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La Mesure et l'excès

A true sign of a readie wit’ : Anger as an Art of Excess in Early Modern Dramatic and Moral Literature

Christine Sukic
p. 85-98


La colère est vue comme une passion excessive dans la littérature de la première modernité, à la fois dans les traités des passions et dans le théâtre élisabéthain et jacobéen. Cet article étudie les représentations de la colère et la contradiction de cette passion qui est à la fois admirée quand elle caractérise un grand héros comme Achille, et condamnée parce qu’elle est vue comme violente, incontrôlable et allant à l’encontre d’une attitude civilisée. Il semble que dans les traités des passions, aussi bien que dans le théâtre de cette période, à la fois dans les comédies et les tragédies, la colère devient une apparence plutôt que la partie essentielle d’un tempérament.

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1One of the clichés about Elizabethan and Jacobean drama is their aesthetic and thematic excess : as an example, Antonin Artaud’s lecture about “Theatre and the plague” shows his interest in the hyper-representation of violence on stage, and the gory aspect of many plays of that period. Artaud was struck by the excesses of John Ford’s ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, especially the passionate outbursts of the characters as well as their absence of moral compass : “We follow them from one demand to the other, from one excess to the next” (18).

2Anger is not just an excessive passion : it is also an inherent sign of heroism, as well as of authority and power. At the same time, it is condemned by most early modern moral philosophers as a violent and unnatural passion. In this paper, I would like to focus on this ambiguous status of anger and consider the passion both in its dramatic and philosophical representations.

  • 1  There is no real distinction at the time between the two terms. They are used indifferently in the (...)

3Revenge tragedy could be seen as the ultimate form of aesthetic excess on stage : it is a theatre of passions, especially anger and revenge. Nicolas Coeffeteau, in his famous treatise on the passions, A Table of Humane Passions (translated into English in 1621), describes the process of revenge and its relation to anger : “Choler1 is an ardent passion, which upon the apparence there is to be able to revenge our selves, incites us to a feeling of a contempt and sensible injury, which we beleeve hath been unjustly done, either to our selves, or to those we love” (550). The process was first defined by Seneca, in his De ira :

Anger is that which goes beyond reason and carries her away with it : wherefore the first confusion of a man’s mind when struck by what seems an injury is no more anger than the apparent injury itself : it is the subsequent mad rush, which not only receives the impression of the apparent injury, but acts upon it as true, that is anger, being an exciting of the mind to revenge, which proceeds from choice and deliberate resolve. (79)

4Revenge tragedies also associate anger and revenge. In Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy – usually considered to be the precursor of English revenge tragedy – Hieronimo is not only affected by melancholy after the death of his son ; he cannot restrain his anger, represented in the play as a excess of humour that has to come out. He pretends to be mad, so that he can better imagine and plan his revenge, which takes place during the performance of a play. Hieronimo’s behaviour corresponds to the description of anger in the theories of the passions. The representation of his anger is in keeping with its definition in the moral treatises of the time : excessive, without limit. As Coeffeteau puts it, “Of all the passions of the soule, there is not any one that takes such deepe root, or extends her branches farther then Choler ; whereof, neither age, condition, people, nor nation, are fully exempt” (547). John Marston’s Antonio’s Revenge (1601) also partakes of such hyper-representation of anger. Antonio, who is supposed to revenge his father’s murder, clearly states his opposition to the control of passions when asked to be patient :

'Slid, sir, I will not, in despite of thee ;
Patience is slave to fools, a chain that’s fixed
Only to posts and senseless log-like dolts. (1.5.35-37)

  • 2  Jean-François Senault’s De l’usage des passions was published in 1632. It was translated into Engl (...)

