Emily Vasiliauskas's “Mortal Knowledge: Akrasia in English Renaissance Tragedy,”


Emily Vasiliauskas, “Mortal Knowledge: Akrasia in English Renaissance Tragedy,” in Politics and Aesthetics in European Baroque and Classicist Tragedy (Leiden: Brill, 2016), 221-38

An essay on “a strange passage in the history of evil.”

“Is it possible to perform an action in the full knowledge that it would be wrong to do so? This may seem like a strange question with which to open an essay on the tragedy of early modern England, which produced such exuberant evildoers as Richard iii, Sejanus, and the Cardinal from John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi. Evidently, purposeful criminality was not only a logical possibility, but also a dramatic resource in a period that made ambition and revenge its abiding tragic motives. But the relationship between knowledge and wrongdoing was a serious problem within ancient Greek philosophy, and Aristotle’s treatment of tragedy’s aesthetic norms derives in part from his understanding of the crux. In this essay, I will show how akrasia—‘the state of tending to act against one’s better judgment’—a concept which Aristotle identified as un-tragic and whose very existence Socrates denied, became indispensable to English Renaissance tragedy, a genre designation which I apply to both dramatic and poetic narratives. I will examine the consequences of this transformation for tragedy’s account of the human will, its narrative form, and its purpose within a political community.”