Organizational outline...

I. Historical chronology: early definitions of tragedy--(Excerpts follow the outline)
A. Aristotle( 384-322 BCE)--selections from The Poetics
B. Boethius (480-524)--Consolation of Philosophy on fortune
C. Boccaccio (1360's)--De Casibus Virorum Illustrium--definition of tragedy
D. Chaucer's (1390's)--Monk's Tale--definition of tragedy and the role of fortune
E. non-dramatic sources:

II. Implications for tragedy:
A. "heroes" are of high degree
B. man experiences ill fortune through choice
C. free choice is lost when evil fortune strikes--no moral regeneration, and therefore no tragedy

III. Origins of drama (historical overview)
A. class notes
B. Morality and miracle plays
C. subplots and the introduction of humor--church reaction
D. violence
E. the tropes--change from Latin to English
F. We will consider one or more of the following plays:

V. Non-Dramatic influences:
A. Boccaccio's DE CASIBUS--late 14th century-(See below for excerpts)
B. Lydgate's FALL OF PRINCES--15th century-(See below for excerpts)
C. Baldwin (ed.)--MIRROR FOR MAGISTRATES--16th century-(See below for excerpts)

VI. Themes in the non-dramatic influences: Note how the ideas listed, although common to all three authors, change from century to century:
A. stories told of the fall of famous people from Bible and history
B. originally told in Latin, later English
C. fortune seems to become less dangerous--more control
D. personal responsibility seems limited at first
E. punishment starts to occur for sins on earth
F. sin is the cause for tragedy
G. if you are good, then you will be happy (with God)
H. fortune is the God-man link-- punishment deserved
I. heroes start to become political figures--mirror metaphor

VII. Christian philosophy--influence of stoicism
A. acceptance of fate
B. limit involvement
C. have faith because God does have a plan

VIII. Classical pagan influences:
A. The importance of stoicism--compatibility with Christianity
B. happiness is acceptance
C. introspection--will eventually become the soliloquy
D. those in high places will inevitably fall like today
E. obey

IX.Classical authors--Seneca's THYESTES (Roman drama)
A. use of the five act structure--important for Shakespeare
B. humanistic
C. introspection and personal conflicts
D. sensational--blood and horror reported (later staged)
E. stoic philosophy merges with Christian morality

X. Transition from Medieval to Renaissance tragedy:
A. reduction in length
B. crime and political violence stressed
C. man as a protagonist who has free will
D. physical and moral death--more dramatic action
E allegory (like EVERYMAN) less important--more individualism
F. world starts to become a place that is not all bad
G. historical past becomes dramatized (today = docudrama)


1--Classical (Aristotle) from the Poetics:

Although the POETICS of Aristotle was not known historically until the early Renaissance, his definition of tragedy has been applied (often incorrectly) to every age in literature. The POETICS are important insofar as they represent the first work of literary criticism (post-Platonic) in the West. Can Aristotle be applied to our plays in the Medieval period?

1) ...Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and possessing the mode of action; not narrated; and effecting pity and fear [what we call] catharsis of such emotions."

2) The imitation of the action is the plot. Tragedy is not an imitation of men but of actions and life. It is in action that happiness and unhappiness are found, and the end which we aim at is a kind of activity... It is for the sake of their actions that [agents] take on the characters they have. Thus, what happens-that is, the plot-is the end for which a tragedy exists, and the end or purpose is the most important thing of is whole, [having] a beginning, middle and end.

3) Dramatic poetry's function is...not to report things that have happened, but rather to tell of such things that might express the universal." [What word did we use for universal?]

4) Aristotle speaks of the need for mature tragedy to have a complex action by which he meant that reversal and recognition result logically from a change in fortune: reversal: is a change from one state of affairs to its exact opposite." recognition: a change from ignorance to knowledge...on the part of those who are marked for good fortune or bad."

5) ...Good men ought not to be shown passing from prosperity to misfortune, for this does not inspire either inspire pity or fear, but only revulsion; nor evil men rising from ill fortune to prosperity...neither should a wicked man be seen falling from prosperity into misfortune...We are left with the man whose place is between these extremes. Such is the man who on the one hand is not preeminent in virtue and justice, and yet on the other hand does not fall into misfortune through vice or depravity. He falls because of some mistake, [Often mistranslated as a tragic (moral) flaw].

