UnknownAccording to Patrick Cheney, ‘(r)enaissance tragedy tells how a freedom-seeking individual is oppressed, always to annihilation by authorities in power, whether represented by a corrupt government or by the angry gods – often by both’. I suggest that this is a dangerous over generalization at least in regards to revenge tragedies, which are a dominant theme in renaissance tragedy (Pollard, 58). Not only does it fail to recognise there is no single definition of tragedy for the whole of this tumultuous fifty-odd year period, but it also fails to recognise the various types of power mongers presented in the plays as well as the different types of freedom sought by the individuals oppressed by them.

For example, the ‘authorities in power’ (however defined) are most decidedly not always corrupt and at least with regards to the sub-genre of domestic revenge tragedy such as Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi and Middleton and Rowley’s The Changeling, there are often no governments (corrupt or not) unless one accepts the view that a household is equivalent to a government in the sense of ‘everyman’s house is his castle’ and his ‘family’, a ‘private commonwealth’ (Richardson, 18-19).

In and of itself, this is not an unreasonable view. Hadfield (30) advises that in English tragedy, the fate of the ruling monarch has always been linked to the nation-state in the sense that when the monarch fails to act in the best interests of his subjects, everyone suffers and Richardson (20) argues that this applies likewise for the (male) head of a household and its residents; early modern communities the misbehaviour of a single member of a household tainted the reputation of the whole. This would certainly seem to be the case with The Changeling when after his daughter, Beatrice, has confessed her crimes and perished, Vermandero laments as how his family name and personal honour are comprised (‘Oh, my name is entered now in that (notorious) record,’ V,iii,180). Beatrice’s bereaved husband, Alsemero, however would seem to be less concerned with such damage because once ‘(t) guilty hit, that innocence is quit,’ (V iii 186). In The Duchess of Malfi, although the entire household suffers as the result of the ‘sins’ of the widowed Duchess at the end of the day all taint on the family name (quite possibly because by that time the ‘sin’s committed are no longer solely those of the Duchess) is purged leaving ‘no more fame’ than a ‘print in the snow’ when said snow ‘ever melts’ as ‘soon as the sun shines’ (V v 109 – 115).

But even if one accepts that the household is equivalent to the nation-state, at least in The Changeling it is difficult to conclude that, as head of household/government, Vermandero is ‘corrupt’ in the sense of being depraved or evil (OED II 4) or even perverted from uprightness and fidelity in the discharge of duty (OED II 5); he may be too forceful in his insistence that Beatrice marry as he pleases (‘I’ll want (my) will else’, I 1 12) for our modern tastes, but certainly this does not make him evil or failing in his duty as a early modern father. Likewise, although Alsemero might be faulted for falling in love with a betrothed woman (I i 1-12); but he makes little, if any, effort to win her and hence I cannot consider him to be depraved or evil or even to have failed uprightness or fidelity to discharge his duty; it is neither by his hand nor direction that his wife, Beatrice, dies. However in The Duchess of Malfi there is room to argue that Duke Ferdinand, as head of the household qua government is corrupt. Most certainly at times he borders on depravity and his elder brother, the Cardinal of Aragon, says as much: ‘(w)hy do you make yourself (s)o wild a tempest?’ (II v 17-18). Yet one corrupt head of household/government does not an overgeneralization like Mr Cheney’s support and besides, let us not forget that until the very end of Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, the King of Spain demonstrates his continuing loyalty to Hieronomo, the tragic protagonist, when for example, in Act 3, scene xii, he refuses to entertain the wily Lorenzo’s suggestion that Hieronimo is too ‘helplessly distract’ to properly do his job and should resign and also that in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, there is neither government nor household to be corrupt.

