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        Tragedy at Wittenberg: Sophocles in Reformation Europe
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        Tragedy at Wittenberg: Sophocles in Reformation Europe
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Amid the devastation of the Schmalkaldic War (1546–47), Philip Melanchthon and his colleagues at Wittenberg hastily compiled a Latin edition of Sophocles from fifteen years of teaching materials and sent it to Edward VI of England within weeks of his coronation. Wittenberg tragedy reconciled Aristotelian technology, Reformation politics, and Lutheran theology, offering consolation in the face of events that themselves seemed to be unfolding on a tragic stage. A crucial but neglected source of English and Continental literary thought, the Wittenberg Sophocles shaped the reception of Greek tragedy, tragic poetics, and Neo-Latin and vernacular composition throughout the sixteenth century.


All translations are my own unless otherwise indicated. For ease of reference, editions of Greek dramatists are cited by the name of their editor/translator/commentator. MBW refers to the letter number in Melanchthon, 1977–. I am grateful to Aaron Kachuck, Russ Leo, Peter Sherlock, Carla Suthren, Giles Waller, the members of the Early Modern Club at Trinity College, and, above all, Nathaniel Hess, as well as to audiences at Cambridge, King's College London, Chicago, the Folger Shakespeare Library, and the RSA, for wisdom and rebuke, tum ad commonefactionem tum ad consolationem.


“The very sadness of the times moves me,” wrote Vitus Winshemius (1501–70) to Edward VI of England, “to describe the Tragedies of Sophocles.”Footnote 1 In 1547 the Greek lecturer's world was ablaze (fig. 1). “Incessant wars” had caused great scatterings of peoples; many were slaughtered, marriages torn asunder, “children wrenched from the embrace of their parents.”Footnote 2 The previous summer, Emperor Charles V (1500–58), rid at last of his distracting wars in Italy and on the Ottoman front, had entered into broad agreement with Pope Paul III (1468–1549) to curb the spread of reform. Come October, the great betrayal: Duke Moritz of Saxony (1521–53) joined forces with the emperor, and despite his Lutheran sympathies moved against his cousin Elector John Frederick (1503–54), long the Reformers’ staunchest defender. Wittenberg's great university was shuttered from early November; Philip Melanchthon (1497–1560), university eminence and intellectual engine of the Reformation, went into exile, moving his family from town to town to evade capture.Footnote 3 The Schmalkaldic League, an alliance of protesting states without which the Reformation would be defenseless, was at the point of fracture.Footnote 4 “Such is the perpetual Tragedy of the whole human race,” wrote Winshemius, “in which everyone is tormented by various sorrows.”Footnote 5 Devastated by this reversal of fortune after three decades of revolutionary progress, Winshemius and Melanchthon looked suddenly to distant lands to nurture the guttering flame of the Gospel. At that moment, as their lives and lives’ work hung in the balance, they translated the seven plays of Sophocles, gilded them with fifteen years of lecture notes, and sent them to the king of England.

Figure 1. Imperial forces sweep across the Elbe at the Battle of Mühlberg, 24 April 1547. Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France / Bridgeman Images.

This episode merits at least a chapter in histories of the Reformation, of classical scholarship and reception, of English literature, and of early modern Anglo-German relations. The volume Winshemius sent to England, which I call here the Wittenberg Sophocles, found in Greek tragedy the lived experience of war and confessional schism, an ancient mirror of the political and theological turbulence of the 1540s. Wittenberg's model of tragedy radiated across Protestant Europe into editions and translations of the classics, into Neo-Latin plays and prologues, and into new vernacular literary composition. Yet this remarkable corpus of texts has for the most part fallen through the disciplinary gaps of modern scholarship. Reformation historians and theologians who care about Melanchthon are mostly uninterested in Greek tragedy; classicists and literary scholars who care about Greek tragedy mostly steer clear of Melanchthon, and sometimes still regard “Christianizing” interpretations of classical texts with distaste. It is rare, for example, outside specialist scholarship on Melanchthon's humanism, to find reference to the fact that the quiet father of the revolution that redrew the map of Western Christendom also happened to translate all but one of the plays of Euripides into Latin.Footnote 6

Following the pioneer work of James Parente in the 1980s, however, the last three or four years have witnessed an explosion of interest in the reception of Greek tragedy across Northern Europe. Tanya Pollard has restored Greek models to the English stage, Russ Leo has excavated the complex philosophical and theological work done by tragedy in Reformation thought, and a wave of individual studies, many still making their way to publication, promise their own reformation of a narrative of classical reception still most at home in Italy.Footnote 7 Melanchthon and his circle at Wittenberg in the 1530s and 1540s laid the foundations of these later developments. Reconciling deep piety with sophisticated Aristotelian theory, their answers to the vexed problems of Christian tragedy complicate our overly neat histories of classical reception. For over a century they shaped the literary landscape on both sides of the confessional divide. The massive and influential corpus of Jesuit drama, for example, beneficiary of renewed attention in recent years, can no more be understood without Wittenberg than the Counter-Reformation without the Reformation.Footnote 8 And, above all, the Wittenberg circle played a crucial but neglected role in English literary history. Still commonly dated by its imprint, 1546, the Wittenberg Sophocles can only have appeared after “King Edward,” its dedicatee, was crowned, on 28 January 1547—a year's difference that has obscured the volume's topicality.Footnote 9 Coinciding with the outbreak of religious war on the Continent, Edward's coronation opened a brief window of time during which it seemed in Wittenberg not only that England was the shining hope of Reformation Europe but that the history of the Reformation itself was unfolding on a tragic stage.


Composed at Wittenberg and printed in Frankfurt, the Wittenberg Sophocles opens with a twelve-page dedication to “the Glorious King of England and France, Prince Edward,” by Vitus Winshemius (Veit Winsheim, Veit Örtel), a lecturer in Greek at Wittenberg since 1541. Next is a short essay entitled “De Autoribus Tragoediae” (On the authors of tragedy), by Joachim Camerarius (1500–74), a peripatetic scholar installed at that point at Leipzig. The rest of the volume comprises Latin prose translations of each of Sophocles's plays, matching the Greek line for line. An argumentum (introduction) by Winshemius prefaces every play but Oedipus Tyrannus, which is introduced by Camerarius instead. Camerarius also introduces Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus, with the result that those plays bear two argumenta apiece.Footnote 10

The argumenta perform two functions: they summarize the plot, and provide an interpretive framework for the play.Footnote 11 For Winshemius, “Sophocles is clearly a political writer, in that each of his plays treats some notable commonplace out of political life.”Footnote 12 So, in Ajax, Sophocles stages a comparison between the military man and the senator. Ajax, the military man, possesses the vices of “Ambition, or immense desire of glory, stubbornness, and impatience of offense,” while Ulysses, the senator, demonstrates “the most laudable civilian virtues”—namely, modesty, compassion, and “moderation in the desire for vengeance.”Footnote 13 The main question of Antigone, meanwhile, is “whether one must obey religion and piety even when Tyrants or Magistrates forbid it”; the debate on this topic between Antigone and Ismene closely resembles a university disputation in utramque partem (on both sides of the issue), and printed marginal annotations to their speeches track rhetorical constructions from protasis and narratio to captatio benevolentiae and argument ab impossibili.Footnote 14 But the play also prompts broader reflection on the nature of tyranny. When Creon argues, against Antigone's appeal to religious rite, for “the need for upholding authority in the empire,” Winshemius demurs: “This is a most specious argument for excusing cruelty. Magistrates do need to defend and bolster their authority, yet they ought to do so with a certain moderation, and this tyrants do not observe.”Footnote 15

The political dimension of Oedipus at Colonus is sharper still. The first half of the argumentum is biographical, drawing on a passage in Cicero that relates how the aged Sophocles, sued by his sons for control of the family estate, proved his competence by reciting the play in court. His portrayal of Oedipus's persecution at the hands of his own sons draws on this experience, Winshemius explains, and in this respect the play “pertains to that section of divine law, Honor your parents.”Footnote 16 But the second half of the preface returns to Sophocles's “mixing in of many political matters”—in this case, the instability of political alliances, which Winshemius expands into a general rule. “Oedipus warns Theseus in most weighty words in no way to trust his pact or alliance with the Boeotians,” he observes, “because there can be no security or faith in the pacts and alliances of men, and often in the blink of an eye the firmest conjunctions can split apart, and this happens not only in the mutual pacts and friendships of kingdoms and cities but also in private lives, and even in friendships, which nature intended to be most sacred among men, such as that between parents and children.”Footnote 17

Taking up a full third of the argumentum, this analysis represents an extraordinary expansion of just ten lines of Sophocles's play, and Winshemius's shift into his own voice suggests that more may be at stake here than simply “notable commonplaces.” His unexpected emphasis and increasingly breathless tone in the argumentum to Oedipus at Colonus signals the ancient tragedy's consilience with current events—most notably, Duke Moritz's betrayal, still fresh, of his cousin John Frederick, which saw Moritz take league with the emperor against his Lutheran brethren in a naked bid for personal power. And the question Winshemius singles out in Antigone similarly looks, in the light of the military escalation of the late 1540s, rather like a blueprint for Protestant resistance theory, a body of thought that had been developing over the previous two decades, as the Schmalkaldic League sought juridical and theological justification to oppose the emperor with force. With Catholic forces massing at the walls of Wittenberg in 1546–47, these deliberations took on new urgency. In the preface to a reprint of Luther's Warnung an seine lieben Deutschen (Warning to his dear Germans), Melanchthon declared resistance to the province of natural law, a defense of the ordo perpetuus (eternal order) ordained by God for human affairs.Footnote 18 Manuscript annotations to his personal copy of Sophocles reflect this new focus. Glossing Antigone's appeal to divine mandate, Melanchthon cites Aristotle's Rhetoric, where her argument is quoted to illustrate the force of natural law—and the printed marginalia of the Wittenberg Sophocles, in turn, paraphrase Antigone's argument as “consistent with the law of nature.”Footnote 19 Readers in Saxony and beyond could not help but recognize in this reading of Antigone the needle their subtlest minds were set to threading: the problem of just war, the fine distinction between legitimate resistance to a tyrant and rebellion against the representative of God's rule on earth.

The theological lessons Winshemius coaxes out of the plays, too, range from straightforward sententiae to the harder knots of Reformation thought. Electra witnesses the inexorable working of divine justice down the generations of dynastic tragedy: how God liberates the innocent and “revenges atrocious crimes with Tragic and horrible punishments,” and, in particular, “how great a morass of most savage calamities and bad things some single atrocious deed drags along with it, how long and horrible is the web of crime and punishment Satan is accustomed to accumulate and weave out of a single transgression.”Footnote 20Trachiniae proves, however, that God's justice is not only punitive. Although the cause of Hercules's death was his “roving libido,” his heroic apotheosis shows that “even if piety and virtue are afflicted in this life, nevertheless after this life eternal prizes remain for them.” Again, Winshemius draws from the play a broader, pious conclusion. “This sententia of the law, divinely fashioned, sticks in the minds of sober and well-educated men in all ages, all the way back to the holy fathers: that God punishes evil men, but brings good to the good. Since, therefore, they often see that the contrary comes to pass in this life, they are compelled to believe that another life remains, in which justice is done, the difference is made clear, good men are allotted prizes, and bad men punishment.”Footnote 21

Yet Winshemius's prefaces cannot be sorted cleanly into political or theological modes. As confessional schisms calcified at the first Council of Trent (1545–47) and propaganda mills on both sides of the Schmalkaldic War began to generate a new vocabulary of “religious war,” the two were ceasing to be wholly separable.Footnote 22 Hence Philoctetes, on one hand, speaks to the looming problem of equivocation. In order to coax Philoctetes back to the Greek siege of Troy, Ulysses must school his fellow legate, the young, heroic Neoptolemus, in the art of deceit; Neoptolemus gives it his best, but in the end reverts to noble type and reveals the fraud. The play, Winshemius observes, thus treats the question of “whether for the sake of the Republic at any time one must make use of plots and devices: or, rather, one must always act openly and simply”—essentially asking whether an individual might equivocate in defense of the evangelical cause, or outwardly vow allegiance to Catholic rule in order to evangelize another day. “While on each side many things are said weightily,” Winshemius concedes (again casting the play in terms of formal disputation), “in the end it is concluded that sometimes it is not dishonorable to deceive for the sake of the public good, and to dissimulate the truth, when that which is expedient to the Republic cannot always be obtained by speaking truths.”Footnote 23 On the other hand, Philoctetes also has a theological point to make. The fact that Troy is doomed to fall only by dint of Philoctetes's supernatural arrows proves that “no great deed is happily undertaken or done if not with God as author and helper.”Footnote 24 To this Winshemius relates loci from Virgil (“Alas! Man cannot trust in the gods for anything against their will!” [Aeneid 2.402]) and the Gospel (“A man can receive nothing, except it be given him from heaven” [John 3:27]), and ends his preface by exhorting the reader to implore “help and success from God” even in necessary endeavors.

