The de casibus tradition derives both its name and its central concerns from a collection of didactic quasi-historical narratives by the fourteenth-century Italian poet Giovanni Boccaccio, entitled De Casibus Virorum Illustrium. Boccaccio depicts the fall of prominent figures, from Adam to King Arthur, who have previously enjoyed the benefit of great fortune, in the process demonstrating both the arbitrariness of earthly success and the fortitude which one should demonstrate in the face of inevitable misfortune. This chapter traces the assimilation of this tradition into English writing, via Chaucer, Lydgate and A Mirror for Magistrates, and considers the ways in which de casibus writings explore the tension between fickle fortune and the divine plan, asserting the arbitrariness of earthly life while also implying that people always ultimately get what they deserve. The chapter identifies the tradition’s subversive potential; as it deals in stories about prominent historical leaders and politicians, de casibus literature provides a rich opportunity for writers to pass veiled political comment on the vagaries of their age. The chapter shows how the de casibus tradition facilitates for Marlowe the imagining of a play-world in which the arbitrariness of earthly success and power obfuscates the notion of a divine order.
This collection of essays explores tragedy, the most versatile of Renaissance literary genres, revealing its astonishing thematic, stylistic and emotional range. Each chapter consists of a case study, offering not only a definition of a particular kind of Renaissance tragedy but also new research into an important example of that genre. There is only one chapter on Shakespeare; instead contributors attend to subgenres of tragedy – biblical tragedy and closet drama, for example – in which Shakespeare did not engage and others in which the nature of his influence is interrogated, producing original critical readings of individual plays which show how interventions in these subgenres can be mapped onto debates surrounding numerous important issues, including national identity, the nature of divine authority, early modern youth culture, gender and ethics, as well as questions relating to sovereignty and political intervention. The chapters also highlight the rich range of styles adopted by the early modern tragic dramatists and show how opportunely the genre as a whole is positioned for speaking truth to power. Collectively, these essays reassess the various sub-genres of Renaissance tragedy in ways which respond to the radical changes that have affected the critical landscape over the last few decades.