The Tower and Shakespearean Tragedy

Fun fact: When I was sixteen years old, I won a literature scholarship for a creative writing portfolio on tragedy. The portfolio itself was utter garbage, and I cringe even at the thought of the pieces I wrote (I defy anyone to be a good writer at age sixteen), but nonetheless, I’m proud of my high school-age self. It was a pretty cool achievement for a sixteen-year-old, and it helped me pay for college.

To this day, tragedy remains an important part of my literary and artistic worldview, right up there with a sense of Wildean aestheticism that makes me tremendously unpopular in certain crowds.

One of the most important books I have ever read is Shakespearean Tragedy, by A. C. Bradley. Bradley has fallen out of favor in contemporary (sucky) Shakespeare criticism, but he was one of the most influential scholars at the turn of the 20th century. Today, I would like to discuss the first chapter of Shakespearean Tragedy, titled “The Substance of Shakespearean Tragedy“. This chapter (originally a lecture that Bradley gave) is the single most brilliant piece of Shakespeare scholarship I have ever read.

When I grow up, I want to be Lady Macbeth.

Bradley presents a unified theory of Shakespearean tragedy. What are the components of a tragedy? What makes Macbeth like King LearHamlet like OthelloJulius Caesar like Romeo and Juliet? What makes the events of these plays tragic, and not merely sad or disastrous? And perhaps more interestingly: What is the nature of the cosmic order in which Shakespeare’s tragedies take place? Is it morally good? Perverse? Indifferent and cruel? Are the characters responsible for their own actions, or are they the victims of fate and circumstance? And so on.

He argues that Shakespeare’s tragic universe is ultimately a morally good providential order, but a flawed one. Being imperfect, it gives rise to evil, which disrupts it; being good, it rebels against that evil. Bradley writes:

In Shakespearean tragedy the main source of the convulsion which produces suffering and death is never good: good contributes to this convulsion only from its tragic implication with its opposite in one and the same character. The main source, on the contrary, is in every case evil; and, what is more (though this seems to have been little noticed), it is in almost every case evil in the fullest sense, not mere imperfection but plain moral evil. The love of Romeo and Juliet conducts them to death only because of the senseless hatred of their houses. Guilty ambition, seconded by diabolic malice and issuing in murder, opens the action in Macbeth. Iago is the main source of the convulsion in Othello; Goneril, Regan and Edmund in King Lear. Even when this plain moral evil is not the obviously prime source within the play, it lies behind it: the situation with which Hamlet has to deal has been formed by adultery and murder. Julius Caesar is the only tragedy in which one is even tempted to find an exception to this rule. And the inference is obvious. If it is chiefly evil that violently disturbs the order of the world, this order cannot be friendly to evil or indifferent between evil and good, any more than a body which is convulsed by poison is friendly to it or indifferent to the distinction between poison and food.

I’m going to drop another massive Bradley quote here rather than summarizing, both because I love Bradley’s writing and because I feel like it would verge on plagiarism for me to do otherwise:

Let it be granted that the system or order which shows itself omnipotent against individuals is, in the sense explained, moral. Still—at any rate for the eye of sight—the evil against which it asserts itself, and the persons whom this evil inhabits, are not really something outside the order, so that they can attack it or fail to conform to it; they are within it and a part of it. It itself produces them,—produces Iago as well as Desdemona, Iago’s cruelty as well as Iago’s courage. It is not poisoned, it poisons itself. Doubtless it shows by its violent reaction that the poison is poison, and that its health lies in good. But one significant fact cannot remove another, and the spectacle we witness scarcely warrants the assertion that the order is responsible for the good in Desdemona, but Iago for the evil in Iago.

What we see in Shakespeare, according to Bradley, is a morally good universe that cannot tolerate evil but that, through imperfection, nonetheless gives rise to it. And then, faced with something of its own creation but antithetical to its nature, this moral universe experiences what Bradley calls the tragic “convulsion”. It purges the evil at all costs, and the cost in tragedy is always high. The feud between the Montagues and Capulets is ended, but only through the deaths of their children: “a scourge is laid upon [their] hate, / That heaven finds means to kill [their] joys with love”. Claudius is punished for his murder and usurpation, but everybody dies in the process.

Just friggin’ kill him already.


The great cost associated with the moral convulsion is what makes tragedy tragic; as Bradley notes, “There is no tragedy in its expulsion of evil: the tragedy is that this involves the waste of good”. I find this conception of the tragic truly beautiful. And (this being a Tarot blog and all), I think it connects in nicely to the Tower card of the Major Arcana.

