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Lloyd Sealy Library
John Jay College of Criminal Justice

English Literature: Shakespeare and Poetry: Tragedies

Guide for Library Research on the works of William Shakespeare and Poetry

What is Tragedy?

What is Tragedy?

The Scream by Edvard Munch

The main difference between tragedy and comedy in a Shakespearean play is that in a tragedy usually the story will start off with a serious situation such as a murder or a betrayal or a rivalry and will ultimately end sadly, with many, even everyone dying at the end of the story while a comedy will start off with an innocent misunderstand or weird situation and will ultimately end happily and with no one having died at the end of the story.

Antony and Cleopatra

Antony and Cleopatra

“My salad days
When I was green in judgment, cold in blood,
To say as I said then!”
Act I Scene V

Anthony and Cleopatra is a play that is both historical and a tragedy. It is based on the real historical events of the civil war following the assassination of Julius Caesar, including the love affair between Mark Anthony and Cleopatra, their death, and the ultimate triumph of Ocatvius who becomes Augustus Caesar.

Coriolanus

Coriolanus

“Now put your shields before your hearts and fight / With hearts more proof than shields. Advance, my fellows!”
Act I Scene IV

Coriolanus is another one of Shakespeare's tragedies that is also based on historical events and its classification has varied over the years. The plot is about the downfall and death of the Roman general Coriolanus, a man who is tempermentally unsuited for leadership and ultimately dooms himself out of his anger.

Timon of Athens

Timon of Athens

“Flavius. O my good lord, the world is but a word:
Were it all yours to give it in a breath,
How quickly were it gone!”
Act II Scene II

Timon of Athens is considered to be one of Shakespeare's most difficult and obscure plays. The story stars Timon, a rich man who is generous to everyone but becomes disillusioned when he spends his fortune and only then discovers who his true friends are.

Hamlet

Hamlet

Ophelia by John William Waterhouse

“To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?
"

Act III Scene I

Hamlet remains to this day the most popular and the most produced of all of Shakespeare's plays. It is considered to be one of the most influential tragedies in English literature as well as the most powerful. The story is about a Danish prince who plots revenge on his uncle Claudius for the murder of his father the King of Denmark.

Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar

The Death of Caesar by Jean-Léon Gérôme

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”
Act I Scene I

Julius Caesar is a dramatization of the true historical events that surrounded the attempt of Caesar to become absolute ruler of Rome and of the conspirators, led by Brutus, to kill him and try to save the Roman Republic. Though Brutus is successful in his assassination, he fails to save the Republic and sets the stage for a massive civil war. It can be classified as both a historical play and a tragedy.

King Lear

King Lear

King Lear by Benjamin West

“How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is To have a thankless child!”
Act I Scene I

King Lear is considered to be one of the finest tragedies ever written. It is a story that deals with family, madness, and human suffering. The story centers around Lear, who in the process of dividing his kingdom among his heirs does so on the basis of their flattery and ends up disinheriting and theatening the one of his three daughters who honestly loves him. He then slowly descends into madness as tragedy envelops his family and kingdom.

Titus Andronicus

Titus Andronicus

“Vengeance is in my heart, death in my hand, blood and revenge are hammering in my head”
Act II Scene III

Titus Andronicus was one of Shakespeare's first plays and is a gorefest, full of violence and blood. It was extremely popular in the era in which he wrote it though it fell out of favor later on, particularly in the straight-laced 19th century when audiences then objected to all the graphic violence. The story is about the Roman general Titus who is at war with Tamora, Queen of the Goths. Each of them seeks to get revenge on the other and each of them goes to greater and greater lengths to do it.

Troilus and Cressida

Troilus and Cressida

“Thou sodden-witted lord! thou hast no more brain than I have in mine elbows.”
Act II Scene I

Troilus and Cressida is basically Shakespeare's version of the story of the Iliad.

Macbeth

Macbeth

Macbeth and the Witches by Ary Scheffer

"It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”

Act V Scene V

One of the darkest and most powerful of Shakespeare's plays, Macbeth is the story of the a Scottish general by the same name who becomes consumed by ambition to become King of Scotland after receiving a prophecy from a trio of witches and who ultimately becomes consumed with guilt for the blood he wrongfully spills to take and then hold the throne for himself.

 

Othello

Othello

Othello and Desdemona by Alexandre-Marie Colin

“O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-ey'd monster, which doth mock
The meat it feeds on.”

Act III Scene III

The story of Othello is one of jealously run amok as the villain Iago preys on Othello's mind to make him think that his wife Desdemona has been unfaithful to him. At the end of the play the pround warrior is destroyed and dies by his own hand.

Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet by Frank Dicksee

 

"O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name.
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet."
Act II Scene II

Romeo and Juliet is one of the most famous and popular tragic plays about love ever written. Most people are familiar with it either from one of the many movies made about it or from having had to read it in high school. The story is about two young teenagers from enemies houses who fall in love with each other and who fail in their attempts to escape their families and run away together.

Cymbeline

Cymbeline

"He that sleeps feels not the toothache."
Act V Scene IV

Cymbeline is a play that has been listed as a tragedy but has a largely happy ending to it which has caused scholars to question its classification and suggest that it is more of a romance than a tragedy. The story is one of deceit, treachery, and mistaken identity as the British King Cymeline, influenced by an evil wife, tries to keep his daughter Imogen from marrying her lover Posthumus. Ultimately all the misunderstandings are resolved and the lovers are reunited.