The term tragedy is usually applied to literary, and especially to dramatic, representations of serious actions which eventually end in a disastrous conclusion for the protagonist. Precise and detailed discussions of the tragic form begin and as M.H. Abrams clearly points out; they should not end with Aristotle’s classic analysis in his 4th century work Poetics wherein he defined tragedy as “the imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude complete in itself” where the narrative presentation involves “incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish the catharsis of such emotions”. This classical conception of tragedy was based mainly on the examples available to Aristotle such as the Greek tragedies of Aeschylus, Euripedes and Sophocles. There have been attempts to stretch Aristotle’s analysis to later tragic forms which inevitably would differ in narrative and form. Shakespeare’s tragedies were shaped by very different literary conventions and when seen within the tradition of Aristotle’s classical discussions, his concepts serve as a suggestive starting point for identifying differences.
Most critics have agreed that Shakespeare’s tragedies do not follow a fixed literary pattern. Kenneth Muir, in fact, begins his survey with the warning :
“There is no such thing as a Shakespearean Tragedy, there are only Shakespearean tragedies”
The departure of Antony and Cleopatra from classical tragedy can be attributed above all to the undogmatic delight of experiment that is so characteristic of many dramatists of Shakespeare’s day and age who, unworried by any fixed poetic precepts or narrowing conventions, produced a multiplicity of forms that resist any neat systemization.
From the beginning, the problems of character, especially those of the protagonist’s character have been the focus of most criticism on Antony and Cleopatra and though much criticism time and again have denied this; for the audience too the impact of the play is produced most of all by the characters. This does not necessarily happen in the case of a classical tragedy. It is not that interpretation is reduced to psychological speculation or that the play is being confused with more realistic literature of the later ages, however, in their painful struggle with destructive forces within themselves and from the world outside, Shakespeare’s heroes receive no help from any power beyond. Providence and fate are hardly blamed for Antony’s downfall, at least not alone. We are made to feel that tragedy is a matter of human responsibility and moral decisions rather than of an anonymous Fortune.
The interdependence of conflict within the individual character and the claims of community is crucial for Shakespeare’s idea of tragedy and this can be seen clearly in his ‘domestic tragedy’ Othello as well. The protagonists are surrounded by a more or less diversified group of minor figures some of whom are drawn into the catastrophe against their will or are deeply affected by it. In Antony and Cleopatra a much larger number of characters is involved or at least connected with the protagonist’s fate than in Greek tragedy and they are quite different in social rank. So, on the one hand we have the suicide of Cleopatra and on the other the death of Enobarbus in Caesar’s camp with Antony’s name on his lips. By and large, the sentiments of the Roman soldiers under Antony’s charge reflect this trickle down effect throughout the play.
A stylistic criticism of the play by H.A. Mason further throws light on how Antony and Cleopatra is a departure from the classical tragedy. Aristotle says that the tragic hero will most effectively evoke both our pity and terror if the hero is “better than we are”, in the sense that he is of higher than ordinary moral worth. Mason draws our attention to the deliberate device employed by Shakespeare to throw a classical...