representative of an oppressed people. He feels for the suffering of his race. He is both a type and an individual.

Passion For Revenge

Shylock insists that his debt be paid; he wants revenge on Antonio, as the latter loans money without charging interest (thus making Shylock lose business). He had spat on Shylock, verbally and physically abused him, turned his friends against him, and inflamed his enemies toward him.

If I can catch him once upon the hip,
I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him
He hates our sacred nation……………

His Essential Humanity And Patriotism

          Shylock has often been represented on the stage as a perfectly unnatural monster, with no passions save those of hate and avarice, and, indeed, there is some cause for such a view. Despite all these unattractive characteristics we cannot say that there are no elements of grandeur about this Jew. He always speaks with a true patriotic fervor about his ‘sacred nation’. He has the true Jewish exclusiveness. There is one passage where even he seems to exhibit a trace of affection and essentially human feelings. When the Tubal has been giving him an account of Jessica’s extravagance in Genoa, that among other things she has exchanged his ring for a monkey, he cries:

Out upon her; thou torturest me; Tubal; it
Was my turquoise: I had it of Leah when
I was bachelor: I would not have given it for
A wilderness of monkeys.

          Nevertheless, it must be confessed that, as far as the play goes, we do not hear much of the human side of his nature.

Shakespearean Tragedy / Shakespeare as a Tragedy Writer


William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was an English poet and playwright, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world's pre-eminent dramatist. His surviving works, including some collaborations, consist of about 38 plays, 154 sonnets, two long narrative poems, two epitaphs on a man named John Combe, one epitaph on Elias James, and several other poems. His plays have been translated into every major living language and are performed more often than those of any other playwright.

Shakespeare is perhaps most famous for his tragedies. Most of his tragedies were written in a seven-year period between 1601 and 1608. These include his four major tragedies  Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth, along with Antony & Cleopatra,  Coriolanus,  Cymbeline, Julius Caesar, all of which are immediately recognizable, regularly studied and frequently performed.

Following are the salient features of his tragedies.

1.    Tragedy is concerned primarily with one person – The tragic hero.

2.    The story is essentially one of exceptional suffering and calamity leading to the death of the hero.  The suffering and calamity are, as a rule, unexpected and contrasted with previous happiness and glory.

3.    The tragedy involves a person of high estate.  Therefore, his or her fate affects the welfare of a whole nation or empire.

4.    The hero undergoes a sudden reversal of fortune.

5.    This reversal excites and arouses the emotions of pity and fear within the audience.  The reversal may frighten and awe, making viewers or readers of the play feel that man is blind and helpless.

6.    The tragic fate of the hero is often triggered by a tragic flaw in the hero’s character.

7.    Shakespeare often introduces abnormal conditions of the mind (such as insanity, somnambulism, or hallucinations).

8.    Supernatural elements are often introduced as well.

9.    Much of the plot seems to hinge on “chance” or “accident”.

10. Besides the outward conflict between individuals or groups of individuals, there is also an inner conflict and torment within the soul of the tragic hero.

The Hero, A Person Of High And Noble Birth

In Shakespearean tragedy, the hero is always a man of outstanding social status. He may be a king (as in King Lear and Julius Caesar), a prince (as in Hamlet), and a very high official (as in Othello and Macbeth) etc. In his conception of tragic hero, Shakespeare conforms to the tradition of the ancient Greek tragedies of Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides and Roman tragedies of Seneca, and even the tragic conception of the Middle Ages. Bradley says:

‘The advantage of Shakespearean conception of the tragic hero is that his fall is more bewildering and conspicuous as contrasted to his former prosperity. Moreover, his fate affects the welfare of a whole nation or empire, therefore his tragedy is more enveloping and widespread.

Marlow’s heroes are also extraordinary personalities but they are from humble parentage. Both Marlow and Shakespeare use the name of the hero as the title of the play. Moreover, unlike Shakespeare’s, in Marlow’s tragedies there is an absence of female characters.

