‘This dynamic…is the original dramatic phenomenon: to see oneself transformed before one’s eyes and now to act as if one really had entered another body, another character’ (Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy).
It is my understanding that with this quote Nietzsche was referring to classical Greek drama wherein dramatists seize upon a metaphor or image that when presented to the audience through mimesis or imitation, conveys a ‘seminal truth’ rather than a ‘cultural lie’. In other words, if a tragedy is to achieve ‘transformation’ in the sense to which Nietzsche was referring, then it must provide audiences with something more deeply meaningful than mere entertainment or political party line. For Nietzsche, transformation was not simply a matter suspending audience disbelief, but instead allowing the audience to actually enter the world of the Greek god Dionysus, in whose realm lies all primordial truths and with it, the tragic suffering inherent in comprehending these truths.
If by action we are referring to stage performance (rather than theme or underlying plot), then to the extent audiences were encouraged to see such performance as mere entertainment, I would suggest that Renaissance tragedy more often than not misses Nietzsche’s mark. Bottom line, most Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights were by necessity as interested (if not more) in making money than they were in imparting seminal truths. According to Mike Pincombe in his article ‘English Renaissance Tragedy: Theories and Antecedents’ in the Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Tragedy, Elizabethan audiences were in tune with the idea that ‘tragedy’ required ‘the fall of a great man and a lot of shouting to go with it’. To the extent Renaissance dramatists played to that idea, then if most of the audience focus was more on the ‘shouting’ than the gathering of primordial truths, it would seem ‘transformation’ would not likely have often occurred.
For example in her introduction to the New Mermaids edition of the A-Text of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, Ros King notes that the popularity of the play was due in large part to the audience’s interest in the special effects (the trip to the Vatican to annoy the pope must have been a feat). Even the side story of Rafe and Robin having ‘stolen one of Doctor Faustus’ conjuring books’ and playing at their own conjuring in order to obtain ‘the kitchen maid’ for ‘thy own use’ would seem for the most part although entertaining also distractive – not contributing in any meaningful way to the main plot of Faustus’ struggle regarding Christian redemption and most certainly not reflective of a primordial truth.
Rather than conveying a ‘seminal truth’, the trip to the Vatican to annoy the pope would seem to be more easily justified as an attempt to further a ‘cultural lie’ in the sense that although first printed in 1604, the play was most definitely written when the staunchly protestant Elizabeth I was still on the throne. The connection between Renaissance tragedy and the politics of the moment is also addressed by other Renaissance writers such as Sir Phillip Sidney in his The Defense of Posey, where he suggested tragedy ought to teach kings to avoid tyranny. In his article Tragedy and the nation state (Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Tragedy) remarks that the relationship between English tragedy and the nation-state was ‘there from the start’.
This does not mean that because a tragedy conveys a ‘cultural lie’ such as political party line and is also entertaining (lots of ‘shouting’ going on) that it cannot also deliver that (Dionysian) ‘seminal truth’. Indeed in Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, there was not only the fall and tragic suffering of Hieronomo, (albeit not really a ‘great man’) but also the seminal truth that justice is not able to be achieved even when the king is not a tyrant (this of course also likely another ‘cultural lie’ in the sense that if it had been otherwise the censors of the time would likely have refused for the play to be presented – or worse).
In summary, if Nietzsche’s conception of ‘transformation’ required tragedy to deliver seminal truths rather than cultural lies to the audience, then I would have to conclude that for the most part Renaissance tragedy likely most often failed to achieve it. Renaissance dramatists were for the most part economically dependent on having their plays well-received and if audiences had the notion that tragedy should include the fall of a (more or less) great man with a good deal of shouting going on then it only made sense that is what the dramatists delivered; focused on the ‘shouting’, it would have been hard to focus also on seminal truths. That is not to suggest that in many cases seminal truths were not available, as with Dr Faustus and The Spanish Tragedy. However I would suggest that such well-entertained Renaissance audiences most likely had to work harder to find them than classic Greek audiences might have done. Finally, as the connection between tragedy and nation-state was always present, it is unlikely that any seminal truths would have been conveyed undiluted by some very necessary ‘cultural lies’.
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