There is however a god. But despite Faustus’ protestations that He is ‘fierce’ (13, 108), this god is protrayed not so much angry but as business-like, concerned with enforcing the terms of a valid contract freely consented to by both parties. Indeed Cheney’s statement regarding ‘angry gods’ would seem better suited to the classical pagan pantheon depicted in The Spanish Tragedy (presented in the first act by the ghost of Don Andrea recounting his journey through the pagan underworld of the Greeks) than to the New Testament Christian God of Doctor Faustus, complete with hellish devils, heavenly angels, and frequent calls in the name of ‘Christ my Saviour’ for repentance (7, 78-80). Let us also remember that in both The Duchess of Malfi and The Changeling to the extent that any god is mentioned, Divinity plays a very insignificant role.

Perhaps the biggest fault with Mr Cheney’s sweeping assertion is that although it is qualified as pertaining only to ‘freedom-seeking’ individuals, Mr Cheney neglects to define ‘freedom’. This is problematic because over that fifty-odd year period of Renaissance Tragedy, these plays incorporate a mix and match of many different notions of freedom ranging from that of Roman Stoicism ( choice of personal response limited to conformance with cosmic laws ( ‘Logos’), (Macintyre, 101) to that of the grandeur of the renaissance pursuit of ‘self-chosen goals’. Not only that but with these various definitions of freedom come different consequences for the failure to judiciously utilise it; indeed I suggest that the notion of freedom has evolved to ‘self-chosen goals’, we have reached a complete end to ‘angry gods’. By the time of the English Renaissance, tragic protagonists like Shakespeare’s Hamlet (is it ‘nobler’ to ‘suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’, than to ‘take arms’ against one’s ‘troubles’ and ‘oppose them’? (3.1, 57-61), no longer struggle against fate and/or supernatural powers (i.e. ‘angry gods’), but instead with the overwhelming responsibility of shaping their own destinies (Dupré, 125).

It is widely agreed that after Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy the form of tragedy favoured by English Renaissance playwrights was drawn heavily from the revenge plays of Seneca, Roman philosopher and playwright. Hence it is only reasonable that in English Renaissance tragedies, there would be some evidence of Seneca’s Stoicism, one of the basic tenets of which is that every man must act ‘true to himself’ to make his own life journey and although he may be aided by others, at the end of the day he must assume responsibility for himself and to the extent that requires going against the authorities in power then so be it. (Asmis, 224).

This certainly seems to be the case with Hieronomo. Witness his agonies (‘this way or that way?’, III, xii, 16) before finally deciding he has no alternative but to seek revenge for the death of his son, Horatio. Further, although Hieronomo’s choices appear narrowly constrained to his ‘duty’ within a defined cosmos (‘Logos’), where ‘neither gods nor men be just to me’ (III 5 10-13) in the true Roman Stoic sense, it is important to note that even in this we find a mix and match of philosophies regarding freedom; for despite Seneca’s own use of revenge in his tragedies (perhaps as a backlash against the limitations of Stoic impassivity), Roman stoicism would have counselled against revenge for if a man is unable to remain calm in the face of disaster, he cannot be trusted to properly navigate his life journey (MacIntyre, 102)

As compared to Hieronomo’s Stoicism, Doctor Faustus takes a wider, more modern view of freedom; his perceived range of choices are more in line with the grandeur of the renaissance pursuit of ‘self-chosen goals’ when he follows his wildest fancies, the ‘metaphysics of magicians’ and the ‘heavenly’ books of necromancy ( I 49-50). Also while the consequences of Heironomo’s decisions appear to lie firmly in the hands of those pagan gods (the ghost of Don Andrea chooses to ‘lead Hieronomo where Orpheus plays, adding (s)weet pleasure to eternal days’ (IV v 23-24), the responsibility for the consequences of Faustus’ decisions are considered by him to be shared by himself and the Devil (‘(n)o Faustus, curse thy self’ and not god, but the devil (‘curse, Lucifer’), (13, 102-103).

