Abstract

Joanna Baillie (1762–1851) came to fame in 1798 with the first volume of her Plays on the Passions, which included her theoretical account of drama, including tragedy. This article reconstructs Baillie's theory of tragedy and shows how the theory informs the design of the Plays on the Passions. For Baillie, all human beings have powerful and dangerous passions that we need to learn to regulate. Tragedy can help with this and can serve an educative purpose by presenting us with narratives in which the protagonists repeatedly fail to check the growth of a particular passion, such as jealousy or hatred. We witness this passion gain more and more hold over the character's mind until they are destroyed. This offers a warning and motivates us to watch out for the growth of our own passions and keep them in check. Baillie's theory of tragedy is original and combines a moral orientation, a voluntarist belief in free will, and optimism about the human condition. For her, the sufferings undergone by tragic characters could have been avoided had the characters made better choices. Thus the message of tragedy is not that suffering is inescapable but that suffering can be minimized if we cultivate self-knowledge and emotional self-control.

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