Elizabethan Drama Essay Research Paper Beyond New

Elizabethan Drama Essay, Research Paper

Beyond New Historicism: Marlowe’s unnatural histories and the melancholy

properties of the stage Drew Milne The tradition of the dead generations weighs

like a nightmare on the minds of the living. [1] There is no document of culture

which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a

document is not free from barbarism, barbarism also taints the process of

transmission … [2] Recent critical discussions of Elizabethan drama, above all

of Shakespeare, have centred around `new historicism’, a trend consolidated in

critical anthologies.[3] New historicism is characterised by an interest in the

historicity of texts and the textuality of history, and by affinities with

theoretical projects concerned with power, identity and the construction of

subject positions. Despite important political differences, new historicism has

been linked with what has become known as `cultural materialism’.[4] Many of the

political differences stem from the uneasy relation of new historicism, and of

cultural materialism, to the Marxist conception of history or historical

materialism, differences which this essay seeks to accentuate. Raymond Williams

is often claimed as a major precursor of cultural materialism, but interest in

institutions, discursive practices and subject positions suggests the different

legacy of Althusser’s attack on humanism and the influence of Foucault. New

historicism, by contrast, shows scant regard for Marxism while being especially

indebted to Foucault’s version of Nietzsche’s will to power and perspectival

historicism, despite important critiques of Foucault’s work.[5] The Althusserian

approach is more overtly committed to the possibility of political change but

tends towards a similarly theoreticist, even formalist reduction of history. The

possibility of resisting power and the power of ideology marks the decisive

conflict in these different assimilations of history to culture. New

historicism, lost in proliferating examples of contingent but seemingly

inescapable discourses of power, seems at best to expand the archive of wry

smiles at the ruses of history and power. As an academic guise in which to

rework the glories of the past without pausing too long over the enormity of the

history surveyed, the reproduction of literary history now lies in the hands of

those who can offer few reasons for continuing to produce the object of

critique. Sinfield suggests that, `New historicists, therefore, like their

colleagues, are sustaining many of the old routines while knowing, really, that

their validity has evaporated.’[6] As such, new historicists could be described

as reformists who do not believe in progress. If we are to awake from the

nightmare of history, perhaps such historicism should be left alone to dull the

air with discoursive moans, as Aeneas puts it in Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of

Carthage. The persistent naturalisation of suffering in history should be

resisted if the process of transmitting historical documents is not to further

the process. Herein lies the need to offer estranging perspectives on

Elizabethan drama and the intervening historical gulf. One aspect of the

difficulty is the continuing investment in naturalising both the language and

dramaturgy of Elizabethan drama within a literary tradition dominated by

Shakespeare and the Shakespeare industry. This essay seeks to provide an

estranging perspective through a reading of new historicist accounts of Marlowe.

Focussing on Tamburlaine, I hope to suggest some different approaches with

regard to the melancholy dramatisation of history as a scene of unnatural

events, by drawing on the work of Walter Benjamin and Franco Moretti.[7] A

distinctive and estranging approach to dramatising the enormity of history is

evident in the prevalence of violence, murder and arbitrary death in Elizabethan

drama itself. This prevalence has long been seen as excessive, a mark of

something unnatural in its historical imaginary, without being understood.

History in Elizabethan drama is, as title-pages characteristically predict,

lamentable. The structure of effects suggested by drama as an occasion for

melancholic lamentation helps to contextualise the roles of Tamburlaine, Barabas

and Guise in Marlowe’s plays, where it seems particularly in-appropriate to

reduce their dramatic ambivalence to the need to identify with a central

protagonist or autonomous `character’. As David Bevington suggests: `The

well-known type of "Lamentable Tragedy, Mixed Full of Pleasant Mirth"

… traces its origins to the view that vicious behavior is at once funny and

terrifying as a spectacle, admirable and yet grotesque, amusing but also

edifying as a perverse distortion of moral behavior.’[8] Elizabethan drama, par-ticularly