Like Faustus, the Duchess of Malfi pursues her ‘self-chosen’ goals as she ‘winked’ and ‘chose a husband’ of her own liking (I i 340) and although the consequences of her action is execution at the hands of her brother’s henchman, she does not appear to repent for having by her own choice shaped her destiny any more than did Faustus – ‘I am the Duchess of Malfi still’ (4.2 134) – and indeed she demonstrates more calm and bravery in the face of death )’(t)his cord should terrify you? Not a whit’ (4.2, 206 – 207) than Faustus who in his final moments momentarily thrashes about looking for someone else to blame (‘(c)ursed by the parents that engendered me’). Similarly the tragic protagonists of The Changeling, Beatrice and Deflores pursue their own goals – ‘I shall want (my will) if you do’(I i 213) and ‘I’ll have my will’ (I i 230) respectively. Although by the end of the play Beatrice exhibits token remorse for her behaviour (‘Forgive me, Alsemero, all forgive! ‘Tis time to die, when ‘tis a shame to live’, V iii 1178-179), Deflores exhibits none whatsoever when he wields his penknife.

If in his sweeping statement Mr Cheney has neglected to define ‘freedom’, he equally has neglected to define what he means by ‘tragedy.’ Although for Chaucer tragedy was a little ‘ditty’ about a time of prosperity ending in wretchedness, by early Elizabethan times, tragedy was commercially (if not idealistically) defined in line with Marlowe’s Tamburlaine and Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy – ‘tragical’ in the sense that it usually involved love and sexual desire gone wrong (Pincombe, 5-6, 11). Interestingly, according to Pincombe (12-13), many of these tragedies could equally be labelled as ‘heroic romance’ (romantic elements including a wandering hero, exploits of war and love, and the gratification of wish-fulfilling fantasy), leaving the defining terms of tragedy even more enigmatic. Love and sexual desire gone wrong most definitely underpins The Changeling; if Beatrice had not fancied Alsemero, there would have been no story. But love and sexual desire does not figure into Dr Faustus (his coupling with the incubus, Helen of Troy aside) and although lies behind the inciting incident – the death of Heironomo’s son, Horatio – it does not impact the way in which Heironomo takes his ‘tragic’ decision. Although the ‘sins’ of the Duchess of Malfi did revolved around love and sexual desire, I suggest that they cannot be said of have gone wrong except perhaps in the eyes of her designing brothers; indeed Chaucer’s definition of prosperity ending in wretchedness might equally apply, again underlining the difficulty of pinning down the defining terms of English Renaissance ‘tragedy’.

In summary, Mr Cheney’s statement regarding ‘(r)enaissance tragedy telling how a freedom-seeking individual is oppressed, always to annihilation by authorities in power, whether represented by a corrupt government or by the angry gods, is a sweeping over generalisation, dangerously failing to account for the variety of themes and plots combining under banner of ‘tragedy’ as well as different notions of ‘freedom’ represented. Often enough gods or governments are neither present nor materially significant to the plays’ denouement and indeed even when gods are represented they are not always ‘angry’ any more than the governments are always corrupt.



Marlowe, Christopher. Doctor Faustus (based on the A-Text). London: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2014.

Middleton, Thomas and William Rowley. The Changeling. London: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2013.

Kyd, Thomas. The Spanish Tragedy. Manchester: Manchester Univeristy Press, 2002.

Webster, John. The Duchess of Malfi and Other Plays. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2009.

Asmis, Elizabeth. ‘Seneca’s Originality’, (224-238). The Cambridge Companion to Seneca, ed. Shadi Bartsch and Alessandro Schiesaro. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015 (online).

Dupré, Louis. Passage to Modernity – As Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.

Hadfield, Andrew. ‘Tragedy and the nation state’, (30-43). The Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Tragedy, ed. Emma Smith and Garrett A. Sullivan, Jr. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. A Short History of Ehtics. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 2002.

Pincombe, Mike. ‘English Renaissance tragedy: theories and antecedents’, (3-16). The Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Tragedy, ed. Emma Smith and Garrett A. Sullivan, Jr. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Pollard, Tanya. ‘Tragedy and revenge’, (58-72). The Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Tragedy, ed. Emma Smith and Garrett A. Sullivan, Jr. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Richardson, Catherine. ‘Tragedy, family and household’, (17-29). The Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Tragedy, ed. Emma Smith and Garrett A. Sullivan, Jr. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

The hermeneutics of ChristmasIs the story of a baby named Jesus born to a virgin named Mary on 25th December in a manger in Bethlehem literally true?


