Four Great Tragedies of Shakespeare: –Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and King Lear

In the third period of Shakespearean world (1600-1608), tragedy predominates. Starting with Julius Cacsar (1601) he raises to greater heights in the celebrated ‘The four Great Tragedies –Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and King Lear. The structure of Julius Caesar is unusual. It looks like two tragedies in one, first Ceasar’s and then Brutus’s. It is also a revenge tragedy when Antony becomes the avenger. For the playwright the shift from English history in the recently completed Henry V to roman history released a new confidence. 

Hamlet Probably written in 1601 is a tragedy of revenge. Hamlet is generally considered the foremost tragedy in English drama. Numerous commentaries have been written analyzing every aspect of the play, and interpretation of Hamlet’s character and motivation continue to be subjects of considerable interest.  It is so because the figure of Hamlet has so fascinated successive generations, the play has provoked more discussion, more performances and more scholarship than any other in the whole history of world drama. It stands at the very centre of Shakespeare’s dramatic career, on the one hand concluding a decade that had seen the composition of the mature comedies and English history plays and on the other preceding the sequence of great tragedies.   

William Shakespeare
On the other hand, King Lear has two parallel tragedies- portrayals of the madness of Lear, brought on by the cruelty of his older daughters, Goneril and Regan and the death of Lear with Cordelia's body in his arms. “King Lear can be read various ways-as a theological drama as a philosophical one, as a supreme example of Shakespeare’s intuitive egalitarianism or even as a melodrama lifted towards tragedy only by its superb poetry. It is the most titanic of Shakespeare’s great tragedies’”. (Cambridge Guide). It also contains an underplot, the story of the duke of Gloucester and his sons. The double plot also provides parallels in the fates of Lear and Gloucester. The ruin of both men is brought about not only by their children's ingratitude, but also by their own lack of insight. 

Othello written in about 1604 is a tragedy on the theme of jealousy. The affairs of state are prominent in Othello; the domestic tragedy of a fine marriage vindictively destroyed is the play’s dominant concern. This narrow focus makes the play unique among Shakespeare’s great tragedies but the towering achievement of both craft and imagination is the plotting and portrayal of the relationship between Iago and Othello.


Macbeth is Shakespeare’s thriller. It is a tragedy in five acts, first performed in about 1606. The play’s title role is loosely based on the career of a King Macbeth of Scotland. Shakespeare drew his material from Holinshed’s Chronicles. The play was written in honour of James I. It is one of the most popular and powerful in Shakespeare tragedies, closely knit in structure, direct and concentrated in impact. Historically A commander under King Duncan I, Macbeth murdered Duncan in 1040 and claimed the kingdom for himself. After a rule of 17 years, Macbeth was killed by Duncan’s son Malcolm, who later became King Malcolm III. The tragedy is a penetrating, concentrated, and harrowing study of the ambition of Macbeth and his wife, Lady Macbeth. Three witches, who appear on the stage when the play opens, confront Macbeth and prophesy that he will one day become king of Scotland, and that his companion Banquo will beget kings, although he will never become one himself. Macbeth, who is already a hero because of his skill as a soldier, cannot rest with his knowledge of the prophecy but instead takes fate into his own hands. 

Ref: 1. History of English Literature- Albert,      

      2. Microsoft Students’ Encarta
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