2-Post classical critics:

BOETHIUS (480-524)

What other thing bewails the substance of tragedies but only the deeds of FORTUNE that with the unexpected stroke overturns the realms of great nobility? Tragedy is to repeat a bit of prosperity for a time. that ends in wretchedness...For when men trust in her [fortune]. then will she fail, and cover her bright face in a cloud.

BOCCACCIO (1360's):

Tragedy in its beginnings is admirable and quiet. but in its ending is foul and horrible. [See additional information on Boccaccio in the Non-Dramatic Influences section.]

CHAUCER (1390's)

Chaucer's Monk's Tale from The Canterbury Tales contains a series of biblical and historical portraits of famous people who experienced tragedy. Its introduction, printed below, contains an important Medieval definition of tragedy: (Original spelling used.)

Heere bigynneth the Monkes Tale De Casibus Virorum Ilustrium:

I will biwalle in manere of tragedie,
The harm of hem that stoode in heigh degree.
And fillen so that ther nas no remedie
To brynge hem out of hire adversitee.
For certein when that Fortune list to flee,
Ther may no man the cours of hire withholde.
Lat no man truste on blynde prosperitee:
Be war by thise examples trewe and olde.


At Lucifer, though he an angel were,
And not a man. at hym wol I bigynne.
For though Fortune may noon angel dere.
From heigh degree yet fel he for his synne
Doun into helle, whereas he yet is inne.
O Lucifer. brightest of angels alle.
Now artow Satan, that mayst nat twynne
Out of misefie, in which that thou art falle.

Loo Adam in the filed of Damyssene,
With Goddes owene fynger wroght was he,
And nat bigeten of mannes sperme uncelne,
And welte al paradys savynge o tree,
Hadde nevere worldy man so heigh degree
As Adam, til he for hys mysgoveraunce
Was dryven out of hys hye prosperitee
To labour, and to helle, and to mischance.



Boccaccio notes that tragedy in its beginning is admirable and quiet, but in its ending or catastrophe ins foul and horrible. He tells of the allegory of poverty and fortune. Poverty and fortune fight, and poverty wins, forcing fortune to hold misfortune captive. Misfortune cannot be freed until someone comes along and frees her. Boccaccio tells the story of the great Greek general King Agamemnon who, as the greatest ruler of classical antiquity. organized the fleet that went to Troy, captured the city and freed Helen after a ten year siege. He was honored by fortune with great wealth and power, BUT then his downfall began.. A storm destroyed most of the fleet on the way home. Once there, a banquet given in his honor became the instrument of his death. His wife who had a lover and who hated her husband who had sacrificed their daughter to the gods to win the war, plotted his death. She brought him a robe to wear with no opening for the head, and while he struggled to put it on, was stabbed by the lover, Aegisthus.

Boccaccio's story of Pompey was different. Although fortune does smile on him, he was nonetheless treacherously murdered by an ally after losing the battle of Pharsalia. Boccaccio has fortune hesitate and debate whether to allow him to die. He even pities Pompey: "If such greatness suffered a fall, what might we suppose might happen to us? We ought certainly to pity Pompey, but we ought much more certainly to fear for ourselves."

The conclusion: "Seek honor, praise and fame. If you do these things, you will show yourself worthy of the elevation which you achieve. And if it should befall you to be hurled down from your height, it would not appear to be because of your crime, but because of the wantonness of fortune who is ever changing.

LYDGATE'S FALL OF PRINCES (Late 14th and early 15th century)

Earthly princes who have possessions. monarchies, and principalities,
Their sudden change declares to us all
Their prosperity is met with bitter gal.,

This blind goddess in her operations meddles
Affecting triumphs, conquests, victories,
Takes from princes their scepters and crowns,
Troubles people with false rebellions,
See by these examples which from her wheel falls,
All worldly prosperity is met by bitter gall.

Lydgate tells the story of king Roboam, the son of wise King Solomon. He despised the advice of his senior advisors, and :"...deemed it wise..." to be flattered by fools he had known in his youth. They "...bled him false with their flattery which is a stepmother lacking in substance to all virtue and proper conduct." Because of his bad government, God allowed the army of the Egyptians to attack his kingdom.