Winshemius thus located in Sophocles the hard ethical and political questions that pressed on nascent Protestant states and individuals. The answers he provided were not exclusively Lutheran. As was true of many sacred tragedies composed across Europe in these years, dramatic action was better suited to representing broad moral principles rather than the filigree of doctrinal polemic, and Catholics and Protestants, Jesuits and Lutherans, readily performed plays composed by their confessional opponents.Footnote 25 But it may be fair to say that the Reformers were nonetheless drawn to plays that orbited Lutheran concerns—most of all, to Oedipus Tyrannus, the jewel in Sophocles's crown both for Aristotle and for the Wittenberg school. I have withheld so far the preface to this play, not only because in this volume it doubles, with Winshemius's letter of dedication, as a broader essay in tragic theory, but also because it is around Oedipus that the bibliographical complexity of the Wittenberg Sophocles comes into view. Oedipus is the only play in the volume not introduced by Winshemius. In fact, its argumentum is reprinted from an earlier edition of Sophocles's Theban plays, published by Joachim Camerarius in 1534, and indicates that the volume's cogent vision of what tragedy is and does emerged from the collaborative work of Melanchthon's circle stretching back a good fifteen years. In Oedipus they saw most clearly tragedy's capacity to reflect theological questions of free will and providence, sin, reward, and punishment. The Oedipus plays and the debate over Aristotelian hamartia alike were, after all, already deeply concerned with the nature of Oedipus's error, the central questions of which—whether guilt depends on intention or on action alone, whether one can be truly guilty in a predetermined cosmos—rearticulate distinctions between faith and works, sin and free will, at the schismatic heart of Lutheranism.Footnote 26 To understand why this play in particular was delegated to Camerarius, it is necessary to revisit the volume's genesis, which spanned fifteen years of thinking at Wittenberg about Aristotelian poetics and the working of Greek tragedy.


Shortly before his appointment to the University of Tübingen in 1535, Joachim Camerarius published the first analytical commentary to accompany a Greek tragedian in the Latin West since antiquity. He begins with the essay “De Tragico Carmine” (On tragic poetry), culling the history and theory of tragedy from several sources but most of all from Aristotle's Poetics, which held Sophocles—as opposed to Euripides, Erasmus's favorite—preeminent among the tragedians.Footnote 27 For example, Camerarius defines tragedy in Aristotelian fashion as “the representation of great matters both horrible and incredible. Some define it briefly, as a synopsis of heroic fortune; others, at greater length, as an imitation of great and serious things, the ends of which are unfolded in pleasurable words, such that all its individual parts have consistency of action, all of it ending in pity and terror.”Footnote 28 A moment later he gives Aristotle's six parts of tragedy, with their Greek terms, and describes tragedies as “properly separated into Prologue, Exodus, Episode, Chorus,” another kind of Aristotelian division. Later still, he discusses a third scheme, δέσις and λύσις (winding up and unraveling of plot), also under Aristotle's name, before proceeding to the lives of the tragedians.

Camerarius's preface shares exegetical duties with his argumentum to Oedipus Tyrannus, which, even at this early date (perhaps because of its prominence in Aristotle's own treatise), became a site of broader theorizing on the genre. The argumentum deploys a generally Aristotelian vocabulary: the servant of Laius is “moved by pity” (“moto misericordia”) to rescue the abandoned baby, Oedipus's and Jocasta's “recognitions” of his identity use the loaded verb cognoscere, and it is “either fear or pity” (“aut timore aut misericordia”) that the audience experiences in response to the play—or, rather, fails to experience in response to contrasting plays, such as Euripides's Cyclops.Footnote 29 But the argumentum also cites broader theoretical claims, such as Aristotle's observation that Sophocles “represented the actions of things such as they should be, Euripides such as they are.”Footnote 30 And it is in this argumentum that Camerarius departs from the purely classical, crossing Aristotelian technology with theology in a way that seeded later developments at Wittenberg. Upon seeing punishment meted out to those who deserve it, one might think that tragedies “expose divine retribution and vengeance.” Yet Oedipus Tyrannus, a play “rightly praised above all others,” proves otherwise: “where a good man, loving honesty and virtue, is driven into undeserved evil, as though by the power of fate, or where sins which were committed either not by his will or even in ignorance bear extreme punishment, then from such examples both fear and pity take possession of men, and laments and horrors are excited.”Footnote 31

For all its consonance with the subsequent writings of the Wittenberg school, this passage also betrays a crucial difference. Camerarius believes that tragedy represents the absence or failure of divine justice, a vision radically at odds with the stern but fair Christian cosmos of Wittenberg tragedy. As Michael Lurie has observed, it is a theory of tragedy designed, like Aristotle's, around Oedipus Tyrannus, which continued to vex Reformation scholars precisely because of its obstinate resistance to a Christian reading of tragedy. If Oedipus was innocent, as he claimed to be, his downfall could hardly represent divine justice; yet attempts by critics such as Vettori to locate his guilt in anger and imprudence were unsatisfying.Footnote 32 For Lurie, Oedipus was “the only play Melanchthon himself found impossible to accommodate in his anti-tragic vision,” and the Wittenberg circle's silence on the matter in 1547 was emblematic of the ultimate incoherence of their model of tragedy.Footnote 33 Yet that model took shape over time through incremental dialogue, itself a characteristically Melanchthonian mode of argument.Footnote 34 Camerarius's argumentum was considered at least pious enough for it to be reproduced in both editions (1547, 1549) of the Wittenberg Sophocles, as well as in the second edition of Camerarius's own commentaries (1556). Oedipus was the hard case, to be sure, but to see it as a fault line suppresses two decades of convergence on both sides. Camerarius soon came around to Melanchthon's position, and the perennial irritant of Oedipus would in due course give rise to Winshemius's most sophisticated justification of Christian tragedy.

It is worth pausing here to make a broader point about the rediscovery and influence of Aristotle's Poetics. Though typically considered to have emerged around 1550 in Italy, a thorough and practical knowledge of this foundational text of “the early modern poetics of tragedy” was evidently dominant in the intellectual centers of the North over a decade and a half before that.Footnote 35 True, there are oddities to Camerarius's position. He seems uncertain whether the text should be attributed to Aristotle, a position that was not shared by any major scholar of whom I am aware, least of all by his colleagues at Wittenberg.Footnote 36 But there is also much to learn from his use of Aristotle among and alongside other classical theorists. In the sixteenth century, the Poetics was, on one hand, still a plastic text, embracing a far wider range of literary phenomena than later rigorist readings would allow. On the other, it could be and was used as one account among others of tragedy and its effects, certainly first among equals at this point but not yet equivalent to natural law.Footnote 37 Flourishing north of the Alps a good fifteen to twenty years before its efflorescence in Italy, this thorough Aristotelian reading of tragedy was by 1534 bound for use as an undergraduate textbook in the fons et origo of the Reformation. The volume is dedicated to Franz Burchart (Franciscus Vinariensis), a favorite student of Melanchthon's, who had been appointed Wittenberg's professor of the Greek language in 1530. Camerarius makes it quite clear why he's picked Burchart in the dedication, where he laments his inability “in schools (in mine, at least), to hold in my hands the Tragedies of the Greeks, apart from those two most elegantly translated by Erasmus of Rotterdam into Latin”—a sorry case for such “a great lover of tragic song” as he claims to be.Footnote 38 “Let me dedicate this my little work to you, Franciscus,” he writes, “that it may pass through you, who teach Greek at Wittenberg . . . into the hands of the multitude.”Footnote 39

“For your Sophocles, much thanks,” Melanchthon wrote to Camerarius in May 1534; in October he was still “struck with incredible desire to read it” (even in the 1530s it took at least six months to read a friend's work), and by December he could send word that the commentaries were being feted in Rome.Footnote 40 By this time Melanchthon had carte blanche to teach whatever he liked at Wittenberg, and he turned to Greek tragedy several times in the latter half of the 1530s. He lectured most often on Euripides, in accordance with sixteenth-century—and, particularly, German—tastes.Footnote 41 An edition of Euripides, published in 1558 by Wilhelm Xylander (1532–76), accompanied Melanchthon's translations of all but one of the eighteen surviving plays with argumenta drawn directly from his lectures, in which Euripides was praised over Sophocles for being more rhetorical and displaying greater ornament.Footnote 42 But Melanchthon taught Sophocles too, and paid him minute attention. More than one hundred pages of his personal copy of Sophocles in Greek (1544) bear the thick scrawl of his annotations, many of which migrated into the margins and the translations of the Wittenberg Sophocles.Footnote 43

The published product of this long engagement with Greek tragedy was an introduction that Melanchthon wrote for Camerarius's edition of Terence in 1545: the much-reprinted “Cohortatio ad Legendas Tragoedias et Comoedias” (Exhortation to read tragedies and comedies).Footnote 44 In the “Cohortatio” Melanchthon normalized and digested Camerarius's Aristotelian technology, and put it to new ends that develop his brief insight into the religious valence of tragedy. The Greeks wrote tragedies so that “by consideration of heinous examples and misfortunes the people might turn their rude and untamed spirits toward moderation and the reining in of desires.” The plots they chose depicted

notable and heinous misfortunes, by the recollection of which entire theaters would shudder with horror [cohorrescerent]. For people are not moved by the consideration of light or moderate miseries, but a terrible sight must be cast before their eyes, which may penetrate into and at length cling to their souls, and move them by that very pity to think on the causes of human calamities and each to compare himself to those images.Footnote 45

Aristotelian machinery here supports tragedy's essential promotion of ethical moderation; Giles Waller points out that horrescere and its cognates were standard Latin translations for Aristotle's φρίττειν, a physical shudder that opens up a whole vocabulary of affective response to tragedy.Footnote 46 Melanchthon turned this apparatus to theological ends. The central message of Melanchthonian tragedy is summed up in Ixion's anguished cry on the wheel, as reported by Pindar and Virgil, “Discite iustitiam moniti et non spernere divos” (“You have been warned: learn justice and do not spurn the gods!”). Tragedians aimed to impress upon their audience the knowledge that there is a mens aeterna, an “eternal mind which ever punishes atrocious crimes with notable examples, but to moderate and just men for the most part it gives a more tranquil course.”Footnote 47

That hedging “for the most part” (“plerumque”) is not merely ornamental. Melanchthon here arrives at the crux Camerarius had posed a decade earlier—that of the punishment of ostensibly good men, such as Oedipus. In his discussion of the tragic mens aeterna, as with the ordo perpetuus he would invoke in the shadow of war the following year, Melanchthon recognizes that divine justice often appears to miscarry. Hence his careful qualification that “although sometimes accidental misfortunes oppress even the moderate and just,” there are nevertheless many “hidden causes” behind such events, tapestries of deed and fortune and judgment inaccessible to mortal view. The thriving of the wicked and the suffering of the virtuous alike are attributed to these “hidden causes,” no small concession in the attempt to square tragic plots with divine will. Yet for Melanchthon it is sufficient to answer Camerarius and confirm the general rule that “Erinyes and savage calamities are always the companions of atrocious misdeeds.” How much more resonant this pagan maxim among Christians, he avers, who hear it through “the clear voice of God and Church.”Footnote 48