5Interestingly, the passions are also compared to chains in moral treatises. For instance, in the English translation of Jean-François Senault’s work, De l’usage des passions (1649),2 the frontispiece represents a man chained to his passions. Marston inverts the image : patience prevents Antonio from acting ; anger goads him on. Revenge is physical in the play and shows the complete involvement of the body when it is led by passions, the “motions of the soul” as they are often called in the early modern period. In Marston’s play, the physical dimension of revenge is rendered through numerous images of gluttony, blood-drinking, and even cannibalism. When he kills Julio, Antonio expresses the necessity for revenge, as a personification, to drink the little boy’s blood : “Thy father’s blood that flows within thy veins / Is it I loathe, is that revenge must suck” (3.3.35-36). He then scatters Julio’s blood on his own father’s grave and again, suggests that his father’s ghost could drink the blood : “Ghost of my poisoned sire, suck this fume” (3.3.63). He is himself thirsty for this blood : “Even like insatiate hell, still crying : ‘More !’ / My heart hath thirsting dropsies after gore” (68-69). Marston uses an aesthetics of ostentation that corresponds to the descriptions of an angry man in the contemporary theories of the passions. Coeffeteau talks of the desire to feed on blood and massacres : “Choler is full of bitterness, & hath no sweeter objects then punishments, blood and slaughter, which serve to glut her revenge” (599). Marston also treats anger as an archaic passion, close to its literary archetypes, such as Achilles’ anger in the Iliad and his desire to drink blood. In Antonio’s Revenge, the playwright chose to represent anger as an excessive passion that has no limits, as a sort of moral and aesthetic experiment. The character of Pandulpho is quite telling in this respect. His son has been killed by the duke but he has adopted an attitude which is directly opposed to that of Antonio. Drawing from Stoic philosophy, he chooses not to be passionate. He first succeeds by laughing hysterically about his grief, as an antidote to the desire for revenge, but when he sees his son’s dead body, he cannot avoid his passion and it comes out, as if it were impossible not to be passionate : “Man will break out, despite philosophy” (4.5.56). Passion makes the man in Marston’s play. It is clearly not a state but part of human nature.

6True enough, choler (or anger) is frequently condemned for its excesses. Jean-François Senault seems to reject the Aristotelian golden mean and the possibility of getting passionate in a “reasonable” way : “I know not why Aristotle imagined it was serviceable to reason, and that it always moved as she did, unless it be that it had a design to teach us that this Passion being more Ambitious than the rest, would seem Rational in her Excess” (409-10). For Senault, excess is part and parcel of the passions, and “rational excess” appears as an oxymoron. It is destructive, and Senault goes as far as agreeing with Seneca, even though his first chapter is entitled “An Apologie for Passions against the Stoickes” : “she is the cause of all evils, and there is no fault committed, wherein she hath not a hand : there is nothing so obnoxious than Duels ; ’tis Choler that entertains them ; there is nothing more cruel than Murder ; ’tis Choler that adviseth to it ; there is nothing more fatal than war ; ’tis Choler that causeth it” (411).

7The innate violence of anger makes it difficult to get rid of it. Contrary to other passions which theoreticians of the passions describe as “curable,” it is difficult to be angry “in moderation,” according to the Aristotelian principle of mediocritas, even though Aristotle himself, who was the main source of many early modern treatises on the passions, recommends “mildness” in expressing anger in the Nicomachean Ethics :

being mild means being unperturbed, and not being carried away by one’s feelings but being angry in the way, in the circumstances, and for the sort of length of time the correct prescription lays down. (152)

8However, many early modern writers point to the difficulty in moderating this passion. For example, Nicolas Coeffeteau describes the process of anger in kings as a passion that has to be vented, no matter how hard one tries to moderate it, thus seeming to confirm what Marston suggests in his play :

the indignation of a King is great and fearefull ; for that when as a great king is incensed against any one that is not of his quality, although he temper and moderate his choler for a time, yet hee smothers it in his brest, and is neuer satisfied vntill hee hath made him feele the effects of his power, that durst presume to offend him. (Coeffeteau 570)

According to this vision, the passion of anger is essential to choleric natures, in the same way as choleric temperaments are characteristic of an excess of the choleric humour.

