Racine, Hume and the Death of Tragedy

Primary version of this post with pictures! at Barry Stocker’s Weblog

The full name for this post should be Corneille and Racine (in the picture above), Hume and Burke, and the Loss of Tragedy. Anyway, I’ve been hearing a lot about the London National Theatre production of Racine’s Phèdre, with Helen Mirren. Unfortunately I’ll have to miss it. It’s a play I’ve thought about in broad contact, Last year I was teaching a course looking at tragedies from Ancient Athens to Seventeenth Century France (the time of Jean Racine). Amongst other things I looked at three versions of this play: Hyppolitus by Euripides, Phaedra by Seneca, and Phèdre by Racine. Hyppolite is the step son that Phaedra is unhappily in love with, the son of King Theseus of Athens. That’s versions from Ancient Athens, Ancient Rome and the France of Louis XIV. The teaching of Racine was preceded by Corneille’s slightly earlier El Cid, from the France of Louis XII and Cardinal Richelieu (Corneille’s patron). Racine was Louis XIV’s official historian. Seneca was an imperial tutor in Rome, a teacher and adviser to Nero which did not prevent later persecution by Nero, In the comparisons, I find it significant that only Euripides had experienced a period of republican government, rather than absolute royal power, and I think that can be seen in his play which does refer to a public participatory political sphere in Athens.

Something I’ve also been teaching more recently is Hume’s aesthetics including is essay ‘Of Tragedy’ (in Essays: Moral, Political and Literary) where he’s concerned with how we can have a taste for tragedy when that is about painful events and must arouse painful feelings. Burke extends this kind of discussion in A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, where the sublime refers to all the painful aspects of taste. Hume looks at possible answers from 17th Century French writers, the contemporaries of Corneille and Racine. Hume does not completely accept any of their answers which refer to the mixture of pleasure and pain. His final answer does refer to the mixture but in terms of the unreality of what we see on stage. This softens the pain sufficiently so that tragedy can appeal to pleasure, the kind of cultivated pleasure experienced by those with education and knowledge of the arts.

Tragedy had been about the fall of members of royal families, and the fall of the whole family. Hume writes when Britain had become an aristocratic republic in substance, that is though there continued to be a monarchy real power was with Parliament dominated by aristocrats. This was a new kind of aristocracy which was not just the owner of land and the leader of soldiers for the monarchy, this was an aristocracy which was connected with commerce and new wealth. Some made money from state service, a state that was closely tied to commercial and merchant interests. Hume does not go into all of this, but he does not the increase of ‘taste’, of cultivate ideas of goodness and beauty, the growth of trade and commerce, and the growing subordination of persons to laws in the British system.

Hume’s world is one in which the monarchy is in some sense not real. It had more power then that it does now, but clearly the state was more than the possession of the king. The 17th Century nation was shocked by the execution of Charles II, but adapted to the forced exile of James II and a state more based on law and representative government. The aristocracy dominated, but not a heroic aristocracy tied to land and war, but a polished aristocracy merging with traders, financiers and merchants. This is the world in which tragedy is not real. It has died (compare this with a recent post on Vico and Foucault). Tragedies continued to be written, in Goethe and Schiller they even have royal and aristocratic heroes, but even there they are not about a fall of a family and a state. They do not tie the fate of a state with the king’s estate. Later tragic writers like Büchner and Ibsen move the focus to the Middle Classes or Working Classes,a and it becomes increasingly difficult to find plays which are tragedies properly speaking rather than plays which have some connections with past tragedies. Racine is left as the last great true tragedian, under a monarchy already becoming separated from personalised rule by the massive growth of central state administration in 17th Century France and the early development of commercial society.

The Death of Tragedy is a much discussed topic, the way in which tragedy becomes a central aesthetic problem in the 18th Century has perhaps not been given as much attention as it deserves.

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