These arguments percolated into the Wittenberg classroom, as a lecture on Electra, advertised on 18 January 1545, neatly demonstrates: from Melanchthon it lifts Ixion's dictum “learn justice and do not spurn the gods,” and at the same time anticipates almost verbatim what Winshemius would say about the play in 1547, that it shows how “out of a single transgression the devil weaves a long web of crimes and miseries for men.”Footnote 49 Camerarius's seminal commentary of 1534, for that matter, may already have registered the influence of Melanchthon's thought, since a surviving manuscript of Melanchthon's Epitome of Ethics, written in 1532, contains the topic heading, “Did Antigone do right when she buried her brother against the king's command?”Footnote 50 Rather than following Camerarius's lead, Melanchthon had always placed tragedy at the intersection of politics, ethics, and jurisprudence, fields that to this day use similarly lurid fictions—Speluncean cannibals, runaway trolleys, even Iphigenia herself—to frame and push through the limits of current reasoning.Footnote 51

Over the following year Winshemius assembled these disparate materials into the Wittenberg Sophocles. In doing so he closed a neat institutional circle. Camerarius had dedicated his work in 1534 to Franz Burchart so that it would be taught at Wittenberg; Melanchthon had covered the Greek lecture after Burchart left, in 1535; and now Winshemius, who had given the Greek lecture unofficially in Melanchthon's absence, and officially since August 1541, would ensure that Camerarius's work did indeed reach the hands of the multitude.Footnote 52 He retained Camerarius's three argumenta and his essay on the tragedians’ lives, and reproduced his preface placing Oedipus Tyrannus at the center of the tragic canon and making an initial connection between tragedy and theology. But what would do in 1534 would not do in 1547, and Winshemius brought these earlier readings up to the moment. Where Camerarius's prefaces to Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus go little further than summarizing the plot and providing biographical data, it is Winshemius's supplementary argumenta to these plays that turn most sharply toward current events, offering justification of armed resistance and highlighting the fragility of political alliances.

Winshemius's most significant intervention, however, was to replace Camerarius's essay “De Tragico Carmine” with his own dedication to Edward VI, which shares Melanchthon's vision of a meeting of Greek and Christian maxims, “in which many illustrious images of human calamities are set forth, the consideration of which is useful both to admonish and to console.”Footnote 53 Tragic admonition, the first part of this formula, works as Melanchthon had suggested. Winshemius reiterates Ixion's warning, “Discite iustitiam moniti et non spernere divos”; repeats once more Wittenberg's flagship reading of Antigone, “whether divine law should take precedence over the edict of a King where it conflicts with divine law”; and echoes Melanchthon's doctrine of the “eternal mind,” which directs human affairs and dispenses justice for virtue and vice:

Witnessing the horrible fates of the most powerful men, [wise writers] recognized the infirmity of humankind, and saw, too, that by an absolutely fixed order atrocious crimes almost always accompanied atrocious punishments in this very brief space of mortal life. From this they judged that there was an eternal mind [mentem aeternam], a founder of the human race, a wise, just protector, who established and watches over this order, so as to remind us of the creator and of his wisdom, justice, and judgment. Therefore they recited these notable examples, so that with the fear of punishment they would not only deter men from injustice, but also draw them on to a certain recognition of God.Footnote 54

Hence plots such as Orestes's revenge, which witnesses “the punishment of murder and adultery,” and Oedipus's downfall, Jocasta's suicide, and their sons’ internecine slaughter, whereby “the foul lust of Laius was punished in his seed.”Footnote 55 Judging that such crimes were punished not by chance but “by a divine source,” wise antiquity framed them as tragedies because “it wanted the minds of men to be utterly terrified by the atrocity of punishments, so that they would throw reigns upon their ambition, lust, avarice, and other errant desires.”Footnote 56

On the consolatory aspect of tragedy, however, Winshemius hones Wittenberg's justification of Christian tragedy into its final form. Where Melanchthon had appealed to the veil concealing the divine plan from mortal sight, Winshemius draws that line instead between sacred and pagan literature. “The doctrine proper to the Church reveals whence firm consolations should be sought,” he is careful to say, “for in reading these poems, it is also necessary diligently to show the difference between these writings and the doctrine of the Church. These narrations pertain to the voice of the Law. But the voice of the Gospel is otherwise, which amid these calamities affirms that those who are fleeing to a mediator for refuge are received by God.”Footnote 57 Citing the crucial distinction between Law and Gospel first articulated by Melanchthon in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession (1531), Winshemius here sharpens the specifically Lutheran dimension of Reformation tragedy.Footnote 58 Aligning tragedy with the Law limited its province to ethical action within the bourn of this life; the life to come, and the redemptive conversion of suffering into reward that so confounds the notion of a tragic ending, were the province of a different literature altogether. Pagan tragedy could represent the true Christian doctrine of God's justice on earth, but it could hardly speak of a Gospel that was yet to be revealed.

Between Melanchthon's “hidden causes” and Winshemius's alignment of tragedy with the Law, the Wittenberg school thus answered the two major challenges that hound Christian tragedy to this day: of injustice in a divinely ordained world, on one hand, and of the untragic nature of Christian death—the “sure and certain hope of the resurrection”—on the other.Footnote 59 Even the affective response to tragedy, Melanchthon's horrified “shudder,” is exonerated as a legitimate, even appropriate, Christian response to the terrible justice of the Law. Divine providence did not begin with Christ; on the contrary, it had dictated the course of history whether the pagans had been aware of it or not. Whatever wisdom the pagans had derived from the world around them, codified in their great works of philosophy and poetry, was an accurate representation of the divine plan on earth. It was simply missing the next chapter.

This argument—that pagan and Christian wisdom speak as one up to a point, beyond which only the Gospel avails—recurs throughout the Reformers’ writings of these wartime years. Even as the Wittenberg Sophocles reached completion, in early 1547, Melanchthon composed a short list of Loci of Consolation in the wake of Wittenberg's fall, his own forced exile, and the death of his daughter Anna. Here five “philosophical” loci are set in parallel with five loci “handed down in the church,” all of them narrative exempla of suffering: Hercules, Achilles, Pompey, and Caesar are among the pagans, while Christian examples include Abel, Daniel, John the Baptist, and “those most cruelly butchered by the Turks and others.” Yet these two traditions, though both legitimate doctrine for Christian readers, are parallel only so far. “Philosophical consolations overcome only man's lesser pains, but they do not show the end or liberation,” and although “the chief topics on consolation which the church proposes agree with the philosophical topics,” nevertheless they “embrace greater things.” The Gospel alone provides loci 6–10, including “the promises of God” and “hope of aid and liberation,” which have no pagan analogues.Footnote 60 Camerarius, too, would adopt this reasoning in the second edition of his commentaries on Sophocles (1556), now expanded to cover all the plays. In a new prefatory essay, “De Consilio Autoris” (On the intention of the author), Camerarius acknowledges the Wittenberg Sophocles as an important precursor, cites loci in the plays that are harmonious with good Christian doctrine, and reiterates the argument that the wisdom of the tragedians, great as it was, was nonetheless limited, “wherefore they crossed over to this other school, which revealed the Church of the Son of God, of our sole Lord JESUS CHRIST.”Footnote 61Oedipus or no Oedipus, tragedy was not really susceptible to charges of theological inconsistency. Salvation was never in its remit. Tragedy was theological, but that did not mean theology was tragic.

Christ's sacrifice on the cross marked, for Winshemius, a climacteric in literary as well as spiritual history. After the Crucifixion it became possible to compose a different kind of story, one that could be measured by the promise of the Gospel, but tragedy as a genre antedated this moment and, consequently, pertained only to “the voice of the Law,” no matter where or when a given tragedy was composed:

Although many ingenious Greeks greatly applied their art, nevertheless I think that in all times among civilized peoples such poems are recited. And that custom has sprung from the Church, in which God has ordered examples of his wrath to be set forth: for he wants us to know of what kind it is, wants it to be discerned from things unjust and not understood. Therefore he desires the surviving testimonies of his wisdom and justice to be seen, and demands obedience, so that the difference between justice and injustice may be understood. For this reason the saddest tragedies are recited in the Church, all the way from the very beginning up to now: the rages and punishments of Cain, the story of the flood and of the destruction of the Sodomites, the ruin of Pharaoh, of the Canaanites, of Saul, and of many others: in short, the stupidity and impious numbness of not considering horrible punishments, which range through the whole race of men at all times.Footnote 62

That these sacred tragedies are all to be found in the Old Testament is no coincidence. Jewish and pagan texts alike were praeparatio evangelica, albeit Jewish texts far more so. Although a play such as Trachiniae might gesture typologically toward salvation in a pagan cosmos, the stories of the Jews represented a far more potent middle term, an archive of tragedy native to the church (so it could function as doctrine) but still, crucially, identified with the Law rather than the Gospel (so it could function as tragedy). Tragedy, at last, was manifest in the patterns of Christian history, patterns still unfolding as the Wittenberg Sophocles went to press. This was the lesson of Greek tragedy at the center of the Reformation world in the 1540s. Winshemius taught it, packaged it, charged it with the peril of the present moment, and dispatched it refugee to England.


Why England? Winshemius's dedication to Edward VI is an act of desperation. Now more than ever it is pressing to erect “some Church of God that will endure forever, even if among the tumults of Empires it is sorely shaken.”Footnote 63 Henry VIII, the most learned king in many ages and an example to his son, “brought it about that his native land should be the most endowed with letters and erudition.”Footnote 64 And now, under Edward, the time has come for England to reclaim its role as a refuge for learning in times of Continental barbarism: “the Academies in other regions are scattered, and it seems that great barbarism and great shadows will follow, unless some kings provide refuge for letters and truth, and undertake to establish studies correctly. Just as once, when the Goths and Vandals laid waste to Churches in France and Germany, religion and knowledge of letters were brought out of your Britain into those lands once more, just so now, if you protect the possession of learning, after a time England will restore purity of letters and religion to the Churches of many peoples.”Footnote 65

This, too, stemmed from a vision of history Melanchthon had promulgated since his first arrival at Wittenberg, in 1518. His inaugural oration, “De Corrigendis Adolescentis Studiis” (On correcting the studies of youth), laid out a broad panorama of the destruction of Roman literature along with Rome herself: “the furor of war at once destroyed the libraries and killed the Muses with inactivity.” Yet the British Isles, from Scottish and Irish monasteries to Bede and Alcuin, had been the exception to this history, a safe house for learning while “Italy and France were barren” and Germany “more practiced in arms than in letters.”Footnote 66 Melanchthon again recalled, in an open letter to Henry VIII in April 1539, that “it was by virtue of the British Church that the Roman Provinces were first liberated from persecution.”Footnote 67 And in the “Cohortatio,” Melanchthon connected this historical scheme to tragedy: “Although in the same age many in Athens worked in the same genre of writing, and left many distinguished monuments, it is greatly to be lamented that they were all utterly destroyed either by the barbarism of men or because of the ruin of cities.”Footnote 68 For Melanchthon, as for Winshemius after him, tragedy was a metonym for wider learning, and its fortunes tracked the pendulum of human history as it swung between learning and war. The recovery of tragedy from a rubble of manuscripts, so painstakingly accomplished by the philological efforts of Camerarius and other scholars across Europe, was a victory they were desperate to preserve.

