Delighting in Despair





Vendettas. Villainy. Violence. Broken hearts. And death. At first glance, Shakespeare’s tragedies don’t sound much like entertainment. Yet we flock to theatres around the world to witness the torment and devastation wreaked upon naïve lovers and noble warriors (not to mention less savoury characters).

We adore watching Romeo And Juliet, a tale of young lives cut short. Our eyes are helplessly glued to Othello as Iago betrays his friend. (No wonder that, during a 19th Century production starring William Macready, at the moment Othello seized Iago by the throat, a gentleman in the audience cried out, “Choke the devil! Choke him!”)

For this is what tragedy does. It makes you want to choke the devil; to intervene; to halt the turning of this miserable globe and to put everyone and everything back to rights.

And yet, at the same time, we delight in the drama. We can’t look away.

Try averting your eyes as Romeo and Juliet’s dreams turn to dust, or while Othello and Desdemona’s love is snuffed out. Our hearts break too when both sets of lovers die, lying side by side. Like the dead lovers, in Shakespearean tragedy hope and despair share the same bed.

One thing is for sure: We can’t say we weren’t warned. The full title of the plays in the First Folio, published in 1623, were The Tragedie of Romeo and Juliet and The Tragedie of Othello, the Moore of Venice. Their titles alone made it abundantly clear that things would not end well.

Then, just in case anyone was left in any doubt, at the start of Romeo And Juliet, Shakespeare had his Chorus tell us that “the two hours’ traffic of our stage” will only head in one direction:

A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life,
Whose misadventur’d piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife.

In a way, Romeo and Juliet are already dead before we even meet them, says Oxford scholar Emma Smith in her Approaching Shakespeare podcast: “We know the pain is coming. It’s inexorable, unstoppable. There’s something mechanical about it.”

Yet in a strange way there is something comforting about that for audiences. Knowing the destiny of our heroes removes some of the anxiety for us, according to Smith. While we may want to intervene (and ‘Choke the devil!’) we are forced, in a sense, to enjoy the ride. “We just have to sit back and relax; there is nothing anyone can do. It’s a foregone conclusion. In a way, it’s less stressful to watch a tragedy where the fate of the characters is already sealed.”

Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 movie, Romeo + Juliet elected to put the aforementioned words of the Chorus into the mouth of a TV newscaster. Entirely appropriate, given that TV news reports upon events that have already taken place, and can often seem like a litany of tragedies. Luhrmann’s approach underlines how we are still drawn to tragedy in modern society.

“In the 21st Century, the television, newspapers and internet all report tragedy after tragedy,” says Harvard scholar Marjorie Garber. “It has become the staple of our media diet. We hear of accidental tragedy, and purposeful tragedy. We hear bad news, we hear about people dying, people suffering, people losing things and so forth.”

Actor Damien Strouthos, who is playing Mercutio in Bell Shakespeare’s 2016 Romeo And Juliet, agrees: “All you have to do is look on the internet at what the top stories are, and they’re always tragic ones”.

Through modern media our exposure to real-life tragedy is, in some ways, just as great as it was as in Shakespeare’s day, when bear baiting and public executions attracted huge crowds of onlookers. But if we see tragedy every day in the media, why do we want to watch it on stage too?

“It’s a very good question and a hard one to answer,” says Strouthos. “I think it’s cathartic for us to watch the characters suffer and figure it out. When we see someone else experience it and figure problems out, it makes us feel that it will all be okay for us, or that it will all work itself out.”

Garber says Shakespeare provides audiences with a safe zone in which to witness extreme circumstances: “Tragedy is something that happens for us so that it doesn’t have to happen to us. We can enjoy the tragic experience because it is happening to someone else who we identify with but nevertheless whose separation we are able to maintain. So we survive, but they may die.”

Peter Evans is directing Romeo And Juliet and Othello for Bell Shakespeare in 2016. He says tragedy allows us to explore the darker reaches of our imaginations, though we would never want to go there in real life: “We all have those fantasies about the worst case scenarios in our own lives. In tragedy we can experience this with a group of people in a controlled environment. Society needs pressure valves and places where we can experience these things without actually having to do them. In the making of art, where somebody expresses something for you – even about something horrific – it is ironically quite an uplifting experience.”

Othello and Romeo And Juliet teach some cruel lessons to their characters. All too late, Othello learns the error (and agonising cost) of his ways, just as the Capulet and Montague parents do. Watching the plays can be enlightening for audiences too, according to Anjna Chouhan from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust: “In 1595, the poet Sir Philip Sidney argued that tragedy ‘openeth the greatest wounds, and showeth forth the ulcers that are covered with tissue.’ So tragedy, Sidney argued, should be revealing. It should strip away all the decadence and superficiality, [and] plumb down to the depths of what makes us truly human.

“Sidney also said that tragedy ‘teacheth the uncertainty of this world, and upon how weak foundations gilded roofs are builded’. In other words, tragedy is not simply a lesson for the characters. It’s actually a cautionary and instructive tale for the audiences, as well.”

For example, Othello and Romeo And Juliet are rife with the same bigotry and prejudice that we still witness in many places across the world today. In the gut-wrenching finales of both plays, the consequences of these attitudes are laid bare for us to consider within the context of our own societies.

So Shakespeare forces us to confront our own values and search within ourselves for the answers. Is Romeo’s slaying of Tybalt justified, given that he is avenging the death of his friend Mercutio? Does Iago deserve to die for his crimes? And the real kicker: How should we feel about Othello – a man who is the innocent victim of manipulation and racism, but also the perpetrator of horrific domestic violence?

