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Shakespearean Tragedy and the Nostalgic Vision

ISSUE:  Spring 1981

In Macbeth, declares Maynard Mack, Jr. , in his perceptive study Killing the King, Shakespeare presents a vision of “an older, idealized order of kingship embodied by Duncan that is attacked and destroyed by the villian-hero.” Shakespeare had used such a vision in Richard II through John of Gaunt’s lyric hymn that recalls the past days of England’s greatness; now—”I die pronouncing it,” he says— “That England that was wont to conquer others/Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.” And the theme is at the basis of Hamlet: a great king continues to be mourned by his son who properly sees him as Hyperion to a satyr. In Richard II, Hamlet, and Macbeth, Mr. Mack notes, “the “nostalgic” world is deprived of whatever actual existence it may have had, but the dream of order on which it is based refuses to die . . . . We may in some ways welcome the shift from the old epic world with its hierarchies and inflexibilities to a new, dramatic world of mask and manipulation. But the shift is painful, wasteful, and irreversible for those involved.” Indeed, one may add, it is part of the dramatic progression and the sense of tragic loss.

Although it is present in all of Shakespeare’s tragedies, in the four great tragedies—Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth—the nostalgic vision not only initially underlies the play, but I suggest that we are reminded of it in at least one crucial juncture within the play. That moment is not simply a point from which we have moved in the progress of the play, but a place where we are returned, where we are made to realize what has been lost, what can never be recovered, and what is in distinct contrast to what will follow. In other words, despite their rushing forward, the plays pause, either through a symbol or a scene, to remind us whence we have come: and that sweet sense of loss and of grief, as we know from Hamlet, evokes a nostalgia, even a melancholia.

Nostalgia comes from two Greek words, “return home” and “grief;” basically it has to do with the desire to return home, and thus (as the magisterial Oxford English Dictionary tells us) it sometimes amounts to a form of melancholia, even what Thomas Arnold (1806) describes as “a pathetic insanity.” “What a dreadful disease Nostalgia must be on the banks of the Missouri,” Sydney Smith wrote consolingly in 1867. Only in more recent times has the word taken on a more generalized and less clinical meaning, which I use here, of a wistful yearning to return to some condition or setting in the past. But however much we wish to return, we cannot. The very loss of that precious time heightens the tension of the tragic manipulation, intrigue, and catastrophe of which Shakespearean tragedies are made.

In the first of Shakespeare’s mature tragedies, Hamlet, this sense of loss is emphatic. The present court of Claudius is at a total polarity from that of the elder Hamlet. At the center of the court now are an adulterate king and queen, linked in incest; familial honor, decency itself, has been degraded. The court’s chief adviser, Polonius, is perhaps as ambiguous a figure in the court as he is to modern directors and audiences— is he in control of the instruments of power, a statesman who has won his place by his service to the state? Or is he verging on senility—if not declined into it—given to platitudes and commenting on the obvious, even deeply suspicious of his children, and furnishing Claudius a veneer of respectability and being used by him just for that? Is he trusted or merely tolerated? Whatever he is, his presence must recall a court governed by a man of chivalry, of grace, of justice, all now vanished: a king who could sleep comfortably and trustingly in his garden has now been replaced by a player king and a sycophantic court.

And outside the court, the people are unhappy with this new king and even ready to support a possible successor in Laertes. Vague foreign enemies threaten; although Fortinbras has been restrained, the armament factories are busy, the shipwrights forced into service, Sunday not divided from the week, and the night made joint-laborer with the day. The court of Claudius has taken the order of the old court and made of it chaos. That royal garden where a king could sleep has become the unweeded garden of the present; Eden has been changed, as falsely reported and yet symbolically accurate, by a serpent’s sting.