Yet as the Wittenberg Sophocles went to press, the pendulum seemed to Melanchthon to be swinging away once more. With more urgency than ever he appealed in May 1548 to Thomas Cranmer, evangelical archbishop of Canterbury, for British shelter: “as the relics of doctrines were preserved in your island in the Gothic times of the Church, so now too it is to be desired, amid the tumults of Europe, that some tranquil shelters of letters remain. And I choose the tranquility of your Britain.”Footnote 69 The noose was tightening for Reformers across the Continent, and by this time many of Melanchthon's contemporaries and friends had indeed found refuge in England under Cranmer's and Edward's protection. Major figures such as Pietro Martire Vermigli, Bernardino Ochino, and Valérand Poullain had arrived by late 1547 and were embedding themselves in Edwardian religious and intellectual life. They were followed over the next two years by John a Lasco, Pierre Alexandre, John Immanuel Tremellius, Paul Fagius, and Melanchthon's close collaborator Martin Bucer (1491–1551).Footnote 70 Melanchthon himself never made the journey, despite repeated invitations from Cranmer and worsening conditions at home.Footnote 71

Tranquility was in short supply in Wittenberg. Defeated at the Battle of Mühlberg in late April 1547, Elector John Frederick ceded his title and lands to Duke Moritz in exchange for his life. Wittenberg, birthplace of the Reformation, home of Luther's church door and his tomb, had fallen to imperial forces. Melanchthon's letters in this year, the very moment of the publication of the Wittenberg Sophocles, are preoccupied with transplanting the Reformation into England. “If war is waged against the cities of Saxony,” he writes in December, “we will be torn apart into new exiles,” yet “the voice of the Gospel rings out purely in Britain.”Footnote 72 His hopes were buoyed by the death of Henry, who had proved too conservative for the Lutheran cause. “I judge that there is now a place for students of the doctrine of heaven in England,” Melanchthon wrote to the Scottish Lutheran Alexander Alesius in March 1547, “for the king, about to die, left a decree with his governors, according to which, I hear, the study of the purer doctrine is not to be impeded.”Footnote 73 Contrary to political conditions across Europe, England's unique position of declaring for the Reformation and also having a centralized monarchy made it look like a working prototype of the legal principle cuius regio, eius religio (whose realm, his religion), formulated in 1555 to recognize the legitimacy of Protestant states. Scattered and demoralized, the Reformers looked to England, where Cranmer was the only leading archbishop in Europe still to declare for the Reformation, to be the new Athens of their movement.Footnote 74

Every indication is that the Wittenberg Sophocles really was sent, and that it traveled through networks of Continental refugees recently arrived in England. Melanchthon's only direct reference to the book occurs in a short, informal letter to Bucer, dated 18 October 1549: “Our Veit has dedicated his translation of Sophocles to the King of England, which you should make sure to show him, and honor him with this gift.”Footnote 75 Bucer received a royal reception when he arrived in London, in April, and by July he was in Cambridge to take up the regius professorship of divinity.Footnote 76 Maintaining a vigorous schedule of correspondence, he served as a conduit through which his Continental colleagues attempted to draw Edward VI closer to the cause of reform. Continental Reformers would send books to Bucer; Bucer would hand them on to John Cheke (1514–57), his Cambridge colleague and regius professor of Greek, who had for five years tutored Edward, prince and king; Cheke, steward of the young king's book closet, would then present them to Edward. Presentation copies of Johann Sturm's works sent via this route to Edward and to Princess Elizabeth, surviving in the British Library and the libraries of several Cambridge colleges, have been minutely studied.Footnote 77 There is no doubt that a broad path was open for the Wittenberg Sophocles to reach Edward through the foremost humanists and Reformers of Tudor England. Indeed, by extrapolation from cases such as Sturm's, the likelihood is that Melanchthon's letter to Bucer was itself accompanied by a copy.

Yet the Goths and Vandals may have struck again, for I have been unable to identify that copy with certainty. The closest I have come is a copy of the second edition (1549, which would match the date of Melanchthon's letter) surviving in the British Library, though not among the Old Royal Library collection. A single annotation in Winshemius's preface to Ajax reads “partes tragoed. 3.” in a firm sixteenth-century hand, and the title page bears only an illegible scrawl. But the final page features a handsome inscription—“M. / Non si nunc et olim sic erit,” adapted from Horace's Odes 2.10.17, “things will not always be as they are now” (fig. 2)—in the distinctive, upright hand of the Cambridge Italic school of penmanship, as it was taught by Cheke and Roger Ascham (ca. 1515–68) to Edward, Elizabeth, and many others.Footnote 78 Tragedy was a part of that teaching: Edward employed tragic exempla in the chreiai (moral exercises) he was set by Cheke, and Elizabeth read Sophocles with Ascham, although there is no indication of which edition they used.Footnote 79 The choice of motto at least suggests that the reader of this volume—whether Cheke, Edward, or someone else entirely—grasped the currency of Wittenberg tragedy and the Stoic consolation it prescribed.

Figure 2. Anonymous annotation in the Wittenberg Sophocles. London, British Library, 998.b.2(2), 415v. © British Library Board.

Whatever the fate of Edward's presentation volume, Sophocles's prominence in this new geography of reform had deep roots in the evangelicals’ experience of current events. The argumenta of the Wittenberg Sophocles are shot through with historical parallels. Reproducing Melanchthon's line on Antigone and civil resistance, Winshemius doesn't miss the opportunity to stress that Sophocles, an Athenian general in the Peloponnesian War, died “in the very year that the city of Athens was captured by Lysander,” amid precisely the kind of trials that faced his Saxon readers at the time.Footnote 80 Melanchthon himself, meanwhile, had long felt that contemporary Reformation politics were reflected in tragedy. “We are able,” he observes in the “Cohortatio,” “neatly to transpose these very examples onto present business”; for example, an image of Cleon addressing an assembly of terrified sheep “comes before my eyes whenever I think of Synods, in which the voice of the learned and pious is oppressed by the terror of power.”Footnote 81 Such parallels went to the heart of his thinking about tragedy and history alike. Though he dutifully agreed in the margins of his personal copy of Polybius that “Tragedy has a different end from history,” he was nonetheless drawn to highlight in the same passage historical cases that accorded with his reading of tragic form—for example, how “he who kills a traitor or a tyrant is granted honor and distinction by all.”Footnote 82 And in personal letters Melanchthon frequently channels the halting progress of the Reformation through tragic language and precedent. He adapts verses from Ajax, “which I am accustomed to recite when I am thinking about Germany and of the Sophistics of the Court”; entreats squabbling princes to moderation with Tiresias's exhortation from Antigone, “beware, for you walk on the edge of disaster!”; and describes a weird polymythic dream in late December 1546, later written up as a poem, in which Duke Moritz, the traitor, appeared as Ajax at the foot of a mountain on which Christ stood resurrected from death.Footnote 83

English events in particular provoked Melanchthon to the tragic mode.Footnote 84 In June 1536, he wrote to Camerarius of events surrounding Anne Boleyn's execution as “tragic misfortunes” (“tragici casus”).Footnote 85 Four years later, “the English tyrant [Henry] has murdered Cromwell,” and Melanchthon's mood has darkened. “How truly that man says in the Tragedy: ‘one can kill no victim more pleasing to God than a tyrant!’ If only God would put some strong man in this mind,” he mutters, drawing on Seneca's Hercules as he would Antigone for loci on legitimate resistance.Footnote 86 English tragedy would return to his letters in 1553, with the shocking early death of Edward, and, with him, the Catholic downside to the principle of cuius regio, eius religio. “The English Iliad is truly miserable,” he lamented in October. “We know that in this end and senseless oldness of the world there will be great confusions of empires,” he exclaimed the following March; “what sad spectacles were seen last summer in Germany and in England—and the stars warn of horrible things to come this year.”Footnote 87 That July he wrote to Camerarius of the conservative bishop Stephen Gardiner's return to power: “The Phalaris of Winchester reigns in England, rather than Semiramis or Zenobia: now holy old Latimer is murdered . . . [and] Cranmer has been condemned to life imprisonment. So everywhere the fierce Erinyes reign.”Footnote 88

Reformation itself here takes on dramatic form. For Melanchthon, the poetics of classical tragedy are not just offering new technologies of piety but becoming a narrative heuristic for real historical events. Yet the fires of religious schism were burning hotter even than the ancient tragedies, and by September events had outpaced the Erinyes themselves: “In England four bishops are bound to four stakes on the same pyre, Latimer, the finest old man, Ridley, Hooper, and Cranmer. I don't know whether a similar example is to be found in ancient accounts.”Footnote 89 This is not just tragedy as a reflection of politics and history. This is history articulating a reality that is itself tragic.


Edward's coronation and the outbreak of the Schmalkaldic War opened a window for the Wittenberg Sophocles and its passage to England in early 1547, but within the year fears of total collapse had subsided. Duke Moritz proved Lutheran enough after winning his cousin's territories, recalling a wary Melanchthon from exile and restoring the university. In the years to come, the Schmalkaldic League revived and forged a new coalition with France, and the Second Schmalkaldic War (1552–55) put an end to the emperor's hopes of a unified Germany. As for England, Mary's coronation, in 1553, foreclosed any hope that the Reformation could thrive across the channel. In July of that year Melanchthon's tone is almost sardonic: “Here we have no news to report, except that the English King has died and his kingdom falls to the Emperor.”Footnote 90 Cranmer was in prison by September and went to the stake in 1556, by which time large refugee communities of English evangelicals had formed in Strasbourg, Frankfurt, and Calvin's Geneva. As Melanchthon's attention turned to growing rifts within Lutheranism, his English efforts had been rendered obsolete; after two decades of politics by dedication, there was nobody left in England to receive one. But in the brief six years of Edward's reign, Wittenberg's tragedy left a permanent mark on the literary history of England and the Continent alike.

It was virtually impossible to read classical drama in the North without coming into contact with Wittenberg's teachings. Students who heard Melanchthon's and Winshemius's lectures promulgated them across Europe through editions and translations of Sophocles.Footnote 91 The Dutch scholar Georg Rataller (1528–81) put out a translation of Ajax, Antigone, and Electra in 1550 and followed it in the ensuing decades with further translations of Sophocles and Euripides. The Austrian Georg Tanner (ca. 1515–ca. 1580) transmitted the “ethical and political” reading he had learned in Wittenberg to Peter Bornemisza (ca. 1535–84), who incorporated it into the first translation of Electra into Hungarian.Footnote 92 Thomas Naogeorgus (1508–63), a firebrand preacher who dedicated the anti-papist play Pammachius to Cranmer in 1538, published translations of Ajax and Philoctetes in 1552, and followed them six years later with all seven of Sophocles's plays (1558).Footnote 93 Nor were the interests of this wide circle limited to Sophocles. Sigmund Gelen (1497–1554) dedicated his 1547 edition of Aristophanes to Melanchthon, who had edited the Clouds as a young man, in 1521.Footnote 94 Melanchthon's own translations of Euripides, with prefaces based on his lectures, were quilted into successive editions (1558, 1562) by his student Wilhelm Xylander. Matthias Garbitius Illyricus (1505–59), a Croatian student of Camerarius and Melanchthon, published an edition, translation, and commentary of Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound (1559) that opens with fifty pages of prefatory material. Caspar Stiblin (1526–ca. 1562) produced an edition of Euripides in 1562 that would be a major influence on Milton.Footnote 95 And in 1567 Henri Estienne (ca. 1528–98) canonized the Latin translations of Erasmus, Buchanan, Rataller, Melanchthon, Camerarius, and others in a grand anthology of Tragoediae Selectae.Footnote 96

Every one of these editions rehearses the political, ethical, and theological model of tragedy pioneered at Wittenberg; many of them circulated widely in England and had significant impact on its literary scene.Footnote 97 Sophocles had been much in vogue in Cambridge since the early 1540s, when Cheke lectured on the whole corpus twice over and translated it word for word into Latin.Footnote 98 Ascham, who for his part made a verse translation of Philoctetes, examined Rataller's translation of Ajax, Electra, and Antigone in Spira on 20 October 1550, just months after its publication that summer, and attended a lecture on Oedipus Tyrannus in Louvain.Footnote 99 Elevated by vibrant Anglo-German intellectual circles and royal associations, Winshemius's translation would become the standard Latin Sophocles used in England, a “universal crib” well into the eighteenth century, while Camerarius's commentaries circulated widely throughout England in Henri Estienne's standard 1568 edition of the Greek plays.Footnote 100 Several volumes surviving in English libraries show evidence of contemporary scholarly engagement, and the 1581 Latin Antigone of Thomas Watson (1555–92) cites Camerarius on a point of textual detail.Footnote 101 But Sophocles was not only chained to the desk. One copy made it to Cambridge within a year of its publication—a partly deleted inscription on the title page obscures the name of the owner, leaving visible only “Cantab: 1569.” Unfit though a hefty folio might seem for stage work, its Latin translation of Ajax is given act numbers and marked up for performance with sigla distributing the speeches of the chorus and semichorus among three different actors (fig. 3).