9So anger is often condemned for moral reasons, and yet it is the basis of revenge tragedies, even if a dramatic representation of anger does not necessarily entail a praise of the passion. Most revenge tragedies seem to adopt an aesthetics of excess, in which choleric revenge is treated as a paroxysm of emotion. However, when Marston wrote Antonio’s Revenge, Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy was already old-fashioned and often treated in a satirical way. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the necessity to get passionate in order to achieve revenge is no longer part of the hero’s nature. It is, rather, one of Hamlet’s issues : the fact that he cannot be passionate. Anger is only present intermittently, and as a literary cliché more than as a natural feature. For instance, when Hamlet discovers that Ophelia has died and throws himself in her still open grave, he can only imitate Senecan heroes (“This is I, Hamlet the Dane,” 5.1.238-39) or Achilles (“Now could I drink hot blood,” 3.2.381).

10George Chapman goes even further when he writes The Revenge of Bussy D’Ambois (1610-11). It is difficult for the Stoic hero to accomplish his revenge. Chapman uses the conventions of the revenge tragedies only to dismiss them ; aesthetically they are merely a literary cliché. The play could be seen as an experiment in how to write a revenge tragedy with no anger. Tragic action no longer consists in action founded on the motion of the body, which includes passions, but on ideas and intellectual discourse, except when the hero, Clermont, finally accomplishes the revenge, and kills his brother’s murderer in single combat, according to the rules of honour, and without anger.

11Revenge tragedies were destined to die out as a genre based on the representation of the passions. Tourneur’s The Atheist’s Tragedy (1611) is another example of the disintegration of the genre : revenge is accomplished by God and the hero’s action consists in waiting for that revenge to happen, in an attitude of impassioned virtue.

12In these plays, anger becomes a mere cliché. It is no longer a temperament, but an attitude that can be put on or removed, as in the case of Hamlet, the hero who is trying to get angry. This is in keeping with the evolution of anger in the treatises of the passions. At the same time as it is condemned, anger is sometimes praised as a virtuous passion, and is no longer a temperament, but an attitude that can be avoided, or that can be used. Instead of an essentialist definition of the passions, the theoreticians gradually adopt an anti-essentialist one.

13Coeffeteau combines the two definitions. He talks of an excess of adust humour, that provokes a fit of anger, but that is short and can be easily dispensed with : “as it is kindled suddenly, so it is quencht with little paine” (572). There is another sort, according to him, that is part of the human character and that is anchored for good in a personality : “There is another kind of Choler, which takes roote, and is fashioned in the soule” (572).

  • 3  On the importance of Aristotle’s mediocritas, see Scodel.

14Most moral writers defend, like Aristotle, a moderate use of the passions.3 Jean-François Senault purports that all passions can be moderated, but not suppressed because they are a natural motion of the soul : “our most insolent Passions may be subject to Reason, and not to employ them in the course of our life, is to render useless one of the most beautiful parts of our Soul. Virtue her self would become idle, had she no passions, either to subdue or regulate” (7). Each passion is in fact useful, Senault writes, since it is through the passions that virtue can manifest itself. It is also the case with choler : “Choler maintains Justice, and animates Judges to punish the Guilty” (8), even though it is not a passion like any other, because of its inherent violence. Anger can thus be extremely positive, because of its link with justice : “Aristotle therefore thought choler was Rational, and that even in her Fury, she had some shadow of Justice” (405). He goes as far as describing it as a virtuous passion that he associates with noble deeds :

all the Philosophers have had so good an opinion of Choler, as Aristotle was perswaded, she sided always with Virtue against Vice ; that it was she that encouraged us to gallant actions ; and that the high enterprizes of Princes were no less the effects of this Passion, than of Virtue ; he believed that al the disorders of our soul, which contributed to Voluptuousness, were not to be tamed but by Choler ; and that the concupiscible appetite would pervert Reason, were it not withstood by the Irascible ; one would think to hear him speak that all great men are Cholerick ; that this Passion is not only the mark of a good Nature, but of an excellent Courage ; and that a mans mind can conceive nothing of Generous, if it be not a little irritated. (406-07)

So, for Senault, anger regulates lust and is also associated with courage and heroic acts in general. It is particularly positive when it affects the great and powerful as well as the generous souls, that is to say the heroes. Anger is thus defined within a social framework, according to which it is those at the top of the social hierarchy who can use anger virtuously.