The two courts are reflected clearly in the “counterfeit presentment” of the two brothers that Hamlet shows to Gertrude in her bedchamber. One miniature portrait, worn by Gertrude, is of Claudius; the other, worn by Hamlet, is of his father. Grace is seated on his father’s brow, and his face is described in classical hyperbole:

Hyperion’s curls, the front of Jove himself,
An eye like Mars, to threaten and command,
A station like the herald Mercury
New lighted on a heaven-kissing hill. . . .

(III. iv. 57—60)

The contrast between this, an image of the past, and the image of the present, the new husband, “like a mildewed ear/ Blasting his wholesome brother,” is made plain.

The continual interplay between the past and its virtues and the present must be brought to more specific dramatic expression, and that moment should come just before the beginning of the catastrophe. Such a reminder of the past will show its inaccessibility, but at the same time heighten the sense of catastrophe. Thus Shakespeare gives us the exhibition of Yorick’s skull. The scene does more than give Hamlet an opportunity to philosophize upon the transience of human life; the play itself has emphasized the point enough. For it is not a play about dying but about being dead. Yorick’s skull is certainly enough symbol for that. But it is more, for it becomes a symbol as well of the irretrievable past. The description of Yorick as “a whoreson mad fellow,” a player of practical jokes, a companion of the child-prince at court, takes us back to the past:

Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft.
Where be your jibes now? Your gambols, your songs, your
flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar?

(V. i. 189—193)

Many lines converge here as Hamlet recognizes the skull of his friend, but one of the most important is the nostalgic vision of the past, brief as it is. And that vision is made even more poignant by what follows—the burial of Ophelia, the plottings of Claudius and Laertes, the fatal duel, and the deaths of king, queen, prince, and courtier. But before he gives us the tragic conclusion, Shakespeare recalls once again the grace and stability of a court now lost. Only thirty-five lines before the duel scene (“They prepare to play”), Hamlet’s echoing of the old court’s chivalric ways sets off the new court and its manipulations:

Give me your pardon, sir. I have done you wrong . . . .
What I have done
That might your nature, honor, and exception
Roughly awake, I here proclaim was madness . . . .
His madness is poor Hamlet’s enemy
Sir, in this audience,
Let my disclaiming from a purposed evil
Free me so far in your most generous thoughts
That I have shot my arrow o’er the house
And hurt my brother.

(V. ii. 227—245)

In the new court, there are no graciously accepted apologies, only deceptions; the old court is reinstated for this brief moment where man faces his opponent with truthful confession; for perhaps a moment Laertes may be recalled to the other court, even though he stands aloof:

I do receive your offered love like love,
And will not wrong it.

(V. ii. 252—253)

And yet he does. The old court, even what might be thought to be renewable, is done.


In Othello Shakespeare uses the same device, a stage prop, not a skull this time, at a crucial moment of the plot to recall times past, happier by far than the present or the future. Just after the great seduction scene when lago insinuates Desdemona’s guilt so plausibly, he convinces Othello by reporting that he has seen Cassio wipe his beard with her handkerchief “spotted with strawberries”; this is the “ocular proof” that Othello has demanded and now gullibly accepts. But, as Shakespeare tells us, it is a unique handkerchief, not simply one with decorative and symbolic embroidery:

That handkerchief
Did an Egyptian to my mother give.
She was a charmer, and could almost read
The thoughts of people. She told her, while she kept it,
‘Twould make her amiable and subdue my father
Entirely to her love; but if she lost it
Or made a gift of it, my father’s eye
Should hold her loathed, and his spirits should hunt
After new fancies. She, dying, gave it me,
And bid me, when my fate would have me wive,
To give it her. I did so; and take heed on’t;
Make it a darling like your precious eye.
To lose’t or give’t away were such perdition
As nothing else could match.