Figure 3. Ajax marked up for performance. Queen's College, University of Oxford, BB.v.34, part 2, page 70. Reproduced by permission of the Provost and Fellows of the Queen's College, University of Oxford.

The evidence of dramatic activity offered by this annotated volume of Estienne's Sophocles points to one of the major areas of Wittenberg's influence: academic drama. Imitations of classical tragedy naturally fell, at least at first, into the category of learned drama, since these plays were either Greek or Latin, and learned audiences could excuse comedy and tragedy alike as an inevitable condition of exposure to the best exempla of the classical tongues. It was in the hope of extending such performances to the populace at large that Martin Bucer included a chapter “De Honestis Ludis” (On honest entertainments) in his magnum opus, De Regno Christi, addressed to Edward in 1550. Bucer prescribes pious singing, pious dancing, and, finally, pious Aristotelian drama as approved relaxation from the sobriety of Protestant life: “youth could also perform comedies and tragedies, and by such means a useful form of entertainment, honorable and contributing toward an increase of piety, may be staged for the people.”Footnote 102 Pious comedies could be modeled on scriptural themes, such as the story of Abraham and Lot or Isaac's suit to Rebekah. As for tragedy, “these stories are filled with divine and heroic personages, emotions, customs, actions, and also events which turned out contrary to what was expected, which Aristotle calls reversal . . . how much more does it befit Christians to derive their poems from these things, in which they can represent the great and illustrious plans, efforts, characters, emotions, and events of mankind, rather than from the godless fables and stories of the pagans.”Footnote 103 Vindication of comedy was nothing new—widespread classroom use of Terence had prompted full-throated defenses from Erasmus and many others—but tragedy was another question.Footnote 104 Given the German approach to classical drama in the two decades prior to the composition of Bucer's work, this aspect of De Regno Christi is best seen as the next logical step in the process begun at Wittenberg. Camerarius, Melanchthon, and Winshemius had secured pagan drama for Christian consumption through Aristotelian technology; Bucer now suggested that classical form could be rescued from classical content and refashioned into the scaffolding of truly Christian stories.

The Wittenberg tradition thus casts new light on English religious drama during and after the 1540s. What Bucer had in mind was scriptural tragedy, a thriving schoolroom genre stretching biblical plots over classical architecture, which became an important medium of cultural exchange between England and the Continent in this period. George Buchanan's (1506–82) immensely popular Jephthes (written 1542–43)—a play, like Philoctetes in Winshemius's account, that wrestles with the integrity of vows, or the problem of lying for the greater good—inaugurated a series of child-sacrifice dramas modeled on Euripides's Iphigenia in Aulis, including John Christopherson's (d.1558) Jephthah, of 1544, the first and only Neo-Greek play to be written in Tudor England, and Jane Lumley's (1537–78) version, of the early 1550s, the first translation of a Greek play into English.Footnote 105 Scholars seeking the sources of Lumley's remarkable Iphigenia in the Lumley library have focused on her access to Erasmus's famous Latin version, but more attention needs to be paid to the fact that the library also contained Camerarius's seminal 1534 commentary on the Theban plays, as well as Naogeorgus's translations of Sophocles's Ajax and Philoctetes, which bridge Greek tragedy and the evangelical themes that have been located in Lumley's translation and Iphigenia's Northern afterlife.Footnote 106 And many of these new plays, erected at the crossroads between theology and politics, classical form and Christian history, spilled forth from the exchange of refugees between England and the Continent in these war-torn years: plays such as Bernardino Ochino's (ca. 1487–1564/65) Tragoedie or Dialoge, translated into English in 1549 and casting Edward and Cranmer as heroic opponents of the Antichrist, and the martyrologist John Foxe's (1516/17–1587) Christus Triumphans (1556).Footnote 107 Drawing on Naogeorgus's Pammachius, Foxe's play was one of a fascinating set of Anglo-German four-act plays produced in this period, which, as Russ Leo has shown, relied on sophisticated Aristotelian expectations when their fifth and final acts deferred to the real-world triumphs of the Gospel.

Not only was the Reformation absorbed into tragic form; tragedy seeped into the very language of the Reformation. Foxe's Actes and Monuments recorded the “Tragicall and lamentable history” of Jan Hus and Jerome of Prague, and the “Tragedy and spectacle of that bloudy Inquisition” in Spain; John Knox spoke of Mary's reign as a “miserable tragedy”; Bishop Edmund Grindal ascribed a report of the exhumation and burning of the bodies of Bucer and Paul Fagius, in 1557, to “a spectator of the whole tragedy,” a pointed remark considering, as Leo points out, that two of the three inquisitors present, John Christopherson and Thomas Watson, were themselves tragedians.Footnote 108 Correspondence between Elizabethan evangelicals and their Continental colleagues was shot through with tragic parallels. Mary's accession, in 1553, was a “tragedy”; in 1559, the obstreperous preachers of Bremen were “arousing tragedies over predestination”; controversies over ritual and vestments appear from the 1550s through the 1570s as “unhappy tragedy,” “a spectacle miserable and horrendous to hear, these things taking place among those who profess the same religion.”Footnote 109 But this was not merely settled metaphor, since it was often reserved for truly dramatic episodes—history serving, in such cases, as the first draft of tragedy. Writing to Heinrich Bullinger in 1549, John Burcher recounted in vivid, exultant detail how “the tragedy was thus acted” when Thomas Seymour broke into the royal chambers and assassinated Edward's faithful dog, only to be arrested and ultimately executed: “Here then you have the happy issue of this tragedy,” Burcher concluded, in which the culprit “suffered at length the due punishment of such wickedness.”Footnote 110 Likewise, Grindal predicted to Bullinger (accurately) that the “infamous marriage,” in May 1567, between Mary Stuart and Lord Bothwell, suspected murderer of her husband only months before, “could not but end in some dire tragedy.”Footnote 111 And most Melanchthonian of all was a letter sent in 1556 by Bishop James Pilkington to Rodolph Gualter, Bullinger's successor in Zurich, reflecting from the depths of Genevan exile on the drama of the Reformation as it moved from country to country: “You have formerly acted a part in this tragedy yourselves, but the Lord has granted you a happy issue: we are now brought upon the stage, that, being humbled by adversity, we may discover him, whom in our prosperity we did not acknowledge as we ought, to be a kind and merciful father.”Footnote 112

Meanwhile, Reformation tragedy was being imported into English schooling. Alexander Nowell (ca. 1516–1601), first headmaster at Westminster, delivered before a school production of Seneca in the early 1540s an extraordinary oration comparing point for point the plot of Hippolytus with the biblical story of Joseph, for which the only precedents are a passage in Melanchthon's Commentary on the Soul (1540) and an exactly contemporary Joseph by the Dutch schoolmaster Georgius Macropedius.Footnote 113 Such dramata sacra, composed and performed across confessional lines, were common entertainments at Oxford and Cambridge. On either side of Mary's reign, colleges produced plays by Continental authors such as Macropedius, Naogeorgus, Wilhelm Gnapheus, Hieronymus Ziegler, and Sixt Birck (who was also performed at Westminster), as well as homegrown compositions by Foxe, Buchanan, Nicholas Udall, and others. Performances of Oedipus and Ajax at both universities in the 1560s suggest the long reach of Sophocles's influence.Footnote 114 Indeed, Naogeorgus's career attests the general transhumance between sacred drama and Sophoclean tragedy proper. Having set out as an author of original sacred drama with Pammachius (1538), Naogeorgus printed his translations of Ajax and Philoctetes as an appendix to Iudas Iscariotes (1552), another Tragoedia Nova et Sacra, and only thereafter found his way to a complete translation of Sophocles (1558). Melanchthon was no friend of this intractable dissident—“I fear neither his bombast nor his tragedies,” he snapped in 1546—but Naogeorgus's paratexts bear the unmistakable stamp of the Wittenberg model, as does Pammachius itself, which “warns us that there is a God who watches over human affairs and cares for them, punishes evil men and blesses the good,” and which garnered Melanchthon's initial support.Footnote 115

This kind of literary back-and-forth between Northern Europe and England in the pre-Marian period is perhaps best exemplified by the dramatic publications of Nicholas Grimald (1519/20–ca. 1562), who boasts, in Aristotelian terms, that his resurrection play Christus Redivivus (1541–42) contains “no indecorum of character, action, time, or place,” and interweaves incredibilia with probabilia.Footnote 116 Though written and first performed in England, the play was printed in Cologne by Gymnich, a father-and-son press with an extensive backlist of Neo-Latin sacred dramas by the leading schoolmaster-dramatists of Europe, including a number of plays later collected into one of the two massive Basel anthologies of Dramata Sacra (1547).Footnote 117 Among the plays issuing from the Gymnich press was Ectrachelistes sive Johannes Decollatus, a beheading-of-John-the-Baptist play written by Jacob Schöpper in 1546. Ectrachelistes in turn influenced Grimald's own John the Baptist play Archipropheta, written in 1546 and printed, again by Gymnich, in 1548. And Grimald's Archipropheta, finally, influenced a Passion play by the Augsburg schoolmaster Sebastian Wild, which continues to be performed once a decade in the Bavarian village of Oberammergau.Footnote 118 There is evidence, moreover, that these sacred dramas by Grimald, Schöpper, and their fellow schoolmasters across Europe were seen on English stages. A volume of the 1547 Dramata Sacra anthology survives in the Bodleian, owned midcentury by a certain “William and davide Jack,” and later by Robert Burton (author of the Anatomy of Melancholy). An annotator of Naogeorgus's Hamanus in this volume kept close track of entrances, exits, and costume changes, and entered backstage cues for actors to take their spots: “harbona presto esse debet” (“Harbona had better be ready”), he warns just before the start of a new scene (fig. 4).

Figure 4. Naogeorgus's Hamanus marked up for performance. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, 8° C 259 Th., part 2, page 159.

This litany of influences is intended to demonstrate, first, the rich abundance and variety of dramatic activity that swept across Europe in this period; second, that England was not only integral to that activity but also inseparable from the common literary culture of the North; and, third, that this picture becomes much simpler when one recognizes that the diverse literary production of this Northern, classicizing, Christian, Neo-Latin, academic drama had a common source in basic principles set out between 1530 and 1550 by a small group of scholars at the geographic, political, theological, and cultural heart of the Reformation. Though that movement was set back in England by Mary's accession, it hardly petered out. Indeed, Oedipus Tyrannus, in one version or another, remained a gravitational center of theorizing on the Wittenberg model. The preface to Alexander Neville's (1544–1614) English translation of Seneca's Lamentable Tragedy of Oedipus, first printed in 1563 and later incorporated into the epochal English version of Seneca his Tenne Tragedies (1581), could as well be by Melanchthon himself. “Onely wysh I all men by this Tragicall Historie (for to that entent was it written) to beware of Synne: the ende whereof is shamefull and miserable,” writes Neville; “myne onely entent was to exhorte men to embrace Vertue and shun Vice, Accordynge to that of the right famous and excellent Poet Virgyl. Discite iusticiam moniti & non temnere diuos.”Footnote 119

There is scant space here to look beyond the 1560s, but Neville's manifest debt suggests one field in which Wittenberg tragedy might have taken root in the Elizabethan period: the literature of resistance. Oedipus was the critical fulcrum of the Wittenberg Sophocles, but if a single play stood for its characteristic mode of interpretation, that play was Antigone.Footnote 120 First connected to a developing body of Protestant resistance theory by Melanchthon, in 1532, it became the ambassador of the Wittenberg method under Winshemius, who rehearsed Melanchthon's interpretation in both his dedication and the argumentum to the play itself. But the point was not only Antigone's to make. Tragedy's purchase against tyranny was reaffirmed by numerous Northern writers. Buchanan composed important antityrannical tracts in addition to tragedies, and in The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates Milton translates the same lines of Seneca's Hercules that Melanchthon had used to urge the assassination of Henry VIII: “There can be slaine / No sacrifice to God more acceptable / Then an unjust and wicked King.”Footnote 121 Neville's resonant quotation is thus illuminated by the fact that the English Seneca, too, emerged from communities of religious dissidents personally invested in resistance and its theory on both sides of the confessional divide. It also suggests the importance of Sir Philip Sidney (1554–86) and his circle in consolidating Melanchthonian political principles, admiration for the work of Camerarius and Buchanan, and resistance literature into a vision of tragedy “that maketh Kings feare to be Tyrants.”Footnote 122 Certainly, in the light of the Wittenberg model, accusations of “mistranslation” or “easy distortion” leveled at cases such as John Studley's translation, in the English Seneca, of deos (gods) as “grace of God” should be recognized instead as only the visible promontory of a vast and complex body of tragic thought that united politics, theology, and tragedy across the North for at least a century.Footnote 123


