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

3. Italy and France

Seneca’s influence was significant, especially in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Italy and in seventeenth-century France. In Italy, the sixteenth century saw the development of ‘true’ tragedy, with the playwright Torquato Tasso emerging as the major figure. Though animated by religious ideals, he tried to adhere to the prescriptions of Aristotle and Horace. French tragedy of this period consisted of a great deal of declamation and little action, and is widely regarded as an insignificant precursor to the neoclassical drama of Corneille and Racine, which also showed Senecan influence.

From the time of its first Latin translation in 1498, Aristotle’s Poetics had substantial influence. Inspired by Aristotle, Bernardino Daniello formulated the Doctrine of Fixed Forms (1536) and Lodovico Castelvetro invented the three unities of time, place and action (1576): the action must take place during a single day, in a single place, and there should be only one main plot with no subplots. Castelvetro also argued that pleasure is tragedy’s proper end; if instruction were its end, it would be a utilitarian art. Other rules acquiring more limited acceptance were that the ending should be unhappy, the performance time should be the same as the time of the action, there should be five acts, and no death or violence should take place on stage. Culminating with Nicholas Boileau-Despréaux (L’art poëtique, 1674), French theorists entrenched the rules developed by sixteenth-century Italians as absolute and unchanging standards for the production and evaluation of tragedy, though exactly which rules and how absolute their status became issues of continuing controversy.

Corneille and Racine were rivals for the title of pre-eminent dramatist of their day. Racine was best known for his literary craft, but Corneille, whose most notable tragedy was Le Cid, also wrote essays (Discourses). Corneilleargued that we should recognize that many tragedies are effective even though they do not obey strict Aristotelian rules. However, it was still the function of poets to please according to the rules of their art, and their art included more than the three unities: for example, the tragic hero must be noble, plays were to be entirely in verse, there were to be no representations of violence on stage and no more than three speaking characters on stage at once. There was, moreover, more concern with general character types than the psychology of individuals. Plays were still declamatory in style, and extolled the virtues of reason or will in the face of the temptation to be ruled by passion. They were thus part of the Cartesian rationalist spirit, following up Plato’s praise of reason and critiques of pleasure and emotion.

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

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