But I suggest that the literality of this story should be the least of your concerns.

The two Gospels containing infancy narratives, Luke and Mathew, give inconsistent accounts of the genealogy of Jesus as well as the time and place of his birth and attendant visitors (shepherds in Luke and the Magi in Matthew). This distinction was prevalent in the art of the Middle Ages and while it may be glossed over today, academic theologians accept that where these accounts conflict, then at least one of them cannot literally be true.

Realizing that the Word of God represented more than the literal text, early and medieval Christianity developed the allegorical method of reading scripture in order to interpret the inner meaning of the literal text. By the time of Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century , the four levels hermeneutic had become widely accepted as the means by which Scripture was to be interpreted, its method summed up in a well-known verse:

 The letter teaches you the facts

Allegory what you should believe

Morality how you should act.

And Anagoge what to hope for.


The primary task of the four levels approach was to bring the Old and New Laws (Testaments) into unity through a double structure of prophecy.

Since the events of the Old Testament prefigure the mission of Christ, the Old Law is a prophecy of the New (allegory). The New Law in turn is a prophecy of the Kingdom of Heaven upon Earth at the Second Coming (anagoge). Understanding the allegories of the Bible was also the gateway to the moral meanings of the various stories and a guide to  Christian conduct (tropological or moral image of ‘the Truth’). For ordinary priests,  who might find the four levels hermeneutic difficult, standard interpretations of Bible stories were devised to aid with the anagogics (mystery interpretations).

But does this mean that you have to accept these standard interpretations as the only ‘truth’?

For example, the facts pertaining to the life of Jesus we know them could be interpreted as a patchwork of events in the lives of those who came before him: born to a carpenter and a virgin, like Krishna: born on 25th December, like Mithras; heralded by a star in the East, like Horus;  walking on water and feeding the five thousand from a small basket, like Buddha;  performing miracles, like Pythagoras;  raising from the dead, like Elisha;  executed on a tree, like Adonis;  and ascending to Heaven like Hercules, Enoch and Elijah.

Looking at the Nativity through similarly expanded eyes, in Mary, you might sense of the presence of Isis; in Joseph, the patriarch with a crooked staff, Osiris, the luminous babe in the manger, Krishna; the ox (Taurus) and the ass (Aries), the two ages leading the new Age of Pisces, the Magi’s guiding star, the spirit of Zarathustra, and the angel announcing the birth, the spirit of the Buddha.

What if one of the Magi were Pythagoras reincarnated? What if the Magi had been initiated by the prophet Daniel? What if instead of one Jesus, there were two as depicted by the Leonardo Cartoon in the National Gallery in London and on the north portal at Chartres?

What if…well, you get the idea.

May peace be with you this holiday season and may hermeneutics take you as far as you’re willing to go.


St Kevin and the Black Bird / by Seamus Heaney (1996)

And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird.

The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside

His cell, but the cell is narrow, so


One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff

As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands

And lays in it and settles down to nest.


Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked

Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked

Into the network of eternal life,


Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand

Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks

Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.


And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,

Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?

Self-forgetful or in agony all the time


From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?

Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?

Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth


Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?

Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,

‘To labour and not to seek reward,’ he prays,


A prayer his body makes entirely

For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird

And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.


Literary Criticism

The following is offered as a draft criticism for the above poem/ as my classmates and I prepare for our upcoming U Oxford/ Creative Writing exam / comments gratefully appreciated:

Heaney’s St Kevin and the Blackbird begins with a saint kneeling – arms outstretched in his narrow cell.   One of his upturned palms is out the window.  This invites blackbird to lay in it and settle down to nest.  St Kevin feels the warm eggs and small breast of the bird and finds himself linked with the network of eternal life.  He is moved to pity because now he must remain in this position until the blackbird’s young have grown up and flown away.  This leads to an intense self-scrutiny where he questions whether he’s even imagined being himself at all.  He examines each part of his aching body and then slowly slips out of himself into the solitude of prayer.