Wittenberg tragedy is striking in its coherence, its sophistication, and its polygonal centrality to so many of the literary, intellectual, and political concerns of its moment, at home in Saxony and across its extensive diaspora. I would further venture that Winshemius's readings of individual tragedies feel fresh, even modern, in the urgency of their address to political violence and its victims. Though the Reformers’ theory was fundamentally Aristotelian, it emphasizes a dimension of tragedy marginalized by Aristotle's singular priority of form: the therapeutic representation of war, tragedy's “ritualized and communal method,” as Bryan Doerries puts it, “of mitigating the cumulative effects of chronic stress and prolonged exposure to trauma.”Footnote 124 The urge to tragedy that Doerries diagnoses among wartime audiences, modern and Athenian alike, applied equally amid the calamities of the Reformation in the late 1540s. But even as a formal construct, Reformation tragedy is not far from modern notions of tragedy as a representation of “the solemnity of the remorseless working of things.”Footnote 125 Melanchthon's sense of divine justice and Winshemius's Law are, in their own way, “remorseless,” though the Reformers preferred such terms as aeterna and perpetuus. Why, then, has a tragic poetics incubated in the crucible of the Reformation and dominant across half of Europe for a century been so often dismissed as medieval “misreading,” “hopelessly reductive and irremediably tainted by Christian moralism,” rife with “heavy-handed morality” that evades the “genuinely tragic questions” these plays ask, a “hermeneutical disaster”—or, worse, simply ignored in synopses of early modern tragedy and poetics?Footnote 126 When did tragedy and its readers lose faith?

This is a larger story than can be told here, but I will make two broad suggestions. The first has to do with the place of Aristotle's Poetics in accounts of the evolution of Renaissance literary criticism. The inaugural text in this field was Joel Spingarn's History of Literary Criticism in the Renaissance (1899); the subtitle of the first edition—“with special reference to the influence of Italy in the formation and development of modern classicism”—broadcasts an affiliation to Burckhardt's foundational work The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860).Footnote 127 In order to trace nineteenth-century modernity back to the Italian Renaissance, as Vladimir Brljak has shown, Burckhardt relegated what he considered premodern literary modes to the Middle Ages, declaring them “essentially the ages of allegory.”Footnote 128 Spingarn then solved the problem of mapping Burckhardt's teleological model onto his own subject, “the birth of modern criticism,” by placing Aristotle's Poetics at the crux of the shift into modernity.Footnote 129 “The criteria by which imaginative literature was judged during the Middle Ages,” he argued, “were not literary criteria”; subjected to such “unaesthetic criteria” as “reality and morality” by Plato, early Christians, and medieval thinkers, “poetry becomes merely a popularized form of theology.” “Until some rational answer to the objections urged against poetry in antiquity and in the Middle Ages was forthcoming,” Spingarn averred, “literary criticism in any true sense was fundamentally impossible; and that answer came only with the recovery of Aristotle's Poetics.”Footnote 130 Spingarn thus integrated the history of Renaissance literary criticism into Burckhardt's larger historiographic model. Christian pietism, allegorical misreading of the classics, and the medieval age itself are here cast off as a single garment, as Aristotle's Poetics restores a pure, unadulterated classical literature for the modern, and southern, Renaissance.

Plainly this model was ill calibrated to account for a school such as Melanchthon's, which, though not necessarily or consistently allegorical in method, certainly valued the classics for the “reality and morality,” “ethics and divinity” that Spingarn so despised. Indeed, religious readings in general contradicted Burckhardt's view of the Renaissance as the victory of rationalist humanism over theology and superstition; for Spingarn, “the religious revival was hardly more than temporary,” and “neo-classicism throughout Europe was essentially pagan.”Footnote 131 But above all, applications of Aristotle's Poetics that departed from strict aesthetic orthodoxy threatened the very ligaments of Spingarn's model. If the Poetics could admit of variant readings, its role as the font of modern aesthetics—and, thus, as the catalyst of the Renaissance itself—would be thrown into doubt. Few of Spingarn's readers would agree with him today, but his History survives nonetheless in the ground plan of literary historiography, filtering into standard scholarly texts and marginalizing Reformation developments.Footnote 132 From classic accounts of the history of criticism to recent surveys of tragedy and tragic theory, preference for Italy over the North, a stale critical canon, and excessively rigid readings of Aristotle's Poetics have resulted in the widespread neglect of this voluminous and rich body of writing. There is simply more to know.

The second aspect of the story comes from a different disciplinary direction: it has to do with the relationship of the classics to Christianity, and the peculiar place occupied by tragedy in that relationship. Michael Lurie, in the most substantial account to date, describes Camerarius's and Melanchthon's writings as a misleading episode in the longer history of tragic theory, and the Wittenberg Sophocles and its sixteenth-century companions are dismissed as volumes “in which Sophocles was relentlessly, though not always convincingly, subjected to the Christianization initiated by Melanchthon and denied the tragic sense of life he once seemed to have.”Footnote 133 For Lurie the debates over the place of Oedipus that raged from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century amount to no more than a history of error, a series of failures to escape Wittenberg's “Christianizing understanding of both Sophocles and Aristotle's Poetics.” Only in the 1870s does Lurie find a tolerable model of tragedy, in the “uncompromising understanding of Greek literature and culture” advanced by Jacob Burckhardt and Friedrich Nietzsche, premised on the central notion of “Greek pessimism.”Footnote 134

I have suggested some of the problems with a literary history founded on Burckhardt. I have also made the case that sensitive reading of the Reformers’ writings does, in fact, reveal explicit accommodation of the problem of Oedipus. The fact nonetheless remains that a tragic poetics drawn from Nietzsche, whose anti-Christianity was “intimately bound up with his assertion of classical ideals,” is the wrong lens through which to view Wittenberg tragedy (and, indeed, most of literary history before the nineteenth century).Footnote 135 Reflecting on his own work almost fifteen years after it was first published, Nietzsche himself noted its “consistently cautious and hostile silence about Christianity”:

In truth there is no greater antithesis of the purely aesthetic exegesis and justification of the world, as taught in this book, than the Christian doctrine which is, and wants to be, only moral, and which, with its absolute criteria (its insistence on god's truthfulness, for example) banishes art, all art, to the realm of lies, and thus negates, damns and condemns it. . . . Thus my instinct turned against morality at the time I wrote this questionable book; as an advocate of life my instinct invented for itself a fundamentally opposed doctrine and counter-evaluation of life, a purely artistic one, an anti-Christian one. What was it to be called? As a philologist and man of words I baptized it, not without a certain liberty—for who can know the true name of the Antichrist?—by the name of a Greek god: I called it Dionysiac.Footnote 136

However these remarks may project later views onto a younger self, however they merely distill anti-Christian sentiments in Altertumswissenschaft at large, there is as much irony in Nietzsche styling himself “philologist” here as there is in Lurie adopting his writings as the sole approved reading of the classics.Footnote 137The Birth of Tragedy was widely rejected by the philological community, which ostracized Nietzsche amid criticism of the work's “religiously inspired enthusiasms.”Footnote 138 Prophetic, magisterial, philosophically appealing though it may be, Nietzsche's model of tragedy is more eccentric than Melanchthon's ever was. To judge Reformation tragedy by the light of a single nineteenth-century version of tragedy in the throes of reaction not only to Christianity but to a specifically German clericalism, nascent in the Lutheranism that Reformation tragedy so splendidly witnessed, could hardly produce a balanced or accurate assessment of its qualities. It is nonetheless the want of “Greek pessimism” that informs many of the most damning assessments of Christian tragedy, and pessimism for which dramatists are lauded when they repudiate such morality and look instead “unflinchingly into the surrounding blackness.”Footnote 139

Reformation tragedy has, in short, been dismissed or ignored on the strength of anachronistic and teleological readings of Aristotle's Poetics and Greek tragedy alike. But I think this extraordinary corpus of texts really does change things. For one, the leading scholars of Europe are here performing precisely the Christian accommodations that have been dismissed as “medieval”—yet they are doing so with the most sophisticated, “modern” Aristotelian technology. Yes, these tragedies are moralizing and political, but literary scholarship has begun again to account for ethics and politics, as it turns against the historiographic alliance between the rise of classicism and the decline of faith. Yes, they are Christian, but even by Melanchthon's time they had been Christian almost twice as long as they had ever been pagan. With few exceptions, the entire corpus of classical literature available today—and certainly all that was available in the Renaissance—survives as the result of copying by Christian scribes. The motives and interests of those scribes may have varied across the corpus, but copy it they did; texts that were truly useless to Christianity simply did not survive.Footnote 140 “Christianization” is not an ideological invention of the Renaissance; it is the condition of reading after Constantine. Besides, where were those pristine Renaissance pagans to be found, from whose oracular interpretations a Christianization of Sophocles is thought to have departed? Far from undergoing Christianization in the sixteenth century, one might say that tragedy underwent Hellenization in the nineteenth century, abstracted from its long symbiosis with readers in time and replaced in a past that, ironically, looked more German than Melanchthon would ever have dared to imagine. And yes, there is the disappointed hope of an aesthete's Renaissance, but in its place a much longer continuity emerges, a two-thousand-year expectation that literature address its moment and inform wisely how its readers should live, alone and together, under a sky electric with divinity.

This corpus of texts, finally, not only bridges the distance between England and the Continent, between medieval and Renaissance criticism, and among literary, political, historiographic, ethical, and theological concerns, but also suggests that there was little to bridge in the first place. When an idea originates in Germany in Latin editions of Greek tragedy and surfaces in England in a vernacular edition of Roman tragedy, it really is past time to dispense with the false distinction between learned and popular, classical and vernacular sixteenth-century literary cultures. It has been remarked that Melanchthon's production of Hecuba in Wittenberg makes for “a peculiarly satisfying coincidence, Wittenberg being Hamlet's university.”Footnote 141 Yet if someone were to tell me that a certain philosophical young Danish prince left Wittenberg for the English stage at the end of the century with a head full of Seneca, a yen for political resistance, and a notion of tragedy instinct with guilt, judgment, confession, sin, the afterlife, purgation, and its Christian rewards, I might take a guess at what he'd been reading.

1 Winshemius, A3r: “Me uero haec ipsa temporum tristicia mouit, ut nunc Sophoclis Tragoedias enarrarem.”

2 Winshemius, A5r–v: “Ardet orbis terrarum ferè assiduis bellis, in quibus magnae gentium dissipationes fiunt, multi trucidantur, distrahuntur coniuges, auelluntur liberi à complexu parentum, Ecclesiae uastantur, reliqua plebecula seruitute opprimitur.”

3 Mumme.

4 W. B. Smith; Rudolph; and, in general, Brady.

5 Winshemius, A5v: “Talis est Tragoedia perpetua totius generis humani, in qua singuli uarijs doloribus excruciantur.”

6 Crucial exceptions include Hartfelder, 363–65; Parente; Rhein; Ritoók-Szalay; Lurie, Reference Lurie2004, Reference Lurie2006, and Reference Lurie2012.

