Absolutism as a characteristic trait in protagonist was not an unknown concept in English grammar before Shakespeare used it very effectively for character-portrayal. It was none other than Marlowe who made it an important plank for his hero – study in Edward II (written in late 1591 or early 1592).
Steeped in Renaissance culture, Shakespeare saw the vast potentialities of this concept, broadened the scope of its application and projected it as a major component of character-concept in tragedy. We shall make here a study of three great tragic heroes of Shakespeare-Othello, King Lear and Macbeth-to measure the extent of their absolutism and relate it to their tragedy.
Shakespeare’s treats the theme of division of kingdom in King Lear because the ‘horror of a divided kingdom was very great in Elizabethan England and the centring of a tragic hero’s weakness in such a division of England was a common device in Elizabethan drama
Marlowe does not make Edward II a Machiavellian superman like Tamburlaine capable of exercising authority over the body-politic, but Shakespeare’s heroes-Othello, Lear and Macbeth-evince a tendency to acquire, retain or expand power which is Machiavellian in character. In other words, the essence of absolutism in these heroes is a desire for unassailable control and tragedy occurs because there is a yawning hiatus between their desire and reality.
In Macbeth there is a reverse movement: from his failure to exercise control over his own body to his success in acquiring power, gaining control and retaining his hold upon the body-politic (the Scottish kingdom), albeit through bloody and foul means. His speech fails him in the direst moment of his need (after the murder of Duncan), as he ruefully admits to Lady Macbeth:
But wherefore could not I pronounce ‘Amen’?
I had most need of blessing, and ‘Amen’
Stuck in my throat.
Othello begins on a contrary note, with the Moor anxiously striving to establish a substantialist fixity in respect of his militarist credentials. Though there is no question of the abandonment of his primal values in respect of his services to the Venetian State (he goes on the Cyprus campaign even when his marriage is not consummated), there is definitely a clear shift in his loyalties. The valiant soldier who does not mince matters in his early assessment of love as ‘light-wing’d toys/ Of feather’d Cupid’ feels after a spell of separation from his wife during his Cyprus campaign that Desdemona is his ‘soul’s joy’ whereupon he exclaims in the most eloquent superlatives of passion:
If it were now to die,
‘Twere now to be most happy; for I fear
My soul hath her content so absolute
That not another comfort like to this
Succeeds in unknown fate.
Ingratitude, vile and unpardonable, has shaken his being to its very roots, and he cannot reconcile himself to the flagrant treachery of his daughters. But had he brought down his absolutist demands a peg or two, his life might have run a different course. Instead, when standing against the stormy fury of nature on a hearth, he makes a frank self-assessment.
The other scorpion-Macduff-remaining out of his reach, his wife and children are butchered by default. It is a sad slide for a failed absolutist into the abject status of a butcher who has brought untold tyranny and death to visit upon Scotland, as Ross reports to Macduff and Malcolm:
Alas, poor country,
Almost afraid to know itself! It cannot
Be call’d our mother, but our grave; where nothing,
But who knows nothing, is once seen to smile;
Where sighs, groans, and shrieks, that rent the air,
Are made, not mark’d; where violent sorrow seems
A modern ecstasy; the dead man’s knell
Is there scare ask’d for who; and good men’s lives
Expire before the flowers in their caps,
Dying or ere they sicken.
Such an anti-life state of the body-politic spawns effective resistance groups which are what Malcolm, Macduff et al form to set things right and uproot the tyrannical usurper. The ruinous end of the usurper is the end-product of his erroneous concept of absolutism, as he gives the idea of the retention of power a warped shape.
But before the end comes (and what an end with the bravura image of Macbeth kept intact despite desertions from his army ranks and despite a sickening ennui gradually enveloping his psyche after all the murder and killing and tyranny!), Macbeth is limned into greatness ruminating upon the futility of his exercise at forced ascendancy:
My way of life
Is fall’n into the sear, the yellow leaf;
And that which should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have; but, in their stead,
Curses not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath,
Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not.
In fact, remorse is the sine qua non of these great tragic protagonists; be it Othello’s unreasoned suspicion, Lear’s arrogance or Macbeth’s unmitigated butchery, each working in tandem with the protagonist’s absolutist tendencies, it is remorse that makes each what he is-a great tragic hero, not a remorseless villain like Iago.