An excerpt from ‘What is Shakespearean Tragedy?’ forthcoming in The Oxford Handbook of Shakespearean Tragedy
The question ‘What is Shakespearean Tragedy?’ can understandably prompt one to start listing distinctive features of various plays by Shakespeare — as if a successful enumeration of its characteristics would amount to an understanding of the genre….
…However, rather than approach Shakespearean tragedy as the sum-total of certain features or “facts,” or as a generic object of study, I propose that we see Shakespearean tragedy as a discrete form of art — as the birth of a distinctive art form, the same way we think of ‘painting on canvas’ or ‘symphonic music’ as art forms that arrived on the world stage at a particular place and time.[i] Whereas a ‘genre’ purports to be a collection of objects that share common, taxonomically graspable features or techniques, there is no exhaustive list of features that ‘add up’ to Shakespearean tragedy – since, for a start, it is up to us to discern, decide, or debate, what will even count as features of this art form. Moreover, if Shakespearean tragedies all shared certain inherent, generic characteristics, then it would be difficult to distinguish between Macbeth and Hamlet and Othello –