Tragic Heroes: A Predictive Measure for Societal Problems

My first graduate level attempt to marry classics with the current mood of society. When I wrote this paper, it was shortly after the STEM school shooting in Colorado. At the time, there was a different school shooting about once a week. As displayed in another piece of work, this societal theme was deeply troubling to me. Through this paper I attempted to make sense of these horrible events through literature and Shakespeare and categorize what had been happening as following tropes of tragedy. This paper looks at the Tragic storyline, not just as a fiction narrative, but something that can be applied to life. I draw upon various Shakespearean characters to highlight how someone falls, and to depict what a “better version” of humanity may be. As these shootings start to tick back up, I think we need to start asking why it’s happening at the deepest root levels, and I hope that this paper contributes to that conversation.

As of September 1, 2019, there were 283 mass shootings in the United States. What most of these shootings have in common is that they are carried out by individuals isolated from society. Through whatever has happened in their lives, they are increasingly marginalized from the world around them. The results of their isolation is marked as tragedy. The perpetrators of these acts of violence share a key character trait with the tragic heroes in Shakespeare’s plays. As Shakespeare’s tragedies unfold, the heroes are increasingly isolated from the world around them, pushing them further over the edge and increasing their willingness to commit egregious acts of violence.

There are a multitude of reasons to read and view Shakespeare’s plays. Even though these ideas are vast, sometimes it can be hard for non-English majors to understand these points. To the dismay of high school teachers, students constantly question why they have to read Shakespeare every year. The best answers to questions like these are usually in addressing the concept of the human experience. Most people want love. A lot of people try to rise in social status. Everybody wants something, and Shakespeare’s characters mirror this. But more importantly, his tragic characters tell us the most about ourselves, the sides of us no one wants to accept. These characters are beacons of what happens when someone loses sight of the world around them. All of his tragic characters share in isolation, causing them to sacrifice friendships and their own moral code that they once held so high. The tragedies “involve us in the ethical dilemmas of the characters” (Wells 3). Most people face significant moral dilemmas throughout life, and most people are able to handle them fairly well. But the tragic heroes feel forced into their next, more drastic actions, and almost all of these decisions are made in quiet moments, isolated from other people. Similarly, decisions that lead to the devastations of modern localities are often made in the same fashion. Which tells us the narrative from Shakespeare’s tragedies occur all around us, and unfortunately, quite regularly.

Common human decisions in Shakespeare’s tragedies are the most human of ideas. Unlike the histories which deal in a political landscape with often unclear protagonists and antagonists, the tragedies are much more human and “interested in their (the characters) moral, ethical, and emotional dimensions” (Woodbridge 217). These moral, ethical, and emotional dilemmas are much more relatable to everyone, including the non-Shakespeare enthusiast. Romeo and Juliet both must choose between what they think is love against loyalty to their families. Macbeth holds a deep moral code, but pressure from his wife (whom he loves) urged on by “fate” pushes him to sudden action that begins his inevitable downfall. Othello trusts his “friend”, as most people may willingly do with the assumption that their friend is genuinely looking out for their best interest, and ultimately allows himself to be manipulated into killing himself and the one he holds most dear. These moments of dilemmas are major points for these characters. They are already capable of carrying out a terrible deed (IE Othello and Macbeth are already skilled warriors), and they receive just the right push to force them over a line.

On August 4,, 2019, Connor Betts opened fire on a nightlife strip of Dayton, Ohio. He killed 9, and injured another 27. Allegedly, part of his motivation was the result of a breakup with a woman near the time of the shooting. His ex-girlfriend claimed at some point he began isolating himself from his peers, going from an extrovert, to very much introverted. He began sending and leaving threatening text messages and letters for her (CNN). Allegedly, these messages were created when he was by himself. At the beginning of Romeo and Juliet, Romeo is surrounded by people he loves, and who love him back. He has a solid support system of family and friends, even in the breakdown of his potential courtship with Rosalind. He spends the bulk of his time with Mercutio and other friends of his. Mercutio is active in getting Romeo into social settings and to enjoy life, “we must have you dance” (Romeo & Juliet 1.4.11). However, when he meets Juliet, Romeo allows himself to slip into obsession and pushes him further from his friends and loved ones. The final tipping point for Romeo is the death of Mercutio and the consequential death of Tybalt. The death of Mercutio is also the death of the most loyal love Romeo has, and as Romeo kills Tybalt in retaliation, he isolates himself as a wanted man within Verona, “Oh, I am fortune’s fool” (Romeo & Juliet 3.1.133). He understands the position he has put himself in. He becomes angered with the world around him, the society that he acknowledges wants to banish him, as “there is no world without Verona walls” (Romeo & Juliet 3.3.17). This end of his world pushes him over the edge to perpetuate what would become one of Shakespeare’s most famous endings. Over the course of the play, Romeo, like Betts, shifts from a lovesick puppy to an obsessive, dangerous individual.

