DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M042-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 12, 2024, from

4. England

In The Monk’s Tale, Geoffrey Chaucer provided a famous definition of tragedy as a (narrative) story of one who falls from prosperity into misery (teaching us not to trust our temporary good fortune). Sir Philip Sidney (An Apology for Poetry, 1598) argued that emotional responses to tragedy are morally useful because they move us to want to know and do what is good. He held that our admiration and commiseration teach us about the uncertainties of this world, but that fear is felt only by royal spectators!

The tragedies of William Shakespeare are now viewed as hallmarks of the genre. In a major break from both Greek and Roman tragedy and the morality plays of the Middle Ages, Shakespeare’s plays explore the psychology and actions of individuals, rather than general character types. Writing and acting were still male preserves, and women did not act female roles in England until the Restoration.

One topic of recurrent speculation among English theorists is the so-called paradox of tragedy: how and why do we enjoy being moved by scenes of pity, fear, suffering, and distress? Thomas Hobbes, true to his psychological egoism, suggested that the pleasure is of the thank-God-it’s-not-me sort: the suffering of the tragic hero makes spectators appreciate their own relative security and comfort. Thomas Rymer (1693), who developed the concept of ‘poetic justice’, which requires that the plot must provide a clear moral lesson, held that pleasure arises from the moral appreciation of seeing poetic justice take place.

David Hume’s essay ‘Of Tragedy’ (1757) attempts to explain ‘the unaccountable pleasure…[we] receive from sorrow, terror, anxiety and other passions, that are in themselves disagreeable and uneasy’. He claims that there may be some value in the observation of L’Abbé Du Bos that simply being dislodged from listlessness is itself pleasurable, and in Fontenelle’s idea that the sorrows of the theatre are softened by our recognizing ‘it is nothing but a fiction’. He adds that the eloquence of the poet pleases us and that all imitations please in themselves, so that these new passions predominate over and ‘convert’ the unpleasant ones. Hume’s view was not moralistic, though he asserted that conflicts between our own morality and the morality expressed in the play, and the sight of horrific violence (such as being ‘besmeared all over with mingled blood and gore’), can prevent us from being pleased by the play (see Hume, D.).

Citing this article:
Feagin, Susan L.. England. Tragedy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M042-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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