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  • What Was Tragedy? Theory and the Early Modern Canon by Blair Hoxby
  • Marta Albalá Pelegrín
Blair Hoxby.
What Was Tragedy? Theory and the Early Modern Canon.
Oxford UP, 2015. 366 Pp.

IN TIMES OF CHAOS, tragedy has been the spirit or the ghost that hovers over history. Tragedy has also been particularly long-lived as a theatrical genre, one whose aesthetic has changed over the course of the centuries, and with it, so too, its appraisal by critics. What Was Tragedy? reflects recent interest in reception studies, as some of its chapters diligently consider the performance history and success of a variety of theatrical texts, some now forgotten (as is the case of Stefonio’s Crispus), some relegated to a secondary position within the corpus of extremely canonical authors (as is the case of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra). With a conceptual-history bent, What Was Tragedy? is an in-depth reflection on the construction of literary theories across time; its ultimate goal is demonstrating “that the philosophy of the tragic is an obstacle to our interpretation of most of the tragedy that was produced in early modern Europe” (293). As the title reminds us, there is not a single definition able to encompass tragedy through time, and delving into the history of tragedy means delving into its past meanings, what it was as opposed to what it is for us.

Hoxby’s book is divided into two parts, The Philosophy of the Tragic and the Poetics of Tragedy and The World We Have Lost. Part 1, consisting of chapters 1–2, sets out the theoretical basis of the book, while part 2, consisting of chapters 3–6, incorporates case studies of particular tragedies, each with varying aims and often accompanied by an overview of the performance history of the works in question.

Chapter 1, “Our Tragic Culture,” reviews theories of tragedy developed by the German idealist tradition and assesses their influence in twentieth-century conception of tragedy. Special attention is given to a range of 1960s-era scholars, including Jean-Pierre Vernant, who stressed that an alien subjectivity such as that of the Greek tragedy “could not be properly understood apart from its social and cultural context” (37). Following this idea, Hoxby situates himself among more recent critics such as Terence Cave, Terry Eagleton, and Simon Goldhill, while at the same time distinguishing himself from them by “putting emphasis on pathos” and by confining his book “to a historical period with a coherent poetics of tragedy” [End Page 163] (40). Hoxby’s aim, therefore, as he states, is to “redefine tragedy in trans-historical terms,” setting early modern literary theory “in dialogue with rival ideas that have existed in other historical moments” (41). To conceptualize early modern tragedies, Hoxby relies on five propositions: (1) “Great drama need not be the drama of a nation” (41); (2) “Organic form is not superior to beautiful design” (44); (3) “Tragedy is a theatrical rather than a poetic art” (47); (4) “The passions are dramatic units of crucial significance in early modern tragedy” (48); and (5) “Not only the naive but also the sophisticated and seemingly modern aspects of ancient theater have value” (51). As the subsequent chapters unfold, these five propositions serve as the skeleton of the book’s overall argument.

Chapter 2, “An Early Modern Poetics of Tragedy,” delves into early modern theories of tragedy while analyzing relevant period vocabulary for today’s reader. The chapter relies both on Aristotle’s Poetics and on the myriad interpretations of his text that emerged out of humanist milieux of early modern Italy. As Hoxby explains, “early modern critics often used Aristotle’s terms as a scaffold on which to hang a vast collection of ancient testimonies that elucidated, complicated, or contradicted Aristotle” (57).

While the chapter provides terminology and definitions key to understanding the early modern poetics of tragedy, it fails to provide a full portrait of the vast debates and the varied theoretical currents surrounding the issue in early modern Europe. A project as ambitious as that of recovering “what early modern tragedy was” in a single volume must necessarily have its blind spots. One example concerns the chapter...


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pp. 163-166
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