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Aspects of Good and Evil Hamlet Othello Macbeth and King Lcar are bright particular stars in the poetic firmament They have shown uncanny vitality in the theatre with productions abundant even in periods when whole clusters of Shakespeares comedies and histories were dropped from the repertory Although king Lear was acceptable only in adapted form for a century and a half after 1680 at least its semblance was constantly staged and its fellow masterpieces have been the least affected of all Renaissance literature by changing climates of sensibility Gabriel Harvey a pundit of Shakespeares own times remarked that Hamlet has something in it to please the wiser sort The wiser sort have been occupied with it ever since It was Hamlet which first induced Coleridge to exercise his turn for philosophical criticism and it was this play along with Othello Macbeth and King Lear which provided the substance of Bradleys famous lectures on Shakespeare early in the present century These four plays account for more than half of the vast body of Shakespearean criticism in existence The flow of commentary has by no means abated indeed now more than ever before definition of Shakespearean tragedy is the literary critics bow of Achilles Whether great tragedy or great art in general is susceptible to definition is a moot point but the attempts have often been illuminating as well as valiant They will not be rivaled here however a brief note on Elizabethan conceptions of tragedy may be helpful to the reader Most discussions begin or end with quotations from Aristotles Poetics but the Aristotelian definition of tragedy had little currency in Elizabethan England and no influence whatever upon the popular playwrights Aristotle had analyzed Greek tragedy with the acumen of an intellectual genius and although he did not succeed in defining it he perhaps came as close as a logician could Since Shakespearean and Greek tragedy have some although by no means all features in
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