Marlowe’s, dramatises the contradictions of seeing history as a record of divine

providence in which the world is the theatre of divine judgment. The prologue to

the first part of Tamburlaine invites audience and reader to `View but his

picture in this tragicke glasse, / And then applaud his fortunes if you

please.’[9] Indeed the play seems to relish the ambivalent moral possibilities

of melancholy pleasure in lamenting a world without divine providence. In this

theatre history is both unnatural and inhuman. Violent suffering without end or

grace goes against the notion of a fall from a greater nature or the prospect of

a redeemed nature to come. History is then seen as the non-identity of nature

with itself, unnatural forces struggling with natural ones. Unnatural forces,

however, must also be seen as emerging from nature, while the dramatisation of

history in terms of human agency suggests that unnatural acts are an aspect of

human nature for which no secular concept of wordly evil is adequate. In

Elizabethan drama the stage is not so much beyond good and evil as caught in an

attempt to develop a secular concept of evil. The resources for such a concept

are figurative rather than conceptual, resorting to melancholy in face of the

unthinkably arbitrary and violent prevalence of suffering. Benjamin’s account is

helpful here. The contemplation of lamentable stories of death by unnatural

causes finds its aesthetic purpose in allegories of unholy dying, allegories in

which history is a fallen nature, a world of evil without the consolations of

natural justice. On such an unnaturally cruel and violent stage dominated by

seemingly arbitrary and unreliable powers, the possibility that evil might be

recognisable without theology is consoling. Indeed it is the reduction of

history to worldly evil which makes it possible to stage history as a state of

unnatural nature that can be lamented. The mirror of magistrates becomes a wheel

which needs to be reinvented because it never quite comes full circle, notably

in the lurching rhythms of the failure of poetic justice at the end of King

Lear. Hence, although a fashion for stage violence can be traced from Cambises

and Gorboduc to The Spanish Tragedy, its historical significance is complicated.

Thus it is difficult to understand why Tamburlaine was so popular, even to the

extent of imitation in The First part of the Tragical raigne of Selimus.

Tamburlaine’s simple linear plot seems to offer little more than a violent

pageant of power and destruction enlivened by occasional striking tableaux. This

taste for horror in aesthetic form has remained unexplained in its more specific

historical manifestations, and in general, perhaps because it reflects but fails

to explain the nightmare of history. In rethinking this nightmare, much of the

critical verve of new historicism is derived from the historicisation, if not

critique, of humanist or idealist conceptions of subjectivity in the reception

and critical transmission of Elizabethan drama. There is a danger in

assimilating the different approaches associated with new historicism to one

paradigm, but the centrality of conceptions of subjectivity is evident.

Catherine Belsey, while developing an attack on liberal humanism, seeks `to

chart in the drama of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the eventual

construction of an order of subjectivity which is recognizably modern.’[10] This

finds its strategic justification in the need to displace the largely romantic

and post-romantic conceptions of the subject dominant in the modern reception of

Shakespeare and so-called Renaissance drama more generally. Jonathan Dollimore

describes the task as `a critique of the way literary critics have reproduced

Renaissance drama in terms of a modern depoliticized subjectivity, and an

attempt to recover a more adequate history of subjectivity’.[11] Dollimore

argues that Elizabethan tragedy itself challenged Christian essentialism and in

the process decentred `Man’; but he also highlights the danger of anachronism:

the incorrect procedure is that which insists on reading the early seventeenth

century through the grid of an essentialist humanism which in historical fact

post-dates it and in effect only really emerges with the Enlightenment; in other

words, what makes a materialist analysis of subjectivity in that period seem

inappropriate is itself a thoroughly anachronistic perspective.[12] Nevertheless

there are striking similarities between Dollimore’s account of Tamburlaine and

the persistent Nietzschean romanticism which marks previous critical accounts of

Marlowe. Hazlitt says of Marlowe that: `There is a lust of power in his

writings, a hunger and thirst after unrighteousness, a glow of the imagination,

unhallowed by anything but its own energies.’[13]; while Helen Gardner argues

less effusively that: `The first part of Tamburlaine glorifies the human will:

