Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.03.14

Rebecca Bushnell (ed.), A Companion to Tragedy. Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture.   Malden, MA:  Blackwell Publishing, 2005.  Pp. 556.  ISBN 1-4051-0735-9.  $124.95.  



Reviewed by Wm. Blake Tyrrell, Michigan State University (tyrrell@msu.edu )
Word count: 1424 words

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Rebecca Bushnell's Companion belongs to the series of companions being published by Blackwell. In accord with the objectives of the series, the companion on tragedy is designed to orient new students and provide advanced undergraduates and graduates "with current and new directions." Bushnell's Companion attains the goals of the series.

The Companion approaches tragedy from a historical perspective. Tragedy explores the relationship of the individual to the community as conditioned by a particular society. Originally, this was the democracy of fifth-century Athens so that tragedy was formed by Athenian culture. Tragedy continued to be performed throughout the history of European and American cultures, intertwined in "the fate of dynasties, revolutions, and crises of social change" (2). The essays of the Companion first root tragedy in Greek, particularly, Athenian religion. Then they set forth four fundamental modes of interpreting tragedy philosophically and psychologically, those of Aristotle, Hegel, Nietzsche, Freud and Lacan. The authors of Part III contextualize tragedy in fifth-century Athens, its religion and politics. "Tragedy in History" follows tragedy from Athens to Rome and to its various manifestations in European history. In this review, I concentrate on those parts of the Companion that deal with antiquity.

In Part I, Christine Sourvinou-Inwood and Richard Seaford draw upon their published works to set forth Greek tragedy as an institution of the Athenian polis. Both focus on the origin of tragedy in the cult of Dionysus and his festivals, the Anthesteria and City Dionysia. For Sourvinou-Inwood, tragedy explores the religious foundations of the polis, providing a means to question religious discourse. Seaford emphasizes the Dionysiac in the plots and texts of the tragedies and in the god's tendency to break down differences, especially those between the ruled and their aristocratic rulers. Both scholars refer extensively to extant tragedies. These essays well illustrate the current understanding of how tragedy functioned and how it should be understood by classicists, at least, as a product of Athenian culture.

Part II brings together essays on monumental views of Greek tragedy, those of Aristotle in Poetics, Hegel, Nietzsche, Freud, and Lacan. I especially appreciate Mark W. Roche's account of Hegel's theory of tragedy and his use of Sophocles' Antigone. While working on Sophocles' play, I found navigating the translations and secondary literature on Hegel akin to surviving the matrix.

The third part sets forth three ways of reading tragedy historically and politically. Deborah Boedeker and Kurt Raaflaub stress the civic context for performances of tragedy and the subtlety that is needed in reading tragedy for its political content. Although Athenian audiences were conditioned to listen for political content, these authors wish to stress that the plays did not present an agenda for a person or policy. Hugh Grady explores English Renaissance tragedy through "Marxist, cultural materialist, and new historicist interpretations." Victoria Wohl's review of feminist treatments of tragedy could serve as the syllabus for a course in these subjects. She reviews the major developments through summaries and criticisms of individual studies and puts their contributions and shortcomings in the overall feminist perspective.

The fourth part traces the development of tragedy from the theater of Dionysus to the venues of the modern era. Individual plays are cited as examples, of course, but the focus of this part is on tragedy as a genre. Alan Sommerstein examines the ways that the tragedians exploited and modified the primary material of their art, traditional myths. No aspect of a myth was beyond being altered, he concludes, provided "the alteration does not impact severely on other stores which are not, on that occasion, being told" (167). Ruth Scodel sees how the tragedians followed upon and modified "the existing genres of epic, recitation and choral song in dramatic form" (181). Michael R. Halleran sets forth the conventions of tragedy, namely, the organization of the theater between orchestra and stage, the differences between actors and chorus, use of stage properties and the mask, and the skene. Claude Calame, in an article translated from the French, approaches the question of the roles of the chorus from the polyphony of voices, emotive, performative, and hermeneutic, made possible by the mask. It enables the choristers to maintain their civic identity as citizens while adopting a stage identity. The chorus's voice may thereby refer to a character in the text, an "ideal" author, or the real author or an addressee in the text or a "virtual" or "implicit" or real audience (217). Sheila Murnaghan reviews the role of women in tragedy, who are thrust into public view by an infraction of marriage and the house, making them "a point of entry for dangerous feelings" that can overwhelm social order (236). Tragic women both illustrate the public consequences of emitting fear, passion, and vulnerability -- emotions men associate with women -- and allow men through the intermediary of male actors playing female characters to experience those emotions vicariously. Through the prominence of ritual lament, tragedy incorporates a form of singing especially associated with women and one needed for social stability and prosperity. Ralph M. Rosen explores the relationship between tragedy and Old Comedy and how tragedians and comic poets drew from one another in their attempts to at self-definition. Alessandro Schiesaro traces the evolution of Roman tragedy.

