Shakespeare's great tragedies portray through their richly imagined worlds the inescapable fact of human mortality. As the work of a great creative genius, they are so diverse that critical formulas used to describe their overall impact tend to be somewhat suspect. Their impact follows from a response to the entire dramatic action, what is felt at the end with the weight or experience of the whole play behind it. It draws on how our feelings and judgement are exercised and engaged throughout the drama. Shakespeare portrays what life can be like, without pandering to the wish for something easier to contemplate. Something more invigorating than consolation is provided, such art at its greatest achieving the strength of truth. What it compels is a complex acceptance, reflected in Edgar's words, "The weight of this sad time we must obey". Not only implicit positives give value to these plays. Their significance finally results from what they imaginatively invite their audience to experience and witness. This gives a sense not only of the value of life, but also of what can threaten it.
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John Hardy is a former Rhodes Scholar and Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford. He has held chairs of English at three Australian universities, including the Australian National University. He is Emeritus Professor of Bond University.