Ethics and Renaissance Comedy
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Devlin, Maria Patricia
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CitationDevlin, Maria Patricia. 2017. Ethics and Renaissance Comedy. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
Abstract“Ethics and Renaissance Comedy” examines ethical puzzles in early modern English comedies. Comic characters regularly lie and steal, deceive and coerce one other, commit adultery, pardon criminals, and seek revenge. Early modern theorists and contemporary audiences condemn such actions as unethical, but in comedy, these same actions are pardoned or even praised. I argue that seemingly unethical actions become ethically justifiable in comedy because of the generic conventions specific to comedy. The ethical standards we apply in a given world depend on what we believe to be true in that world, which, in the world of a literary genre, is determined by that genre’s conventions. The ethical standards by which we evaluate actions in comedy likewise depend on conventions.
Comedies, which aim at happy endings, conventionally represent humans as imperfect social animals. The ethical standards we apply to comedy are determined by the specific conditions that imperfect social animals require for happiness. An action becomes justified if, even by a seemingly unethical means, it attains the desirable end of securing the minimum conditions for human happiness. I argue that comedy, rather than being amoral or immoral, as many critics suggest, is essentially concerned with ethical justification, and that one condition for happiness in comedy is justice.
This project offers a capacious view of early modern comedy that goes beyond Shakespeare’s works to consider authors such as Armin, Beaumont, Chapman, Cooke, Day, Dekker, Fletcher, Garter, Greene, Heywood, Jonson, Lyly, Marston, Massinger, Middleton, Peele, Porter, Rowley, and Webster. It also offers a new method for the philosophical criticism of literature by showing how genre grounds our judgments of literary events.
Citable link to this pagehttp://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:41141510
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