What Was Tragedy? Theory and the Early Modern Canon

Oxford University Press

Twentieth century critics have definite ideas about tragedy. They maintain that in a true tragedy, fate must feel the resistance of the tragic hero's moral freedom before finally crushing him, thus generating our ambivalent sense of terrible waste coupled with spiritual consolation. Yet far from being a timeless truth, this account of tragedy only emerged in the wake of the French Revolution.

What Was Tragedy? demonstrates that this account of the tragic, which has been hegemonic from the early nineteenth century to the present despite all the twists and turns of critical fashion in the twentieth century, obscured an earlier poetics of tragedy that evolved from 1515 to 1795. By reconstructing that poetics, Blair Hoxby makes sense of plays that are "merely pathetic, not truly tragic," of operas with happy endings, of Christian tragedies, and of other plays that advertised themselves as tragedies to early modern audiences and yet have subsequently been denied the palm of tragedy by critics. In doing so, Hoxby not only illuminates masterpieces by Shakespeare, Calderón, Corneille, Racine, Milton, and Mozart, he also revivifies a vast repertoire of tragic drama and opera that has been relegated to obscurity by critical developments since 1800. He suggests how many of these plays might be reclaimed as living works of theater. And by reconstructing a lost conception of tragedy both ancient and modern, he illuminates the hidden assumptions and peculiar blind-spots of the idealist critical tradition that runs from Schelling, Schlegel, and Hegel, through Wagner, Nietzsche, and Freud, up to modern post-structuralism.

About the Author

Blair Hoxby writes on the literature and culture of England, France, Italy, and Spain from 1500 to 1800.  His recent research has focused on the theory and practice of tragedy during that period – which differed sharply from the idea of tragedy that most of us now take for granted.  He also writes on the poetry and prose of John Milton, John Dryden, and their Augustan heirs.  He teaches English poetry from the Renaissance to Romanticism, tragedy and tragic theory from Aristotle to the present, theater history, and performance theory.

He is the author of What Was Tragedy? Theory and the Early Modern Canon (Oxford: OUP, 2015) and Mammon’s Music: Literature and Economics in the Age of Milton (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002).  He is the editor of Milton in the Long Restoration (Oxford: OUP, May 2016), a collection of twenty-nine original essays that analyze the way authors writing from 1650 to 1750 interpreted, imitated, and parodied Milton.

Recent selected articles include:

■ “Technologies of Performance,” in A Cultural History of Theatre, ed. Chris and Tracy Davis.  Vol 3, The Renaissance, ed. Robert Henke.  London: Bloomsbury Academic, forthcoming 2017.

■ Politics and Aesthetics in European Baroque and Classicist Tragedy, ed. Jan Bloemendal and Nigel Smith.  Leiden: Brill, forthcoming.

■ “The Richardsons, the Sublime, and the Invention of Aesthetic Theory,” in  Milton in the Long Restoration, ed. with Ann Baynes Coiro.  Oxford: OUP, forthcoming May 2016.

■ “Passions,” in 21st-Century Approaches: Early Modern Theatricality, ed. Henry Turner.  New York: OUP, 2013.

■ “What Was Tragedy?  The World We Have Lost, 1550-1795,” Comparative Literature 64 (2012):  1-32.

■ “Allegorical Drama,” in The Cambridge Companion to Allegory, ed. Rita Copeland and Peter Struck. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

■ “The Function of Allegory in Baroque Tragic Drama: What Benjamin Got Wrong,” in Thinking Allegory Otherwise, ed. Brenda Machowsky.  Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009.

■ "Areopagitica and Liberty," in The Oxford Handbook of Milton, ed. Nicholas McDowell and Nigel Smith. Oxford: OUP, 2009.

■ "All Passion Spent: The Means and Ends of a Tragédie en Musique," Comparative Literature 59 (2007): 33-62.

■ "The Wisdom of Their Feet: Meaningful Dance in Milton and the Stuart Masque," English Literary Renaissance 37.1 (2007): 74-99.