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The High Design

The High Design: English Renaissance Tragedy and the Natural Law

George C. Herndl
Copyright Date: 1970
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    The High Design
    Book Description:

    This book, winner of the 1969 South Atlantic Modern Language Association Award, presents a new perspective in the criticism of Jacobean tragedy and a truer evaluation of this body of drama. Mr. Herndl reinterprets a number of important Jacobean plays, making clear their essential spirit and the world view from which it rises. Herndl demonstrates the radical difference between this tragic spirit and that of the tradition culminating in Shakespeare which was based on the medieval conception of Natural Law. He traces the religious and philosophical history which shaped the drama of both periods, especially those seventeenth century changes in thought and belief which revolutionized tragedy.

    Readable and full of rich insights,The High Designprovides a detailed analysis of the drama of Heywood, Webster, Tourneur, Beaumont and Fletcher, and Ford and reconstructs the cultural and intellectual history providing the matrix of the drama.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-6302-4
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    Much of the world’s great tragedy was written in Renaissance England, but some elements of the genre changed radically in the first years of the seventeenth century, and the conditions for achieving a certain kind of tragic power, peculiar to the earlier Renaissance, were not continued or repeated. The achievement had medieval roots, and the weakening of Renaissance tragic art began in the final displacement of certain medieval attitudes toward the world.

    It is no longer necessary to argue the continuity which this implies between Middle Ages and Renaissance. The scholarship of several recent decades shows the break with the...

  5. Chapter One The Law of Nature
    (pp. 13-40)

    Shakespearean tragedy is an imaginative testimony to the moral intelligibility of the world. Its universe constitutes an order in which human rationality accords with the good, evil is the perversion, rather than the course, of nature, and the highest moral aspirations are in harmony with nature’s demands. Nowhere is it antinomian: nowhere in it is essential humanity fatally constricted, as in some later drama, by the confines of the moral law, nor human virtue destroyed by its incommensurability with the natural world.

    Even in the darkest of the Shakespearean tragedies, the rack upon which Lear is stretched is not nature...

  6. Chapter Two The Role of Natural Law in Shakespearean Tragedy
    (pp. 41-87)

    If we come to Shakespeare sufficiently familiar with this fundamental heritage of the Renaissance, his tragedies will be seen to reflect the cosmos of natural law. Generally, they interpret evil as defect and understand catastrophe to follow from the unnatural. Unfortunately, discussion of “tragic flaws” in Elizabethan drama is critically suspect. And in some cases, e.g., Hamlet’s, the chief agent may have no particular flaw beyond the limits of common humanity. Yet there is still inHamletan intelligible cause in free human actions of the evil which surrounds the hero, and evil flows not from the nature of things...

  7. Chapter Three Medieval Origins: The Philosophical Basis of the Tragic Pattern
    (pp. 88-109)

    The Elizabethan conception of the natural law came from medieval Scholasticism. It is therefore worth demonstrating that Scholastic philosophy survived as a fundamental influence in the Renaissance. This will mean, in part, attention to the superficiality of Renaissance Platonism, whose role has been unduly magnified. It may be useful, too, to notice some persistent misconceptions of Scholastic thought which can still impede historical criticism. Finally, and most important, some outline is needed here of the basic Scholastic tenets upon which rested the doctrine of the natural law. If these foundations are brought into view, the significance of later philosophical developments...

  8. Chapter Four The Decline of Natural-Law Beliefs [I]
    (pp. 110-133)

    The Elizabethan tragic sensibility, with its medieval taproot, was blighted by the increasingly pessimistic, mechanistic, and skeptical Jacobean intellectual climate, and especially by the growth of Calvinist voluntarism. Some of these forces, too, had medieval beginnings, but it was through their revival in the movements represented by Calvin and by Bacon that they prevailed widely in the seventeenth century. Not only voluntarism, but that abomination of the natural world which had appeared before in Manichean, Albigensian, and certain aspects of Platonic thought, grew powerful again in Calvinism.

    The two world-views whose foci were Scholastic and Calvinistic did not succeed one...

  9. Chapter Five The Decline of Natural-Law Beliefs [II]
    (pp. 134-159)

    Jeremy Taylor, chaplain to Charles I, represented the conservative Anglican party, but was led to espouse both nominalism and voluntarism. As definitely as the natural philosophy preached by Bacon and the mechanism preached by Hobbes, his theology marks the ending of Renaissance Christian humanism. InDuctor Dubitantium,he

    so steadily constricts the area of natural knowledge while augmenting that of faith that he, like certain Puritans, is forced to segregate reason and goodness altogether. . . .

    But what is extraordinary—and especially in that tradition of post-Thomistic rationalism to which Taylor ostensibly belongs—is his effort to demolish the...

  10. Chapter Six The New Meaning of Tragedy: Heywood & Webster
    (pp. 160-217)

    The connection of the greatest Renaissance tragedies with the spirit of medieval rationalism is unmistakable: the reconciliation to the tragic world achieved in those plays is integral with their realizing of medieval philosophical assumptions. The continuity between the altered spirit of later tragedy and the dissipation of belief in a natural moral law is more mediate and various. The fact that tragedy changed, losing its affirmative power, is well enough recognized. It is clear too that the medieval conception of natural law died in the intellectual and religious revolutions of the time, while the term took on a meaning nearly...

  11. Chapter Seven The New Meaning of Tragedy: Tourneur, Beaumont & Fletcher, Ford
    (pp. 218-280)

    The two tragedies attributed to Cyril Tourneur conduct us through a charnel darkness lit by the phosphorescence of moral decay and the glare of Juvenalian rhetoric. The tone ofThe Revenger’s Tragedy(1606–1607) andThe Atheist’s Tragedy(1610–1611) may be in part the inevitable response to a recurring theatrical situation—the excess of the writer who comes late to a familiar and too well-worked dramatic genre. Much of the gloom and revulsion, however, is Calvinistic.

    The plot ofThe Revenger’s Tragedy,too intricate to rehearse in full, turns on the machinations of the hero, Vendice, to avenge his...

  12. Chapter Eight Conclusions
    (pp. 281-292)

    To raise the subject of “catharsis” in connection with Renaissance tragedy is to invite a suspicion of historical naivete; at best one seems to be, in Leavis’ phrase, “proposing a solemn and time-honoured academic game.”¹ Yet there is a kind of tragedy which is “a special artistic and critical approach to the mystery of mans suffering on earth,”² and which reappears, in forms not essentially different, in several times and literatures. There is in fact a worldview which constitutes the theoretic form of this kind of tragedy, apart from the executive form by which a given age may realize it....

  13. Notes
    (pp. 293-330)
  14. Index
    (pp. 331-337)