Theology and Tragedy: D. M. MACKINNON

Religious Studies 2 (2):163-169 (1967)

It is now some years since Professor D. Daiches Raphael published his interesting book, The Paradox of Tragedy , which represented one of the first serious attempts made by a British philosopher to assess the significance of tragic drama for ethical, and indeed metaphysical theory. Since then we have had a variety of books touching on related topics: for instance, Dr George Steiner's Death of Tragedy and Mr Raymond Williams’ most recent, elusive and interesting essay, Modern Tragedy. To entitle an essay Theology and Tragedy might be thought to invite needless trouble for oneself; to indulge to a dangerous degree the human intellectual obsession of supposing that ‘the meaning of a word is an object’. After all, if one confines one's regard to the Greeks, one has to recognise that between the treatments of their common theme of Electra , Sophocles and Euripides are in fact doing very different things. There is no gainsaying the significance for Euripides of the postponement of the murder of Clytemnestra till after that of Aegisthus, still less of his introduction into the play of the morally upright peasant, who has had the banished Electra in his keeping, and whose simple integrity contrasts both with the corruption of the court and the obsessive preoccupation with a dreadful, supposed duty of brother and sister. The element of propaganda is unmistakable; while in Sophocles’ Electra it is altogether absent, although Dr Victor Ehrenberg in his very interesting monograph on Sophocles and Pericles has argued strongly for an element of subtle political commentary in the treatment of Oedipus in the Oedipus Tyrannus , and of Pocreon in the Antigone. These remarks may serve to show that the title does not express a blind indifference to the multiple complexity of those works which we class together as tragedies. They are inherently complex, and various in emphasis; at best we can discern a family resemblance between them, and, in an essay like this, the author runs the risk not only of selecting examples tailor-made to his thesis, but also of imposing an appearance of similarity of conception where it is at least equally important to stress differences
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DOI 10.1017/S0034412500002729
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