The Substance of Shakespearean Tragedy
A.C. Bradley
OAC Notes and Questions

-the tragic story is primarily concerned with one person

-the story leads up to, and includes, the death of the hero

-the story depicts also the troubled part of the hero's life which precedes and leads up to his death

-it is in fact, essentially a tale of suffering and calamity conducting to death

-the suffering and calamity are, moreover, exceptional. They befall a conspicuous person. They are themselves of some striking kind. They are also, as a rule, unexpected, and contrasted with previous happiness or glory

-such exceptional suffering and calamity, then, affecting the hero, and we must now add generally extending far and wide beyond him, so as to make the whole scene a scene of woe are an essential ingredient in tragedy, and a chief source of tragic emotions, and especially of pity

-a total reverse of fortune, coming unawares upon a man who stood in high degree happy and apparently secure, such was the tragic fact to the medieval mind

-tragedy with Shakespeare is concerned always with persons of high degree

-his fate affects the welfare of a whole nation or empire

-a Shakespearean tragedy as so far considered may be called a story of exceptional calamity leading to the death of a man in high estate

-the calamities of tragedy do not simply happen, nor are they sent; they proceed mainly from actions, and those the actions of men

-Shakespeare also introduces the supernatural into some of his tragedies

-Shakespeare in most of his tragedies allows to chance or accident an appreciable influence at some point in the action Note: chance cannot play a major role

-the hero always contributes in some measure to the disaster in which he perishes

-the calamities and catastrophe follow inevitably from the deeds, of men and that the main source of these deeds is character

-the dictum that, with Shakespeare 'character is destiny' is no doubt an exaggeration, and one that may mislead (for many of his tragic personages, if they had not met with peculiar circumstances, would have escaped a tragic end, and might even have lived fairly untroubled lives); but it is the exaggeration of vital truth

-there is a conflict of persons and groups, there is also a conflict of forces in the hero's soul

-in almost all we observe a marked one-sidedness, a pre-disposition in some particular direction; a total incapacity, in certain circumstances, of resisting the force which draws in this direction; a fatal tendency to identify the whole being with one interest, object, passion, or habit of mind. This, it would seem, is, for Shakespear, the fundamental tragic trait.

-the hero's tragic trait which is also his greatness, is fatal to him

-he errs, by action or omission; and his error, joining with other causes, brings on him ruin

-the tragic hero with Shakespeare, then, need not be good though generally he is good and therefore at once wins sympathy in his error. But is necessary that he should have so much of greatness that in his error and fall we may be vividly conscious of the possibilities of human nature

-whatever may be said of accidents, circumstances and the like, human action is, after all, presented to us as the central catastrophe

-the ultimate power in the tragic world is a moral order


1. How is King Lear essentially a tale of suffering and calamity conduction to death?

2. How does Lear's fate affect the welfare of a whole nation or empire?

3. Explain how the tragedy proceeds mainly from Lear's actions.

4. Could Lear be a tragic hero if he was insane when he divided his kingdom? Explain

5. What role does the supernatural play in this play?

6. What role does fate play in this play?

7. Briefly describe the outer and inner conflicts in King Lear.

8. In what way is Lear's greatest trait his tragic flaw?

9. Is Lear essentially a "good" man? Explain and support.

10. Lear upsets the "moral order." Explain.

11. What role does evil play in this play?

© 1998 The English Tutor