The Festive Imagination in Renaissance Tragic Thought

Many who have studied Aristotle’s Poetics know that this foundational work of genre theory consists, to some extent, of wishful thinking.

In it, Aristotle outlines the ideal tragedy, a serious drama in which a character experiences a fall from fortune to misfortune (a reversal) and then experiences revelation (a recognition). If the recognition follows upon the reversal, maybe even coincides with it, says Aristotle, then you get a perfect storm of causal forces. These causal forces are a sense of “the inevitable” coupled with a feeling of “the marvelous.” It is marvelous, or astonishing, that so many unintended consequences would proceed from some small, unconscious mistake in the past. Some might even call it fated. At the same time, the resulting events are also inevitable, owing to the fact that unintended consequences are actually consequences. The reason why I call Aristotle’s formula “wishful thinking” is because it really does not describe the extant tragedies of Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides that he cites—these playwrights typically favor either the marvelous or the inevitable.

This fact can prompt us to rethink some of Aristotle’s poetic principles, and in particular—I believe—the principle of recognition, what he called anagnorisis, a change from ignorance to knowledge that plays out especially when one character recognizes another’s nominal identity or when a character comes to discover that she is at fault for the calamity she’s unknowingly caused. Recognition remained a powerful emotional force behind lots of drama and narrative. Yet over time, anagnorisis began to unravel; it became unwieldy; and scholars have noted the asymmetry of a plot’s reliance on it. How can so much emotional energy be contained within what ultimately amounts to a chance encounter—Eurycleia recognizing Odysseus’s scar, Shakespeare’s Cymbeline recognizing his lost son’s mole, and so on?

It may be no wonder, then, that many philosophically inclined literary critics have largely eschewed this old usage of recognition in favor of a newer, modern notion of recognition, from the thought of Fichte and Hegel, anerkennung. This refers to the mutual recognition that ideally transpires between a subject and object (or two subjects) and that ensures one another’s autonomy. We know it today in the form of politics of recognition. It is Hegel’s answer to transcendental thought that tried to ground morality and individual freedom in an ahistorical conception of reason itself. Hegel extends the notion that ideas have histories to basic social interaction: the ideas of agency and freedom have histories too, and these ideas can be realized (or made real) through the mediation of another, the only way out of the famous master-bondsman scenario.

…What does this have to do with Aristotle’s Poetics and the waywardness of anagnorisis?

That’s one of the questions I’m asking in this project. And I believe that the answer has something to teach us about the tragic genre itself and about tragedy’s historical engagement with ethics and social relations. If for Aristotle, tragedy is an emotional machine, exciting socially “productive” emotions, when properly structured, for literary scholars of modern recognition, tragedy is known for the opposite—for failing to excite socially productive emotions, for failing in the process of mutual recognition.

Does this mean that classical ideas about tragedy in fact fail in their scenes of reconciliation to the extent that it isn’t truly mutual? Alternatively, does it mean that Hegelian readings of tragedy are incomplete without the chance and sometimes accidental occurrence that characterizes classical anagnorisis. A little of both, I think.

In this book project, I apply recent insights from the politics of recognition and from affect studies to the history of tragic drama and poetry. My central contention is that the practice of reading modern tragedy through the Hegelian notion of acknowledgment or anerkennung, as represented in the celebrated thought of Hannah Arendt, Emmanuel Levinas, and Stanley Cavell, is incomplete without considering its premodern history in the classical device of recognition or anagnorisis. The two forms of recognition of distinct from one another in their contexts and definitions, but they are conflated (perhaps for good reason) when scholars look to dramatic scenes of recognition (anagnorisis) in order to test a theory of mutual acknowledgment (anerkennung).

Through readings of Shakespeare, Massinger, Dekker, and Milton, I argue that an early modern ethics of mutual recognition obtains in a convergence with what Ricoeur calls the “festive,” which I locate in the medieval legacy of narrative spectacle and in a corresponding early modern revision of the poetics of tragedy that celebrates the mediatory power of theatricality, character, and creative forgiveness.