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  • On Stage:Ritualized Emotions and Theatricality in Isolde's Trial
  • Jutta Eming (bio)

Gottfried von Straßburg's famous narration of the story of Tristan and Isolde is regarded as exemplary for its subtlety in representing emotions. The author is admired for his descriptions of inner conflicts and processes, which seem to reveal a remarkably modern psychological insight and an acknowledgement of the general ambivalence of feelings. It is also assumed that his interpretation refrains from an older literary tradition of describing affects, a tradition which involves a repertoire of body movements and gestures as well as tears and laments.1 Some scholars associate these conventions of expressing emotions in medieval literature with a 'theatrical' quality. 'Theatrical' in this context takes on negative meanings like 'exaggerated,' 'artificial' and 'simulated.' In some medieval genres, expressions of emotions seem to be as formulaic as dramatic role play.2 These literary traditions in which emotions are communicated in expressive ways are regarded as less authentic than a more recent, modern tradition according to which emotions are located in the individual's interior and show themselves on the body in much more restrained ways.

Starting from these observations, this paper aims at a re-assessment of Gottfried von Straßburg's approach in describing emotions. It sets out two distinct goals: 1. To suggest 'ritual' and 'ritualization' as terms [End Page 555] for describing intense emotions. Ritualized expression communicates and authenticates emotions through an ostentatious styling of the body, through facial expression, gesture, movement, voice, and speech. For the modern reader, these patterns of stylization sometimes take on a 'theatrical' quality. Eschewing these negative connotations, I will use this term to emphasize that in courtly novels the physical expression of emotions—even in its extreme forms—does not come from the natural side of emotionality, but is instead formed by an aesthetic. Paradigms of emotional expression in medieval literature can, therefore, even help us to understand what emotions have always been—culturally conditioned patterns of communication. 2. To show that Gottfried von Straßburg, contrary to widely-held opinion, actually does employ the conventional means of describing ritualized emotions. Because of the 'theatrical' quality of these ritualizations, the emotions involved sometimes seem to be artificial or false. It is, therefore, particularly interesting to examine their function in the episode of Isolde's trial by ordeal, an episode which deals with the issue of faking or revealing the truth, and which has often been regarded as one of the key scenes of the novel.3 After situating emotional patterns in Tristan in the broader context of medieval literature and a close look at the episode of Isolde's trial by ordeal, the paper will make the point that on the whole, Gottfried von Straßburg's narration falls somewhere between depicting ritualized emotions and developing the inner motivation of its characters.

Patterns of Emotions in Gottfried von Straßburg's Tristan

From the viewpoint of emotion theory, Tristan is significant because of both its emphasis on emotions in the context of conflicts, decisions and interactions, and because of the ways in which emotions are portrayed. Central to the depiction of emotions in Tristan is their appearance as processes that are in flux and ambivalent. Gottfried portrays a variety of emotions in great detail, and pays close attention to their complexity—a complexity not always understood by the [End Page 556] characters themselves. These emotions range from love in its various forms (falling in love, loving, longing, separation) through fear and grief to anger, including also sensations of being left behind, being lonely and being betrayed.

The following excerpt may serve as an example. It is taken from a long passage in which the narrator reflects on the blinding forces of love from the perspective of King Marke:

der wiste ez wârez alse den tôtund sach wol, daz sîn wîp Isôtir herzen unde ir sinnean Tristandes minnemitalle was vervlizzen.und enwolte es doch niht wissen.

(lines 17746–52)4

("He knew it as surely as death, / and saw full well that his wife Isolde / that her heart and all her senses / were totally devoted / to Tristan's...


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