Paul O’Flinn


Them and Us in Literature


9. William Shakespeare and More Original Sin

If you read one of Shakespeare’s tragedies at school, the odds are you were asked to spend a lot of time in class talking about what they call the hero’s tragic flaw – that fault in his character which brings about his downfall. The immaturity of Romeo, the procrastinationl of Hamlet, the jealousy of Othello, the ambition of Macbeth – these are the weaknesses, so the story goes, which in the end draw these people to their deaths. Interpretation of this kind is very common. There are two other things that need saying about it: it’s extremely reactionary and ii has nothing to do with Shakespeare. How has this irrelevant notion taken root and why is it clamped on most people’s minds as soon as they pick up Shakespeare’s work?

The idea of the tragic flaw has obvious religious appeal. A socialist poet once pointed out:

Religion never has you faltering
In the belief that you not they need altering.

In other words when the religious mind is confronted with a mess – especially the kind of mess we find at the end of Shakespearean tragedy with the stage covered with dead bodies – its natural reaction is not to look for structural causes but rather to beat us breast and cry: “Let us root out the evil in our own hearts!” In literary terms this means blaming the mess at the end of Shakespearean tragedy not on some sort of clash between the hero and his world but rather on the evil in the hero’s heart, his tragic flaw. Thus the notion of tragic flaw becomes a kind of literary equivalent of our old favourite, original sin.

Once you can get readers and audiences to behave like apprentice Grand Inquisitors sniffing round for a scent of the hero’s sin, lists of those sins are fairly easy to make. The literary critic Wilson Knight, for example, assures us that the something rotten in the state of Denmark is Hamlet himself. Schoolchildren all over the world have therefore been solemnly informed that Hamlet’s tragic flaw is indecision. The Ghost tells him to kill his stepfather but he can’t bring himself to act. Murdering when ordered to do so by an authoritative father figure is, it would appear, a quality we would like to see developed in all our young men, so Hamlet stands as a sort of glum moral warning about what happens when this quality is found wanting.

Critics make the same sort of maniacal nonsense of most of the rest of the tragedies. Othello’s tragic flaw? Jealousy, says F.R. Leavis. Macbeth’s? That’s an easy one: ambition, says A.C.Bradley. Antony’s? Sexual passion, says Derek Traversi. And so on.

To turn from this to the Marxist approach. What the Marxist tries to do is avoid lumbering the work with dogmatic categories like tragic flaw. Instead he attempts to make sense of it with analysis that is in the first place sociological. By this I mean that he tries to understand the work not in the light of someone’s bright - or highly slanted - idea but by placing the work in that actual society where it belongs and where it developed. He tries to see the work not through lenses designed by Bradley or Leavis but in the context of the moment when it first appeared.

Okay, that’s the theory, but what does it mean in practice? It means that in order to grasp what’s going on in a particular work we must first try to understand the particular situation in which the work was written. It’s convenient for educational institutions to split reality up into separate departments – English; Politics; Geography; Engineering; Basket Weaving and so on but the world doesn’t exist in convenient boxes. To understand any one object - like, for example a play by Shakespeare - we have to try and break these boxes down and see how the particular object relates to and grows out of its whole world.

About Shakespeare’s world we need to say three things, however briefly. First, he lived in an age of sharp transition when feudalism was finally falling apart - the Rising of the Northern Earls in 1569 when Shakespeare was 5 is normally described by historians as feudalism’s last bid for power - and in an age when the pre-conditions for capitalist society were being laid. Secondly, out of the decay of feudalism and the possibilities that opened up, there was an explosive growth of confidence in human abilities and in the capacities of the human mind that expressed itself in literature as the Elizabethan Renaissance. That literature is full of delight in men and women, in their qualities and liberated individualities. Hamlet’s famous lines “What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculties!, in form and moving, how express and admirable! in action, how like an angel! in apprehension; how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!” could not have been imagined by the medieval mind, obsessed as it was by a sense of man’s fallen nature. Shakespeare’s three dozen plays with their armies of rich characters arc together an impressive celebration of human potential freed, or apparently beginning to be freed, by the struggles of sixteenth and seventeenth century history.

Thirdly, the theatre Shakespeare wrote for was a new, capitalist theatre. In other words it worked by charging people for admission and making a profit. Capitalism at first means an immense expansion of the possible. Before the 1570s dramatic performances were infrequent, usually put on for a small elite in one of the great houses. The dramatist was dependent for his livelihood on pleasing aristocratic patrons – which often meant producing what Orwell calls “revolting flatteries”. With the building of commercial theatres a dozen or so years before Shakespeare started his career, plays could now be aimed at a much wider public - at the penny-a-timers in the pit as well as at the seated gentry. This meant new prospects, much wider horizons, and was another liberating force.

