Theologians, Tragic Literature and Tragic Theory

Definitions and Resistance
Tragedy is a contested genre; according to one famous critic, a ‘dead’ one.4 There are
certainly disputes and confusion over what might meaningfully be called ‘tragedy’.
In grasping for a definition, many theorists have attempted to identify an ‘essence’
of tragedy, what Terry Eagleton, in a chapter aptly named ‘A Theory in Ruins’,
refers to as a ‘hunt for the Holy Grail of a faultless definition of the subject’.5 With
great satirical relish, Eagleton punctures a whole host of definitions and theories
of tragedy, concluding that ‘no definition other than “very sad” has ever worked’.6
Attempts to reduce one’s account of tragedy to a normative essence – for example
the notion that for a work to be tragic it must end in despair – frequently founder on
the obstinate resistance of particular works. A great many works that are habitually
accorded the status of tragedy do not end straightforwardly in despair, Aeschylus’
Oresteia being perhaps the primary example. George Steiner is one such critic
whose attempts to isolate ‘authentic’ or ‘absolute’ tragedy,7 a tragedy that is free
from ‘contamination by hope’,8 distil an essence of tragedy that is bound to be seen
in conflict with Christian theology, ‘contaminated’, as it must be, by some kind
of hope. David Cunningham in his chapter for this volume identifies just such a
manoeuvre in the recent critique levelled by David Bentley Hart against the ‘tragic
theology’ of Donald MacKinnon and Nicholas Lash.9 A procrustean and narrowly
drawn theory of tragedy is adopted, and then demonstrated to be in opposition
to theology. Such an approach closes down meaningful conversation between
tragedy and theology because it prematurely sets the terms of the conversation
within narrowly confined, and often rather tendentious, concepts of tragedy and
theology. The chapters in this volume aim to pursue a series of richer and more
varied conversations, alive to the diversity and complexity of both tragedy (and
theoretical accounts of tragedy) and theology. Indeed, this is one of the strengths of  a collection of contributions, as opposed to a monograph on the subject: a plurality
of approaches, readings and theories can be heard. The authors in this volume
develop varied and non-prescriptive understandings of tragedy and theology and
their points of connection. The effect is not that of a single epic narrative voice,
but of the multiple, occasionally dissonant voices of drama.
Theories about tragedy and the tragic have existed from shortly after the
genre’s origins, dating back to Plato and Aristotle. The medieval period was
relatively silent on tragedy, apart from some scattered references in Chaucer
and Dante.10 The Renaissance and its rediscovery of classical tragedies see the
beginnings of a renewed interest in tragedy and the hedging it about with a wealth
of complex theories. It is Elizabethan England that produces not only the great
tragedies of Marlowe and Shakespeare, but also an interest in tragic theory (as
Robin Kirkpatrick’s chapter shows).11
The tendency to make generalizations and hypostases out of tragedy is
not new. It dates at least as far back as German Idealism, whereby ‘the tragic’
became a cipher for the Kantian antinomy between nature and freedom.12 With
Friedrich Schelling the philosophical reception of tragedy begins to calcify into
a ‘tragic worldview’, which reaches its zenith with Schopenhauer, for whom
tragedy discloses existence itself to be a crime – an insight that occasions a kind
of sublime resignation. Adrian Poole observes that it is Hegel who ‘turns tragedy
into Tragedy’.13 The theological implications of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche’s
philosophical crystallizations of tragedy are discussed by Douglas Hedley and
Craig Hovey in this volume.
And yet tragedy resists such reductions and generalizations. Indeed, the
very resistance of tragedy to an adequate and totalizing general theory might be
taken to be one of its key features. The descriptive failure of tragic theory might,
Jennifer Geddes claims, tell us something about the tragic itself: ‘that there is
something about it which ruptures our very ability to see clearly, state concisely,
think neatly, know completely’.14 In encountering tragedy, especially on the stage,
we are always confronted with a particular character, embodied by a particular  actor. Narratives and experiences of suffering cannot easily be wrenched from
their dramatic context and extrapolated into general theories or maxims. As Simon
Goldhill reminds us in an essay on the subject: ‘Every character in an Athenian
tragedy who thinks he can escape from the specific family into which he was born
discovers, like Aeschylus’s Eteocles, that the curse of the family never leaves.’15
This concern for particularity as opposed to the universal is shared by Christian
theologians emphasizing the contingent historicity of the Incarnation.
Of course even failed, partial or inadequate theories (such as we might term
Nietzsche’s or Hegel’s) can be of great value. That tragedy is ultimately resistant
to conceptual definition and broader theory does not put an end to the discussion.
Rather than seeking a rigid definition or essence of tragedy, many critics are
content to discern a loose affiliation between works which share characteristics
and sensibilities. Donald MacKinnon, whose work is central to this volume, uses
the Wittgensteinian notion of a ‘family resemblance’ between tragedies.16 It may
be that not all works that we would wish to term ‘tragedies’ share a single, unitary
feature, but are rather connected by a series of overlapping characteristics. Thus
one could readily object to the statement ‘All tragedies must end in despair without
hope or reconciliation.’ There are some works that we would wish to regard
meaningfully as tragedies that do not meet this criterion, not least among which
is the Oresteia. Ben Quash’s chapter in this volume is particularly illuminating on
what we might take to be characteristic of tragedy, stating: ‘At the broadest level,
the tragic may be summarized as the woundingly “embroiled” character of human
action.’17 Eschewing procrustean definition, Quash outlines a series of ‘marks’ of
the tragic which summarize what we might take to be key characteristics that
demarcate the ‘family resemblance’ of tragedies:
It is said to delineate the irreconcilability of private and public obligation (the
manifold ways in which human beings who try to be ‘We’ find they can only be
collections of ‘I’s). It holds before us the irreversibility of time. It holds before
us the permanence of loss. It highlights the bitter irony that so many instances
of human greatness harbour the flaws that are precisely their destruction.
Above all … it shows us to be the prisoners of dungeons of our own making:
our capabilities turned to culpabilities. But it also shows us to be prisoners of
dungeons not of our own making (made instead by the gods, for example): held
to be culpable even when we have no capability.18