the second displays its inevitable limits.’[14]; and Harry Levin offers the

following stirring formulation of Marlowe’s Barabas: `His will to power is

gratified less by possession than by control. In this he does not resemble the

conqueror so much as he adumbrates the capitalist; and Marlowe has grasped what

is truly imaginative, what in his time was almost heroic, about business

enterprise.’[15] This Nietzschean aesthetic of the will to power and primitive

accumulation, in which naked ambition and the arbitrary amassing of power and

wealth is celebrated as the legitimate aspiration of human energy, finds

surprising echoes in Dollimore’s account of Tamburlaine: With his indomitable

will to power and warrior prowess, Tamburlaine really does approximate to the

self-determining hero bent on transcendent autonomy . . . exclusion may be the

basis not just of Tamburlaine as fantasy projection but Tamburlaine as

transgressive text: it liberates from its Christian and ethical framework the

humanist conception of man as essentially free, dynamic and aspiring. [16] In

Dollimore’s argument these terms are ambivalent rather than celebratory, but

seem to preclude the more Brechtian possibility that Marlowe does not in the end

intend sympathy with Tamburlaine. Perhaps, like Mother Courage, Marlowe intended

a sense that the passage of war and destruction might be understood as the

responsibility of a badly motivated human agent, such that Tamburlaine’s

exploits are an occasion for reflective lamentation, rather than Nietzschean

identification with a superman. The central hermeneutic difficulty, however, is

that the attempt to historicise anachronistically imputed conceptions of

subjectivity relies on claiming that more recent conceptions of decentred

subjectivity are not similarly anachronistic, an objection which could also be

extended to Brecht’s plays. Much depends on whether we applaud the fortunes seen

in the `tragicke glasse’ of Tamburlaine as a stage on which the will to power is

enacted, or whether we prefer to steel ourselves against the figurative idealism

which lurks in such mirrors of nature. If we applaud the fortunes of Tamburlaine

then we identify with that difference of nature from itself which produces the

spectacle of history, thus naturalising Tamburlaine’s will to power. If we do

not identify with Tamburlaine’s struggle for power as something natural then we

have to lament the spectacle of unnatural history or find a perspective from

which to understand it differently. Thus the focus on subjective agency,

individual will or dramatic identity tends to abstract from history to highlight

the ideological forms which transcend the historical gulf between modern and

pre-modern fictions of society. A materialist account of subjectivity may

restore individuals to history, but the political relevance of theoretical

hindsight is mortgaged to the reception history it seeks to displace. In other

words, by making subjectivity such a central analytical tool new historicism

succeeds in decentring subjects, showing how such subjects were never centred,

but obscures the historical and cognitive significance of the different terms in

which Elizabethan drama dramatised history. As Moretti argues, taking up

Benjamin’s account of allegory: `allegory is not a subjective deception to which

someone might be imagined to hold the semantic key, but the objectively

deceptive condition of the nature of history by which everyone is ultimately

betrayed.’[17] Moreover, subjectivity in Elizabethan drama is invariably a

chimera given the persistent ambivalence of theatricality. Kastan and

Stallybrass, for example, suggest that `Acting itself threatens to reveal the

artificial and arbitrary nature of social being.’[18] The nature of social

being, however, is not arbitrary save in constructions which make being the

ground of historicity. Human history cannot be understood in terms of a history

of human subjectivity without reference to the nature against which it

struggles, and that nature is itself historical.[19] The history of subjectivity

is never the same as the history of subjects as objects in human attempts to

dominate nature. The thought that the antagonistic domination of human nature

and the struggle to dominate nature itself might be superseded and shown to be

neither natural nor contingently historical, is perhaps what Marx meant by the