The Tower represents precisely the sort of cosmic convulsion that Bradley associates with tragedy. It’s a cataclysm that, more often than not, results in ruin. But much like Bradley’s tragic convulsion, the devastation of the Tower doesn’t happen without reason. This card turns up when something is fundamentally wrong in our lives, and when that thing can’t be fixed without serious collateral damage. The Bad Thing need not be our fault, need not even be directly related to ourselves, our actions, or our lives. None of that really matters; what matters is that something is wrong, and its wrongness cries out for change. The Tower does not fall unless it has a faulty foundation.

The Tower is sandwiched between the gross excess of the Devil and the rebirth of the Star; without the Tower, we would not be able to move from one to the other. The Devil is not evil in the way Bradley describes–“evil” isn’t a part of the worldview expressed by Tarot–but it nonetheless disrupts the moral order of the deck. The Devil is narcissistic, greedy, and fundamentally out of whack; if given opportunity, he would wrap the whole universe around himself like a selfish lover hogging the covers on the bed. (Not my best simile, but I’ll go with it for now.)

And in the progression of the Major Arcana, the Devil is perverse. He looks like he doesn’t belong. The arc of the Arcana from the Fool to the World is about the transcendence of the self, but the Devil is about the elevation of the self above all else. It interrupts the flow of the Major Arcana. And in order to keep the Devil from taking over the Fool’s Journey and halting its progress, we need to introduce the energy of the Tower. The Tower razes everything to the ground, and gives us an opportunity to start anew.

In readings, the Tower serves a similar function. It’s the tragic convulsion that comes when something–anything–has interrupted the order of The Way Things Should Be™. When the Tower pops up in a reading, I often look to the card that precedes it (chronologically or thematically) in the spread. That card is the thing that doesn’t belong, or the thing that’s causing problems; the Tower is the destruction of that thing.

But we rarely welcome the Tower. It’s not a pleasant card, not something we aspire to, and the reason for that is very simple. Like the convulsion of Shakespearean tragedy, the Tower comes with a tremendous cost. It destroys the Bad Thing in our lives, but in so doing it also clears out some of the Good Things. It causes us pain and suffering, because sometimes the root of our problems can’t be removed without those. The Tower is the chemotherapy that could send your cancer into remission, but that makes your hair fall out and makes you vomit constantly and generally leaves you feeling like you met the business end of a steamroller. It’s losing your job with a company that treated you like crap, but not being able to find a better one.*

The Tower will clear out the harmful things in your life, but it will also destroy some of the things you love. This is what makes the Tower tragic: that the purgation of the bad necessitates a waste of the good.

Sometimes the Tower is needed. Sometimes we really do need to burn it all to the ground. But when the energy of the Tower comes into our lives, I find that many people talk about it in terms that don’t fully resonate with me. I end up hearing a lot of “everything happens for a reason”, and while that’s a delightful thought, it’s also rather crude. It implies that we’re always better off after the Tower falls, even if we can’t see how. I don’t know that that’s the case. The Tower is, ultimately, a force of destruction. Yes, it shows up for a reason, but it doesn’t necessarily leave us better than we were before. It gets rid of more than just the bad and unwanted, and sometimes, on the balance (*cough*Hamlet*cough*) the destruction wrought by the Tower is more than it’s worth.

But the Tower doesn’t care about collateral damage. Like Shakespeare’s tragic universe, it represents a providential order that must destroy that which is antithetical to itself, no matter what the cost.

I don’t know if that’s a particularly comforting thought, although personally, I find it rather beautiful. I’m not entirely sure how to end this post,** so I guess I’ll leave it there. The Tower is a fearsome card, but behind it is a picture of a moral order that, while flawed, is ultimately good–even when it leaves us utterly devastated. There are other cards that represent the inclination to uplift and empower, but the Tower isn’t for that. The Tower is the rebellion of the good against the bad, the desire to be free of something pernicious in our lives no matter what the cost. And from time to time, we all find ourselves in a position where something like that is necessary.

This post is horribly rough around the edges, but I’m in the middle of some serious academic work at the moment and I can’t justify taking the time to edit it. Please do forgive me.

*Credit is due to the #MeToo movement and to all the women who have come forward with stories of sexual assault, harassment, and abuse, but who are suffering backlash for making their voices heard. However, because I’m not a woman, I don’t really feel that I have the right to lead that particular conversation.

**Let’s be honest, I’m never sure how to end a post on this blog.

3 thoughts on “The Tower and Shakespearean Tragedy

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