Tragedy and redemption: a response to Edith Hall

I want to grant the full weight of tragedy's negativity—and ask if Christian discourse can sustain that"

December 19, 2016
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This letter is a response to Edith Hall's review of Rowan Williams's "The Tragic Imagination"

I’m grateful to Edith Hall for a detailed, if severe, review of my essay on tragedy (“Rowan Williams's tragic mistake,” December 2016). She is right, I think, to challenge my version of Aristotle on Euripides (though I’m not quite convinced by her reading either); and she equally rightly notes a careless phrasing about the chronology of the major tragedians, and my embarrassing failure to spot a glaring mistake relocating Medea to Thebes—though every other mention of the play refers to Corinth. It is not quite fair to suggest that I have ignored Artaud, as there are some pages (admittedly brief) explicitly discussing his work.

There are other points where I’d want to argue further, not least on King Lear. Hall says that I ignore both the specific historical context and the various clues to transcendental reconciliation that have been discerned in the play. But Shakespeare deliberately gave the story a catastrophic ending quite at odds with the other versions of his day—which might warn us against too rapidly finding clues to a conventionally redemptive reading. What redemptive possibilities are left is one of the questions I have tried to think through in the book.

So far from attempting to force Greek tragedy into a Christian mould, I want to grant the full weight of its negativity and ask if Christian discourse can sustain that, rather than just offering a resolution that makes light of the gravity of what has been shown. I had hoped it would be clear that I am not claiming an Aristotelian or humanist perspective has nothing to offer. Hall’s own work is sufficient proof of how ludicrously wrong such a judgement would be.