(III. iv. 55—68)

That Desdemona cannot produce it now— she dropped it when trying to cure Othello’s headache and Emilia, her maid, took it for her husband who had often bid her steal it—surely sets the catastrophe in motion. But as importantly the handkerchief, a word used 31 times in the play, looks back not only to the romanticized, exotic past, but anticipates the future “perdition.” Just before Othello falls into a trance in the very next scene (IV.i.45), his last two words are “Handkerchief?— O devill,” linking the two disparate worlds.

Othello’s nostalgia is not like Hamlet’s, although they share at their center an idealized figure—Hamlet’s father and Othello’s wife. Hamlet’s nostalgia, however, is political as well as familial; Othello, on the other hand, strives to transfer the happy marriage of his mother to his own, despite his presence among a foreign people and their alien ways. When he believes his attempt has failed, he says farewell to a tranquil mind, content, as well as “Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war,” the elements of his life now destroyed.

The idealized marriage is recalled in the opening of the last scene of the play where again the nostalgic vision of the past is summoned.

When I have plucked the rose,
I cannot give it vital growth again;
It needs must wither. I’ll smell thee on the tree.
                       [He kisses her.]
O balmy breath, that dost almost persuade
Justice to break her sword. One more, one more!
Be thus when thou art dead, and I will kill thee,
And love thee after. One more, and that’s the last!
So sweet was ne’er so fatal. I must weep,
But they are cruel tears. This sorrow’s heavenly;
It strikes where it doth love. She wakes.

(V. ii. 13—22)

But the possibility of what the past might have become or the future might redeem is lost in the murder that follows. But again, before Shakespeare leads us to the catastrophe, he reminds us of happier times. Even here, as he moves to Desdemona’s death, Othello cannot completely forget his idealization of her.


In King Lear, as always the most complex of the tragedies to deal with, we have more difficulty because of the nature of the beginning. We do not have the Ghost in Hamlet or Othello’s long account to the Senate about his adventures to give us a sense of what precedes the opening of the drama. Lear, of course, tells us that he had “thought to set [his] rest upon [Cordelia’s] kind nursery”; his devoted companion Kent recognizes Lear’s great kingship and, despite his Lear-imposed exile, follows the king from castle and daughters’ palaces; his daughters, hardly kind witnesses, tell us that he had “yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself.” But the opening, as has been suggested, is almost like that of a fairy story—”Once upon a time”—or of a parable—”There was a man who had two sons; and the younger of them said to his father. . . .” What precedes the opening seems not to matter in the telling. Lacking any opportunity to hark back to times before the abrupt opening, Shakespeare gives us a scene, the most idyllic of the play, one just before the catastrophe, to emphasize the sense of loss. It is almost as if Shakespeare is leading us to believe that innocence and love will withstand the evil that has pervaded the drama, but then he plunges us into an image of horror, not what this scene appears to promise.

In the last scene of the fourth act, Cordelia, now returned from France, has rescued the mad and wandering Lear, brought him to her tent, in his sleep replaced his filthy clothes and his crown of weeds, and ministered to him with music. When he wakes, he thinks Cordelia is a spirit, but finally recognizes her as his forgiving child:

      Pray, do not mock me:
I am a very foolish fond old man,
Fourscore and upward, not an hour more or less;
And, to deal plainly,
I fear I am not in my perfect mind.
Methinks I should know you and know this man,
Yet I am doubtful; for I am mainly ignorant
What place this is, and all the skill I have
Remembers not these garments, nor I know not
Where I did lodge last night. Do not laugh at me,
For, as I am a man, I think this lady
To be my child Cordelia.

(IV. vii. 59—69)

It is a vision of the world as it might have been; this is finally, and only too finally, Cordelia’s kind nursery: a child wronged by her father forgives him; the father recognizes her compassion and the injury he has done her. The scene is filled with royal yet household love and the aural symbol of it, the healing strains of music. There is no cause here that makes hard hearts; both their lives have become, in this fleeting instant, filled with miracle.

