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  • What Was Tragedy?: Theory and the Early Modern Canon by Blair Hoxby
  • David K. Anderson (bio)
Blair Hoxby. What Was Tragedy?: Theory and the Early Modern Canon. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. x + 366. $100.00 cloth, $40.00 paper, $99.99 eBook.

Tragedy has been the philosophers' favorite genre since the time of Aristotle. That readers and audiences can find the depiction of suffering, bloodshed, and death compelling, moving, or even beautiful must speak to mysteries very near the heart of the human experience. Much diversity exists among theorists, but there is a broad consensus over what, in the hands of a true practitioner, tragedy is: in the hands of a true practitioner, we are offered the ennobling spectacle of man overthrown but unclaimed. Though suffering and dying, set upon by fate, the gods, God, or society, he is nevertheless unsullied and proves his greatness of soul, or the justice of his cause, in the face of hostility that can destroy but not define him. However, if that is the normative account of tragedy's power, it is also a relatively recent one. Blair Hoxby's What Was Tragedy?: Theory and the Early Modern Canon challenges what we think we know about a major artistic form. Over the course of this wide-ranging and convincing study, Hoxby demonstrates that the above conception of tragedy is premised on the metaphysical categories of the late eighteenth century, which construed tragedy as "a pre-philosophical examination of the metaphysical problem of self-authorization" (293). This characterization of the genre has swept all before it: "Not just professed idealists but New Critics, phenomenologists, existentialists, Marxist materialists, structuralists, and post-structuralists assume, co-opt, and revise key elements of it, using their own characteristic vocabulary" (4). What Was Tragedy? brings the older theory it displaced back into the light.

Part 1 of Hoxby's book is entitled "The Philosophy of the Tragic and the Poetics of Tragedy." In his first chapter Hoxby anatomizes the Romantic/post-Romantic conception of tragedy, which "takes its beginnings from Friedrich Schiller's appropriation of Kantian terms and preoccupations to characterize the peculiar achievements of Greek art" (14). The Attic dramatists were deemed to have fulfilled the implicit mandate in the genre they created on those occasions when their works "instantiate[d] the paradoxes of human freedom, which are disclosed in our experience of tragic sublimity" (19). A considerable number of [End Page 234] plays in the slender corpus that has come down to us from the fifth century BCE fit this definition awkwardly, if it all, while an even smaller proportion of early modern tragedies properly merit the name. As much as he admired Shakespeare and Calderon, A. W. Schlegel averred that they should be esteemed "not as tragedians but as the authors of plays that are neither tragedies nor comedies but 'romantic dramas'" (23). Such judgments not only entailed a thoroughgoing recategorization; they also eclipsed, to the point where most of us have forgotten it ever existed, a theory of the tragic—supple and possessing great explanatory power—that had obtained since the late Middle Ages. For Hoxby, though, that theory has been hiding in plain sight, in the pages of early modern theorists and in countless dramas canonical and otherwise.

Chapter 2 reconstructs this forgotten sense of the tragic. It begins with Aristotle, whose Poetics established enduring interpretive parameters and whose enigmatic description of catharsis suggested that tragedy possessed the power to leave us feeling cleansed. Early moderns tended to understand tragedy's effect in terms of the passions. In contrast to their successors, who saw tragedy as an inherently poetic mode (and so downplayed Aristotle's emphasis on dramatic and musical elements), these writers took seriously the theatrical dimensions of the genre. While the heirs of Kant and Hegel valued tragedy primarily for underscoring personal autonomy, Hoxby writes that "if we are to read tragedies written before the mid-eighteenth century on their own terms, we must follow the passions rather than search in vain for spiritual development or radical individuation" (51). Recovering this poetics of the passions also means recovering an early modern understanding of what Aristotle called ēthos. Doing so...