The Great Tragedies

  • A. L. Rowse


A celebrated lecture has warned us against too direct and easy a transference from the facts of Shakespeare’s life to the creations of his mind, or rather — since we know so much more about the latter — from his plays to his life. This offered a salutary corrective to the simple view that ‘dramatists write tragedies when their mood is tragic, and comedies when they are feeling pleased with life’.1 We, however, are not so simple : we perceive that the truth in this matter lies somewhere in between. A real writer understands better than a mere critic that there is some correlation between the experience of a creative artist and what he creates, even if it is a question only, at the least, of a mood. And it is a mistake to confuse any literary cult of melancholy with the undoubted malaise, for which there was reason, that chilled sensitive men’s spirits at the turn of the century. Though literary creations are not to be confused with their creators’ lives, they are some evidence : there is the indefinable feeling of interior autobiography in Hamlet, so strong that it has given encouragement and material to the psycho-analysts, where we refrain. Our critic allows that ‘in Hamlet and Timon we are shown a genuine disturbance of the spirit’. Even the conservative Chambers thought that the great tragedies ‘are not without evidence of mental strain and sometimes exhaustion’.2 What wonder? It is not improbable, after the hard experience of life, the pressures on the spirit of which we have seen evidence.


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  1. 1.
    C. J. Sisson, ‘The Mythical Sorrows of Shakespeare’, Proc. Brit. Academy, 1934, 45 foll.Google Scholar
  2. 15.
    Cf. H. J. Oliver, ‘Coriolanus as Tragic Hero’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 1959, 53 foll.Google Scholar
  3. 16.
    Cf. Kenneth Muir, ‘The Background of CoriolanusShakespeare Quarterly, 1959, 137 foll.Google Scholar

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© A. L. Rowse 1963

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  • A. L. Rowse

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