And what follows? A battle in which Lear and Cordelia are captured, imprisoned, and she is hanged. When we last see them, Lear with the dead Cordelia in his arms, we are on the verge of the apocalypse, not safe in Cordelia’s tent. The vision softly caught there of gentleness is rudely and unexpectedly reversed, but not before Shakespeare has had his opportunity to remind us of the nostalgic ideal.


In the fourth of these mature tragedies, Macbeth, we again see, as clearly as in Hamlet, the interplay between two worlds, those of the past and present. The world of Duncan, filled with fertility and love, is contrasted with the barren and loveless world of the Macbeths. In a scene that is sometimes maligned, sometimes misunderstood, Shakespeare reminds us—not long before the castrastrophe—of the difference in these worlds. To the English court where Malcolm has taken refuge comes Macduff to enlist his aid in the restoration of Scotland. In the midst of their conversation occurs a brief interlude, probably included as a compliment to James I, as a doctor describes how the English king, blessed by a heavenly sanctity, can cure by his royal touch even those thought incurable. Malcolm confirms this most miraculous work which he has seen the king often perform:

            How he solicits heaven,
Himself best knows: but strangely-visited people . . . ,
The mere despair of surgery, he cures,
Hanging a gold stamp about their necks,
Put on with holy prayers. . . .

(IV. iii. 149—153)

By this passage we are reminded of the court of Duncan, the archetypal king, the dispenser of titles and of jewels, He is even described in terms that anticipate this scene of healing, for Duncan is “the Lord’s anointed temple.” Macbeth cannot heal, nor can those around him; he would throw physic to the dogs, for medicine cannot cure the disease of his land. The royal touch of King Edward, the grace of Duncan, are contrasted with the witches’ dark powers that influence Macbeth.

Just after this scene of healing and restoration, we are returned to the cruel present. Macduff learns from Ross that his family has been slaughtered; for the last time we see the sleep-walking Lady Macbeth besieged by evil dreams, and Birnam Wood moves inexorably toward Dunsinane.

Even in Macbeth’s last soliloquy we have that return to the nostalgic past, here in terms of what was not realized that could have become real. “No voice in literature has sounded with greater sadness,” Alfred Harbage has said, than in that speech. At the same time, one must add, Macbeth sees his status plain, his misery complete:

I have lived long enough. My way of life
Is fall’n into the sear, the yellow leaf,
And that which should accompany old age,
As honor, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have; but, in their stead,
Curses not loud but deep, mouth-honor, breath,
Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not.

(V. iii. 22—28)

Man’s most cherished rewards—honor, love, loyalty, friends, the elements of Duncan’s world—will not be his; his rewards are symbolized by the withered leaf and made actual by the curses that lie beneath feigned words. He who at the first of the play was described as “noble,” “worthy Macbeth,” “Bellona’s bridegroom,” now has come to the ultimate, suicidal despair. But even then he has not forgotten the bases of the world which his has replaced. And the nostalgic vision of the past comes just before the final, desperate conflict where his world must come to defeat by the legacy of Duncan’s.

At the end of each of these tragedies, a restoration of order is promised. Fortinbras praises Hamlet even as he ushers in a new world; Cassio acknowledges Othello’s greatness of heart as he assumes the governorship of Cyprus; Edgar reluctantly accepts the rule of the realm from Albany; and Malcolm ascends the throne usurped by the dead butcher and his queen. But the new order is not the same as the one with which each of the plays began. Masks and manipulation may now cease, but we are not returned to an old order; that can neither be restored nor replaced. In our having been reminded of it just before the final and catastrophic act of the drama, we realize that the old order, even as some who participated in it, is now doomed.

In his reminding us of the happy scenes of the past, Shakespeare evokes a nostalgia that briefly consoles, even arousing an expectation for a happiness that despite ourselves we know cannot come. The nostalgic vision, that tension between past and present, heightens the effect of the catastrophe, making it more terrible and more poignant. Such a vision is basic to the tragic sense of Shakespeare’s mind and art.


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