Publication Date



Renaissance, dramatic-generic theory, Aristotle, Shakespeare


In an essay on "Shakespeare and the Kinds of Drama," Stephen Orgel presents an appealing and sympathetic view of Renaissance dramatic-generic theory and practice as original, capacious, and flexible, concluding that, "like Scaliger, Shakespeare thought of genres not as sets of rules but as sets of expectations and possibilities." In relation to this finding, we should perhaps be content to be "unclear about tragic catharsis," because "at least we know it is there, convincing us that tragedy works—even if we do not know how or on whom" (p.120). As the Renaissance read Aristotle, "tragedy achieved its end by purging the passions of its audience through pity and terror—catharsis was the particular kind of utility produced by tragedy,' and Mr. Orgel's "point here is that the notion of tragedy as a genre defined by its therapeutic effect on the audience is a Renaissance one: Aristotle may have conceived of the form in that way, but he did not say so" (pp. 116, 117). In this view, there is a major difference between the Renaissance identification of catharsis as an effect or complex of effects experienced by an audience and as an effect or complex of effects experience by an audience and as an effect that–according to Gerald Else's Aristotle–"takes place entirely within the play's action," so that "it is Thebes or Athens that is purified, not the audience. This may or may not be correct, but it fits the literal meaning of Aristotle's words, and it is disturbingly irrefutable" (p. 117). It is even more disturbingly unverifiable, and it remains doubtful whether Else's interpretation and translation do indeed fit the literal meaning of Aristotle's words.