Historical Account of Tragedy in Literature
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Published: Wed, 21 Feb 2018
The chorus in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon clearly elucidates the Aristotelian principle of tragedy: ‘Zeus, whose will has marked for man the sole way where wisdom lies, ordered one eternal plan: Man must suffer to be wise.’ Elizabethan tragedy is derived from this moralised model of tragedy as depicted by Aristotle in his Poetics. As a genre, Elizabethan tragedy is distinguished from that of Shakespeare, although Shakespeare’s tragedies are often held as the epitome of the tragic form. Indeed, the Oxford English Dictionary cites only two quotations from the Renaissance under the entry for ‘tragedy’, both of which are from Shakespeare. There appears to be a deliberate judgment in including Shakespeare in the dramatic cannon to the exclusion of such influential playwrights as Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Heywood and John Webster. Although it is clear that Shakespeare made an important contribution to the development of modern tragedy, derived from classical models, contemporary dramatists were much more formative in negotiating Aristotelian models of tragedy with the new philosophical, social and political climate of the Renaissance.
Philips Sidney’s defence of the tragic form in An Apologie for Poetrie (1595) articulates the moral and didactic purpose of poetry.
So that the right vse of Comedy will (I thinke) by no body be blamed, and much lesse of the high and excellent Tragedy; that openeth the greatest wounds, and sheweth forth the Vlcers, that are couered with Tissues: that maketh Kinges feare to be Tyrants, and Tyrants manifest their tirannicall humors: that with stirring the affects of admiration and commiseration, teacheth, the vncertainety of this world, and vpon howe weake foundations guilden roofes are built (Sidney F3v-F4)
The emphasis on moral instruction is clear, and informed the tragic form in the both Shakespearean and non-Shakespearean dramas. Tragedy, according to Aristotle, is noble and concerned with lofty matters, as opposed to the flippant and crude nature of comedy. Sidney defines the function of tragedy as uncovering the ‘greatest wounds’ of the inherently ‘weake foundations’ of the world. Tragedy, therefore, produces an emotional response in the audience by exposing human flaws, which allows them to participate in a form of moral regeneration. Thomas Heywood’s An Apology for Actors (1612) also cites the classical model of tragedy in order to elevate English drama in general by accentuating the morally instructive nature of tragedy, as well as to tie his own works to the legitimate tradition of tragedy. ‘If we present a Tragedy, we include the fatall and abortiue ends of such as commit notorious murders, which is aggrauated and acted with all the Art that may be, to terrifie men from the like abhorred practises’ (Heywood F3v). Heywood thus believes that the tragic downfall of the moral, but flawed, hero is a terrifying lesson to the audience through the pity and fear evoked by watching the play itself, a notion described by Aristotle and termed by modern scholars as ‘catharsis’. Despite Heywood’s belief in the moral power of tragedy, Renaissance tragedy, for the most part, does not live up to the Aristotelean model.
For Stephen Greenblatt (1980), Renaissance theatre, named after a queen ‘whose power is constituted in theatrical celebrations of royal glory and theatrical violence visited upon the enemies of that glory’, replays the process of provoking subversion central to the state’s authorization of its own power: ‘the form itself, as a primary expression of Renaissance power, contains the radical doubts it continually produces’ (297). Thus, any echo of Aristotelian notions of tragedy in the works of playwrights such as Heywood, Marlowe, Webster, and even Shakespeare, can be seen not as a insistence upon the dramatic perfection of classical forms, but as a means of lending legitimacy to the challenge to political and cultural structures. As Moretti (1982) observed in respect of English Renaissance tragedy ‘one of the decisive influences in the creation of a “public” that for the first time in history assumed the right to bring a king to justice … Tragedy disentitled the absolute monarch to all ethical and rational legitimation. Having deconsecrated the king, it thus made it possible to decapitate him’ (7-8). Rather than reinforcing the social order and legitimizing divine ordination, tragedy opened up the political elite to the possibility of human frailty.
Renaissance tragedy can be defined as a violent series of events that is built upon the murder and revenge, concerning characters primarily motivated by jealousy, greed, and anger. According to Aristotle, the tragic hero must be of noble stature, and while his greatness is readily apparent, he is not perfect. Tragedies often concern the aristocratic elite and thus personal tragedies extend to tragedies of state. The tone of the play is sombre, clearly relating the grief and sorrow of the characters themselves. This “language of lamentation” serves as a warning against the destructive potential of vice and depravity, and can be linked to the Medieval morality plays. Although the presence of other non-dramatic sources conceives a national tradition of tragedy which was established on the English stage as early as 1587, with the performance of Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy.