Even the holy temple with its vast treasure was taken. Lydgate concluded by noting what a fool Roboam was. He lost his kingdom, and the people he misgoverned revolted. Contemporary princes are admonished: "Noble princes, you do well to preserve your magnificence. Obey older experts who are not influenced by flattery. Preserve your good name.


"For here as in a looking glass, you shall see how the like have been punished in the heretofore, whereby admonished I trust it will be a good occasion to move you. This is the chief end which is set forth...punish sin boldly, both in yourselves and others. So shall God (whose iieutenants you are) either so maintain you, that no malice shall prevail or if it does, it shall be for your good, and to your eternal glory both here and in heaven.


I am a king that ruled all by lust
That forced not of virtue, right or law
But always put false flatteries must in trust,
Ensuing such as could by vices claw.
By faithful counseling passing not a straw.
What pleasure provided, I thought to be just
I set my mind to feed, to spoil and to lust.

[Historically. Richard was a weak king, who listened to false flatters. He was eventually overthrown by his successor and possibly murdered by him. Shakespeare wrote a play based on his life, as he did for the next individual:]


Shall I call it fortune or my intense folly
That lifted me, and laid me down so low?
Or was it courage that made me..[rebel against a king]
It may be well that planets do incline
And our complexions move our minds to ill,
But such is reason, that they bring to fine
No work. unaided by our lust and will...

God ordered the power, all princes be
His lieutenants or deputies in realms,
Against their foes still therefore fights he..

[Baldwin describes his crimes and warns...]

[do not be]...fortune's slave There is not trust in rebels...
In fortune lest which works as the waves
From whose assaults who wish to stand at large.
Must know his state and flee all worldly things


Your lecture notes contain the fact that Medieval tragedy developed historically in three phases emerging, as with the Greeks, in a religious context:

A-Religious--performances in church: biblical texts acted by the chorus; later actors were added with singing roles.

THE QUEM QUAERITIS--EASTER TROPE: (sung by the chorus)

Whom do you seek?

Jesus of Nazareth

He is risen.

B-Transition to secular--outside the church / liberal content/ director's interpretation; what biblical texts might acquire too much of a nominalist interpretation:

from The Creation and Fall of Lucifer:

(scene ii: a region in hell):

LUCIFER: "OUT! OUT! Helpless am I, the heat so great here. This is a dungeon of dole in which we alight! Now I am most loathsome that once was so bright. My brightness is black and blue now. My life is ever beating and burning. It makes me go howling and groaning. All our food is filth that we find before us.''

[What could a talented director do-with this scene?]

C-Secular--distancing from the church / humor / eventually taken over by the craft guilds as a way of drawing crowds for profit on holy days, so for example, the goldsmiths might do the nativity because of the gifts brought by the wise men. Thus, as authors began to see secular possibilities including humor in- the dramatization of biblical events, the church began to worry that the sacred would be profaned:

from The Deluge: Noah and her Sons (Think Bill Cosby or History of the World, Part I)

NOAH: (Speaking to his wife from the ark)

Dear! Please use good sense and get into the ark.


No! I'm not finished weaving my coat. I'm staying here!


Will you look up in the sky--Can't you see it's raining!!!!


Mind your own business. All you do is give me grief every day!!!

[Noah comes out of the ark and shakes his fist at her...]

Get into this boat or I'll beat you black and blue. [They beat each other]

Finally, Pope Innocent in 1210 banned plays from Church grounds, and the third phase, the adaptation of the texts by the secular craft guilds, began:

Now since these players...take in jest the serious works of God, as did the Jews who mocked Christ, there is no doubt that they scorn God. [The players say that by seeing the are converted to good living, as when men and women seeing the devil perform those acts that incite each other to lechery and pride, and observing that the devils have far a more suffering hereafter...they will leave their this first augment we answer saying that such playing is not to the worship of God, for they are performed more to be seen in the world. [The plays]...are a sin.

NOTE: The drama was banned and became more and secular in tone as a means of entertainment, with the "stars" being political figures (recall Machiavelli,) but the didactic purpose was still present. Think of the docudramas on television today.