Understanding the Shakespearean Tragedy

Muhammad Ali on author Michael Long’s vision of tragedy and its application to Macbeth

Understanding the Shakespearean Tragedy
The need for one vision regarding all Shakespearean tragedies arises because according to Michael Long, the existing definitions are not broad enough to cater to all the tragedies. The limitation of their application to specific plays only inclines the writer of the book The Unnatural Scene: a study in Shakespearean tragedy to look for one framework that might accommodate all the tragedies of Shakespeare and establish them as the work of one mind.

Firstly, Long draws a comparison between Shakespeare’s festive comedies and tragedies. For him, the first thing which sets the tragedies apart from the festive comedies is the adaptability of culture, which is something that is present and celebrated in the comedies and is missing in the tragedies. What he means by “culture” here is well understood when he talks about human culture being “structured” and “institutionalized”. He also talks about inadaptability and for him, this attitude is shown towards “a given set of civilized mores”.

Canvas by Emmanuel Polanco

Here, I believe, is where the idea of adaptability gets linked with what Michael Long terms as “social psychology”, because if one of the prerequisites of a Shakespearean tragedy’s structure is the lack of adaptability to the social customs on the part of the characters, then it can also be observed that the characters move away from civility because of their desire to get connected with the social world.

Looking at Macbeth, one can see a fine application of these two ideas from Michael Long. What Macbeth is doing to Duncan is not simply a murder, but considering the social setting, it is also a breaching of the sanctity of the relation that exists between a guest and a host.

“ […] then, as his host,

Who should against his murtherer shut the door,

Not bear the knife myself [...]” (Shakespeare 14-16)

So, it is the “civilized mores” here to which Macbeth is not being able to adjust, and from the perspective of this play, it is the custom of safeguarding a guest which acts as one of those mores.

After having talked about this weakness of characters from tragedies in matters of culture, he says that these characters, in their desire to communicate to the social world, become “blind” and “inflexible”. It is, according to him, the “demands of socialization” which move them away from the consciousness of both what is inside and outside. If we extend the idea of culture and bring it here, we realize that if a norm is being violated by Macbeth, it is because of his desire to be the king, and in his case, his demand “of socialization” will be fulfilled by becoming a king. For him, that is the way through which he will be able to connect with the public.

Scene from a contemporary performance of Macbeth

All the same, there are certain consequences which Macbeth fears, and expresses in the following words:

“ […] Besides, this Duncan

Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been

So clear in his great office, that his virtues

Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongu’d, against

The deep damnation of his taking off ;” (Shakespeare 16-20)

These fears are what Michael Long then tells make the characters afraid. The “nutshell” in which they hide themselves first in order to save themselves from the consciousness of wrongdoing does make them fearful afterwards. For Long, when this “nutshell cracks”, what is disturbed is the world of nature, termed as “kinetic world” by the writer. It is this kinetic world which gets destructive in a tragedy when the “civilized mores” are not taken care of in the human world, the idea establishing Long as an ecocritic way before the theory came into being. In case of Macbeth, it is the storm that has been “unruly” and has “blown down” the chimneys which acts as the destructive kinetic world acting against the human world’s negligence to customs.

If we look at the sequence in which Michael Long moves, we observe that the same sequence is present in the play under consideration i.e. Macbeth, without any shuffling of events. The inadaptability to culture is what Macbeth shows by violating the sanctity of a guest-host relation. The “social psychology” about which Long talks is visible in Macbeth’s desire to be a king and get connected to society. At the same time, the fear of “ambiguity” and “unstructured experiences” exists. This term “unstructured experience” once again gives a very fine understanding of the idea of moving away from an ideal set of values to their misuse.

The fear of the cracking of the shell and the kinetic world appearing as destructive, as Michael Long puts it, is also there in the form of Macbeth’s fears of Duncan’s public’s outrage and the storm ensuing after the murder.

Until here, the vision of Shakespearean tragedy that is presented is that of a play incorporating inadaptability, social psychology and the clash between the human world and the natural or kinetic world. It is on this clash that Michael Long focuses a lot and says that in Shakespeare’s tragedies, this is what happens repeatedly. The “powers of the bewildering, chaotic and dangerous ‘other’ world of raw kinesis” make their entry when the “culturally structured worlds and selves” break down.

This makes us realize that in Long’s vision of a tragedy, what is affected is not the hero individually, but along with the “selves”, the “worlds” themselves also break apart. This suggests that the whole society’s cultural destruction is the real tragedy, brought about by one person’s uncivilized attitude but affecting the society’s structure as a whole. The vision of tragedy, for Michael Long, seems to broaden step by step, for it moves from the individual to the society, and from the society to the natural world, engulfing the whole of the universe and not allowing the mistake of a character – and their punishment – revolve around that specific character only.

However, when Michael Long talks about compassion also being a common factor in the Shakespearean tragedies, he does not present a radical or an entirely different view: for sympathizing with the character is what a reader is stimulated to do in the traditional meaning of a tragedy as well. Being compassionate with the character and understanding their actions as “normal” and “necessary” is like accepting the quandary of a Greek tragic hero whose actions are but a cause of the difficult situation he was put in by the gods.

On the subject of compassion, therefore, Michael Long’s views regarding tragedy become traditional. But it is up till the discourse on the kinetic world that he presents an observation that is different and through which Shakespearean tragedy can be read and understood as a tragedy of its kind.

The author is a lecturer in English at the Government College University, Lahore, with his research interests including Partition Novel, Classic and Contemporary Pakistani Television Drama, and South Asian Environmental Literature. He has written extensively on these topics for various local newspapers and has also presented on them at multiple platforms including Olomopolo and both national and international conferences. Recently, his research paper on identities shaped by water got published by Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada under the banner of ALECC (Association for Literature, Environment, and Culture in Canada). He can be reached at m.ali_aquarius85@yahoo.com.