Beyond tragedy : genre and the idea of the tragic in Shakespearean tragedy, history and tragicomedy
O'Neill, Fionnuala Ruth Clara
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This thesis explores the intersection between the study of Shakespearean drama and the theory and practice of early modern dramatic genres. It reassesses the significance of tragedy and the idea of the tragic within three separate yet related generic frames: tragedy, history, and tragicomedy. Behind this research lies the fundamental question of how newly emerging dramatic genres allow Shakespeare to explore tragedy within different aesthetic and dramatic contexts, and of how they allow his writing to move beyond tragedy. The thesis begins by looking at Shakespeare’s deployment of the complex trope of “nothing”. “Nothing” as a rhetorical trope and metaphysical idea appears across many of the tragedies, often becoming a focal point for the dramatic representation of scepticism, loss and nihilism. The trope is often associated with the space of the theatre, and sometimes with the dramaturgy of tragedy itself. However, it is also deployed within the histories and tragicomedies at certain moments which might equally be called tragic. “Nothing” therefore provides a starting-point for thinking about how the genres of history and tragicomedy engage with tragedy. Part I focuses on tragedy, including extended readings of Timon of Athens and King Lear. It explores Shakespearean drama as a response to the pressures of the early modern cultural preoccupation with, and anxiety about, scepticism. Stanley Cavell and other critics of early modern dramatic scepticism have tended to locate this engagement with scepticism within tragedy. However, this section shows that the same sceptical problematic is addressed across Shakespearean dramatic genres, with very different results. It then explores why scepticism should display a particular affinity for tragedy as a dramatic genre. Part II focuses on history, with particular reference to Richard II and Henry V. The trope of “nothing” is used as a starting-point to explore the intersection between Shakespearean history and tragedy. Engaging with Walter Benjamin’s theory of baroque tragedy as Trauerspiel (mourning-plays) rooted in history, it argues that Trauerspiel provides a useful generic framework against which to consider the mournful aesthetic of Shakespeare’s histories. Part III focuses on early modern tragicomedy and The Winter’s Tale, asking how Shakespeare achieves the transition from tragedy to tragicomedy in his later writing. It explores tragicomedy’s background on the early modern stage in theory and practice, paying particular attention to Guarini’s theory that pastoral tragicomedy frees its hearers from melancholy, and to the legacy of medieval religious drama and its engagement with faith and belief. Returning to the trope of “nothing”, this section shows that The Winter’s Tale addresses the same sceptical problematic as the earlier tragedies. Arguing that scepticism opens up a space for tragedy and nihilism in the first half of The Winter’s Tale, it demonstrates that Shakespeare finds in the genre of tragicomedy an aesthetic and dramatic form which allows him to move through, and beyond, the claims of tragedy.