4 George Steiner, The Death of Tragedy (London: Faber and Faber, 1961).
5 Terry Eagleton, Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003),
p. 5.
6 Eagleton, p. 3.
7 George Steiner, ‘Tragedy, Pure and Simple’ in M.S. Silk, ed., Tragedy and the
Tragic: Greek Theatre and Beyond (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 534–47,
and George Steiner, ‘“Tragedy,” Reconsidered’, in Rethinking Tragedy, ed. Rita Felski
(Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), pp. 29–44.
8 ‘Where the axiom of human estrangement, of survival itself as somewhat scandalous,
is attenuated, where it is blurred by concepts of redemption, of social melioration (an
old-age home for Lear), where messianic intervention is harnessed, we may indeed have
serious drama, didactic allegory of the loftiest sort, lament and melancholy(the Trauerspeil
analyzed by Walter Benjamin.) But we do not have tragedy in any absolute sense. We have
contamination by hope …’ Steiner, ‘“Tragedy,” Reconsidered’, p. 32.
9 See pp. 215–28. Cunningham’s is one of several chapters in this volume to engage
directly with Hart’s critique.

10 For a history of reflection on tragedy during this period, see Henry Ansgar Kelly,
Ideas and Forms of Tragedy from Aristotle to the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1993).
11 See pp. 75–100.
12 For a discussion of the post-Kantian philosophical reception of tragedy, see Miguel
Beistegui and Simon Sparks, eds, Philosophy and Tragedy (London: Routledge, 2000), and
Peter Szondi, An Essay on the Tragic, trans. Paul Fleming (Stanford: Stanford University
Press, 2002). As Szondi points out, Aristotle’s theory of tragedy is a ‘poetics’. It is not until
Schelling that the philosophical ‘idea’ of the tragic is developed.
13 Adrian Poole, Tragedy: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 2005), p. 61.
14 Jennifer L. Geddes, ‘Religion and the Tragic’, Literature and Theology 19.2 (2005):
p. 98.

15 Simon Goldhill, ‘Generalizing About Tragedy’, in Felski, Rethinking Tragedy,
p. 60.
16 Donald MacKinnon, The Stripping of the Altars (Collins: The Fontana Library,
1969), p. 42.
17 See p. 15.
18 See p. 18 this volume.



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