AD's English Literature : “Character is Destiny.”- Is this a Completely Satisfying Description of the Tragic Vision of Life in the Tragedies of William Shakespeare? (The Role of Fate)

“Character is Destiny.”- Is this a Completely Satisfying Description of the Tragic Vision of Life in the Tragedies of William Shakespeare? (The Role of Fate)

 As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods.
 They kill us for their sport.” King Lear: Act 4, Scene 1

The supernatural even when treated by a genius like Shakespeare sometimes appears to offer a crude method in tragedy for achieving that universality which remains the main tragic concern of a dramatist. The appearance of witches and ghosts as in Macbeth and Hamlet may not fully satisfy the modern audience, somewhat free of primeval impulses. Perhaps a better method employed to secure this universal effect lies in the sense of fate which is represented in a number of tragedies, both ancient and modern. In Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus, we feel the presence of some force constantly baffling human effort. This sense of fate again appears in Shakespeare in a different, modified and perhaps refined form.


In Greek tragedy the sense of fate is generally an Aristotelian concept as per which the tragic hero is to arouse our fear and pity. He must be a person above average but not a perfectly good man. The fall of an evil man arouses our sense of justice or injustice but not of pity, the fall of a good man arouses our anger against the order of the universe but not our fear. The downfall of the eminent tragic hero of Greek model means a wide repercussion throughout -the society in which he lives.

William Shakespeare { Cobbe Portrait}
The classical Greek tragedy requires that the protagonist be partly responsible for his own fate and since he is neither an evil nor a stupid person, he is found to be led to two types of errors— hamartia and hybris or hubris. Hamartia or tragic flaw means a single defect of character in an otherwise good man or an error of judgment made by an otherwise reasonable man, leading to his fall. Hubris or hybris stands for a kind of pride or over-confidence leading to the violation of a moral law or order or the disregarding of a divine warning. This latter conception has been adopted by Shakespeare mainly in his tragedies. Macbeth fully exhibits the ultimate upshot of violating a moral order or disregarding a divine warning. Othello has a similar central figure but this tragedy has also some characteristics that show the elements of hamartia in operation.

The tragic fact that Shakespeare presents remains on the one hand piteous, fearful and mysterious; yet on the other it never leaves the audience completely crushed as in a Greek tragedy. Greek tragedy again reminds the audience of the subservience of the greatest of men to gods and even of the gods to fate. Shakespeare in his tragedies does not follow or present this view. He presents both chance or luck and fate. With chance or luck we hardly feel the presence of outer-world power operating on our actions, but with fate we assume the direct presence of some supernatural agent. The idea of fate reigns supreme in Romeo and Juliet—the lovers are “ill starred” from the very beginning. In his Hamlet and Othello, Shakespeare generally implies chance—it is chance that leads Hamlet to board the pirate sloop; it is chance again that brings Bianca in with the handkerchief when Othello is eavesdropping. Fate, direct fate, operates only in Romeo and Juliet.

However, the end of tragedy is misery, whether that tragic end is brought about by inscrutable fate in the Greek style or it comes up as a consequence of errors of the characters themselves who are partly responsible for their fate in the Shakespearean pattern. The tragic relief is derived mainly from the nobility of the characters; the implied though not directly stated moral aim and the sense of pervasive universality running through the tragic theme. Tragedy and particularly Shakespearean tragedy thus emerges as a dramatic form very different from plays of mere violence or disaster as the tragic process, particularly in Shakespeare, discloses gradually a close relationship between character and fate. Courage and inevitable defeat of the protagonists are the two things that strike us most in all such tragedies of Shakespeare. Whether in Lear or Macbeth or Othello or Hamlet, we find human courage combating the challenge of destiny and in the process bringing up development in character and transformation of values beyond common perspective. ‘We feel very much while witnessing these dramas that mere courage is just bravado unless harnessed to an overpowering challenge and that defeat without great attempt can be mete pathos, After comedy and other dramatic forms, life goes on; but tragedy in Shakespearean sense means the end of a great and convulsing journey. At the journey’s end, after the terrible clash of wills, after the deadly conflict between man and fate, there ultimately comes a moment of peace before darkness sweeps down to cover all. At this sad moment of calm we all feel like speaking with Albany the closing sentences in King Lear:
The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
 The oldest hath borne most We that are young

Shall never see so much, nor live so long”.

Ardhendu De

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