15This hierarchical definition of anger was not new to the early modern period. In his study on anger in classical Antiquity, William V. Harris showed that in the Iliad, only gods and heroes are allowed to get angry (138-39). If Achilles gets angry, it is because he needs to show his superiority as a hero. Heroes are warriors, and their heroism is, for a great part, founded on irascibility. But anger is socially acceptable if it is directed at the same type of individual (another hero, such as Achilles at Agamemnon, or Achilles at Hector, who are equal in terms of heroic rank). As a consequence, anger cannot be directed at an individual who is superior in terms of heroism. That is why Thersites is mocked and punished by Ulysses when he attacks Agamemnon with his harsh words. There is a social hierarchy of anger which is already present in the literature of ancient Greece. The same could be said about the Middle Ages and the association of anger and the upper ruling classes, and the impossibility for a social inferior to get angry at, say, a lord. As Richard Barton puts it, “anger was frequently justified as necessary and righteous, especially when exercised by those with rightful authority” (159). Anger is often defined in relation to someone else, and it is this confrontation that triggers the passion. Anger is thus self-defining, as Aristotle had stated in the Rhetoric : “If then, this is anger, then the angry man must always be angry with a particular person (e.g. with Cleon, but not with mankind)” (142).

16In the early modern period, anger is often socially connoted because it is associated with reputation and honour, one of the basic foundations of aristocratic culture at the time. Nicolas Coeffeteau mentions unfounded provocations that can lead to measureless anger : “[if] any one without cause seekes to blemish our reputation by scandalous reports made in companies : Then our Choler hath no bounds, but is inflamed beyond measure, and makes us burne with desire to revenge so great an affront” (564). For Coeffeteau, rich and powerful young men are particularly prone to getting angry in such types of situation : “yong men, and such as are rich and powerfull, doe most commonly fall into this excesse. For young men, and such as have their blood hot and boyling, are wonderfully ready to commit insolencies” (567). Finally, Coeffeteau associates anger and glory : “Hee which said that man was a creature which is passionate for glory, seemes to have discovered all the roots of Choler” (575). He is however very critical of such practices that are not for him a mark of heroism : “Rich men in like manner, and such as are powerfull, are full of this vaine ambition to seem great, by the outrages they doe to their inferiours, imagining that this insolency is a marke of their greatnesse” (567-68). So heroic anger is not necessarily viewed in a positive way by moral philosophers.

17There is thus a double discourse concerning anger : if it is associated with greatness (especially social greatness), then it can flourish and serve virtue ; but if, on the contrary, it is used for limited, non-heroic acts, then it is degraded and it becomes a vice. In a context where the passions were rarely seen as positive (Regent, Sharpe), anger had a specific status : it was denounced as an excessive kind of passion, and at the same time it could be a heroic sign and an imitation of Achilles’ anger. For Thomas Wright, in The Passions of the mind (1601), anger is even equivalent to glory and honour, as if those two notions were passions themselves : “if that many noble Captains had not possessed by nature such vehement passions of glory and honour they would never have achieved such excellent victories for the good of the Commonweal” (102). By not using the words “anger” or “choler,” he suggests a more positive view of the passion.

  • 4  Susan James has noted the use of this image of passions as rebels in Henry More’s Immortality of t (...)
  • 5  On Byron as an angry hero, see Sukič.