Sufferings And Death

              These heroes undergo a series of sufferings and hardships and torture. In the early tragedies, the form of this suffering is physical but in the later stages, it is not merely physical torture but mental upheaval which sways and rocks them. The hero, under the stress of these sufferings, appears shaken in spite of his greatness and heroic capacity for suffering. Hamlet by his mental torture is virtually laid on the rock. Othello experiences a tempest in his very soul. Lear turns mad. Macbeth loses all interest in life and is obliged to characterize it as

                              A tale told by an idiot,
                              Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Character Is Destiny

              In Shakespearean tragedy it is the character of the hero which becomes the important factor to decide his destiny. In fact character is destiny. However, exaggerated this may seem to some critics, it is a fact that it is the character that moulds the action of the play. This fact becomes more important because in the Greek tragedy, it is the plot which becomes most important factor but in Shakespearean tragedy, it is first the character that is significant. After all there is hardly any action in Hamlet yet it is one of the most fascinating tragedies in English literature.

Hamartia/Tragic Flaw

              There is a certain tragic flaw in the character of the hero, which Aristotle termed as “Hamartia” and which provides the ground for the calamity which eventually overwhelms him. Bradley observes:

                  ‘Lear’s tragedy is the tragedy of dotage and short-sightedness, Othello’s that of credulity, Hamlet’s that of indecision, Macbeth’s that of ambition, Antony’s that of neglect of duty and so on’.

In Shakespeare, we find a variety of tragic flaws, while in Marlow’s tragedies, the Hamartia is common and that is “Uncontrolled Ambition”.

The Conflict

              The conflict is of two kinds, both of which generally go on simultaneously in Shakespearean tragedy. Antony’s mind is torn between the opposite pulls of love and duty; Macbeth’s between those of ambition and duty. In Romeo and Juliet and Richard II, the conflict is almost entirely external. A lot of bloodshed is generally found in Shakespearean tragedy.

In Marlow’s tragedies, the conflict is only internal, within the mind and heart of the hero. Further, he didn’t pay much importance to chance happening.

Role Of Chance

Chance plays an important role in the tragedy of the hero. In Romeo and Juliet it is by chance that the hero does not get the Friar's message about the potion, and the heroine does not awake from her long sleep a little earlier. In Hamlet it was a chance that Hamlet's ship was attacked by the pirates and he was back in Denmark to face the tragic end. Some people think that the introducing the element of chance is to manipulate the action of the play to suit one’s own purposes. But this is not correct because chance or accident is as much of a real life as any normal happening. But where Shakespeare has proved superior to many other playwrights is that he keeps the role of chance within the probable limits. He does not allow even chance or accident to take more importance than the character of the hero.

Supernatural Elements

              Shakespeare’s plays give a large place to the supernatural. This is because he wrote for an audience which had a liking for the fabulous and the marvelous. 

              There are Witches in Macbeth, Ghost in Hamlet, Hautboy music in Antony and Cleopatra. These have a close relation with the abnormal conditions of minds of the protagonists. Hamlet’s mobility of mind is connected with the appearance of ghost in the first act and in mother’s closet. Macbeth’s lust for power is aroused by the witches.

No Poetic Justice

              In the region of poetic justice where virtue is rewarded and vice punished, Shakespeare has his own laws which are the laws of the living world and not of a theory. In Shakespeare’s tragedies, we find that it is not only the evil that is punished but along with it the good and virtuous has to suffer. Yet it is true to nature that Shakespeare knows once the evil is afoot it will also take in its train goodness too.

              Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) in his Preface to Shakespeare pointed out many merits and demerits of Shakespeare’s dramatic art. The greatest merit of Shakespeare’s plays, according to him, is the universality of their appeal. This is a result of the fact that the plays are based on the truthful observation of general human nature. His plays have stood the test of time and remain fresh and relevant upon numerous re-readings. There is a timeless and universal quality about his characters.  Whereas in the works of other dramatists a character is often individual, in those of Shakespeare it is frequently a species.

              Unlike most of the dramatists Shakespeare does not confine himself to themes of love only. There are several other human passions that move the human mind and Shakespeare uses them in his plots as subject-matter.

              Johnson appreciates the mingling of tragedy and comedy in Shakespeare’s plays. He is of the view that such plays accurately reflect the state of things in the world where the loss of someone is gain for the other. Comedy seems to have been closer to Shakespeare’s genius than tragedy, therefore we find him providing comic scenes even in his histories and tragedies.

              Shakespeare is criticized by the neo-classical critics because his plays do not observe the three unities of time, place and action. Johnson does not agree with them and attempts to a strong defense of Shakespeare’s practice. According to him the only important unity is that of action, which Shakespeare does observe.

              Dr. Johnson also points out some flaws of Shakespeare i.e. absence of poetic justice, loose plot structure and disregard for didacticism (moral purpose) etc.