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Tragic Phaidra: A Diachronic Case Study between Antiquity and Early Modern Age

Lothar Willms

Since the rediscovery and revival of Ancient Tragedy in the Renaissance the concept of the tragic has played a crucial role both for the interpretation of ancient tragedies and the production of modern pieces. Both endeavors have been influenced by the reception of Aristotle’s Poetics – and have been greatly led astray, as research has fully acknowledged only in recent times (Lurje 2004). The high tide of the concept of the tragic was German Idealism and Romanticism which on its turn also creatively adopted ancient tragedy rather than grasping its core features. Still, I do not share Simon Goldhill’s view that for this reason the concept of the tragic should be confined to the history of German intellectual life of the 19th century rather than being used as a hermeneutic device which can be usefully applied to understand ancient tragedy (2008: 61 f.). For even if we leave apart the special question of the tragic outside tragedy (e.g. in other genres and even in history) the tragic provides a conceptual tool for grasping specific features of tragedy which often is being read by applying the same categories as when examining epics or even a movie.

It is the scope of this paper to present a new concept of the tragic and to test it on three tragedies of Antiquity and Early Modern Age. The ‘Tragic’ is not primarily applied to characters but to patterns of actions which are performed by characters. An action is tragic if it contains a transgression that (a) results from a constellation of actions that limits the character’s full ability to function in the ethical and rational realm or (b) is the outcome of a conflict of several kinds of integrity (social, moral, physical, etc.). This new concept of the tragic is to be tested on three tragedies (Euripides’ Hippolytos, Seneca’s Phaedra and Racine’s Phèdre) which deal with the same subject (Phaedra and Hippolytus) and thus lend themselves to interepochal comparison the fruitfulness of which has been demonstrated by traditional philology (Zwierlein 1987, 2006; Roisman 2000). My paper sounds how the configuration of the tragic varies with the playwright and the era, e.g. which characters perform tragic actions, which kinds of integrities conflict, and which actions were deemed transgressions, depending on the normative framework of the author or the era. Besides, it shows to which extent the construction of the tragic in these plays was influenced by the reception of the previous dramas on the subject of Phaedra and Hippolytus.

Session/Panel Title

Classical and Early Modern Tragedy: Comparative Approaches and New Perspectives

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