Shakespeare makes these dilemmas all the more difficult because we grow to love his characters. As 20th Century English scholar A.C. Bradley wrote: “Of all Shakespeare’s tragedies Othello is the most painfully exciting and the most terrible. From the moment when the temptation of the hero begins, the reader’s heart and mind are held in a vice, experiencing the extremes of pity and fear, sympathy and repulsion, sickening hope and dreadful expectation.”

Anjna Chouhan points out that Othello has to suffer for the audience to feel any kind of sympathy or disgust for his plight. “Something important has to be at stake in order for the loss of it to seem truly horrific,” she says. “[Othello] follows the linear trajectory of a tragic hero who starts out in an exalted position as General of the Venetian army. He endures suffering, largely of the psychological kind, destroys the thing that he loves most, and ends the play by dying. If we didn’t care about Othello in some way, his downfall wouldn’t seem remotely tragic.”

So our emotional investment in the heroes ties us to them, and means that we suffer with them. We are their silent witness.

Peter Evans says Shakespeare is skilled at putting the audience “on the same side” as his characters: “In Romeo And Juliet, for example, we have the voyeuristic experience of the soliloquies. We feel we are a part of what’s happening. In the balcony scene, Romeo invites us to look at Juliet and be part of his fantasy for her, and then she invites us into her thoughts about him. We’re with him and we’re with her. At that point, she doesn’t know that he’s present but we do. Then, when she does realise he is there, we experience a shared joy that she is catching up and we’re now all together. It’s an astonishing series of progressions to make us feel part of their love.”

The passion we feel for the characters is what makes us hope against hope that, somehow, our heroes can escape their own destruction. Shakespeare teases us throughout Romeo And Juliet with ‘if only’ moments, where opportunities for a happy ending are dangled in front of us – and then snatched away: The Friar sends a letter to Romeo, explaining that Juliet’s apparent death has, in fact, been faked – but the letter never reaches the young hero. A grief-stricken Romeo dashes back to Verona, finds Juliet lying apparently dead, poisons himself and dies – just moments before his young wife awakens. For the audience, it makes for compulsive viewing.

Our support of Romeo and Juliet feels well placed, given that they are largely the victims of the piece. But in Othello, Shakespeare plays a devious little trick, making us relish the villain’s antics too. “Othello is much more troubling because of that,” says Peter Evans. “Iago has enormous charm and the audience actually wills him along. That’s part of the skill of Shakespeare. The audience wants Iago to keep poking the other characters. He keeps getting away with it and I think the audience delights in that.”

So at what point do we then decide, as an audience, that Iago has gone too far? “I think it’s the death of Rodrigo,” says Evans. “Iago pretends to look after Rodrigo but instead kills him. My instinct is that the audience thinks, ‘We’ve loved watching you mess with that naïve guy’ but the moment Rodrigo is stabbed and realises he’s been had, I think the audience then feels enough is enough. At that point, the story is unraveling on Iago. Then the play slows right down and Shakespeare takes us through this tortuous horror show that leads to the death of Desdemona. The more I work on the play, the more painful I think it is – and yet it’s undeniably popular.”

Another reason Shakespearean tragedy resonates is because in all of Shakespeare’s tear-jerkers human beings are the agents of their own downfall. The idea that we are “in the hands of the Gods” might apply in Greek tragedy, but in Shakespeare it is the impulsiveness of Romeo, Tybalt and Mercutio that hastens the characters towards their deaths. And it’s the despicable antics of Iago, coupled with Othello’s flaws, that scupper any chance of a happy ending for them.

The tragedy comes from a mismatch of individuals with their situation, argues Sir Jonathan Bate. In his essay ‘What is tragedy?’ he writes: “Imagine Hamlet in Othello’s situation and Macbeth in Hamlet’s. Would Hamlet be duped by Iago’s story about the handkerchief? Of course not. He would endlessly speculate on every possibility and devise a scheme to test the evidence –perhaps he’d put on a play about adultery and watch for Desdemona’s reaction. He’d soon discover that Iago is not to be trusted, and there would be no tragedy. Now imagine Macbeth commissioned with Hamlet’s task. Would he hesitate and agonise? No, he’d go straight to Claudius and unseam him from the nave to the chops before you could say Danish bacon. Again, there would be no tragedy.”

Of course, there is also that curious quirk: the metatheatre of it all. As Garber points out: “When we sit in the audience we know the play will, in fact, be performed again the next night. So in a sense, the characters do live to see another day. Shakespeare is conscious of that. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream when Bottom plays Pyramus, we see him say, “Thus die I, thus, thus, thus” and then he bounces up again and he asks if we’d like an epilogue. [In theatre] the lover who dies can leap up again. Tragedy has that reparative effect upon audiences.”

So despite all the corruption, broken hearts and death that we see on the stage, we experience a shared relief at the end. As Peter Evans points out: “When the applause begins, and the actors stand facing the audience, it’s a cathartic moment for everybody. We love watching the actors in all their weeping, sweaty, snotty glory. It’s a visceral experience and part of the contract that the audience and the actors have with one another. In that moment, everyone in the room is saying ‘Let’s be together’.”

The 2016 Bell Shakespeare production of Romeo And Juliet is being staged at the Arts Centre Melbourne until 1 May. Details at

The 2016 Bell Shakespeare production of Othello will be performed in Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney – and tour nationally – between July and December 2016. Details at

Professor Marjorie Garber is the author of several books and essays about Shakespeare. Read more about her work at

Andy McLean is a journalist, copywriter and magazine publisher.