This poem is about the tension of man as a part of the material world (nature) and his more divine self that is shared only with God.  It elaborates on the pain of incarnation and the man’s innate yearning to be at one with the divine.  In the end, it may even suggest a religious or mystical experience through which one senses one has connected with God.

The use of free verse contributes to the overall sense of the search for order and place.    That each stanza consists of three lines reinforces the notion that such order is to be found in the Trinity – traditionally the three faces of the divine.  The use of the specific name of St Kevin (as opposed to an anonymous seeker) gives an overall sense of reassurance.  We know whom we’re dealing so in the end everything will turn out fine.  The first line in the first stanza (where Kevin and the blackbird are introduced) is end-stopped.  This shapes the initial feeling that nature (of which man is a part) is all that there is.  However the next two lines– are run-on-lines giving the impression of expansion beyond that which man incarnate is able to physically touch.  The cell is ‘narrow’ (the word cell is repeated to emphasize the sense that incarnation is a prison) yet St Kevin does his best to escape.  Because he’s kneeling, we know he means to accomplish this through supplication.  Thus man’s horizons broaden when he appeals to that within him, which is divine.

One thing leads to another as the run-on-line into the 2nd stanza suggests.  St Kevin has only partially managed to set himself free.  Only one ‘turned-up’ palm is ‘out the window’.  The words ‘stiff’ and ‘crossbeam’ reinforce the feeling of man’s frustration to be in his body – separate from God.  However when the blackbird (birds are symbolic of messengers from heaven) ‘lands’ on his palm there’s some suggestion that through nature man can find his desired communion with God.    The messenger from heaven (the blackbird) finding himself comfortable in the ‘’palm’ of a man (usually we find man in the hands of God rather than the other way around), ‘lays’ and ‘settles’ to ‘nest’.  This is the beginning of something that will grow with time.  The end-stopped line at the end of this stanza also suggests that St Kevin’s yearning has found temporary rest.  All is in order when man and the heavens are at one.

The next stanza stirs things up again with the use of run-on-lines.  There’s an uncomfortable contrast struck between the feeling of ‘warm eggs’ and ‘claws’.   Now Kevin (a regular person like you and me no longer referred to as St) is ‘linked’ with the ‘network’ of ‘eternal life’.  This suggests that by his experience he’s fallen in status.  While the experience feels ‘warm’, it’s also unpleasant.  In a run-on-line into the next stanza we find indeed the experience in uncomfortable enough to have moved him to ‘pity’.  This a strange word to choose.   The cause of the ‘pity’ is that now Kevin must ‘hold his hand’ ‘like a branch’ until the baby birds have grown and flown away.  I would have thought Kevin would feel ‘anger’ instead of ‘pity’.   That he doesn’t suggests he’s already overcome some of the emotions of man and transformed them into something more (Christian-based) divine.  A end-stopped line finishing the stanza give a sense of finality.  At this point we get a sense that everything is so static that something must give soon.

After the break, come the questions. The tone has clearly changed.   A transition of some kind is in process.  Like Kevin, we struggle to make sense of where we are and where we’re headed next.   There’s very little punctuation from now through the end of the poem except for the question marks.   This adds to the feeling of searching and being lost.  Despite the lack of end-stopped lines, the sense and grammatical structure of the lines don’t really run over.   It’s abrupt.  Not continuous.  So how and where will we find our place?  Perhaps we won’t.  Perhaps everything is shutting down?  Kevin ‘imagines’ ‘being’ Kevin.  He ‘forgets’.  His fingers are ‘sleeping’.  He feels his body (his ‘hurting forearms’) yet he has thoughts of stillness (even perhaps death) – ‘shut-eyed’, ‘blank’ and ‘underearth’.

