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Eclipse of Action

Tragedy and Political Economy

According to traditional accounts, the history of tragedy is itself tragic: following a miraculous birth in fifth-century Athens and a brilliant resurgence in the early modern period, tragic drama then falls into a marked decline. While disputing the notion that tragedy has died, this wide-ranging study argues that it faces an unprecedented challenge in modern times from an unexpected quarter: political economy.

Since Aristotle, tragedy has been seen as uniquely exhibiting the importance of action for human happiness. Beginning with Adam Smith, however, political economy has claimed that the source of happiness is primarily production. Eclipse of Action examines the tense relations between action and production, doing and making, in playwrights from Aeschylus, Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Milton to Beckett, Arthur Miller, and Sarah Kane. Richard Halpern places these figures in conversation with works by Aristotle, Smith, Hegel, Marx, Hannah Arendt, Georges Bataille, and others in order to trace the long history of the ways in which economic thought and tragic drama interact.

336 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2017

Literature and Literary Criticism: Dramatic Works, General Criticism and Critical Theory


"Halpern’s book is well worth the read. Its complex, multi-faceted and wide-ranging arguments will certainly appeal to scholars of history, philosophy, economics and theatre."

The British Society for Literature and Science

"This is a book about tragedy in which Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations is at least as important as Aristotle's Poetics. . . . Halpern, to his credit, tests his ideas against the more complex world of Hamlet with persuasive results. He helps us see how the search for favour and reward at court elides with the cash nexus on which the travelling players and armament workers depend."

London Review of Books

"Of all the books published this year, Richard Halpern’s Eclipse of Action: Tragedy and Political Economy perhaps best exemplifies the clarity and consequence of argument that becomes possible when we extend our frame of reference beyond a single period to pursue a set of philosophical problems that have come to constitute our notions of politics and the political."

Studies in English Literature

Eclipse of Action will interest classicists, early modernists, literary historians, philosophers, and cultural historians, as well as many general readers. It is lucidly and engagingly written and has a compelling story to tell about the complex interrelations between tragedy, modernity, and political economy. I admire this book tremendously.”

Victoria Kahn, author of The Future of Illusion: Political Theology and Early Modern Texts

"An ambitious reconsideration of tragedy that is at once deeply theoretical and richly historical, Eclipse of Action rethinks two canons: the canon of tragic drama and the canon of political economy. This is history on a scale to which literary scholars have become unaccustomed. Precisely because Halpern disregards protocols of discrete fields, this book will be widely read, cited, argued with, and celebrated. It belongs on the shelf next to the likes of Walter Benjamin, George Steiner, and Raymond Williams."

Martin Harries, author of Scare Quotes from Shakespeare: Marx, Keynes, and the Language of Reenchantment

Eclipse of Action brilliantly correlates the rise of political economy with the attenuation of action, virtue, and selfhood in tragic drama. Halpern’s inventive readings of Aeschylus, Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Beckett disclose the unfolding of tragedy in response to the performative life and statistical capture of labor. Here we find a revelatory theoretical space triangulated by Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and Hannah Arendt.”

Julia Reinhard Lupton, author of Thinking with Shakespeare: Essays on Politics and Life

Table of Contents

Chapter One    “Thy Bloody and Invisible Hand”: Tragedy and Political Economy
Chapter Two   Greek Tragedy and the Raptor Economy: The Oresteia
Chapter Three Marlowe’s Theater of Night: Doctor Faustus and Capital
Chapter Four   Hamlet and the Work of Death
Chapter Five   The Same Old Grind: Milton’s Samson as Subtragic Hero
Chapter Six     Hegel, Marx, and the Novelization of Tragedy
Chapter Seven Beckett’s Tragic Pantry
Postscript        After Beckett


Milton Society of America: John T. Shawcross Award

American Comparative Literature Association: Rene Wellek Prize

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