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Project of the Month: European Old Testament Tragedies in the Age of Enlightenment

Each month, we aim to feature a current research topic by a doctoral student or Early Career Researcher. To start off the series, Sarah Fengler (Medieval and Modern Languages / Jesus College, Oxford) talks about her thesis topic on European dramatizations of Old Testament narratives in the Age of Enlightenment.


When Adam sees Eve standing next to the tree and reaching for the forbidden fruit, he is outraged. In an attempt to stop her at the last second, he comes rushing towards her with his arms raised.

The photograph shows an illustration from Johannes Ewald’s Adam og Ewa in Johannes Ewald’s Samtlige Skrifter, vol. 1, 1780. Drawing by Nicolai Abraham Abildgaard, engraving by Johann Frederik Clemens.

Eve is about to eat, and Adam will eventually follow her lead. Nicolai Abildgaard’s drawing of one of the most famous passages of the Old Testament (Genesis 3:6) belongs to the first volume of the Danish writer Johannes Ewald’s Samtlige Skrifter (‘Collected Works’) from 1780, more specifically to his tragedy Adam og Ewa (‘Adam and Eve’), published for the first time in 1769. Based on Genesis and drawing on additional literary sources, such as John Milton’s religious epic poem Paradise Lost (1667), Adam og Ewa tells the story of the Fall of Man and the expulsion from Paradise. From Ewald’s play, we know that Eve does not act without due consideration. Her reach for the fruit is the result of a long and sophisticated conversation with Satan, culminating in her insight that Adam alone cannot make her happy, only knowledge of God can.

Ewald’s inventive dramatization of the Fall is not untypical of the way Old Testament narratives, in the Age of Enlightenment, were adapted for tragedy. In his treatise Von der heiligen Poesie (1755, ‘On Sacred Poetry’), the German poet Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock claims that biblical narratives have gaps that need to be filled with fiction to emphasize the Christian message. Such a creative approach to the biblical text is legitimate if the poet is pious, and as long as the inventions fit into what Klopstock calls the main plan of religion. Klopstock himself, mainly known for his epic poem Der Messias (1748–1773, ‘The Messiah’), also uses this strategy in his own three Old Testament tragedies. Other eighteenth-century writers who explore the tragic nature of Scripture through dramatizing Old Testament stories include the Swiss critic Johann Jakob Bodmer, who also made the first German translation of Paradise Lost, the French deist Voltaire, and the English Christian writer Hannah More. What their plays have in common is that they supplement the biblical record with additional details and dialogues—sometimes based on other historical or literary sources, sometimes pure invention—and owing to divine salvation, their endings are often untragic.

The dramatization of biblical stories is not a new phenomenon that occurs first in the Age of Enlightenment, but has a long and varied history. Already from the Middle Ages, scriptural narratives were adapted for drama, whether in Latin or vernacular. Examples range from medieval mystery plays and sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Jesuit drama to Spanish autos sacramentales. However, eighteenth-century Old Testament tragedy differs from these traditions in many ways. It emerges in the context of intensive theoretical engagement with ancient drama theory, especially Aristotle’s Poetics, known through both French neoclassical doctrine classique and nascent concepts of bourgeois tragedy. Yet there is hardly any theoretical discussion about whether biblical stories should be dramatized, perhaps even because, thanks to Paradise Lost and the Messias, a different literary genre, the epic, had already proven fruitful in adapting Scripture. Thus, the dramatization of Old Testament stories in the eighteenth century culminates not only in a Christian appropriation of an originally pagan genre, but also in a deviation from the established sacred genre, the epic, to tragedy.

In my doctoral thesis, I examine how European dramatizations of Old Testament narratives in the Age of Enlightenment form a distinct mode of tragedy. Based on analyses of selected German, French, Scandinavian, and English plays, my thesis transcends the boundaries of European national literatures and sheds light on the idiosyncratic features of eighteenth-century Old Testament tragedies. At the heart of the analyses lies the nexus between tragic form and biblical content, and as such the untragic ending of many Old Testament tragedies, an innovation rooted in a New Testament perspective on Old Testament stories. That Adam and Eve must leave the garden of Eden after the Fall is common knowledge, but that their expulsion, at least in Adam og Ewa, is a gesture of God’s mercy on mankind, is a reframing by Ewald. Untragic endings like that of Ewald’s play challenge conventional understandings of the tragic genre and illustrate how the continued interplay between religion and literature in the Age of Enlightenment produced Old Testament tragedies with prolific innovations.


⁓ Sarah Fengler



Aristotle, ‘Poetics’, in Aristotle: Poetics. Longinus: On the Sublime. Demetrius: On Style [Loeb Classical Library 199], ed. and trans. by Stephen Halliwell (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995, repr. with co. 1999).

Johannes Ewald, ‘Adam og Ewa’, in Johannes Ewald: Samlede Skrifter efter tryk og haandskrifter, vol. 1, ed. by Hans Brix and V. Kuhr (Copenhagen: Gyldendal Nordisk Forlag, 1914).

Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, Werke und Briefe. Historisch-kritische Ausgabe, ed. by Adolf Beck and others (Berlin/New York: de Gruyter, 1974– ), IV/1–6: Der Messias, ed. by Elisabeth Höpker-Herberg (1974–1999).

Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, ‘Von der heiligen Poesie’, in Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock: Gedanken über die Natur der Poesie: Dichtungstheoretische Schriften, ed. by Winfried Menninghaus (Frankfurt a.M.: Insel, 1989), pp. 187–201.

John Milton, Paradise Lost, ed. by Gordon Teskey (New York: W.W. Norton, 2005).