Parts V through VII deal with the tragedies of Renaissance England and Spain, neoclassical and romantic tragedy in France, England, and Germany, and the transformations of tragedy in the modern era. During these periods, Greek tragedy served as a foundation for building new tragic forms but also "as the dead hand of the past" (3), a species nor longer relevant for the genre in changing times and issues.

The essays, as would be expected from their authors, manifest a high standard of scholarship and familiarity with current understandings, some of which their efforts has created. They are accessible to the undergraduate who wishes expend effort. This is not a handbook for beginners, and its scope far exceeds that of the typical graduate student. Articles are accompanied by a bibliography of suggested readings. The volume has a place on the desk of every reference librarian at the college and university level.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Rebecca Bushnell (University of Pennsylvania)

Tragic Thought

Part One: Tragedy and the Gods

1.Tragedy and Ritual: Christiane Sorvinou-Inwood

2.Tragedy and Dionysus: Richard Seaford (University of Exeter)

Part Two: Tragedy, Philosophy, and Psychoanalysis

3. Aristotle's Poetics: A Defense of Tragic Fiction: Kathy Eden (Columbia University)

4. The Greatness and Limits of Hegel's Theory of Tragedy: Mark W. Roche (University of Notre Dame)

5. Nietzsche and Tragedy: James Porter (University of Michigan)

6. Tragedy and Psychoanalysis: Freud and Lacan: Julia Reinhard Lupton (University of California, Irvine)

Part Three: Tragedy and History

7. Tragedy and City: Deborah Boedeker (Brown University) and Kurt Raaflaub (Brown University)

8. Tragedy and Materialist Thought: Hugh Grady (Arcadia University)

9. Tragedy and Feminism: Victoria Wohl (Ohio State University)

Tragedy in History

Part Four: Tragedy in Antiquity

10. Tragedy and Myth: Alan Sommerstein (University of Nottingham)

11. Tragedy and Epic: Ruth Scodel (University of Michigan)

12. Tragedy in Performance: Michael Halleran (University of Washington)

13. The Tragic Choral Group: Dramatic Role and Social Functions: Claude Calame (Ecole de Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales) translated by Dan Edelstein

14. Women in Greek Tragedy: Sheila Murnahagn (University of Pennsylvania)

15. Aristophanes, Old Comedy and Greek Tragedy: Ralph Rosen (University of Pennsylvania)

16. Roman Tragedy: Alessandro Schiesaro (King's College, University of London)

Part Five: Renaissance and Baroque Tragedy

17. The Fall of Princes: The Classical and Medieval Roots of English Renaissance Tragedy: Rebecca Bushnell (University of Pennsylvania)

18. Something is Rotten: English Renaissance Tragedies of State: Matthew H. Wikander (University of Toledo)

19. English Revenge Tragedy: Michael Neill (University of Auckland)

20. Spanish Golden Age Tragedy: Cervantes to Calderon: Margaret R. Greer (Duke University)

Part Six: Neoclassical and Romantic Tragedy

21. Neoclassical Dramatic Theory in Seventeenth-Century France: Richard E. Goodkin (University of Wisconsin-Madison)

22. French Neoclassical Tragedy: Corneille/Racine: Mitchell Greenberg (Cornell University)

23. Romantic Tragic Drama and its Eighteenth-Century Precursors: Remaking British Tragedy: Jeffrey N. Cox (University of Colorado at Boulder)

24. German Classical Tragedy: Lessing, Goethe, Schiller, Kleist, and B├╝chner: Simon Richter (University of Pennsylvania)

25. French Romantic Tragedy: Barbara T. Cooper (University of New Hampshire)

Part Seven: Tragedy and Modernity

26. Modern Theater and the Tragic in Europe: Gail Finney (Univeristy of California, Davis)

27. Tragedy in the Modern American Theatre: Brenda Murphy (University of Connecticut)

28. Using Tragedy against its Makers: Some African and Caribbean Instances: Timothy J. Reiss (New York University).

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