7 Pollard, Reference Pollard2017; Demetriou and Pollard; Leo, Reference Leo, Killeen, Smith and Willie2015, Reference Leo2016, and Reference Leo2019; Wolfe, Reference Wolfe2015 and Reference Wolfe, Loney and Scully2018; Miola, Reference Miola2014 and Reference Miola2016; Crawforth; Ryan, Reference Ryan2015 and Reference Ryan and Baier2017; Suthren; Waller; Heavey. Several conferences held in 2018 began to address the topic: Classical and Early Modern Intersections: Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus and Shakespeare's King Lear, Università di Verona, 22–25 May 2018; Ancient Greek Drama in Latin 1506–1590, King's College London, 3–5 September 2018; and Translating Greek Tragedy in Sixteenth Century Europe, University of Oxford, 14 December 2018. In addition to the proceedings of these conferences, forthcoming work includes Giles Waller, Tragic Theology: Drama, the Cross, and the Literary Luther.

8 Hoxby; Haskell and Garrod.

9 Old-style dating would explain how the imprint might have read “1546” through the first two months of Edward's reign, although Grotefend, 12n3, claims that in Frankfurt (where the book was printed) the year had begun on January 1 since the thirteenth century.

10 The Wittenberg Sophocles has been attributed to Melanchthon rather than Winshemius by Rhein; Ritoók-Szalay; and Lurie, Reference Lurie2004, Reference Lurie2006, and Reference Lurie2012. There is insufficient space here to discuss the strong, but complex, evidence on both sides. In this essay I ascribe the volume to Winshemius, and treat its contents as a common endeavor.

11 On argumenta/hypotheseis, see Easterling, Reference Easterling and Roisman2014.

12 Winshemius, Br: “Sophoclis planè politicus scriptor est, quare singulae eius Fabulae aliquem insignem locum communem ex uita politica tractant.”

13 Winshemius, B2r: “In Aiace, hoc est, homine militari, describitur immensa gloriae cupiditas, siue Ambitio, & contumacia, ac impatientia repulsae, quibus uitijs plerunque obnoxij sunt homines magnanimi. In Senatore uerô, hoc est, in Vlysse, modestia in rebus secundis describitur, & compatientia in calamitate inimici, ac moderatio in cupiditate uindictae. Hae sunt laudatissimae uirtutes Togae, quibus in gubernatione maximè opus est.”

14 Winshemius, Or: “Vt in Antigone praecipua quaestio est, Vtrum religioni & pietati obediendum sit, etiamsi id Tyranni uel Magistratus prohibeant. In utranque uerô partem honestissimè disputatur, & afferuntur grauissima argumenta.”

15 Winshemius, Ov: “Tyrannus uerô opponit & religioni & caeteris argumentis, necessitatem tuendae autoritatis in imperio. Id enim argumentum speciosissimum est ad excusandam saeuitiam. Debent enim magistratus autoritatem suam defendere ac stabilire. Sed tamen modus quidam eius rei esse debet, eum non obseruant Tyranni.”

16 Winshemius, R4v: “Introducit enim Oedipum caecum iam & afflictissimum senem, à liberis & Creonte in exilium pulsum, uarieque uexatum, praedicentem filijs exitium ob impietatem erga parentem, & defensum ab alienis aduersus suorum iniurias. Idem sibi quoque euenire Sophocles significat. Pertinet igitur haec fabula ad hanc partem legis diuinae, Honora parentes &c”; cf. Cicero, De senectute, 22.

17 Winshemius, R4v–R5r: “Sed quemadmodum ubique solet, ita hîc quoque multa politica admiscet. Monet enim hic Oedipus Thesea grauissimis uerbis, ne foederi aut societati cum Boeotijs nimium confidat, quòd nihil firmi aut fidi sit in foederibus & societatibus hominum, leuique momento saepe arctissimae coniunctiones dissiliant, idque non tantum in regnorum & urbium inter ipsas foederibus & amicitijs accidere, uerum etiam in priuatis, illisque adeo amicitijs, quas inter homines natura uoluerit esse sanctissimas, qualis sit inter parentes ac liberos.” The speech in question appears in Oedipus at Colonus, lines 610–20.

18 Melanchthon Reference Melanchthon, Scheible and Mundhenk1977–, T15:357–65 (MBW 4319). On resistance theory, see Burns, 157–253; Schorn-Schütte.

19 Reformationsgeschichtliche Forschungsbibliothek, Wittenberg, Hb Phil 2, 104r, referring Antigone, lines 456–57, to Aristotle, Rhetoric, 1.13; Winshemius, P3v: “est consentaneum legi naturae.”

20 Winshemius, E7r–v: “[Haec fabula tractat] quòd Deus res humanas curet, innocentes ac indignè oppressos respiciat, ac tandem liberet, atrocia scelera Tragicis atque horribilibus poenis uindicet. . . . Et ostendit nobis, quantam saeuissimarum calamitatum & malorum Lernam unum aliquod atrox factum secum trahat: Et quam ex uno delicto Satanas longam atque horribilem telam scelerum & poenarum texere atque accumulare soleat.”

21 Winshemius, Y4r: “significantes pietatem ac uirtutem, etsi in hac uita adflicta sit, tamen post hanc uitam aeterna praemia manere. Haesit enim haec sententia legis diuinitus sculpta, in mentibus hominum sanorum, ac rectè institutorum, omnibus seculis, inde usque à sanctis patribus, quod Deus malos puniat, bonis uerò benefaciat. Cùm igitur saepe contrarium in hac uita fieri uiderent, coacti sunt statuere aliam uitam restare, in qua iudicium fieret, discrimen ostenderetur, bonique praemia, & mali poenam sortirentur.”

22 Rudolph, 98–100; Repgen, 318–21.

23 Winshemius, b7v: “Primum disputant inter se duo uiri . . . Vtrum Reip. causa aliquando insidijs ac dolo utendum sit: an uero semper apertè & simpliciter agendum. Cumque in utranque sententiam multa grauiter dicta essent, tandem concluditur, non esse inhonestum aliquando utilitatis publicae causa fallere, ac ueritatem dissimulare, cum uera dicendo, quod Reipub. expediat, non semper obtineri possit.” Equivocation became headline news in England in the 1590s, but as a casuistic topic it had divided opinions on both sides of the confessional conflict for decades: see Sommerville; Leo, Reference Leo2019, 127–32.

24 Winshemius, b8r: “cùm res magnas aggrediuntur, nihil tamen effici, nisi adhuc tertium ac praecipuum momentum accedat, nempe successus & auxilium à Deo.”

25 Parente, 76–77; Leo, Reference Leo, Killeen, Smith and Willie2015, 503–04; Haskell and Garrod, xiii.

26 Lurie, Reference Lurie2004; see also Leo, Reference Leo2019.

27 The sixteenth-century dominance of Euripides as “most tragic of the poets” derives from Aristotle, 72–73 (Poetics 1453a29–30); but above all it followed Erasmus's selection of Hecuba and Iphigenia in Aulis for translation in 1506. Readers of the Poetics, though fewer than readers of Erasmus, were at least as likely to give Sophocles first place; in 1527 Alessandro Pazzi would call Oedipus the tragedy “chiefly praised by Aristotle”: Borza, 173.

28 Camerarius, Reference Camerarius1534, 6r: “Sed hanc definiunt representationem magnarum rerum & horribilium ac incredibilium. Alii breuiter comprehensionem fortunae heroicae. Alii prolixius, imitationem rerum grauium & ingentium, quarum exitus grata oratione explicentur, ita ut singulae partes conuenientem habeant actionem, desinentib. uniuetsis [sic] in misericordiam & terrores.”

29 Camerarius, Reference Camerarius1534, 9v, 10r, 11r.

30 Camerarius, Reference Camerarius1534, 11r–v: “Et Sophoclem ferunt dixisse, se quidem representare actiones rerum, quales esse conueniat, Euripidem quales sint.”

31 Camerarius, Reference Camerarius1534, 11r: “Quin potius talibus euentibus patefieri diuinam ultionem & uindictam existimant. At ubi uir bonus & honestatis uirtutisque amans, indignum in malum impellitur quasi fatali ui, aut peccata uel non uoluntate, uel ignoratione quoque commissa, poenas extremas sustinent, tum & metus & misericordia talibus ab exemplis homines inuadit, & lamenta horroresque excitantur. Haec igitur fabula merito laudem prae omnium aliis habet.”

32 Lurie, Reference Lurie2004, 108–17; Lurie, Reference Lurie2012, 446–47.

33 Lurie, Reference Lurie2012, 445; cf. Lurie, Reference Lurie2006, 3–7.

34 Wengert, 85–86.

35 Hoxby, 6; note that the Poetics is digested earlier still, in Benedictus Philologus's essays in Terence; Seneca, Reference Philologus1506; and Seneca, Reference Erasmus1514, Erasmus's standard edition.

36 Camerarius refers to “a certain Aristotle [Aristoteles quispiam], author of his book which is disseminated on the poetic art” (Camerarius, Reference Camerarius1534, 11r), and seems even less sure in the second edition of his commentaries, where this line becomes “the author of his book on the poetic art which is disseminated under the name of Aristotle” (Camerarius, Reference Camerarius1556, 315). Camerarius is rarely coy, yet the alternative, that he was truly uncertain of the treatise's attribution, would be without precedent in contemporary scholarship.

38 Camerarius, Reference Camerarius1534, 3r: “Mihi autem magno amatori Tragici carminis, fortasse naturae & ingenii sensu, saepe doluit a studiosis minus illud diligenter coli. Neque enim Graecorum praeter illas duas elegantiss. uersas ab Erasmo Rotero. in Latinum Tragoedias, in scholis apud nos saltem in manibus haberi, cognoscere potui, quod ego cum summa utilitate discentium futurum fuisse existimo.”

39 Camerarius, Reference Camerarius1534, 4r: “Hoc nostrum opusculum tibi dicamus, Francisce, ut sit & nostrae memoriae indicium, & ut per te qui Wittembergae, in sola pene Germanan. reliqua schola, cum summa laude Graeca doces, in multorum studia & manus traducatur.”

40 Melanchthon, Reference Melanchthon, Scheible and Mundhenk1977–, T6:89 (MBW 1434), T6:223 (MBW 1505), T6:237 (MBW 1510).

41 Hirsch; Rhein.

42 Discussed by Alexia Dedieu, “Discovering and Translating Euripides’ Electra in the Second Half of the XVI Century,” at Ancient Greek Drama in Latin 1506–1590, King's College London, 3–4 September 2018. The exception was Electra, rediscovered in 1545 and doubtful of authenticity: see Mund-Dopchie; Distilo; Suthren, 78–79.

43 Reformationsgeschichtliche Forschungsbibliothek, Wittenberg, Hb Phil 2.

44 Melanchthon, Reference Melanchthon, Scheible and Mundhenk1977–, T14:29–36 (MBW 3782); see headnote for details of more than forty reprints in the century.

46 Waller, 119–23.

49 Scriptorum, 106v–07v; Ritoók-Szalay.

50 Melanchthon, Reference Melanchthon and Keen1988, 230 (Epitome ethices §45).

51 Fuller; Hare, 454–55; Williams and Atkinson, 111; early examples in Russell, 21–39. I am grateful to Bernhard Salow for many spirited lunches on these problems.

52 For Winshemius's appointment, see Luther, 9:487–89 (letter 3651).

53 Winshemius, A3r: “nunc Sophoclis Tragoedias enarrarem, in quibus imagines multae illustres humanarum calamitatum proponuntur, quas considerare, tum ad commonefactionem, tum ad consolationem utile est.”

54 Winshemius, A3v: “qui intuentes horribiles casus praestantissimorum hominum, agnouerunt humani generis infirmitatem: uiderunt et certissimo ordine atrocia delicta ferê semper comitari atroces poenas in hoc ipso breuissimo spacio mortalis uitae: qua ex re iudicârunt esse mentem aeternam conditricem generis humani, sapientem, iustam, uindicem, quae hunc ordinem instituerit et tueatur, ut nos de conditore & de eius sapientia, iusticia, & iudicio admoneat. Exempla igitur insignia recitârunt, ut metu poenarum non solum dehortarentur homines ab iniusticia, sed deducerent etiam ad aliquam Dei agnitionem.”

55 Winshemius: “haec adulterij & caedis poena fuit” (A4r); “in semine tetra libido Laij punita est” (A4v). “The foul lust of Laius” refers to the rape of the teenage Chrysippus, reported in the “Oracle to Laius” transmitted through the manuscripts of Oedipus Tyrannus and printed in the Aldine editio princeps (1502), and Renaissance editions thereafter; see Turyn, 26; Easterling, Reference Easterling and Roisman2014, 709.

