Academic journal article Intertexts

Tragedy and the Crisis of Authority in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet

Academic journal article Intertexts

Tragedy and the Crisis of Authority in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet

Article excerpt

On the one hand, the early modern period did not lack for a clear definition of tragedy. (1) In the dedicatory epistle to Seneca's Tenne Tragedies (1581), Thomas Newton, the translator, defends tragedy against its detractors on the grounds of moral instruction. (2)

  For it may not at any hand be thought and deemed the 
  direct meaning of SENECA himself, whose whole wrytynges 
  (penned with a peerless sublimity and loftinesse of Style) 
  are so farre from countenauncing Vice, that I doubt 
  whether there bee any amonge all the Catalogue of 
  Heathen wryters, that with more gravity of 
  Philosophicall sentences, more waightyness of sappy 
  words, or greater authority of sound matter 
  beateth down sinne, loose lyfe, dissolute dealinge, 
  and unbridled sensuality: or that more sensibly, 
  pithily and bytingly layeth downe the guerdon of 
  filthy lust, cloaked dissimulation, & odious 
  treachery: which is the dryft, where-unto he leveleth the whole 
  yssue of each one of his Tragedies. (sig. A2v-r) 

An earlier translation of Seneca's Oedipus by Alexander Nevyle (1563) is even more precise about the expectations of tragedy: "Mine only entent [in translating Seneca's tragedies] was to exhorte men to embrace Vertue and shun Vyce [ ... ]" (sig. a.n.). But whereas Nevyle focuses on all "men," Sir Philip Sidney, following the Mirror for Magistrates, defines tragedy more closely and more politically:

  So that the right use of comedy will, I think, by 
  nobody be blamed, and much less the high and excellent 
  tragedy that openeth great wounds and showeth forth 
  the ulcers that are covered with tissue, that maketh 
  kings fear to be tyrants, and tyrants manifest their 
  tyrannical humors, that with stirring the affects 
  of admiration and commiseration teacheth the uncertainty 
  of this world, and upon how weak foundations gilden 
  roofs are builded, that maketh us know 
  Qui sceptra saevus duro imperio regit, Timet timentes, metus in 
  auctorem redit. (3) 

Tragedy in all these definitions reflects a morally clear universe in which there is a bright red line separating "Vertue" from "vice," and the genres point is unambiguously didactic: to teach its consumers to avoid corruption, either moral or political, which also means obey your superiors, or you will face terrible consequences. As such, the official message of tragedy overlaps with An Homilie agaynst Disobedience and Wylful Rebellion (1570): God "not only ordained that in families and households the wife should be obedient unto her husband, the children unto their parents, the servants unto their masters, but also [...] people should be obedient [to the 'special governors and rulers'] God has appointed" (sig. Aiiiv). In both cases, offenses against moral or political order result in disaster. 'Ihe theory of early modern tragedy thus closely anticipates Augusta Baol's argument that Greek tragedy constituted a form of repression in that catharsis served to reinforce the status quo (130).

Practice, however, was a different matter entirely. As both David Scott Kastan and Jean E. Howard have pointed out, once tragedy entered the public theatre, the certainties fall away and in their place we find "a veritable factory of experimentation" (Howard, "Geography" 50; see also Kastan 5-9 and Howard, "Genre" 298). Far from confirming moral pieties, Elizabethan tragedy from the very start interrogates them. (4) To give but two examples, in Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy (c. 1585-1587), three out of the four versions of Don Andrea's death (the exception being the mendacious narrative by Viluppo) demonstrate that Andrea's death resulted from the fortunes of war, not misdeeds or murder. Andreas desire for revenge, consequently, has no legitimacy, and the play depicts a world in which the impulse for violence is always, already present, but without a stable ground or origin. …

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