Though Joost van den Vondel ranks higher perhaps as a poet than as a dramatist, his unique contribution to seventeenth century religious drama ensured his renown. Renaissance drama was steeped in the Senecan tradition, practiced also by Vondel’s contemporaries, P. C. Hooft and Hugo Grotius. Vondel’s early works, especially the highly pictorial Hierusalem verwoest, show the influence of the French theater’s Senecan religious tragedy. However, Vondel, following the Renaissance tradition of adapting religious drama to the form and language of classical theater, found himself increasingly attracted to the Aristotelian concept of tragedy, coming to expression already in his Joseph plays of 1640. His maturing religious view of human beings’ sinful nature and people’s yearning for goodness while being unable to attain it found a good fit in the Greek or Sophoclean depiction of the tragic hero. The later plays, such as Lucifer and Jeptha, demonstrate Vondel’s significant contribution: As a neoclassicist, he transformed the humanist religious drama from a celebration of a virtuous hero and the educability of humankind to a more provocative portrayal of a fallen, tragic hero in need of divine redemption. His heroes changed from innocent victims of injustice to fatally flawed protagonists who caused their own destruction. Vondel went beyond the more idealized depiction of the sixteenth century to complicate the relationship between a holy God and sinful humankind, holding up for a more thoughtful contemplation the universal human dilemma.
The influence of the Bible on Vondel’s art and drama was both extensive and comprehensive. From early in his writing career, Vondel saw the Scriptures as ideal and significant subject matter for tragic drama. Only a handful of Vondel’s plays (Palamedes, Gijsbrecht van Aemstel, Maeghden, Mary Stuart, De Leeuwendalers) deal with nonbiblical subject matter. In particular, the Old Testament stories provided him with a continuous source of inspiration and insight into what matters most in the Christian’s life. They also supplied the recurring theme for his religious works, the tension between human beings’ will to rebel and their quest for God. The conflict between right and wrong, Christ and Satan, obedience and revolt, God and humanity, faith and reason, and redemption and despair was at the center of nearly every dramatic work Vondel produced. However, Vondel, a profound man of faith, never failed to affirm the mystery and hope of Redemption and the presence of the grace of God.
Thus Vondel assimilated his intellectual admiration of non-Christian Greek and Roman culture into his devout Christian faith and the creation of his art. As a follower of Aristotle, Vondel strictly observed the classical unities of action, place, and time in his tragedies. He strove for simplicity and dignity, though he could also soar to extravagant Baroque exuberance, for he had the gift of a verbal artistry that seemed effortless and spontaneous, setting...
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