In 2015, Harvard released a 75-year-old study about what makes for a happy life. Dr. Robert Waldinger presented a TED Talk in which he revealed the information. In this study of students at Harvard and boys in the Boston-area, they found that personal connections was the single thing that made for a happy life. People with less meaningful human connection generally had shorter lives as opposed to those who built meaningful relationships (Waldinger TED). Not that all relationships are perfect all of the time, the study included analyzing relationships that overcame obstacles. Those that lived longer, happier lives did not hold grudges with family members, and thus had better lives, while those that had more “unhappy” lives, generally had some sort of falling out with family members or others who were close to them (Waldinger TED). As a result of this study, isolating a person from those he or she cares about leads to a life with much more negativity. Much like the less happy individuals of this study, Othello shows a portrayal of a man who is unable to let go of building animosity towards his wife.

Both Othello and Iago increasingly isolate themselves from their world. Othello increasingly removes himself from positive interaction with others. As he proceeds through the play, his personal interaction is almost solely reserved for Iago, who is implanting dangerous thoughts in his head. The other significant times for Othello is on stage while building up his caution as it relates to his wife. He succumbs to the thoughts implanted by Iago, looking for anything that could validate his “friend’s” accusations of his wife. This transition isn’t complete after one conversation. It evolves over a number of conversations. At first, Othello holds to his beliefs that his wife is faithful, “Tis not to make me jealous… Nor from mine own weak merits will I draw // the smallest fear or doubt of her revolt // for she had eyes, and chosen me” (Othello 3.3.214–220). He believes what he believes, but the seed of doubt of his wife persists. Iago persists, and eventually presents enough information so that Othello is willing to sell his own trust in his wife. Desdemonia has committed no fault to him. The ungrounded accusations persist in his mind, and he’s never able to address and correct the issue. Upon his own reflection at the execution of his wife, he understands his folly and was “perplexed in the extreme” (Othello 5.2.339). He sees the only counsel he took was false. As Waldinger suggests that part of a happy life is being able to trust in loved ones and overcome obstacles together, Othello is unable to do so, and leads to the death of Desdemonia and himself.

Iago, on the other hand, begins the play already cutting his true self away from his interactions with anyone. He has been scorned twice, and has been unable to overcome these self-perceived tragedies. He believes his wife has turned him into a cuckold, and he has lost a significant promotion from Othello. Iago is determined “to follow but myself” (Othello 1.1.56). From the first scene of the play, Iago is out to bring down Othello. Everything the man does in the name of himself in order to see his goal through. If nothing else, Iago is quite the persistent individual. It cannot be argued that he does not have conviction, as misguided as it may be. Through Iago, Shakespeare shows what obsession to seek revenge, in the face of people once called friends, can do to a person. It drives Iago to desire the destruction of Othello and everything that he is above fixing the issues he has to deal with. Othello offers a lesson of correcting our errors. Should the characters of this tragedy have gone back and addressed these issues at the proper times, the outcomes would not have been what they were. In doing this, it indicates what happens to a person when belief is more important than truth.

Since the events of Columbine in 1999, school and mass shootings are largely carried out by fairly affluent individuals. In a study conducted by psychologist Jean Twenge, increases of adolescent self-harm, and wider violence, is linked to increasing isolation. This is largely happening as kids spend more time on their cell phones than engaging in in-person conversations (Twenge). This incredible cell phone usage is not afforded to everyone, as these bills can get quite expensive. In addition to this, a study by David and Roger Johnson (unrelated) revealed that this violence also has to do with drug and alcohol abuse (Johnson & Johnson). Going back to the previous story of David Betts, cocaine was found in his system. Cocaine is widely viewed as an affluent type of drug, as is alcohol abuse in the college lifestyle. SImilarly, Shakespeare’s tragedies almost solely focus on individuals who contain some significant level of power within the society around them. Linda Woodbridge argues that we often “over-emphasize the tragic flaw [it] also neglects the complexity of evil” (Woodbridge 213). Like the fall of fairly affluent Shakespearean characters, this too persists in our own society.

Macbeth is one of the more significant and infamous characters in this concept. He is already an honorable individual at the start of the play. He’s deemed “brave Macbeth — well he deserves that name” (Macbeth 1.2.16). Throughout the Scottish Play, Macbeth succumbs to the drug of fate, placed upon him by the witches. He drinks the words of the dream of power from his wife, and allows them to intoxicate him until his point of no return. Macbeth in unable to do as his wife commands him to “look like the innocent flower, // but be the serpent under’t” (Macbeth 1.5.63–64). Unlike Othello, who is able to mask most of his emotions to the outer world until the discovery of the handkerchief, Macbeth is not as savvy. He is fully aware of every step along his downfall. He is constantly questioning every decision he is making, but allows himself to give into the negative voice inside of him.

Much like the individuals who commit mass violence now, Macbeth convinces himself that what he’s doing is somehow what has to happen. IN this constant back and forth, he ultimately knows of his own demise, “Life is but a walking shadow, a poor player // that struts and frets his hour upon the stage // and then is heard no more” (Macbeth 5.5.24–26). Macbeth knows his choices have led him to his inevitable death, but reuses to “play the Roman fool and die // by mine own sword” (Macbeth 5.7.31–32). This is very much unlike those that have committed grave atrocities in recent years who chose to end their own lives after committing what they do.

