Shakespeare and the Nature of Tragedy


“Villainy is never at a stop…Crimes lead to crimes, and at last terminate in ruin…. The wicked prosper, (and) the virtuous miscarry.” Thus  Samuel Johnson  described the tragedy of Shakespeare’s “King Lear”. Tragedy refuses to fulfill the wishfully constructed happy endings we demand of a theatrical or literary work. Instead, suffering piles on suffering, indignity on indignity, and the audience, like the protagonist, is forced to endure what seems unendurable. “Man’s nature cannot carry th’affliction, nor the fear,” Lear’s friend laments.

To what extent might the conditions of tragedy characterize not merely specific writings, but also lives actually lived?

Consciously or not, everyone struggles with unresolvable conflicts fundamental to human life. For example, we can never abolish the inherent potential for discord and instability in our familial, social and political relations. Morality and law are unavoidably ambiguous. Rival conceptions of what is the good vie for ascendancy. Rational argument cannot solve disputes when both sides claim to be right with equal vehemence. Self-interest, emotion, and rationalization overwhelm objective impartiality. Even Hitler professed to seek Justice. Reason finds itself impotent against violence.  

Thus does the external world impinge upon us, often seeming random and imperious. Our perspicacity and comprehension fatally limited, we can neither predict nor control merciless events that may overpower our designs. 

Our inner selves likewise are never fully integrated and harmonious, but inescapably conflicted and compromised. Caught between conscience and passion, self-knowledge inevitably is clouded, distorted and incomplete. Both compelled and limited by necessity, we nevertheless insist on our freedom. We wish to see ourselves as autonomous agents, but cannot escape the fact of our dependency. We must choose present actions to secure our future, but traumas and identifications reach from the past again to implicate and bewilder us. Blind to our origins, both historically and psychologically, we collude unknowingly with fate. Our very attempt at freedom brings our destiny down upon us.

With reference to Shakespeare’s masterpieces, “King Lear”, “Julius Caesar”, and  “Romeo and Juliet”,  our speakers will explore what the Bard has to teach about intrinsic tragic dilemmas.

In dividing his kingdom, King Lear not only relinquishes his throne and power, but sets in motion a storm of calamity he could have foreseen, but did not. Beset by familial and political disintegration,  he loses his daughters, his home, his sanity, and even his very self.  To some extent he is purified by suffering and gains new vision to see human relations and his own nature more clearly, but in the end remains desperate and confused.

The power of the group to create absolute and extreme views is a timeless dimension of human experience.  In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare depicts the pressures towards group-think, as characters abandon their own minds and conform to the reactive philosophy of the mass.  This leads to Caesar being scapegoated and assassinated, as well as to the populace being swayed to and fro by words of political figures, resulting in collective violence.  Shakespeare juxtaposes the mindlessness of the crowd with the wisdom of the unconscious trying to find its way into the narrative through dreams and prophecies.

Romeo and Juliet  shows how Shakespeare manages to create the illusion of a complex consciousness in dramatic form. Shakespeare developed the character of Juliet as a ‘case study’ and sketch for Hamlet, creating a textual representation of inwardness–a characteristic that we associate with Shakespeare and with those that he inspired, e.g. Freud, and novelists of the 19th century. We may think of consciousness as layered and complex–rather than as flat and subject to the vagaries of external influences, such as advertising, the media, and political propaganda. What psychoanalysis and literature offer are ways of thinking about individual (and collective) subjectivities in complex ways, an art that we seem to be losing in our world/culture today.

Ben Johnson called Shakespeare “the soul of the age.” How did Shakespeare reflect that soul? What were the anxieties of a Renaissance audience? France presented a mirror of the dangers threatening England. An historical examination of Shakespeare’s plays allows us to see how he brilliantly mirrors historical (literal), allegorical (symbolic), and anagogic (spiritual/psychological) dimensions, creating a dizzying complexity of meaning. The French mirror enriches our understanding of how Shakespeare created his masterpieces and how his works were, indeed, not insular English works, but reflections of the Renaissance world, which is why they represent not only “the soul of the age” but  the soul of the ages.

Coordinator: Samuel T. Goldberg, MD


Samuel T. Goldberg, MD, has lectured on the tragedies of Shakespeare at the Folger Shakespeare Theater in Washington, DC, at St John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, the Baltimore Museum of Art, and elsewhere. His publications include Using the Transference in Psychotherapy, (coauthored with William Goldstein, MD; Jason Aronson, Publisher, 2004), and articles on Macbeth and Hamlet in The American Psychoanalyst. A Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, he is  a Training Analyst at the Washington Baltimore Center for Psychoanalysis, and is a Member of the Center for Advanced Psychoanalytic Studies in Aspen, Colorado and Princeton, NJ.

Christopher W. T. Miller, M.D., obtained his medical degree from the Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina, in Florianópolis, Brazil.  He later completed psychiatry residency at the University of Maryland/Sheppard Pratt program and works at the University of Maryland School of Medicine as an Assistant Professor.  He is a graduate psychoanalyst from the Washington Baltimore Center for Psychoanalysis.  He has written and lectured on psychoanalytic explorations of Shakespearean works, having been awarded by the American Psychoanalytic Association the CORST Essay Prize on Psychoanalysis and Culture for his paper discussing The Rape of Lucrece.

Madelon Sprengnether is a poet, memoirist, and literary scholar. She is Regents Professor Emerita of the University of Minnesota.  She has published extensively on Shakespeare, Freud, feminism, and psychoanalysis. Her essay “’I wooed thee with my sword:’ Shakespeare’s Tragic Paradigms” has been widely anthologized. Her book publications include The (M)other Tongue: Essays in Feminist Psychoanalytic Interpretation (Cornell UP, 1985), Shakespearean Tragedy and Gender (Indiana UP, 1996), and The Spectral Mother: Freud, Feminism and Psychoanalysis (Cornell UP, 1990). Her most recent books are Great River Road: Memoir and Memory (New Rivers Press, 2015), and Mourning Freud (Bloomsbury Academic, 2018).

Elisabeth Waugaman, PhD (in medieval French literature) has taught at Duke and John’s Hopkins Universities and New Directions. She blogs for Psychology TodayNameberryThe Freelance History Writer, Medieval  and Renaissance Studies, and Atlas Obscura. Her articles appear in The American Psychoanalyst, Psychoanalytic Inquiry , the 34th Annual Medieval and Renaissance Forum, and The Oxfordian.  Her two books are Women,Their Names, and the Stories They Tell and Follow Your Dreams, the Story of Alberto Santos Dumont, awarded the Alberto Santos-Dumont medal. Speaking engagements include the Cosmos Club, Le Club d’Amitié Franco-Internationale, and a podcast for Don’t Quill the Messenger.