Sunday, January 5, 2014

Anne Line and Shakespeare: Tragedy and Christ

On my review stack is this volume, Anne Line: Shakespeare's Tragic Muse by Martin Dodwell. Mr. Dodwell follows up on the efforts of John Finnis and Patrick Martin, and others, who see a connection between Shakespearean works and the story of Anne Line. I've only read a couple of chapters, so I'll withhold my opinion about Dodwell's work.

Surely, however, Anne Line's story is tragic--and amazing--not because of any flaw (the English major's knowledge that every tragic hero has to have a "tragic flaw"), but because of her virtue of conscientious faithfulness. She is rejected by her family because she becomes a Catholic; she loses her husband to exile because they are Catholic and he attends Catholic Mass; she is arrested and condemned to hanging because she aids Catholic priests, and finally she is buried without ceremony or consecration--cast off like a suicide. All of her actions are indeed in conflict with her country's laws and culture, which condemn her Catholicism as treason against the state (and against the monarch). Like Antigone burying her father and brother against Creon's decree, Anne Line upholds her Catholic faith against Elizabeth I's Protestant laws.

There is, of course, a crucial distinction for a Christian tragic heroine: the Resurrection. Now death itself is not tragic in the same sense--it is not just Anne Line's death that appeases the Elizabethan recusancy and penal laws as the ancient Attic tragedy required. With the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, as David B. Hart argued in a First Things article  almost 10 years ago (in 2003!), the whole concept of tragedy has changed. When He was crucified, condemned by Pontius Pilate, He overturned that idea of tragedy, because He rose from the dead, defeating Roman execution. Hart explains the Attic view of tragedy and expiation:

As it happens, the word “tragic” is especially apt here. A sacrificial mythos need not always express itself in slaughter, after all. Attic tragedy, for instance, began as a sacrificial rite. It was performed during the festival of Dionysus, which was a fertility festival, of course, but only because it was also an apotropaic celebration of delirium and death: the Dionysia was a sacred negotiation with the wild, antinomian cruelty of the god whose violent orgiastic cult had once, so it was believed, gravely imperiled the city; and the hope that prompted the feast was that, if this devastating force could be contained within bright Apollonian forms and propitiated through a ritual carnival of controlled disorder, the polis could survive for another year, its precarious peace intact. . . .

The religious vision from which Attic tragedy emerged was one of the human community as a kind of besieged citadel preserving itself through the tribute it paid to the powers that both threatened and enlivened it. I can think of no better example of this than that of Antigone, in which the tragic crisis is the result of an insoluble moral conflict between familial piety (a sacred obligation) and the civil duties of kingship (a holy office): Antigone, as a woman, is bound to the chthonian gods (gods of the dead, so of family and household), and Creon, as king, is bound to Apollo (god of the city), and so both are adhering to sacred obligations. The conflict between them, then, far from involving a tension between the profane and the holy, is a conflict within the divine itself, whose only possible resolution is the death — the sacrifice — of the protagonist. Other examples, however, are legion. Necessity’s cruel intransigence rules the gods no less than us; tragedy’s great power is simply to reconcile us to this truth, to what must be, and to the violences of the city that keep at bay the greater violence of cosmic or social disorder. . . .

And then he explains how Jesus Christ changed all that, beginning with the dialogue between Jesus and Pilate in the Gospel of St. John--in which the representative of the Roman Empire is stymied by the regalness of a Jewish peasant--and then considering Peter's tears:

This slave is the Father’s eternal Word, whom God has vindicated, and so ten thousand immemorial certainties are unveiled as lies: the first become last, the mighty are put down from their seats and the lowly exalted, the hungry are filled with good things while the rich are sent empty away. Nietzsche was quite right to be appalled. Almost as striking, for me, is the tale of Peter, at the cock’s crow, going apart to weep. Nowhere in the literature of pagan antiquity, I assure you, had the tears of a rustic been regarded as worthy of anything but ridicule; to treat them with reverence, as meaningful expressions of real human sorrow, would have seemed grotesque from the perspective of all the classical canons of good taste. Those wretchedly subversive tears, and the dangerous philistinism of a narrator so incorrigibly vulgar as to treat them with anything but contempt, were most definitely signs of a slave revolt in morality, if not quite the one against which Nietzsche inveighed — a revolt, moreover, that all the ancient powers proved impotent to resist.

In a narrow sense, then, one might say that the chief offense of the Gospels is their defiance of the insights of tragedy — and not only because Christ does not fit the model of the well-born tragic hero. More important is the incontestable truth that, in the Gospels, the destruction of the protagonist emphatically does not restore or affirm the order of city or cosmos. Were the Gospels to end with Christ’s sepulture, in good tragic style, it would exculpate all parties, including Pilate and the Sanhedrin, whose judgments would be shown to have been fated by the exigencies of the crisis and the burdens of their offices; the story would then reconcile us to the tragic necessity of all such judgments. But instead comes Easter, which rudely interrupts all the minatory and sententious moralisms of the tragic chorus, just as they are about to be uttered to full effect, and which cavalierly violates the central tenet of sound economics: rather than trading the sacrificial victim for some supernatural benefit, and so the particular for the universal, Easter restores the slain hero in his particularity again, as the only truth the Gospels have to offer. This is more than a dramatic peripety. The empty tomb overturns all the “responsible” and “necessary” verdicts of Christ’s judges, and so grants them neither legitimacy nor pardon.

(Among the surprised judges must be the Sanhedrin, with Caiaphas and Annas--and Caiaphas' proposal of offering Jesus as a sacrifice for the good of the community being overturned by reports of His resurrection and appearances.)

The Elizabethan authorities knew that their prosecution of Catholics was creating martyrs--Elizabeth's spymaster Walsingham warned against the power of the martyrs after their executions to create sympathy and inspire followers--so the whole notion of executing Anne Line and the other priests who suffered that same day at Tyburn as a way of proclaiming the power and justice of the state had changed. Not only the Greeks and Romans had to respond to this revolution in life and death in tragedy--but even the Elizabethan/Anglican polis had to recognize that its sacrificial victims lived on beyond Tyburn and an unmarked, unconsecrated grave.

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