"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Substance of Shakespearean Tragedy–A.C. Bradley


A.C. Bradley, writing in the early 1900s, is one of the most intelligent and respected critics of Shakespeare of any period.  Bloom groups him in the same category as Samuel Johnson.  In a series of lectures on Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, and Lear collected in Shakespearean Tragedy (1904), Bradley has written a number of introductory essays, the first entitled The Substance of Shakespearean tragedy in which he describes what are for him its basic elements.  One element presented  in depth is Fate, which I would like to discuss here.

At the root of Bradley’s conception of tragedy is the concept of greatness – the glory of Man, and therefore the tragedy of his fall:

‘What a piece of work is man’, we cry, ‘so much more beautiful and so much more terrible than we knew.  Why should he be so if this beauty and greatness only tortures itself and throws itself away’?  Everywhere….we see power, intelligence, life and glory, which astound us and seem to call for our worship.  And everywhere we see them  perishing, devouring one another and destroying themselves….as though they came into being for no end.

A moral order and fate are behind tragedy:

…The ultimate power in the tragic world is not adequately described as law or order which can see to be just and benevolent – as, in that sense, a ‘moral order’: for in that case the spectacle of suffering and waste could not seem to us so fearful and mysterious as it does.  And from the second it follows that the ultimate power is not adequately described as fate, whether malicious and cruel  or blind and indifferent to human happiness and goodness: for in that case the spectacle would leave us desperate or rebellious.  Yet one or other of these two ideas will be found to govern most accounts of Shakespeare’s tragic view of the world.

Bradley first talks about ‘fate’ in the sense of tragic, heroic characters not being able to predict the outcomes of their acts – that is, understanding their own tragic flaws and appreciating the unpredictable nature of the world.  In the first case, Lear could not have known the outcome of his first, precipitous act of self-disinheritance; and in the latter, Desdemona’s loss of her handkerchief at just the wrong moment. Bradley says that because of this ineluctable course of fate, “All this makes us feel the blindness and helplessness of man”

I do not think that this argument – the intertwining of tragic flaw and ‘fate” – really explains tragedy.  In my view, expressed previously in other posts, is that life is an inexorable and predictable repetition of cycles of human nature.  This is best expressed in the Histories, where if you read them chronologically, you would see the same dramas of ambition, scheming, murder, duplicity, and singular purpose towards accession to and retention of power – the Grand Mechanism (Kott).  The Tragedies follow the same logic.  Goneril, Regan, Edmund, and Macbeth are perfect examples.  Iago does not want power – he wants to destroy it; and Hamlet, in his inept way, wants vengeance, and by so doing will accede to the throne that belongs to him.   They all plot, scheme, manoeuvre, for their very clear ends. 

We do not feel either the blindness or helplessness of man because history and a study of the human nature which drives it have shown that these inevitable cycles and expressions have always existed and always will. 

Furthermore, ‘tragic flaw’ can be interpreted in another way.  Lear was not mad when he made his thoughtless decision to pass on his wealth while still alive; and therefore he, as a king, should have understood the character of his daughters, and at least suspected that their greed and ambition would lead to disaster.  He should have known better.  I have never understood how Othello, a general, commander, leader of men, strategic genius, could have been so easily duped and mislead by Iago.  He should have known better.  Macbeth was caught up in the same cycle of misadventure as others in power in previous and later palaces.  Only Hamlet, who may have already been mad at the beginning of the play, might receive our sympathy – but then again, if he was mad, then his actions are neither tragic nor heroic.

Bradley also is pre-modern in his belief that there is good and evil in the world.  He skates around this conclusion, but it is there:

But the name ‘fate’ may be intended to imply something more – to imply that this order is a blank necessity, totally regardless alike of human weal and of the difference between good and evil or right and wrong.  And such an implication many readers would at once reject….but would maintain on the contrary that this order shows characteristics of quite another kind from those which made us give it the name of ‘fate’, characteristics which should certainly not induce us to forget those others, but which would lead us to describe it as a moral order (my italics) and its necessity as a moral necessity.

I have also written about Nietzsche who talks of an order of fate ‘beyond good and evil’ – an idea to which I subscribe and therefore reject the claims of Bradley.  Bradley goes on to say:

The main source [of tragedy]…is in every case evil in the fullest sense, not mere imperfection, but plain moral evil….If it is chiefly evil that violently disturbs the order of the world, this order cannot be friendly to evil or indifferent between good and evil, any more than a body which is convulsed by poison is friendly to it or indifferent to the distinction between poison and food…

If existence in an order depends on good, and if the presence of evil is hostile to such an existence, the inner being or soul of this order must be akin to good (my italics).

The evil acts Bradley cites – the actions of Goneril, Regan, and Iago – are not evil, but predictable results of ineluctable choices.  The good of Edgar, Banquo, Cordelia, Desdemona are simply polar opposites to their actions.

Bradley goes on to expound on his theory of ‘waste’ – how in this universe where the striving for good is always thwarted by evil, man’s heroic actions are always wasted.  In my view, there is no such thing as wasted effort, just effort.  Since our actions are always predictable, and since their outcomes are always unpredictable, how can there be either good or evil, and especially how can there possibly be waste?


  1. A very good article. Perfect for student

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  3. You know...you have really terrible reading comprehension. A.C. Bradley was only defining what Shakespeare's tragic heroes consisted of...Not tragic heroes or tragedy in general. He readily admits this in the very beginning when talks about ancient Greco-Roman tragedy (which always heavily relied on a higher power/fate)...as well as the story of Job. You're also taking a bunch of quotes out of context (or with large page separations) and shoving them together into one mismatched idea...Everything you puzzle over or don't agree with he explains fully...and if you were not an idiot, you would realize that you're disagreeing with something imaginary...because some of your analysis of what he says is just flat out false.