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Affective Interests: Ancient Tragedy, Shakespeare and the Concept of Character

Vanda Zajko

This paper will address the themes of the panel by looking at recent scholarship on the philosophy of tragedy as a phenomenon of classical reception (e.g. Billings & Leonard). It will maintain that within this tradition the idea of Greek tragedy as reconstructed in part from Shakespeare’s plays continues to play a role in the testing of hypotheses about the relative merits of the three main ancient tragedians. It will do this, in particular, via a reading of A.C. Bradley’s highly influential translation of Hegelian conflict into the character-based analysis of the tormented individual (See, in particular Bradley’s enormously influential 1904 work Shakespearian Tragedy which has never since been out of print). It will argue that a rehabilitated concept of character can move us towards a model of reception that that goes beyond the reading of any one author by focusing primarily on the affective power of a range of dramatic texts.

The challenge of balancing readings of particular literary texts with analyses of the relationships between texts from different periods lies at the heart of the project of classical reception. Early theoretical models which developed the dynamic Eliotic concept of tradition unashamedly argued for a radically revised employment of literary history. However, quite quickly, these models were largely replaced by those which both reasserted the importance of more traditional models of history and sought to complicate them; this resulted in a body of work firmly grounded in contextual detail and invested, above all, in the density and convolution of traceable patterns of influence in the direction of past to present.  This kind of approach, in both its more and less sophisticated forms, is characteristic of the majority of work in the field of reception these days, along with a rather agonised self-consciousness about scholarly self-positionings. Issues of temporality vie with issues of worth and tend to come out on top, but scholars are urged to keep in mind both an awareness of the historicity of the act of reading and a sense of the value of ancient Greek texts to a broadly-configured reading community whose sense of engagement with the ancient material transcends the merely historical (See, for instance, Goldhill, who divides his book into two sections, the first half focusing on Sophoclean language and the second half on reception and its theoretical implications). This fastidiousness can sometimes result in a rather apologetic kind of criticism.

Exploring the way that judgments about the singularity and power of the Shakespearian corpus have retroactively shaped responses to ancient tragic texts, this paper will confront the fundamental question of why audiences in different periods continue to respond to the plays of the ancient tragedians. The extent to which such a response can be regarded as ‘the same’ kind of response elicited by Shakespeare and by other writers of the modern era is pushed into sharp relief by the central issue of the representation of character and the vocabulary associated with it. This vocabulary tends to provoke a sense of discomfort about potential anachronism more than others and the paper will examine the tradition of exploring this problem within the scholarship on ancient theatre of the twentieth century (e.g. Easterling, Gould).  It will show how the rejection of particular uses of the term and concept of ‘character’ does not of itself solve the problems of how to evaluate the enduring potency of an encounter with the chief protagonists of the stage. Finally, in more proactive mode, it will offer a dynamic model of utilising this critical tradition that can help to provide an explanation of tragedy’s continuing power to move. 

Session/Panel Title:

Beyond the Case Study: Theorizing Classical Reception

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