18In the literature of the period, anger is sometimes represented as a heroic passion. The most telling examples can be found in political, ideological drama such as Chapman’s “French” tragedies. His hero Byron in The Conspiracy and Tragedy of Charles, Duke of Byron (1608), remains angry at court as he must have been on the battlefield, and uses his anger as a form of political rebellion.4 The passion of the “wrathful duke” (Tragedy 5.1.127) is evoked in a particularly insistent way in the second part of the play. In the first part, Byron describes his own anger as a “short madness” (Conspiracy 5.2.102) that dies down as he is reconciled with the king, but in the Tragedy, the impossibility of heroic action is turned into passion as an essential characteristic of the duke who then becomes “the furious duke” (Tragedy 5.3.236). To the very end and even at the moment of his execution, Byron remains furious and choleric. This seems to be one of the reasons for his fall : his anger, which is part of his nature as a hero, is no longer socially acceptable, while the king can give vent to his “wrathful majesty” (Tragedy 5.3.235).5 Chapman seems to have favoured heroes (Bussy D’Ambois, Byron or Chabot) who are unable to act because of the political context of an absolutist king, and whose anger, as an essential part of their heroic nature, becomes a sign of rebellion. In the Byron plays, anger is associated to both war (“Fury hath armed his thoughts...” Tragedy 5.1.108) and rebellion, as king Henry IV wants Byron’s execution to be a warning to any potential angry rebel : “Let others learn by him to curb their spleens” (Tragedy 5.1.136).

19Chapman’s heroes represent an old-fashioned vision of anger (one of Byron’s judges talks of his “old powder,” Tragedy 5.2.8), one that is essential to the hero’s identity and whose excess is no longer socially acceptable. In The Alchemist (1610), Ben Jonson satirizes anger as a heroic passion by having a young man, Kastril, come to London to study the art of anger. This seems to suggest that anger was acceptable in some circles. However, if Kastril is trying to become fashionable, he is also very rough around the edges. Anger is not virtuous nor the sign of a civilised mind in Jonson’s play. Kastril, who is called “the angry boy” in the dramatis personae, is using anger as a means to advance socially but he becomes the prey of the pseudo-alchemist Subtle and his accomplices Face and Doll Common. As a gentleman who has just inherited his land, he has come to London to learn to quarrel : “to carry quarrels / As gallants do, and manage’em, by line” (2.6.63-64). In fact, Kastril is trying to become one of the “angry boys” so that he can impress his friends when he is back in the country :

I have heard some speech
Of the angry boys and seen ’em take tobacco ;
And in his [his friend Drugger’s] shop : and I can take it too.
And I would fain be one of ’em, and go down
And practise i’the country. (3.4.21-25)

Anger, like tobacco, can be “taken.” It is interesting that anger should be here associated with tobacco, that “filthie noveltie,” as James i called it in A Counterblaste to Tobacco (1604) : both are fashionable items. More than a character trait, anger can thus be put on, or taken off, according to circumstances.

20Further on in the play, anger is also treated as a form of knowledge. Kastril wants to be angry but also to be witty, so Subtle turns the art of anger into an art of quarrelling. As in As You Like It, where, as Touchstone puts it, “we quarrel in print, by the book” (5.4.88), Subtle drowns Kastril under a jumble of pseudo-scientific rules :

Your must render causes, child,
Your first, and second intentions, know your canons,
And your divisions, moods, degrees, and differences,
Your predicaments, substance, and accident,
Series extern, and intern, with their causes
Efficient, material, formal, final,
And ha’ your elements perfect – (4.2.22-28)

  • 6  The book was published by John Wolfe, who specialised in Italian works such as Tasso’s Aminta or G (...)