Shakespeare’s tragedies change shape over the course of his writing career. Our depiction of people who carry out mass violence has shifted over the years since Columbine. They have effectively gone the opposite routes of each other. Romeo and Juliet depicted fairly innocent teenagers who gave into emotions they did not understand, and isolated themselves from the world around them, but ultimately, they were victims in the world around them. Othello is a relatively innocent man who is manipulated to believing the worst about the person he loves the most. It is a fairly innocent man who slowly transforms himself to committing one terrible act that inevitably destroys him too. And finally, near the end of his career, Macbeth presents a much more cynical view, where evil starts, and it just becomes more and more dangerous. Macbeth, unlike Othello, does not commit one murder, but many. As Woodbridge suggests, Shakespeare’s tragic heroes move from “innocent, to more responsible, to (as she simply puts it) the Macbeths” (Woodbridge 213). But in each of the tragedies, once again, the heroes continuously isolate themselves as the plays progress, inevitably leading to their own, desperate deaths where nearly all of their honor has been lost.

Contrary to how the tragedies play out, Shakespeare supports Waldinger’s study through characters that are “exemplars of the heroic, chivalric, civic, patriotic, and ethical virtues” (Rakin 197). The happy characters amongst his plays, amongst ALL of his plays, are deeply connected to the world and other characters around them. Macduff wants others to join him “whose voices I desire aloud with mine” (Macbeth 5.7.88) in praising the new king. He cares deeply for his family and country, as he laments “O Scotland, Scotland” (Macbeth 4.3.100), he is sad at the mere idea that the alternate to Macbeth is worse. Throughout this scene, he only cares for the loss of others, as he will inevitably dry for the loss of his family. He gets to live by the end of the Scottish play, and has essentially saved Scotland the Macbeth would have surely placed upon it.

Like Macduff, Henry V is well connected to the world around him. He has a close-knit group of friends. This leads him to become “too famous to live long // England ne’er lost a king of so much worth” (HVI Part 1 1.1.6–7). Through multiple plays of Shakespeare’s Histories, Henry V is honoured again and again. Henry IV first presents Henry V, or Hal, as a carefree friend amongst the less honorable of London. “Fellowship” (HIV 1.2.146) is routinely what the prince is after. His friends are the ones who rally around him when he needs victories to prove his worthiness. In both Henry IV and Henry V, his greatest triumphs come from his “dear friends” whom he calls over the breach” (HV 3.1.1) that helps lead him to victory. He’s invested in his friends and sees it as a shared battle, as opposed to Macbeth who “bearlike I must fight” (Macbeth 5.7.2) views it only as his fight and his victory. Like Henry V, Mercutio is able to hold his honor to his friends, but as he sees through the folly of their plans, he wishes “a plague o’both your houses” (R&J 3.1.104). Mercutio gave himself up to defend his friend. Unlike the tragic heroes, these characters are well connected to the world around them. They care deeply for other people, to the point they are willing to sacrifice themselves for others. These are the people that Waldinger’s study identifies as the happiest, those that deeply care about the people around them.

Shakespeare’s tragedies can help the modern world identify causes of tragic events. It can be used as a predictive measure in telling us the “human misery” (Woodbridge 121) of the people around us. The problem with evil, is that it’s more complex than a tragic flaw. Characters and people commit horrbile acts because of a multitude of reasons, but at the core of unhappiness and potentially violent behavior is the common motif of isolation. If we read Shakespeare with the goal of increasing our understanding of “shared humanity”, the lessons expressed through the tragic hero could highlight how to improve our own lives and avoid the jarring number of tragic events. Isolation is as dangerous as not minding the hubris.

Works Cited

Harris, Jonathan Gil. “Materialist Criticisms” and “Reading: Henry IV Part One.” Shakespeare: An Oxford Guide. Edited by Stanley Wells and Lena Cowen Orlin, 2009, p. 472–490.

Johnson, David W., & Johnson, Roger T. Increasing Violence: A Concern for Schools. ASCD.org. Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/195198/chapters/Increasing-Violence@-A-Concern-for-Schools.aspx Accessed 10 October 2019.

Murphy, Paul, et al. “Dayton shooter had an obsession with violence and mass shootings”. CNN, www.cnn.com. 7 August 2019. Accessed 10 October 2019.

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Shakespeare, WIlliam. Romeo & Juliet. The Norton Shakespeare. 3rd ed. Eds. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katherine Eisaman and Gordon McMullan. New York: W.W. Norton, 2016. Pg 957–1036

Twenge, Jean M (21 November 2017). 5 Reasons Why Self-Harm and Depression Have Tripled in Girls. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/our-changing-culture/201711/5-reasons-why-self-harm-and-depression-have-tripled-in-girls. Accessed 8 October 2019.

Waldinger, Robert. “What Makes a Good Life: Lessons From the Longest Study on Happiness”. TED, uploaded November 2015. www.ted.com. Accessed 9 October 2019.

Wells, Stanley. “Why Study Shakespeare.” Shakespeare: An Oxford Guide, Edited by Stanley Wells and Lena Cowen Orlin, 2003, pp. 3–8.

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