Wordy Wednesday – “Foregone conclusion”

Othello: O monstrous! Monstrous!
Iago: Nay, this was but his dream.
Othello: But this denoted a foregone conclusion:
‘Tis a shrewd doubt, though it be but a dream.
Othello, III.iii.2109-12

A foregone conclusion is an ending that you can already see coming, but not do anything about. Shakespeare’s tragedies, his plays of death and disaster like MacbethKing LearHamlet and Othello, all show that even if you can predict the future, that doesn’t mean you can change it – the conclusion can be ‘foregone’, gone ahead to wait for you to catch up to it.

In the tragedies, this occurs for three reasons. One is practical – the plays are written to end badly. It is being advertised as a tragedy, after all, and people would complain if Hamlet threw Claudius down a well after ten minutes, married Ophelia, and lived happily ever after.

Even if this wasn’t true, however, people in Elizabethan times were huge believers in Fate, or Destiny, or Fortune – the idea that one’s future was set in stone. Devout Christians, they never doubted that God controlled every aspect of their lives if He wanted to. Personified by godlike beings like the Fates, or Moirae, three sisters – interesting to think of Macbeth, hmm? – who spun, wove and cut the threads of Destiny for all people, Fate knew everything you’d ever do – or not do –  from the minute you were born.

Fate was inescapable. If you tried to change your fate, you did exactly what you had to to make sure it happened. Macbeth tries to safeguard himself by killing Macduff, and only makes an enemy of the one man who can kill him, being “from his mother’s womb / Untimely ripped.” Juliet trying to fake her own death causes Romeo to despair and causes their real suicides.

But tragedies – as defined by the ever-brainy Aristotle in ancient Greece – are plays where every event logically leads by small steps to a terrible conclusion. They’re so brilliant, especially in Shakespeare, because EVEN IF the ending didn’t have to be sad to call it a tragedy and EVEN IF Destiny wasn’t at work, the plays would still end up where they are anyway. King Lear is too proud and foolish not to banish Cordelia and leave himself at her sisters’ mercy; Hamlet is too indecisive to kill Claudius in time; Macbeth is too hungry for power to think of what he’s doing.

All of them are led by their personality’s worst, fatal flaw straight into doing what they shouldn’t. Tragically, this is also their best feature – Hamlet’s indecisiveness is linked to his mercy and wisdom and compassion; Macbeth’s ambition draws on his confidence and courage and love for his wife; and Lear’s pride is part of his dignity, his majesty, his charisma.

The cruelest aspect of a foregone conclusion in Shakespeare is that we can’t change it, because taking away the flaws that ruin these characters would be taking away the things we love about them. In a word, “as flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods” – in the world of tragedy, life dangles by a thread of fate that inevitably, sorrowfully, snaps.

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