56 Winshemius, A4v: “[sapiens antiquitas] uoluit perterrefieri hominum mentes poenarum atrocitate, ut frenos inijcerent ambitioni, libidini, auariciae, & alijs errantibus cupiditatibus.”

57 Winshemius, A6r: “Sed unde firmae consolationes petendae sint monstrat doctrina Ecclesiae propria. Nam & in lectione horum poëmatum haec diligentia etiam necessaria est, ostendere discrimen inter haec scripta & doctrinam Ecclesiae. Hae narrationes ad Legis uocem pertinent. Alia est uox Euangelij, quae in ipsis aerumnis adfirmat recipi à Deo confugientes ad mediatorem.”

58 On the distinction between Law and Gospel and its range of meanings in Lutheran thought, see Melanchthon, Reference Melanchthon, Bretschneider and Bindseil1834–60, 27:429–35 (Apology of the Augsburg Confession); and Ebeling, 110–40.

59 Taylor and Waller, 1–11; Billings, 128, 134–58; examples in Richards, 246; Bradley, 325n1; Jaspers, 30, 36–40; Steiner, 4–5.

60 Melanchthon, Reference Melanchthon, Scheible and Mundhenk1977–, T16:261–68 (MBW 4696).

61 Camerarius, Reference Camerarius1556, 10: “Atque hactenus progredi sapientia humana potest: cuius iter non tendit ad ueritatem, neque ad salutem & felicitatem peruenit. . . . Quapropter ad aliam scholam transeundum est, quam aperit Ecclesia filij Dei, Domini nostri unici IESV CHRISTI.”

62 Winshemius, A5r: “Quanquam autem Graeci homines ingeniosi plurimum artis adhibuerunt, tamen existimo omnibus temporibus apud gentes bene moratas talia carmina recitata esse. Et mos ab Ecclesia ortus est, in qua Deus iussit exempla irae suae proponi: quia uult nos scire qualis sit, uult discerni à reb. non intelligentibus & iniustis. Extant igitur testimonia sapientiae & iusticiae eius: haec uult aspici, & flagitat obedientiam, ut discrimen iusticiae & iniusticiae intelligatur. Recitantur ergo in Ecclesia inde usque ab initio tristissimae tragoediae, furores & poenae Cain, historia diluuij, excidij Sodomorum, interitus Pharaonis, Cananeorum, Saulis, & aliorum multorum: denique stupor & impia ἀναλγησία, non considerare horribiles poenas, quae per totum genus humanum omnibus temporibus uagantur.”

63 Winshemius, A2v: “statuamus semper aliquam Dei Ecclesiam mansuram esse, etiamsi inter Imperiorum tumultus duriter quassatur.”

64 Winshemius, A7r: “Sed domesticum exemplum habes maximè illustre. Multis seculis nemo Regum doctior fuit patre tuo. Cùm igitur & intelligeret ipse doctrinarum fontes, & sciret necessariam esse in Ecclesia & in repub. literarum, linguarum & artium quae literis traduntur, cognitionem, perfecit, ut patria literis & eruditione ornatissima esset.”

65 Winshemius, A7r–v: “Dissipantur in alijs regionibus Academiae, & magna barbaries, magnae tenebrae secuturae uidentur, nisi aliqui reges hospitium literis & ueritati praebeant, & studia rectè institui curent. Vt autem olim, cùm Gotthi & Vandali Ecclesias in Gallia & Germania uastassent, religio & literarum doctrina rursus ex Britannia uestra in has regiones importata est, ita si nunc possessionem doctrinae tueberis, aliquanto pòst & literas & religionis puritatem Anglia Ecclesijs multarum gentium restituet.”

66 Melanchthon, Reference Melanchthon and Keen1988, 48–49; translation altered for emphasis.

67 Melanchthon, Reference Melanchthon, Scheible and Mundhenk1977–, T8:385 (MBW 2175).

68 Melanchthon, Reference Melanchthon, Scheible and Mundhenk1977–, T14:35 (MBW 3782).

69 Melanchthon, Reference Melanchthon, Scheible and Mundhenk1977–, T18:226 (MBW 5144).

70 MacCulloch, Reference MacCulloch1996, 351–513; Overell, 8–11, 43–44; Amos, Reference Amos and James2004.

71 Schofield, 162–72.

72 Melanchthon, Reference Melanchthon, Scheible and Mundhenk1977–, T17:299–300 (MBW 4980).

73 Melanchthon, Reference Melanchthon, Scheible and Mundhenk1977–, T16:209 (MBW 4659).

74 MacCulloch, Reference MacCulloch1999, 77–79; Overell, 11.

75 Stupperich, Reference Stupperich1983, 66 (MBW 5653).

76 Greschat, 227–49; Amos, Reference Amos2002.

77 Pohl and Tether.

78 Fairbank and Dickins; Pollnitz.

79 Nichols, 1:104–06; Ascham, 1:192 (letter 99).

80 Winshemius, Or: “Sophocles Tragoediarum scriptor Athenis floruit tempore belli Peloponnesiaci, in quo bello & unus ex ducibus fuit, & res magnas pro patria gessit. Et eo ipso anno mortuus dicitur, quo urbs Athenarum à Lysandro capta est annis circiter 50 ante tempora Philippi Macedonis, qui fuit pater Alexandri magni.”

81 Melanchthon, Reference Melanchthon, Scheible and Mundhenk1977–, T14:35 (MBW 3782); cf. Aristophanes, Wasps, lines 31–36. Melanchthon is speaking here not of tragedy but of old comedy, which he declares “closer to tragedy” than to comedy.

82 Firestone Library, 2018-0009Q, 56: “Tragediae aliis finis qúam historiae,” glossing Polybius, Histories, 2:56.

83 Melanchthon, Reference Melanchthon, Scheible and Mundhenk1977–, T12:140 (MBW 3196), adapting Ajax, lines 1081–83; T12:425 (MBW 3377), quoting Antigone, line 996; T15:602 (MBW 4508).

84 On the rickety view of England from Wittenberg, see Schofield; Methuen.

85 Melanchthon, Reference Melanchthon, Scheible and Mundhenk1977–, T7:163 (MBW 1752).

86 Melanchthon, Reference Melanchthon, Scheible and Mundhenk1977–, T9:338 (MBW 2479); Seneca, Hercules, lines 920–22; cf. MBW 2473 for more tyranny.

87 Melanchthon, Reference Melanchthon, Bretschneider and Bindseil1834–60, 8:168 (MBW 7013); 8:233 (MBW 7098). On the Schmalkaldic War as apocalypse, cf. MBW 4659; and see Haug-Moritz, 438–39.

88 Melanchthon, Reference Melanchthon, Bretschneider and Bindseil1834–60, 8:315 (MBW 7230).

89 Melanchthon, Reference Melanchthon, Bretschneider and Bindseil1834–60, 8:349 (MBW 7286).

90 Stupperich, Reference Stupperich1968, 53 (MBW 6916).

91 See Lurie, Reference Lurie2004, 52–56, 102–08.

92 Rataller, Reference Rataller1550, Reference Rataller1576, and Reference Rataller1581; Bornemisza; Ritoók-Szalay; Juhász-Ormsby.

94 Gelen; Melanchthon, Reference Melanchthon1521.

95 Xylander, 1558 and Reference Xylander1562; Stiblin. On Stiblin, see Mastronarde, 9–11; Crawforth; and Leo, Reference Leo2016. Garbitius Illyricus was discussed by Petra Matović in “Bound to Teach: Aeschyli Prometheus by Matthias Garbitius Illyricus,” at Ancient Greek Drama in Latin 1506–1590, King's College London, 3–4 September 2018.

98 Bale, 190; Ascham, 1:26 (letter 12).

99 Ascham, 1:32 (letter 16), 1:217, 248–49 (letters 108, 116), and 1:258 (letter 116; the Gryphius edition of Sophocles he mentions can be identified as Rataller, Reference Rataller1550). Neither Cheke's nor Ascham's translation is known to survive.

100 Ryan, Reference Ryan2015, 88; Estienne, Reference Estienne1568.

101 See, for example, University of Oxford, Corpus Christi College, O.5.13; Merton College, 26.D.8; Bodleian Library, Marl. G 6. Camerarius is cited in Watson, G1; on which, see Miola, Reference Miola2014, 236.

102 Pauck, 349 (De Regno Christi 2.54).

103 Pauck, 351 (De Regno Christi 2.54).

104 Lazarus, Reference Lazarus2018, 40–43; Erasmus, 682–83; Norland, 65–94; on the “Christian Terence,” see Herrick, 16–62.

105 Buchanan, Reference Buchanan, Sharratt and Walsh1983; Christopherson; Norland, 307–18; Streufert; Purkiss; Pollard, Reference Pollard2017, 49–56.

106 Jayne and Johnson, 250, 254 (nos. 2213, 2265); Shuger, 128–66; Purkiss.

107 Ochino; Foxe; Leo, Reference Leo, Killeen, Smith and Willie2015; Jones.

108 Robinson, Reference Robinson1842–45, 2:51 (letter 22); Leo, Reference Leo, Killeen, Smith and Willie2015, 516.

109 Robinson, Reference Robinson1846–47, 1:290 (letter 132), 1:91 (letter 40); Robinson, Reference Robinson1842–45, 1:287 (letter 110, translation adapted), 2:73 (letter 31, translation adapted).

110 Robinson, Reference Robinson1846–47, 2:648–49 (letter 301).

111 Robinson, Reference Robinson1842–45, 1:193 (letter 79).

112 Robinson, Reference Robinson1846–47, 1:135 (letter 67).

113 Lazarus, Reference Lazarus2018, 43–46, to which Melanchthon, Reference Melanchthon and Keen1988, 248, may now be added as a source.

114 Nelson, 1:208, 1:231, 1:238, 1:853, 2:977–83; Elliott, 1:178, 1:306, 2:848; Birck.

115 Naogeorgus, Reference Naogeorgus1538, A2v: “monet Deum esse qui inspiciat res humanas & curet eas, puniat malos & benefaciat bonis.” Melanchthon, Reference Melanchthon, Scheible and Mundhenk1977–, T15:317 (MBW 4282); Melanchthon promotes Pammachius in MBW 2170; cf. MBW 3431 and 3438 for conflict between the two.

116 Grimald, 108: “nihil ineptum, nihil indecorum, nihil quod aut personae, aut rei, aut tempori, aut loco minùs quadret, inueniri posse arbitrabatur.”

117 Brylinger; Oporinus.

118 Grimald, 67–89; Norland, 321–34.

119 Seneca, Reference Newton1581, 77v; noticed by Lurie, Reference Lurie2004, 101n17.

120 In general, see Miola, Reference Miola2014.

121 Buchanan, Reference Buchanan, Mason and Smith2004; Milton, 20; Crawforth, 242.

122 Woodbridge; Stillman; Sidney, E4v.

123 Hunter, 21.

124 Doerries, 37.

125 Whitehead, 15.

126 Lurie, Reference Lurie2006; Liapis, 94; B. R. Smith, 202–04; Lurie, Reference Lurie2012, 442; Hoxby.

127 Spingarn; Burckhardt.

128 Brljak, Reference Brljak2017, 705–08.

129 Spingarn, vii.

130 Spingarn, 3–16.

131 Spingarn, 159–61.

133 Lurie, Reference Lurie2012, 444.

134 Lurie, Reference Lurie2012, 453.

135 Bishop, 448.

136 Nietzsche, 8–9.

137 Nietzsche, xvii, n8; Marchand, 18–24; Turner, 168–73.

138 Nietzsche, xxviii.

139 B. R. Smith, 245. For recent reconsideration of this legacy, see Billings; Billings and Leonard.

140 Wilson, 8–18. See Easterling, Reference Easterling, Dendrinos, Harris, Harvalia-Crook and Herrin2003, for a range of views on Sophocles; and Easterling, Reference Easterling1995, 156–57, for the fate suffered by truly unchristian texts.

141 Mossman, 224.


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