Negative capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason – Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge.John Keats
Now to me the total works of Shakespeare are like a very, very complete set of codes and these codes, cipher for cipher, set off in us, stir in us, vibrations and impulses which we immediately try to make coherent and understandable.Peter Brook
Discussing tragedy is tricky business. One is immediately tempted to outline a definition of tragedy, or, at the very least, to account for certain criteria that allow it to function. What this project proposes instead are reading strategies that will allow a ‘tragic effect’ to resonate. In particular, this project makes a case for reading ‘in the present’, what Stanley Cavell calls inhabiting ‘an experience of continuous presentness’. The most expedient way to do this will be to consider alternative possibilities to the accepted linear (narrative) developments of the plays at hand: assuming Macbeth had done x instead of y, for example, or that we, as readers, know x and not y. Yet this not in order to get away from the narrative unfolding of a play but, on the contrary, to become more intimate with it. These readings will be defined, somewhat loosely, as ‘counterfactual’ readings. Furthermore, the tragic effect will be linked to ‘discovery’– what Northrop Frye, and before him Aristotle, calls ‘anagnorisis’ – emphasising in particular a sense of ‘wonder’. This project argues that (1) the sorts of discoveries to be made are those that reveal or sustain a sense of wonder, the ‘uncertainties, mysteries, doubts’ that Keats associates with ‘negative capability’, and (2) this sense of wonder is key to the functioning of tragedy. Therefore, what is to be discovered cannot be prescribed because if we articulate beforehand just what it is we are looking for, we have removed ourselves from the realm of negative capability and, just because of that, the tragic effect is lost. One could make the case that these plays, in order to be tragic, must initiate a discovery procedure.