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The Library of Renaissance Symbolism
The Symbolic Literature of the Renaissance

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Authorities: Addison, Gracian, Tesauro

What is this?

     Dramatic writings for the present purpose include both tragedies and comedies and come within that group of symbolic literature which comprises all those we now call the performing arts. Some of the other categories of these symbolic arts are summarized in the entry for festivals. It is not my intention to review even briefly the history of the literature of the theater either in classical or Renaissance times. Suffice it to say that contemporaries saw the theater as an obvious example of symbolic expression, where the actors represented somebody other than themselves and where beyond outward appearance the plot and action of the play represented a theme which was to be interpreted in one or more of the four classic symbolic modes.

     Socrates had said in the Symposium (223D) that the art of composing comedy was much the same as composing tragedy but he did not expand on this and although Aristotle had much to say about tragedy in the Poetics, he said nothing about comedy and it is always assumed that this was to be covered in a second book of the Poetics which has been lost. However it is possible that a small treatise called the Tractatus coislinianus from the 1st century BC is a summary of Aristotle’s views and this defines comedy in similar terms to tragedy saying that essentially it is catharsis through laughter. It is said that in origin tragedy and comedy were two parts of the same prehistoric ritual; that of the killing of the old king to appease the gods, the tragedy, and the celebration, festival or triumph that occurred thereafter as catharsis, the comedy.

     Be that as it may both genres had their conventions which were followed by authors throughout the period. Comedy was perceived as a genre suitable for the common people, it was and is an ironic comment on the received customs of society and by definition it ends happily; tragedy was for the hero, it was a comment on the nature of necessity and transgressions of fate and it ends badly. Dante specifically acknowledged (Epistula XIII to Cangrande della Scala) that he had called his great work Commedia principally because it ended happily.

     There were of course other genres of theatre. During the 16th century the historical drama developed of which perhaps the first in England was John Bayle’s King John of 1548. Then there was the long tradition of morality plays.

See also: Epopées, Festivals