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date: 05 April 2020

Abstract and Keywords

While most commentators assume that sentimental discourse originated in fiction and philosophy, this chapter shows that late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century authors of pathetic tragedy, she-tragedy and sentimental comedy pioneered forms of sympathetic identification in the theatre. Sentimental literature is generally regarded as a handmaiden of empire, with no real critical potential. Exploring the changing effects of dramatic sentimentalism complicates this view however; while theatrical sympathy began as a nationally unifying project in John Banks’s plays, later dramas by Aaron Hill, Richard Steele and George Lillo lay bare the tragic costs of colonial trade, while James Thomson’s Edward and Eleonora and Aaron Hill’s Zara criticize imperial adventurism and religious and cultural bigotry. These sentimental dramas theatricalized radical Enlightenment ideas, notably those of religious and cultural tolerance. The repeated (and still controversial) use of Southerne’s Oroonoko as an abolitionist vehicle marks the apotheosis of this tendency.

Keywords: pathetic tragedy, sentimental comedy, sympathetic identification, imperial adventurism, colonial trade, religious bigotry, radical enlightenment, religious and cultural tolerance

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