Both The Spanish Tragedy and Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, performed in the late 1580s, exhibit the beginnings of true Renaissance tragedy. Derived from the revenge plays of Seneca, The Spanish Tragedy is a play which satisfied the Aristotelian need for a binary model of moral order, which is complicated by the relations of individual justice to the social and divine order. Tamburlaine, however, moves away from the reductive moralising of earlier poetry and reflects the influence of the Reformation on the dramatic arts, as the theatre established a new place where human possibilities could be envisioned with new freedom. Marlowe is fully aware that he is making the stage the vehicle of a new consciousness:
Onely this (Gentlemen) we must performe,
The form of Faustus fortunes good or bad.
To patient Iudgements we appeale our plaude. (Marlowe, Faustus, 7-9)
This appeal to the moral purpose of the play is misleading, for neither Faustus nor Tamberlaine are characters directed by their moral choices. Tamberlaine, it is arguable, is an agent of God while at the same time exercising his free will with no apparent consequence.
Marlowe appears to be addressing familiar issues of blasphemous defiance, tyranny, cruelty and arrogance in Tamburlaine, but ironically he presents these issues as the glory of the tragic hero. Unlike traditional tragedies, there is no stable moral framework, with the result that the audience is left feeling uneasy with the divine implications of the hero’s downfall. Tamburlaine, rather than submit to his pre-ordained fate, boasts of his own dynamic power:
I hold the Fates bound fast in yron chaines,
And with my hand turne Fortunes wheel about (369-70)
Fate and Fortune, two of the most conventional symbols of human limitation, are here manipulated by the hero not as a sign of his hubris, but rather as a heroic achievement. Marlowe uses this gross inversion as a reflection of the changing values in Renaissance society. As Stephen Greenblatt (1980) says, ‘Marlowe writes in the period in which European man embarked on his extraordinary career of consumption, his eager pursuit of knowledge, with one intellectual model after another seized, squeezed dry, and discarded, and his frenzied exhaustion of the world’s resources’ (199). The Enlightenment saw the questioning of fundamental assumptions about man’s place in the world, a uncertainty reflected in the ambiguous relation between the tragic hero and his divinely ordained fate.
C. L. Barber (1988) has commented on the way in which the audience engages with such egotistic individualism of the tragic hero, noting the role of the triumphal individual in the Renaissance and the significance of individualistic ‘prophesying’ as a disruptive form of expression that challenged the authority and legitimacy of the Church and state. Marlowe writes at a time of religious transition and new philosophical notions of self-consciousness, and appropriates religious language and symbolism to launch an attack on the Church. Tamburlaine rebels against divine, political and social order, and in doing so sets himself beyond limitation and definition, ‘alwaiies moouing as the restles Spheares’ (876). Tamburlaine’s rebellion is an uneasy one, for there is no possibility of reconciliation and restoration of order. Theridama, the ‘Chiefest Captain of Mycetes hoste’, reveals this as he says:
Tamburlaine? A Scythian Shepheard, so imbelished
With Natures pride, and richest furniture,
His looks do menace heauen an dare the Gods
What stronge enchantments tice my yielding soule?
Won with they words, & conquered with thy looks,
I yield my selfe, my men & horse to thee (350-52, 419, 423-4)
Liberation is here figured as one of two choices: to reject the divine or to take it over. In Tamburlaine’s case, he alternatively threatens heaven and dares the gods, or claims identity with the divine to sanction his violence: ’til by vision, or by speech I heare / Immortall Ioue say, Cease my Tamburlaine, / I will persist a terrour to the world …’ (3873-75). Tamburlaine self-aggrandizement is given divine legitimacy: Tamburlaine believes that his tyranny and martial lust are condoned through the gods through their silence.
The two-part Tamburlaine is based on the historical figure of Timur, a bloody conqueror of Asia, whose greed for power and extravagance culminates with his inevitable downfall. Tamburlaine deviates from the tragic norm in his depiction of the tragic hero; Tamburlaine is not humbled by his dramatic fall, and no moral lesson is learned and repentance achieved. Tamburlaine does not conform to the model of the tragic hero set out in Poetics. The tragic hero is fated to make a serious error which will cause his fall and tragic death, usually caused by hubris, or prideful arrogance, but he remains likeable to the audience for his inherent goodness. Tamburlaine, in contrast, is a character whose goodness is notably absent.
