This essay explores the relationship between tragic drama and religious iconoclasm. It reads Reformation iconoclasm as a watershed moment for the emergence of early modernity, a site of deliberate rupture with an imagined medieval and Catholic past. The first part of the essay examines Walter Benjamin’s theory of tragedy and modernity in The Origin of German Tragic Drama (1928). Benjamin saw in European baroque tragic drama a radically new form of tragedy, which gave formal aesthetic expression to a post-Reformation pervasive cultural melancholia at the felt withdrawal of God behind a veil and a corresponding widespread failure of belief in the power of artistic forms to mediate between the human and divine spheres. The second part of this essay contextualises and historicises Benjamin’s claims. It shows how Reformation iconoclasts attacked the late medieval belief that religious art forms used in liturgical and devotional contexts could facilitate an authentic encounter with God, fearing that they merely led worshippers into idolatry instead. The third part of the essay offers a new reading of Shakespeare and Middleton’s collaborative tragedy Timon of Athens, which is deeply preoccupied with the status of visual and verbal art and theatre, as a play which stages the consequences of this failure of belief and identifies iconoclasm as a site and source of tragedy.
The Transformations of Tragedy: Christian Influences from Early Modern to Modern explores the influence of Christian theology and culture upon the development of post-classical Western tragedy. The volume is divided into three parts: early modern, modern, and contemporary. This series of essays by established and emergent scholars offers a sustained study of Christianity’s creative influence upon experimental forms of Western tragic drama.
Both early modern and modern tragedy emerged within periods of remarkable upheaval in Church history, yet Christianity’s diverse influence upon tragedy has too often been either ignored or denounced by major tragic theorists. This book contends instead that the history of tragedy cannot be sufficiently theorised without fully registering the impact of Christianity in transition towards modernity.