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 Our tragedies and comedies not without cause cried out against observing rules
neither of honest civility nor of skillful poetry. Discuss.
 Does Philip Sidney present a plausible critical picture of the contemporary British
theatre? What are his chief observations in this regard?
 Sidney’s An Apology for Poetry presents a brilliant analysis of the contemporary
dramatic practice. Discuss.
 Critically examine Sidney’s views on (a) tragedy and tragi-comedy; (b) comedy;
and (c) dramatic unities.

Two Defects in Contemporary Drama

In „An Apology for Poetry‟, Sidney examines and criticizes the state of contemporary drama and
finds it faulty. As regards the defects of the English tragic and comic plays, Sidney says,

“Our tragedies and comedies not without cause cried out against observing rules neither
of honest civility nor of skillful poetry.”

He points out two serious defects in contemporary drama:

(a) the gross improbabilities caused by the neglect of three unities, and;

(b) the incongruous mingling of comic with tragic material.

We shall analyze both these faults in the dramatic art as pointed out by Sidney by dividing the
whole discussion into the two forms of drama – tragedy and comedy.

Sidney’s Concept of Tragedy

According to Sidney, "the ideal tragedy is an imitation of a noble action, in the

representation of which it stirs, admiration and commiseration." and teaches the
uncertainty of the world. "It makes kings fear to be tyrant, and tyrants manifest their
tyrannical humours.”

Sidney's conception of tragedy is based on the ideas of medieval tradition together with
fragments drawn from Aristotle as interpreted by Italian critics. While basically he adheres to the
medieval tradition that tragedy deals with the fall of kings and mighty tyrants and teaches the
uncertainty of this world, he also adopts the views of Aristotle, Seneca, Horace and some Italian
critics such as Scaliger, Minturno, and Castelvetro. Following Scaliger, he maintains the
necessity for stately speeches and moral teaching after the manner of Seneca. As regards the
function of tragedy, he adopts Minturno’s terms “admiration and commiseration” in place of
Aristotle’s “pity and fear”.

Faults of Contemporary Tragedy

Condemnation of Tragi-Comedy

Sidney's censure of the contemporary drama is that it outrages the grave and weighty character
of tragedy, its elevated style, and the dignity of the personages represented, by mingling kings
and clowns, introducing the most inappropriate buffoonery. What seems most absurd to Sidney
is the practice of mixing tragic and comic elements. It is stupid to mingle kings and clowns or “to
match horn-pipes and funerals”. Sidney calls it a “mongrel tragi-comedy”. A tragedy should

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be purely tragic from the beginning to the end; and a comedy should be comic throughout the
action of the play.

The Plot of Tragedy

According to Sidney, a tragedy should not begin with a dull account of the origin of the story but
it should begin with some significant point which would bring the reader at once to the heart of
things. Unimportant parts of the story, or parts which have happened before the significant point,
may be narrated but not represented on the stage. In this way, there would be a coherent and
organic plot with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Thus Sidney allows the tragic poets sufficient liberty in handling their themes. This point was
later exploited by Elizabethan dramatists to justify their romantic plays. Again, like Horace,
Sidney points out that “many things may be told which cannot be showed, if they know the
difference betwixt reporting and representing.” The dramatists must straightway plunge into
the principal point of that one action which they will represent.

The English dramas are neither true comedies nor true tragedies, and they disregard both the
rules of poetry and honest civility. Tragedy is not tied to the laws of history, and may arrange
and modify events as it pleases; but it is certainly bound by the rules of poetry. In terms of the
plot of tragedy, Sidney claims:

“A tragedy is tied to the laws of poesy, and not of history; not bound to follow the story,
but having liberty either to feign a quite new matter, or to frame the history to the most
tragical conveniency.”

Function of Tragedy

Regarding the function of tragedy, Sidney differs from Aristotle and is closer to the Italian
Renaissance critics. He says that the function of tragedy is to cause „admiration and
commiseration‟, and not to bring about the Catharsis of the tragic emotions of pity and fear.

Faults of Contemporary Comedy

Sidney’s Concept of Comedy

Sidney's theory of comedy is based on the body of rules and observations which the Italian
critics, aided by a few hints from Aristotle, had deduced from the practice of the Greek
dramatists. Sidney defines comedy as, “an imitation of the common errors of life, which are
represented in the most ridiculous and scornful manner, so that the spectator is anxious
to avoid such errors himself.”

Comedy, therefore, shows the 'filthiness of evil', but only in our private and domestic matters.
It should aim at being wholly delightful, just as tragedy should be maintained by a well-raised

Difference between Delight and Laughter

Sidney condemns contemporary farcical comedy and is in favour of comedy of a more

intellectual kind. Delight is the first requirement of comedy; but the English comic writers err in
thinking that delight cannot be obtained without laughter, whereas laughter is neither an
essential cause nor an essential effect of delight. Sidney here distinguishes between „laughter‟
and „delight‟, and rejects the contemporary concept that there could be no delight without

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According to Sidney, “Delight is permanent; laughter is merely scornful tickling.” Comedy
should have nothing to do with painful deformity and things evil and vicious. They may cause
laughter but they cannot give delight. There can be delight without laughter and laughter without
delight. For example, we are delighted to see a fair woman and yet are far from being moved to
laughter. We laugh at deformed creatures, wherein we cannot delight.

The greatest defect of the contemporary English comedy is that it has become almost a crude
force which seeks to provoke an empty laughter. The English comic dramatists have failed to
produce comedies that could effectively combine delight with laughter. Not only should comedy
produce delightful laughter, also it should mix with it that delightful teaching which is the end of
all poetry. Human follies or errors, rather than human vice and wickedness, or the poverty of
men, are the proper themes of comedy.

Function of Comedy

Sidney says that comedy is an imitation of the common errors of life. These errors are
represented in a ridiculous and scornful manner, and the result is that no one would like to have
any of these errors. It should be noted that the aim of comedy is to expose and ridicule human
folly such as affectation, hypocrisy, so that such follies may be corrected. Thus he makes
comedy a tool of social reform. Comedy should have a corrective value. It is a form of satire, but
the sting should not be direct and painful. Comedy is not merely to provide delight; it must also
correct and improve. As a vice cannot be corrected merely by being laughed at,

Three Unities

Sidney is highly critical of the English tragic playwrights for not observing the unity of time.
“How much absurd that stage must be deemed to be when it represents now Asia, now
Africa, now a garden, a rock, a cave, a battlefield; again, that in two short hours, the ups
and downs of a whole life-story be fitly unfolded. Even Gorboduc, which is full of stately
speeches and well-sounding phrases, climbing to the height of Seneca‟s style, and as full
of notable morality, which it doth so delightfully teach, is grievously defective in the
breach of the unities of time and place.”

The violations of the unity of time are even worse. Contemporary plays represent an action
covering several generations, within the short span of two or three hours. Thus two lovers
marry, have a child, who soon grows up, marries and has children. All this is absurd, and the
ancient, with few exceptions, did not err this way. The moderns should also follow their example
and observe the unities.


To conclude the whole discussion, we can quote two critics. Atkins remarks that Sidney’s An
Apology for Poetry, "gives us an almost complete theory of neo-classical tragedy, a
hundred years before the 'Art Poetique' of Boileau; the severe separation of poetic forms,
the sustained dignity of language, the unities, nothing is lacking."

Spingarn has aptly remarked, "Dramatic criticism in England began with Sir Philip
Sidney. Casual references to the drama can be found in critical writings anterior to
the Defence of Poesy; but to Sidney belongs the credit of having first formulated, in a
more or less, systematic manner, the general principles of dramatic art. "

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