In contrast the Aristotlean model, in which the tragic hero is noble from birth, Tamburlaine is an obscure Scythian shepherd in the opening of part 1. He quickly ascends through his bravery and his eloquent speech, and his ferocity on the battlefield. Tamburlaine sees himself as the ‘scourge of God’ and even dreams of leading his armies in war against the divine army in heaven. In a scene in which Tamburlaine has defeated Cosroe, he responds to Cosroe’s demands for the reasons behind his treachery.
Nature, that fram’d us of four elements
Warring within our breasts for regiment,
Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds:
Our souls, whose faculties can comprehend
The wondrous architecture of the world,
And measure every wandering planet’s course,
Still climbing after knowledge infinite,
And always moving as the restless spheres,
Wills us to wear ourselves and never rest,
Until we reach the ripest fruit of all,
That perfect bliss and sole felicity,
The sweet fruition of an earthly crown. (I.iv. 13-29)
With this final line Tamburlaine snatches the crown from dying Cosroe’s head and places it on his own head, assuming the power of divine legitimacy for himself. Reordering the humours as in constant opposition, rather than harmonious order, is to legitimize his own militaristic behaviour as part of the ‘natural’ world. He is, in essence, creating himself out of nothing, as he became an emperor from a shepherd, and as such is taking over the divine role of creation. In doing so, he upsets the authority of the moral order, and even his death does not resolve the moral hierarchy.
Thomas Heywood’s A Woman Killed with Kindness (1603) is described as a ‘domestic tragedy’ as it deals not with the tragic downfall of the elite, but on the relationship between a husband and wife. Domesticity is the theme of the play, and the language is correspondingly straightforward and unadorned. In contrast with tragedies such as Hamlet or Tamburlaine, Heywood’s play does not concern the intrigues and actions of the aristocratic elite or ruling order. A Woman Killed with Kindness is a morality play, concerned with the infidelity of Anne and her likely punishment. She herself expects only death upon her husband’s discovery of her affair:
Though I deserve a thousand thousand fold
More than you can inflict, yet, once my husband,
For womanhood – to which I am a shame,
Though once an ornament – even for His sake
That hath redeem’d our couls, mark not my face
Nor hack me with your sword, but let me go
Perfect and undeformed to my tomb. (xiii.94-100)
Her opinion is born out by the tradition of revenge in tragedies as well as in contemporary practice; indeed, by law husbands reserved the right to kill unfaithful wives (Powell 204). However, despite the clear Christian moralizing, Heywood’s play departs drastically from the traditional structure of moral tragedy in that the tragic end of the main character results not from divine judgment and retribution, but from the effects of her wrongdoing on her own consciousness. Before the discovery of her betrayal by her husband, her guilt and remorse are apparent.
You have tempted me to mischief, Master Wendoll;
I have done I know not what. Well, you plead custom;
That which for want of wit I granted erst
I now must yield through fear. Come, come, let’s in.
Once o’er shoes, we are straight o’er head in sin (xi. 110-14)
Her repentance is genuine, and carries forward her tragic end. Anne chooses to starve herself to death, thereby taking control both of her sin and her punishment. Heywood puts ‘into dramatic form … the punishment which arises from the erring characters’ consciousness of their guilt in the place of the punishment of an exterior physical revenge’ (Bowers 225). Anne’s emotional torment is meant as a lesson to the audience, and she makes of herself an exemplary figure, breaking away from the domestic thrust of the play towards the universal.
Derived from the classical models of comedy and tragedy set out by Aristotle and envisaged by Seneca, Webseter’s The White Devil (1612) expands the classical tragic structure by adding elements associated with comedy: ironic repetition, theatrical self-consciousness, and inverted tragic situations. There is a repeated pattern in The White Devil of serious action followed by parody, working to undermine the dramatic tradition of tragedy to create what would become the genre of tragicomedy. Tragicomedy is a distinctly non-Aristotelian genre in which the action and subject of the play demand a tragic ending, but this ending is denied in an ironic reversal which produces the happy ending of a traditional comedy. Aristotle did, in fact, depict a kind of tragedy with a happy ending, which would later become tragicomedy, but it was not until the Renaissance that the genre was seen as a legitimate dramatic form. In The White Devil, the Duke of Florence comments on the popular dislike of the classically inspired plays which strictly conform to the structure of tragedy and comedy:
My tragedy must have some idle mirth in’t,
Else it will never pass (IV.i.119-20)
The Duke’s comment suggests that an increasingly demanding audience will no longer accept the single-minded classical plays of strict comedy or tragedy, but demand a sophistication of genre. The White Devil is not unique in its admission of tragicomedy, but it is treated as an expression of doubt about the tragic absolutes and as part of a critical double-vision.