What does all this mean for Shakespeare’s tragedies? First, it means massive, highly individualised characters, the first of their kind in literature. Into these characters Shakespeare projects contemporary dreams of total self-realisation. His characters exploit the possibilities that the newly glimpsed freedoms seem to offer. But tragedy in Shakespeare springs again and again from the clash between men and women awakened, men and women battling to fulfil themeelves, and Shakespeare’s sense, shaped by his times, of the very tiny room for genuine self-realisation that the world actually offers. Again and again Shakespearean tragedy agonises over this contradiction: the fragile beauty of Romeo and Juliet smothered by the feudal vendettas of Verona; the limitless mind of Hamlet clogged in the rotten state of Denmark; the noble Othello wrecked in a racist society, Antony and Cleopatra in a militarist one. [1]

Tragedy in Shakespeare therefore springs not from the hero’s flaw or sin but from his dislocation, his attempt to live in ways that his society suggests but does not yet accept. So, for example, Macbeth and his wife are desperate to climb a rung higher on the social ladder, a desire which capitalist society has since come to insist on as the motor of all human progress. But they do not live in a socially mobile world; theirs is a feudal one where you are born into a certain station and stay there. Out of that contradiction grows their tragedy.

Or take Romeo and Juliet. They went to choose their own marriage partners. This is now recognised as a basic human right. But they live in, a society which doesn’t recognise that right and which gives Juliet’s father the right to dump her in the lap of the highest bidder. Again, out of that dislocation comes the tragedy. It’s a sense of dislocation that was a common experience for Shakespeare and his contemporaries, living as they did with the muddle of feudalism gone senile and capitalism only half born. “If wee present a mingle-mangle,” wrote John Lyly in a much quoted passage, “our fault is to be excused, because the whole worlde is become an Hodge-podge.”

The point I’m trying to make will I think be clearer if we play a game. Imagine you’re writing a tragic drama about the life and death of Christ, based on the Bible story. Forget all the religious nonsense: you’re going to take him as the usual tragic hero, the impressive character who gets destroyed at the end.

What’s going to be the tragic flaw in your hero? It’d be easy to make a list. You could make him a naive idealist, like Romeo, unable to come to terms with the real world. Or you could suggest that he’s indecisive, like Hamlet, dithering about in the Garden of Gethsemane and missing the chance to save himself. Then again you could say he’s ambitious like Macbeth, with grandiose schemes for saving the world. Or, like Othello, he’s liable to violent outbursts of passion as when he takes a whip to the buyers and sellers in the Temple.

A play written and understood in these terms would have at least two results. First, the real crooks get off scot free. Christ gets nailed up because of his own weaknesses, not because of Judas, the Pharisees and the Roman authorities. Second, the story is castrated. If you see someone being crucified and conclude that it’s his own fault then you can shrug your shoulders, say sorry and get on with the gardening. But if, on the other hand, someone basically decent as getting nailed up then the effect on you, the beholder, is disturbing. If decent people are getting nailed up then clearly it’s not the best of all possible worlds you live in. “If it can happen to him then who’s safe? Maybe things need changing ...”

What’s important to learn from this game is that, once you accept the terms of a given question, you are trapped into giving certain answers. Only by challenging the question can you break out of the blinkers it carries with it. Buy the notion of tragic flaw and you see the plays in a distorted but convincing way. Hamlet dies because he procrastinates, you say, forgetting the real villains, the murderous Claudius, the spying Polonius, the corrupt state of Denmark. Othello dies because he’s jealous, you add, ignoring the plots of Iago, the prejudice of Brabantio, the racism of Venice.

It’s a crucial stage in education when you stop answering the questions your teachers set and start asking your own. If you accept their questions – for example, how are we going to save British capitalism? -~ you’re half way to accepting their answers wage restraint and unemployment. Only by rejecting their question which reflects their priorities and substituting your own can you start getting at the truth.

To conclude: tragedy is subversive. It undermines our sense of living in the best of all possible worlds by showing us good people getting screwed. Schools aren’t in business to teach subversive literature so they stand Shakespeare on his head. You can begin by putting him the right way up.



1. This paragraph derives in part from Chapter IV of Christopher Caudwell’s Illusion and Reality.


Last updated on 12.8.2001