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Ideas and Forms of Tragedy from Aristotle to the Middle Ages (review)

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 20, Number 1, April 1996
pp. 253-256 | 10.1353/phl.1996.0015

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Philosophy and Literature 20.1 (1996) 253-256

Book Review

Ideas and Forms of Tragedy from Aristotle to the Middle Ages

Ideas and Forms of Tragedy from Aristotle to the Middle Ages, by Henry Ansgar Kelly; xvii & 257 pp. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993, $59.95.

If H. A. Kelly had wanted to sing the tune of Norman Cantor's recent book on nineteenth- and twentieth-century medievalists, he could have called his study "Inventing Tragedy." However, besides a certain revisionistic attitude, there are no correspondences between the hasty, essayistic Inventing the Middle Ages (1991) and the scholarly, thoroughly philological Ideas and Forms of Tragedy. Where Cantor attempts to convince his readers that the various critical appropriations of the Middle Ages say more about the cultures of their modern reinventors than about the subject of their researches, Kelly is positive that sound source study and textual criticism can provide secure data for a more accurate application of perhaps the most famous of all genre terms to respective historical authors and individual plays. Thus, Kelly considers his book to be a necessary critical corrective of faulty and preconceived (modern) ideas about classical and medieval notions of tragedy. His methodological insistence on a purely philological investigation is responsible for some of the outstanding virtues of this investigation such as authority, exactitude, and scholarliness; at the same time it is also the cause for the omission of questions essential to a study which purports to present an account not only of the forms but also the "ideas" of tragedy from classical antiquity through late medieval times.

Chapters one and two examine various ideas and practices associated with tragedy in ancient Greece and Rome. This concise survey should become assigned reading for students of literary drama because it debunks the belief that the term tragedy conjures up a uniform idea, one that has been relatively constant throughout the ages and that can be attributed to Aristotle's discussion of the best kind of tragedy in his Poetics. Kelly demonstrates how Aristotle's broad definition of the term (any serious story, even with a happy ending) was transformed in late antiquity to mean a story ending in irremediable misfortune.

Chapter three studies the semantic shifts the word tragedy underwent in the early Middle Ages. Kelly establishes convincingly that the various early medieval lexicographers and commentators (the most intriguing discussions include Isidore of Seville, Remigius of Auxerre, and Papias) knew much less about tragedy and had a much less unified idea of tragedy than is assumed by many modern-day scholars of drama. A vague knowledge of the genre also characterizes the twelfth century (chapter four), when -- with the exception of John of Salisbury -- creative mélanges of authentic classical traits and postclassical distortions dominated.

The fifth chapter demonstrates that most commentators in the high Middle Ages, despite the reception of Aristotle directly from the Greek or through Arabic intermediaries, vary widely on the meanings they attach to the word "tragedy." Most of them, such as John Garland, even consider it an empty, obsolete genre, one practiced only by very few poets of classical antiquity. Only Dante Aligheri believed that tragedy was a current genre and that he had made his contribution to it.

The study concludes by surveying the developments in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century England, France, Italy, and Spain. Kelly argues that in spite of the greatly increased currency of ideas of tragedy in the later Middle Ages, other genres (vitae of famous men or saints, exempla, complaints) negotiated stories of disaster and death. It seems problematic, however, that Kelly does not further investigate any of the cultural ramifications for and the "ideas" behind the existence and nature of these other genres and the coeval absence of (Aristotelian) tragedy. While he rightly states that medieval vitae, exempla, and planctus all do without discussions of the empathic sorrow for the misfortune of others which characterizes Aristotle's (and Chaucer's) ideas of tragedy, his exclusively philological approach -- one concerned with sources and textual traditions but not with society or mentalities -- makes him circumnavigate essential deliberations about the causes for these conspicuous medieval notions. Thus, Kelly's book does not even attempt to answer the pesky...

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