21Anger, now an art of quarrelling, is no longer seen as excessive, but fits perfectly within a frame of knowledge. It is now a science. Ben Jonson, like Shakespeare in As You Like It, parodies the books about fencing and the use of the rapier, the most popular weapon for duels, and especially the well-known best-seller by Saviolo, Vincentio Saviolo his Practise (1595). Saviolo was Italian but lived in London where he published his book.6 He dedicated it to the Earl of Essex whom he calls, in his preface, the “English Achilles.” Interestingly enough, Chapman, in one of his dedications to Essex (for The Seaven Bookes of the Iliades, 1598) uses the same comparison, thus placing the most choleric Greek hero and the then greatest of English national heroes on the same footing. Anger, for Chapman as well as for Saviolo, is not necessarily an excess, but a virtue : Chapman talks of the “now living instance of the Achilleian vertues” (Chapman’s Homer 503). Anger, instead of being a transgression, is a sign of courage and of a virtuous kind of heroism. In his work, Saviolo establishes a typology of reasons to quarrel. As he says in the preface, his book is about “honorable” quarrels, a word (“honorable”) that he tries to define in the second part of his work. The art of quarrelling, of fighting in single combat, is thus part of a precise framework of rules. Anger is one of the constituents of the art, but it has to be of a moderate kind. Duels are supposed to channel that passion and make it “honorable.” Yet there is, in the word “quarrel,” a fundamental element of violence (in the Latin queri, there is a passionate dimension with the meaning of “complaint” or “lament”). But Saviolo is trying to civilise the term. In the preface to the second part of the book, he says that he is addressing the English aristocrats : “my purpose heerein is rather to discharge my duetie and zeale to the Nobilitie and Gentrie of England” (sig. O2r). He carefully condemns excessive passions (“distempered appetites,” sig. O4r). Quarrelling must be practised according to the old rules, an occasion for Saviolo to launch into a nostalgic discourse on old-fashioned courtesy :

What is become of the gentilitie and inbredde courtesie of auncient noble Gentlemen ? where is the magninimitye of the honourable Knightes of fore going times, whose vertues as they are recorded in histories wherin we read of them, so ought to have been lefte to their posteritye, that in them we might see the image (now forgotten) of auncient Nobilitye ? (sig. O4r)

However, Saviolo also knows that, originally, nobility is founded on a reward for the capacity to fight :

the necessary use of armes hath gotten such credit in the worlde, as Kings and Princes have nobilitated some with the name of Knights for their excellencie therein, which name is made noble, and that upon great reason, for such men have purchased nobilitie, by conquering kingdomes for their Princes, more respecting their honour and countries good, then any other thing […] (sig. P1r)

Yet according to Saviolo, no single combat can take place in a state of anger since for him, fighting is essentially a technique. For instance, there are rules to and different types of provocation, of response and of course technique in fighting, but anger should be avoided :

sometimes men verie sufficient and skilfull at their weapon, are hurt, either by their evill fortune, that they suffer themselves to bee carried awaie and overmastered too much with choler and rage, or else for that they make no account of their enemie. Wherefore as well in this ward as in the other, take heede that you suffer not your selfe to bee blinded and carried awaie with rage and furie. (sigs. G4v-H1r)

Revenge itself can be reasonable. Saviolo thinks that duels should be avoided at all costs, but he concludes nevertheless : “But if the injurie be such, that either murder be committed by trecherie, or rape, or such like villanies, then is it necessarye to proceede in revenging it” (sig. P1v).

22Quarrelling and revenge are acceptable then, as long as they are practised within the limits of the rules. Ben Jonson makes fun of the paradox of a passion which is restrained by sets of rules. But both texts, Saviolo’s serious outlook on the art of quarrelling and Ben Jonson’s satirical view of fashionable young men ready to fight at the slightest occasion, point to an anti-essentialist definition of anger.

23Whether it is a sign of heroic bravery, or whether it is condemned for its excesses, anger (like the other passions) shifts from the essentialist vision of the humours as a defining trait, to an art, a form of knowledge, or a passion that can be used according to the circumstances. This is part of the necessity to master one’s appearances which is one of the bases of courtesy books, from Castiglione’s Courtier to Graciàn’s Hero. One must not submit to passions ; on the contrary, passions must be mastered and used for the sake of social appearances. In Les Trois livres des offices d’Estat (1586), his work about the education of princes, Jacques Hurault, who was Henri III of France’s councillor and an admirer of Machiavelli, recommends complete control over the passions, especially for princes. One of the chapters of his book, in Arthur Golding’s 1595 translation, is entitled “That princes must above all things eschew Choler.” However, after having condemned an excessive use of anger, he tries to demonstrate that anger can be useful, and even virtuous, even when it is not moderate :

because it is stormie, therefore it is workfull, so that an angry mans menaces are hardines, his headines stoutnes, his crueltie disposition to do great things, his unappeasable hardnesse firm stedinesse, and his furiousnes a hating of vice […]. And to that purpose serveth this which is said in philosophie, that the chollerick folk are aptest to learn sciences. And the Proverb saith, That he which hath no choler, hath no wit. (359)

