We owe our idea of tragedy and our tragic repertoire to a generation of romantic critics who, writing in the shadow of Kant, demanded that tragedies display organic form, express the spirit of a nation, and stage a collision between freedom and necessity. Their formula obscures aspects of Attic tragedy and hinders our ability to interpret most tragedies written from 1550 to 1795. These works were supported by a poetics of tragedy that identifies pathos as the essence of tragedy. In order to read this repertoire anew, we must entertain five propositions: (1) that great drama need not be the drama of a nation; (2) that organic form is not superior to mechanic beauty; (3) that tragedy is a theatrical rather than a poetic art; (4) that not only the naïve but the sophisticated aspects of ancient theater have value; and (5) that the passions are dramatic units of crucial significance to early modern tragedy, a theatrical form that cannot be read only for plot, character, and imagery.

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