Seventeenth-century philosophy was ambivalent about the senses. Around the same time as Descartes was wondering whether everything he had ever seen, heard, and felt might have been an illusion produced by an evil deceiver, Francis Bacon was placing the close observation of nature at the center of a new scientific practice. Do the senses shore up the subject by distancing her from objects and from others and by providing her with insight about them? Or do the senses make her vulnerable to a world that is endlessly and often violently imposing itself on her? We will consider this problem in cultural and intellectual history through the case of the theater, with a special focus on tragedy. Ancient Greek tragedy made the mere fact of seeing the basis of an epistemological difference between the audience (whose looking is a privileged form of knowing) and the protagonist (who is paradigmatically blind), and this difference can be understood as a way of reflecting on the conditions of the theatrical medium itself: the audience sees the character, but the character does not see the audience. Early modern tragedy drew on the Greek tradition of dramatic irony, but wondered whether looking was as straightforward as it looked, making voyeurism a two-way street: one form of seeing what others don’t involves being forced to see something unbearable, and early modern theater took a special interest in obscenity, which Greek theater tended to avoid or marginalize. We will track this transformation through the history of tragedy, considered alongside the history of prose romance. In so doing, we will think about the history of science, gender and sexuality, and the relationship between power and visibility, including the role of race. We will consider works by Homer, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristotle, Ovid, Seneca, Marlowe, Spenser, Shakespeare, Vermeer, Jonas Barish, Laura Mulvey, Jacques Rancière, and Michael Fried.
The Class: Format: seminar
Requirements/Evaluation: One 7-page midterm paper, one 12-page final paper, thoughtful participation in class discussions
Prerequisites: a 100-level English course, or a score of 5 on the AP English Literature exam, or a score of 6 or 7 on the Higher Level IB English exam
Enrollment Preferences: English majors and those intending to major in English
Distributions: Division I
Attributes: ENGL Literary Histories A