What Was Tragedy? Theory and the Early Modern Canon by Blair Hoxby (review)
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What Was Tragedy? Theory and the Early Modern Canon by Blair Hoxby
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.
xii+366pp. £60. ISBN 978-0-19-874916-5.

Tragedy, George Steiner famously argues in The Death of Tragedy (1961), is unsuited to modernity. For Steiner, tragedy and modernity are incompatible because tragedy requires a conflict between freedom and determinism, between man’s liberty and his ultimate subjection to cosmic forces beyond his control. Steiner’s assertion that modernity lacks this tragic conflict has met with much contention. In Modern Tragedy (1966), for example, Raymond Williams maintains that modern political life is shot through with tragic experience. More recently, Miriam Leonard, in Tragic Modernities (2015), examines how the conception of tragedy as a clash of freedom and fate has shaped modern philosophy. Blair Hoxby joins his voice to the chorus of those who dispute Steiner’s claim that tragedy is incompatible with modernity. Whereas many of Steiner’s critics focus on tragedy’s persistence, Hoxby takes issue with Steiner’s characterization of tragedy itself. The idea that tragedy requires a conflict between freedom and determinism, Hoxby argues, is not an ancient prescription, as Steiner contends, but is instead a modern invention.

In What Was Tragedy? Hoxby demonstrates that the modern conception of tragedy has obscured an alternative: “the early modern poetics of tragedy” (6). The early modern poetics of tragedy, Hoxby explains, emerged in Europe “around 1550 with the first major commentaries on Aristotle’s Poetics and ... continued to develop until the 1790s, [End Page 508] when Friedrich Schiller, Friedrich Schelling, the Schlegel brothers, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel penned the first fragments of the new philosophy of the tragic that would displace it” (6). Hoxby asserts that the tragic philosophy that was born of German idealism—and that continues to shape critical inquiry today—has imposed a set of criteria that severely limits the dramatic works classified as true tragedies. According to modern philosophy, a tragedy must offer “either an unavoidable collision of ethical forces or a conflict between freedom and necessity” (3). In a proper tragedy, the protagonist must recognize his fate, actively fight against it, but ultimately submit to it. The protagonist dies, but does so valiantly, as a “sacrifice dedicated to the national community” (4). Aside from a few works by Racine and Shakespeare, Hoxby observes, most early modern tragedies simply do not meet the criteria imposed by modern philosophy. Early modern tragedies often feature characters who fail to recognize their fate or who suffer without resolution or redemption. Rather than dismiss early modern tragedies as unworthy of the tragic label, What Was Tragedy? seeks to recover how these plays were conceived of and evaluated by dramatists, critics, and audiences during the historical moment in which they were published and performed.

What Was Tragedy? is divided into two parts: “The Philosophy of the Tragic and the Poetics of Tragedy” and “The World We Have Lost.” Part 1 (chapters 1–2) lays out how the early modern poetics of tragedy differs from modern conceptions of tragedy. Part 2 (chapters 3–6) examines this early modern poetics in more detail, exploring the range of dramatic forms it encompassed. In chapter 1, Hoxby traces how German idealism’s interpretation of Greek tragedy displaced early modern interpretations of Greek tragedy and tragic theory. Attending to the specificity of how early moderns read the ancients, Hoxby argues, enables modern readers to “begin to conceptualize and experience early modern tragedies in terms that would have been recognizable to their initial audiences” (41).

One of the strengths of What Was Tragedy? is that it acknowledges variation in “national and confessional context” (58) while emphasizing the pan-European nature of the early modern poetics of tragedy. Chapter 2 details the “common assumptions and shared terminology” that characterize this poetics, which Hoxby argues, “began in cinquecento Italy, was elaborated in the Netherlands and France, and then infiltrated England and Spain more slowly and not without resistance” (57–58). At the core of the early modern poetics of tragedy, Hoxby maintains, is an abiding concern with tragedy’s ability to generate pathos. He explains that while modern philosophy has approached tragedy primarily as a...