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Reviewed by:
  • English Renaissance Tragedy: Ideas of Freedom by Peter Holbrook, and: What Was Tragedy? Theory and the Early Modern Canon by Blair Hoxby
  • Matthew J. Smith (bio)
English Renaissance Tragedy: Ideas of Freedom. By Peter Holbrook. London: Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2015. Pp. xiv + 236. $94.00 cloth, $29.95 paper.
What Was Tragedy? Theory and the Early Modern Canon. By Blair Hoxby. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. xii + 366. $100.00 cloth, $40.00 paper.

Holbrook’s English Renaissance Tragedy is a book of advocacy, arguing that the tragedies of Marlowe, Shakespeare, Webster, and others assert a freedom more modern and democratic than medieval and hierarchical. The book does not engage significantly with contemporary scholarship or original historicism, but rather relies on incisive close readings of individual characters to argue that the tragic genre served as a traditional vehicle for radical expressions of political subversiveness, religious heterodoxy, and cultural relativism.

Part 1 consists of five chapters on the idea of freedom, the tragic genre, and the political and theatrical conditions of Renaissance England. Holbrook proposes that tragic characters are representations of what Jean-Paul Sartre describes as “that [End Page 209] being for which ‘its being is in question’” (19). Characters are “free creatures” (19) when they comprehend their existence by the choices they make against various forms of “tyranny,” defined by the effort to transform people into nonchoosing animals (36).

Chapter 4 on “The Rhetoric of Disenchantment” is the first part’s most emphatic and also problematic chapter. Tragedy’s “rhetoric of disenchantment” is its “way of describing the world that has no truck with religion or the supernatural” (65). Holbrook collects some of the genre’s most memorable statements by characters including Shakespeare’s Aaron, Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, and Webster’s Flamineo that he argues exhibit emerging perspectives of skepticism, cultural and religious relativism, naturalism, and atheism—philosophical positions that Holbrook situates in excerpts from Montaigne’s essays. These characteristics of secular thought are predicated on Holbrook’s somewhat naturalizing claim about the “improved mimetic quality of Renaissance theatre” (57) over medieval drama; he avers that “dramatists became progressively better at representing how people actually think, talk, act, feel” (55). Such a claim is provocative but neglects to consider its own historical position vis-à-vis competing narratives of representation and progress.

While at times it can appear as if large portions depart from Holbrook’s original definition of existential freedom, the argument reunites in the last chapter of Part 1, “Going to the Theatre in Shakespeare’s London,” where political and universal notions of freedom converge. Tragedy promotes political freedom by providing a medium that protects freedom of expression, and it promotes universal freedom by inciting “thoughtful detachment” (86) in its audiences.

Part 2 consists of brief readings of fifteen Renaissance tragedies from Gorboduc to ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore. Each highlights a play’s foregrounding of a materialist, relativist, atheistic, or other worldly position. The most effective readings come in discussions of five plays: Doctor Faustus, Othello, King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra, and The Duchess of Malfi. Here Holbrook comes closest to fully demonstrating his Sartrean framework by explaining characters’ tragic falls by their essentially human assumption of agency. Holbrook has achieved a mosaic effect by rapidly presenting these interpretive vignettes in a way that reinforces his commitment to the “Ideas of Freedom” as inchoate and subversive airs, as it were, in Renaissance tragedies.

Whereas Holbrook’s is a book of advocacy, Hoxby’s What Was Tragedy? is one of correction. He posits an early modern poetics of tragedy against what he argues is the unjustified influence of a German Romantic “Philosophy of the Tragic” (14). Part 1 outlines an early modern poetics of tragedy that focuses on pathos rather than on action. Hoxby cites a staggering number of early modern playwrights, rhetoricians, antiquarians, translators, critics, and theorists—a decisive minority of whom define the genre by its ending. Responding to his own question about the “system of ideas” (14) that shifted definitions of tragedy away from passion, Hoxby answers with readings of Hegel, Schelling, A. W. Schlegel, and K. W. Schlegel, suggesting that their responses to Kant’s idealism...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-3555
Print ISSN
0037-3222
Pages
pp. 209-211
Launched on MUSE
2017-12-13
Open Access
No
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