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A History of Literary Criticism in the Renaissance

Minturno conceived of tragedy as having an ethical aim


"Tragedy, as it was anciently composed, hath been ever held the gravest, moralest, and most profitable of all other poems; therefore said by Aristotle to be of power, by raising pity and fear, or terror, to purge the mind of those and such like passions; that is, to temper and reduce them to just measure with a kind of delight, stirred up by reading or seeing those passions well imitated. Nor is nature wanting in her own effects to make good his assertion; for so in physic, things of melancholic hue and quality are used against melancholy, sour against sour, salt to remove salt humours."

This passage has been regarded by Twining, Bernays, and other modern scholars as a remarkable indication of Milton's scholarship and critical insight;[160] but after all, it need hardly be said, he was merely following the interpretation of the Italian commentators on the _Poetics_. Their writings he had studied and knew thoroughly, had imbibed all the critical ideas of the Italian Renaissance, and in the very preface from which we have just quoted, filled as it is with ideas that may be traced back to Italian sources, he acknowledges following "the ancients and Italians," as of great "authority and fame." Like Milton, Minturno conceived of tragedy as having an ethical aim; but both Milton and Minturno clearly perceived that by _katharsis_ Aristotle had reference not to a moral, but to an emotional, effect.

One of the most interesting discussions on the meaning of the _katharsis_ is to be found in a letter of Sperone Speroni[161] written in 1565. His explanation of the passage itself is quite an impossible one, if only on philological grounds; but his argument is very interesting and very modern. He points out that pity and fear may be conceived of as keeping the spirit of men in bondage, and hence it is proper that we should be purged of these emotions. But he insists that Aristotle cannot refer to the complete eradication of pity and fear--a conception which is Stoic rather than Peripatetic, for Aristotle does not require us to free ourselves from emotions, but to regulate them, since in themselves they are not bad.

III. _The Characters of Tragedy_

Aristotle's conception of the ideal tragic hero is based on the assumption that the function of tragedy is to produce the _katharsis_, or purgation, of pity and fear,--"pity being felt for a person who, if not wholly innocent, meets with suffering beyond his deserts; fear being awakened when the sufferer is a man of like nature with ourselves."[162] From this it follows that if tragedy represents the fall of an entirely good man from prosperity to adversity, neither pity nor fear is produced, and the result merely shocks and repels us. If an entirely bad man is represented as undergoing a change from distress to prosperity, not only do we feel no pity and no fear, but even the sense of justice is left unsatisfied. If, on the contrary, such a man entirely bad falls from prosperity into adversity and distress, the moral sense is indeed satisfied, but without the tragic emotions of pity and fear. The ideal hero is therefore morally between the two extremes, neither eminently good nor entirely bad, though leaning to the side of goodness; and the misfortune which falls upon him is the result of some great flaw of character or fatal error of conduct.[163]


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