The Destruction of Heroism in Shakespearean Tragedy:
Suicide in Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra
After the death of the hero, Shakespearean tragedy presents no possibility of an expansive or hopeful future. The future will be a diminished thing; the best was. In contrast, Greek tragic heroes can live on, redeemed, as Orestes is; or they can die blessed, as Oedipus does, with the location of his grave ensuring the future safety of Athens. But in Shakespearean tragedy, the foreclosure of the future is unrelenting. In aesthetic terms, the major formal fact of the genre is the finality of the individual’s death. By enclosing the hero’s death and mourning it, Shakespeare grants it dignity and significance: it is where the center of meaning lies. At the same time, I argue, the whole body of Shakespeare’s tragedies represents the heroic ideal as increasingly unworkable. Shakespearean tragedy destroys the possibility of heroism itself.
My talk will focus on the ways in which the heroic action of suicide in two of Shakespeare’s Roman plays intervenes counterintuitively in the process of tragic meaning-making. In an analysis distinguishing classical from early modern views of suicide, I will suggest that when protagonists in Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra commit suicide, they are seeking to reconstitute tragic mourning as a kind of victory. In Julius Caesar, the suicidal effort to defy loss fails; while in Antony and Cleopatra the heroic effort to refigure loss as profit through the act of suicide partially succeeds.
lower lever SH Stevenson Hall
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