We read Shakespeare line by line for his supernatural mastery of all the poetic resources of the English language, and play by play for his utterly human, utterly intimate feeling for our condition as individuals and as social beings. Through these works, which deal with the transcendence and the corruption of love, the exigencies of power, the domination of fate, and the algebra of human need, an entire civilization has come to understand its character and its destiny.
Shakespeare’s four greatest tragedies were written in a remarkably short period of time, between 1598 and 1606. Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, and King Lear are each so singular an achievement that any rereading of them reinforces the awe and almost idolatrous worship that this most uncanny of the world’s great writers invariably inspires. In these four plays, Shakespeare engages the problem that is central to tragedy and crucial to any human community—the problem of violence and revenge—on an unprecedented scale. No other literary texts have been more instrumental in deepening our knowledge of ourselves as individuals and as a civilization. This authoritative edition of the plays is supplemented with footnotes, bibliographies, a detailed chronology of Shakespeare’s life and times, and a substantial introduction in which Tony Tanner discusses each play individually while setting each in context.