The Oxford Guide to Literature in English Translation by Peter France 28 Introduction



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3.3 Tragicomedy and Pastoral


Concerning the drama, Italian Renaissance was influential in introducing two genres – the tragicomedy and the pastoral. While the pastoral drama as such was a new genre originating in Italy, the achievement of the Italian authors in case of the tragicomedy was not inventing this genre, but providing a critical background for it – engaging in a dispute concerning whether this controversial genre should be used, or not. The problem with tragicomedy is that even though it was largely popular because of the “predilection for happy endings”19 of the audiences, the authors felt ambivalent about this genre and it “lacked status” (Dewar-Watson 16). The main reason for this lack of status was the “absence of any recognized classic authority for the genre” (Ibid.) and, therefore, no background for theoretic analysis. In the era of Renaissance when there was “no more vital humanist activity than the translation of the classics with the aim of transmitting knowledge, making the wisdom of the past available in the vernacular” (Bate 5)20 tragicomedy was criticised as “distastefully native” (Dewar-Watson 17). During the Middle Ages Aristotle’s Poetics was lost and the traditionally supported description of tragedy and comedy was that by Donatus-Evanthius – he characterised the genres as “diametrically opposed to one another” basically in the same terms as Aristotle – tragedy concerns the lives of extraordinary people from history and its plot develops from the happy or at least calm start to the tumultuous and disastrous ending, while comedy is about common people and what starts unhappily turns to a positive ending. In 1508 “the Aldine editio princeps”, the Latin edition of newly rediscovered Poetics, entered the circulation, but it did not help to calm the waters of theoretical criticism: it “instead of establishing a new orthodoxy [...] promoted the diversification of different theoretical strands” (Dewar-Watson 19). While the popular Senecan drama, which was more corresponding to the model of bad-ending tragedy, existed in print since the 15th century, the Greek tragedies by Sophocles and Euripides became known as late as at the beginning of the 16th century. When the Greek drama got into circulation, it was “something of a revelation to discover that the drama was more nuanced and complex than tradition had come to assume” (Dewar-Watson 20). Euripides’ plays, such as Helen, were generically complex, and even some plays by Aeschylus and Sophocles were examples of tragedy with happy ending. At this point these plays were in contradiction with Aristotle’s preference for unhappy endings. He discusses his theory of catharsis as the “teleological goal” of tragedy – the pleasure arising from tragic events. This focus on pleasure was not consistent with the theory by Donatus-Ecanthius and it later brought tragedy and tragicomedy closer together. One of the theoreticians, who claimed that tragedy and tragicomedy have something in common, is Cinthio – he claims that the Iliad is a tragedy “ending unhappily” and the Odyssey is a tragedy “ending happily” – a tragicomedy – he was “at pains to demonstrate that tragicomedy was not a species of popular entertainment but a genre which could lay claim to its own place in high classical tradition” (Dewar-Watson 25). Dewar-Watson claims that even though the Odyssey was not very popular during English Renaissance because it existed only in Greek and the first English translation appeared in 1614-15, Cinthio, as “one of the most well-known Italian critics and writers outside Italy” (Dewar-Watson 23), was with his literary theory influential on Shakespeare’s Othello and Measure for Measure, his “most generically complex works” (Dewar-Watson 23).

The pastoral drama has its origins in Jacopo Sannazaro’s Arcadia, “a set of pastoral poems framed within a prose narrative” (Treherne 30) published in 1501. Sannazaro is the first author who created Arcadia as a pastoral land, even though this invention is oftentimes inscribed to Virgil’s Eclogues. But the origins of the dramatic pastoral come from Ferrara of the mid-16th century. Giambattista Giraldi Cinthio’s Egle was performed in 1545 and was a very important part of the development of the dramatic pastoral – the characters are not shepherds but “it establishes the theme of a central female character who wishes to avoid the love of a male suitor in favour of the pleasures of hunting” (Treherne 30). This theme is also present in 1570’s play by Torquato Tasso, Aminta. In 1581 Giambattista Guarini wrote his Il pastor fido. This play has a more complex plot – it is “single and whole, coming close to a tragic ending in the fourth act, yet producing a comic ending by way of developments which are necessary, yet surprising” (Treherne 31). Also the characters are from all social classes – from noble lovers to an old poor man, but the pastoral setting creates a distance from reality and enables him to “represent comic as well as noble action [...] without worrying about compromising verisimilitude” (Treherne 33). The plot development from almost tragedy to happy ending provides “the idea that true happiness is precisely that which comes after suffering, and which is born out of virtue” and Arcadia becomes “a place where not only are individual’s desires reconciled with each other, but those sensual desires are themselves reconciled with moral authority” (Treherne 32). This shift from tragedy proper and the classical idea of pleasure from tragic events to the tragicomic happy ending after a catastrophe shows that the pastoral combined with tragicomedy is a modern drama flowing away from the classical predecessors – the happiness as a reward for suffering and mainly the moderating of one’s sensuality is more corresponding to Christianity and humanism than to the Ancient believes and philosophies. But although he brought the modern and fashionable genre of pastoral into his mixture of tragic and comic, it was “controversial” and “lead to multiple criticisms by more conservative members of Guarini’s audience, who rejected what they saw as the unsatisfactory hybridity of this new genre” (Treherne 34). One of the main criticisms was that tragedy and comedy are incompatible and cannot thus be incorporated in one plot – that means that the tragicomedy should have a double plot, one comic with “private individuals” and one tragic with “actions of illustrious persons” (36) – but this would violate the Aristotelian virtue of unity. Guarini’s defence of the pastoral tragicomedy, on the other hand, lies in suggesting that tragedy and comedy as such were “second-rate genres”: tragedy “showing the atrocity of chance, blood and death, which are horrible and inhuman things to see” and comedy “making us dissolve into laughter to such an extent that we sin against modesty and the decorum of a well-mannered man” (Treherne 41). To the incompatibility of comedy and tragedy he says that it concerns only some elements – “terror cannot coexist with laughter” – and the solution and a point for tragicomedy is than that the creator must take from tragedy “the great characters, and not the action; the plot which is verisimilar, but not true; affects moved, but measured; pleasure; danger, not death” and from comedy “measured laughter, the modest pleasantries, the false knot; the happy reversal; and above all, the comic order” (Treherne 40). These moderated borrowings from the two genres have effects on the audience and “the value of the play, therefore, is not intrinsic to the work itself” (Ibid.) but lies in fulfilling the humanist teaching of moderation. Thus the influence of the pastoral on the development of female characters is in creating plots that focus on female protagonists and the use of tragicomedy’s moderation helps creating more real characters – there are not only the tragic heroines capable of great sufferings or of great wrongdoings or comical laughable stock-characters, in tragicomedy the women are not eccentric and incredible, but believable.



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