By Michael LoMonico
I recently interviewed Russ McDonald, professor of English at Goldsmiths College, University of London. Russ was a resident scholar at the Folger’s Teaching Shakespeare Institute from 1985-1986, and served as the head scholar from 1988-1994. He is the author of The Bedford Companion to Shakespeare: An Introduction with Documents and the recent Bedford Shakespeare.
Below is an excerpt from our conversation.
ML: At the Teaching Shakespeare Institute in 1988, you lectured about the tragic flaw, and wrote an essay about it called “The Flaw in the Flaw” which appears in the first volume of Shakespeare Set Free. I suspect that many teachers aren’t teaching the tragic flaw when they teach Shakespeare but some still are. Can you explain why they shouldn’t?
RUSS: I have to attribute a lot of this to an article by Phyllis Rose. She wrote an article in the New York Times in the 1980s that I responded to immediately on this very problem, which is that the idea of a flaw that brings down the heroic/tragic character is just too easy a way of addressing a really complicated representation of human experience. That is, if you simply say, ” Hamlet delays. Hamlet cannot make up his mind.” I mean, the beginning of the Olivier film says, “This is the story of a man who could not make up his mind.” Well, no, it’s not.
ML: Please explain.
RUSS: Throughout the middle of the 20th century, that seems to be a common way of addressing the tragic experience for teachers and the problem with it is that it reduces to a kind of formula something that is much more complicated and much more interesting. I don’t think we’d still be watching these plays or reading them with the fervor that we still do if it were as simple as that formula of the tragic flaw seems to make it. Hamlet, for example, that it’s just a problem of procrastination. Hamlet can’t make up his mind. He delays. And the same with Othello. You know, Othello’s just jealous. If he weren’t so jealous, everything would be fine.
The problem is first, it simplifies matters too much. And second, it implies a kind of moral or ethical superiority on the part of the reader or the audience. That is, “I’m okay, Hamlet’s not. If I had been there to tell him to get with the program, then he wouldn’t have had that problem at all.” And so what it means is that it allows us to feel superior to the character when, in fact, of course, what is important is that we be involved with the experience of the character.
I tend to think of the tragic figure or I try to get my students to think of the tragic figure as a kind of naïve idealist. That’s one way of thinking about most of the tragic figures. King Lear, for example, is naïve in that he’s 80 years old, but he’s an innocent in a way. He thinks that words and meanings match each other, so when his daughter says, “I love you more than eyesight, more than words can wield the matter,” he thinks she means it. And his belief that people do mean what they say is an admirable and beautiful principle. But it’s flawed. I mean, I hate to use the word “flaw,” but it’s a problem.
ML: How is it a problem?
RUSS: It’s a good problem. The world would be better if things were that way. But that’s Lear’s particular problem. The same thing with Hamlet. Hamlet wants to know the truth and he wants to act ethically, rightly, on that truth. And the world keeps putting baffles in front of him. That’s exactly the problem. The world will not allow the tragic character to proceed as he or she wishes to do. Antigone is really the great example of this. Antigone works so well in thinking about this, because she’s not flawed. She wants to give a burial to her brothers.
ML: Right; so Macbeth is just ambitious.
RUSS: That man’s ambitious. Exactly.
Michael LoMonico taught English for 33 years. He is currently the National Education Consultant for Folger Education and the author or That Shakespeare Kid.