Incidents are repeated an parodied throughout Webster’s play, and this system of parallels is used to undermine the tragic status of the patrician characters. In the final scene the tragic hero Flamineo acts out a grotesque fiction of his own death, which is ironically followed by real murder. The farcical ending is paralleled with the authentic tragic image. With its elaborate system of repetition and parody, its ironic contrasts between interpretations of events, and the insistence that every incident is intimately connected with other incidents, The White Devil emphasises the shifting values and ironic double-visions of tragicomedy into the tragic framework of aspiration, failure, and ultimately death, depicting the double standard of the new society.
The action of the play is confined to the relatively narrow setting of Rome and the court at Padua, hinting to the world beyond that of stage. Critics have often found the number of characters in The White Devil problematic, citing difficulties in staging a production with so many bodies on stage. However, John Russell Brown (1940) has called attention to ‘Webster’s power of using violent and crowded scenes for sudden and, therefore, striking manifestations of an individual’s lies or hypocrisy, the “variety” of a “busy trade of life”’ (Brown 453). In the final act, the presence of so many members of the courtly society emphasises Flamineo’s fall from power, defining the extent of the competition for the Duke’s favour and the uncertainty of Flamineo’s future now that his relationship with his master is ruined. As a young lord reports to Flamineo concerning Bracciano, ‘A new vp-start: one that swears like a Falckner, and will lye in the Dukes eare day by day like a maker of Almanacks’ (V.i. 138-9).
The White Devil deals with private behaviour made public, and public behaviour motivated by questionable private interests. Vittoria’s trial reveals her illicit liaison with Bracciano and the murderous consequences, but it is this public censure which results in private revenge. In comparison with Shakespearean tragedies such as Hamlet, or classical tragedies such as Oedipus Rex, the play is extremely social and emphasises Webster’s preoccupation with the intertwined spheres of public probity and private corruption.
The White Devil focuses on the individual’s freedom of choice between good and evil, human dignity and the fall from grace, binaries which appear to conform to the traditional Christian morality. Lodovico is accused by Antonelli and Gasparo: ‘Worse then these, / You have acted certaine Murders here in Rome, / Bloody and full of horror’ (I.i.31-32), and Gasparo continues ‘O my Lord / The law doth sometimes mediate, thinkes it good / Not ever to steepe violent sinnes in blood, / This gentle penance may both end your crimes, / And in the example better these bad times’ (I.i.33-37). Ludovico is presented a choice, but instead turns to criminality and revenge. His crimes have been presented, the possibility of reform and exoneration provided, and yet he wilfully chooses his course of conduct in spite of this. He exercises his free will, but unlike the Aristotelian tragic hero his destructive path is not redemptive in bringing out moral responsibility.
The conclusion of The White Devil is ambiguous, fulfilling the catastrophic ending required of tragedy but without the suggestion of the nobility and greatness of man. Flamineo dies in despair of his worldly goods, wealth and advancement rather than in despair of his worthiness before God. There is the possibility of Flamineo accepting moral responsibility directly before his death as he reflects, ‘While we looke up to heaven wee confound / Knowledge with knowledge’ (V.vi.259-60), and yet immediately before this he said , ‘I doe not looke / Who went before, nor who shall follow mee; / Noe, at my self I will begin and end’ (V.vi.256-58). Although the play ends with the death of the tragic hero, as tradition dictates, this is not the satisfactory ending of classical tragedies. There is no remorse, no retraction of arrogance and greed in the face of the divine. As A.L. Kistner (1993) wondered, ‘Where does it lie – in the triumph of will, in grabbing for every expression of self that this world has to offer or in the calm discipline of self-denial for a higher picture of man?’ (267). Webster leaves the audience with an unsatisfactory portrait of free choice and the capacity for moral responsibility.
The emergence in the 1580s of an Elizabethan tragic tradition which manipulated the limitations of classical generic boundaries points toward the developing self-consciousness of a modern culture. As evidenced in such works as Tamburlaine and The White Devil, the theatre was the site of an evolving culture in conflict with the older, traditional forms of expression. Marlowe, Webster and Heywood used the stage ‘for the assertion and defense of an ego which … was constantly threatened by powerful forces of desire and conscience, forces which [they] coped with as best as [they] could by making them conscious, by finding a form for them which would command social understanding and the control of shared social attitudes’ (Barber 37). The new tragic genre was a way of registering an experience of change and dislocation, a shift from the Classical tradition of moral order and stability.
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