Equally however he could be moving into a trance that is often the precursor to a mystical or religious experience.   This is suggested by the words ‘distance in his head’ which could point to an out-of-body experience.   He is definitely ‘praying’ while at the same time slipping away – his body ‘entirely making the prayer (as opposed to his mind).   Also there ‘forgotten’ is repeated 3 times – suggesting that he is deep in meditation (or the religious or mystical experience) and thus has stepped away from ‘self’.  The sense of slipping away is further reinforced by ‘love’s deep river’, which is winding further and further away.  The poem concludes with Kevin having completed the journey he commenced at the beginning.   At least in one sense, he’s no longer man incarnate and separate from God.

In many ways this is a soothing poem.  Although the use of free verse and many run-on-lines suggest displacement and ‘agony’, the use of the 3-line stanza structure reassures us that order is in the end, preserved.  Thus the poem itself creates a safe space for Kevin to let go of ‘self’ and join with God.   This is skilfully accomplished through using of a heavenly messenger (a bird) coming down to Kevin while at the same time Kevin moves up to God.  The circuit is complete.


Whether or not you celebrate Christmas as the birthday of Christ, a boy named Jesus born in Bethlehem two thousand years ago, by revisiting the concept of ‘Christ consciousness’ you may find the holiday season more meaningful.

The Jesuit priest, philosopher, and palaeontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, used the term ‘Christ consciousness’ to denote an Omega point, toward which he believed human collective consciousness is evolving.  Reaching the Omega point (the end of the world as we know it) will bring us not only ‘peace on earth and good will to men’ but also a transcendent, love-dominated enlightenment through which we will become one with the ‘ultimate reality’, otherwise known to some as God.

Quantum physics supports this view.  In essence, mankind, acting as a collective Christ, plays the role of the conscious quantum-mechanical observer:

“One might say that, by virtue of human reflection (both individual and collective), evolution, overflowing the physico-chemical organisation of bodies, turns back upon itself and thereby reinforces itself (see note following) with a new organising power vastly concentric to the first—the cognitive organisation of the universe. To think the world (as physics is beginning to realise) is not merely to register it but to confer upon it a form of unity it would otherwise (i.e. without being thought) be without.”

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man

That’s all very well and good – but how do we relate Christ consciousness to our daily lives in the here and now?

The Kabbalah may help.

The 6th sephirah, known as Tiphareth and associated with the ‘Christ’, lies at the exact centre of the Kabbalistic Tree.  Because the Kabbalah is a system based on balance and symmetry, it’s not hard to understand why this sephirah is also known as Beauty.

At the point of balance, Tiphareth is where the archetypal brilliance of the higher sephirot are grounded in the rich, dark nutrients of the bottom sephirot.   According to the great occultist, Dion Fortune, Tiphareth is a link where ideals are brought to focus and transmuted into ideas.  As such it that it is a Place of Incarnation; it is also called the Child.

In Tiphareth, soul and body, self and ego, higher consciousness and personality come together.   It is associated astrologically with the Sun and heart-chakra; Tiphareth is the place of our humanity.

It also referred to as the place of the sacrificed god, thus its association with Christ Consciousness.   As Christians know, it wasn’t enough for Jesus to feel sorry for the lot of mankind; Jesus, or Christ, had to be born into the world and sacrifice himself in order to save it.

Thus Tiphareth is the place of the wounded healer, a concept on which all twelve-step programs of rehabilitation are based.  It’s the place where one, through the loving heart, brings his own human experience to the help of others – personal Ego is sacrificed for something more.

In this context, at the time of the Winter Solstice, when the life-giving Sun is farthest away from the Earth, Christmas – or the celebration of Christ Consciousness – offers spiritual symbolism far surpassing that of the birth of a lowly babe.

At Christmas, we’re privileged to glimpse the possibilities of a whole new world – a world in which in relationship with himself man stands truly at the centre of his universe.