So choler is, for Hurault, a form of knowledge that the prince can use as he wishes. Choler is an instrument that must be controlled, but that must not control the mind : “Aristotle saith, that cholericknesse is a true signe of a readie wit, and of a forward, brave, and gallant nature ; that is not sleepie and drowzie ; and that anger must be used not as a captaine, but as a souldier” (359). Anger is thus an object of study, an outward “sign” that can be used, but that must not use you.

24Anger is an ambiguous passion : it was an inherent sign of heroism, and at the same time, it was condemned by early modern moral philosophers as a violent, non-civilised and uncontrollable passion. The passions had to be regulated, but anger stood out as the fundamental characteristic of the hero. The shift from an essentialist to an non-essentialist definition of anger could be seen as a way to solve this contradiction, but it is rather the sign of a change in the vision of man, from a definition that assigned a corresponding temperament to an excess of humour, to a passion that came to be seen as an art or skill. From an aesthetic point of view, excessive anger, as it had been represented in revenge tragedies was either satirised, as in Ben Jonson’s Alchemist, or negated, as in the political plays of George Chapman. The representation of the passions took on new forms on the early modern English stage, and was the seat of dramatic experimentation, in which action was no longer seen as a “motion of the soul.”

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Primary sources

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Aristotle. The Art of Rhetoric. Trans. H. C. Lawson-Tancred. London : Penguin, 1991.

Chapman, George. The Conspiracy and Tragedy of Charles, Duke of Byron. Ed. John Margeson. Manchester : Manchester UP, 1988.

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Scodel, Joshua. Excess and the Mean in Early Modern English Literature. Princeton & Oxford : Princeton UP, 2002.

Sharpe, Kevin. “Virtues, Passions and Politics in Early Modern England.” History of Political Thought 32 (2011) : 773-98.

Sukič, Christine. “La colère impossible du Byron de Chapman.” Études Épistémè 1 (Spring 2002) : 46-61. 30/11/2014

Wright, Thomas. The Passions of the Mind in General, Ed. William Webster Newbold. New York : Garland, 1986.

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1  There is no real distinction at the time between the two terms. They are used indifferently in the theories of the passions, since choler is both a humour and its corresponding temperament, and in that case can be difficult to distinguish from the passion of anger. The OED gives Palsgrave’s grammar book L’esclarcissement de la langue francoyse as the first occurrence of the word “choler” in the modern sense of “anger” (1530) and then jumps to 1560 for a similar example.

2  Jean-François Senault’s De l’usage des passions was published in 1632. It was translated into English by Henry of Monmouth as The Use of Passions and published in 1649.

3  On the importance of Aristotle’s mediocritas, see Scodel.

4  Susan James has noted the use of this image of passions as rebels in Henry More’s Immortality of the Soul (1659): “The passions are rebels who rise up against reason and understanding, make secessions, raise mutinies, ‘brawl with one another and so cause riots and tumults’. Charmed by the sensible realm, they often prove deaf to the voice of reason, and, casting off their yoke of allegiance, ‘aspire to unbounded licence and dominion’. As opponents they are cunning, resilient, and insatiable” (11).

5  On Byron as an angry hero, see Sukič.

6  The book was published by John Wolfe, who specialised in Italian works such as Tasso’s Aminta or Guarini’s Il Pastor Fido, as well as the English editions of Machiavelli.

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Christine Sukic, « A true sign of a readie wit’ : Anger as an Art of Excess in Early Modern Dramatic and Moral Literature »XVII-XVIII, 71 | 2014, 85-98.

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Christine Sukic, « A true sign of a readie wit’ : Anger as an Art of Excess in Early Modern Dramatic and Moral Literature »XVII-XVIII [En ligne], 71 | 2014, mis en ligne le 17 mai 2016, consulté le 04 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Christine Sukic

Université de Reims – Champagne Ardennes

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