pre-history of human society. If there is an affinity between modern conceptions

of decentred subjectivity and pre-modern Elizabethan drama, it may be that both

Elizabethan dramatisations of history and contemporary historicism collapse

history, indeed naturalize it in terms of a drama of subjective wills. Stephen

Greenblatt’s Renaissance Self-Fashioning (1980), an important text in the

emergence of new historicism, provides exemplary instances of these

difficulties. In his introduction Greenblatt concedes the risk of anachronism,

and comments on his small group of chosen texts that: `It is we who enlist them

in a kind of historical drama’.[20] Greenblatt provocatively suggests a

dramatised analogy with Nietzsche’s conception of the will to power in the very

title of the chapter `Marlowe and the Will to Absolute Play’. Such anachronism

is significant insofar as the naturalization of history as power suggested by

Nietzsche, and also in Foucault’s work, is a historically determinate attempt to

understand social process in terms of illusory subject positions. As Greenblatt

explains in his epilogue: Whenever I focused sharply upon a moment of apparently

autonomous self-fashioning, I found not an epiphany of identity freely chosen,

but a cultural artifact. If there remained traces of free choice, the choice was

among possibilities whose range was strictly delineated by the social and

ideological system in force. (p. 256) Hence Greenblatt describes Marlowe’s plays

by explicitly evoking Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire: `Marlowe’s protagonists

rebel against orthodoxy, but they do not do so just as they please; their acts

of negation not only conjure up the order they would destroy, but seem at times

to be themselves conjured up by that very order.’ (p. 210) The subtle

difference, however, is the shift to a more structuring account of `order’, and,

more fundamentally, the stress on the dramatic protagonist as the interpretative

key, despite arguing that it is the social order which fashions such

protagonists. Consequently, Greenblatt’s approach needs to be understood as both

a sketch of the development of human autonomy in the Renaissance, what might be

called a romanticist reading of the early modern period, and the historicisation

of such autonomy as being illusory: `Marlowe’s heroes must live their lives as

projects, but they do so in the midst of intimations that the projects are

illusions.’ (p. 213) Accordingly, in a move which has become characteristic of

new historicism, Greenblatt prefaces his account of self-fashioning in Marlowe’s

plays with an anecdotal historical analogue for the contemporary `system’ of

power. This analogue juxtaposes Marlowe’s plays with the `casual, unexplained

violence’ in an English merchant’s tale of a voyage in 1586 to Sierre Leone,

suggesting an historical ‘matrix’ of the relentless power-hunger of Tudor

absolutism, and in particular the acquisitive energies of English merchants,

entre-preneurs, and adventurers.(p. 194) In some respects this echoes what might

be called the old historicist account of L.C.Knights in Drama and Society in the

Age of Jonson (1937), which examines the social and economic bases of

Elizabethan-Jacobean culture in rather more detail. But Greenblatt does not

relate nascent English capitalism and colonialism to the specific religious and

political conflicts dramatised in Tamburlaine. Rather, he deploys history as

`matrix’ in a more metaphorical analogy between the dynamic political geography

of merchant capital and the theatrical representation of space. Just as merchant

capitalism seeks to reduce geographical differences to an expression of its

power, so, for Greenblatt, Marlowe uses theatrical power to represent different

spaces: In Tamburlaine Marlowe contrives to efface all such differences, as if

to insist upon the essential meaninglessness of theatrical space, the vacancy

that is the dark side of its power to imitate any place. This vacancy – quite

literally, this absence of scenery – is the equivalent in the medium of the

theater to the secularization of space … (p. 195) On this basis Marlowe’s

dramatisation of the history of Tamburlaine is seen by Greenblatt as

Tamburlaine’s will to power in the occupation of theatrical space. Just as

Elizabethan dramatists breezily rewrite historical source materials, so

Greenblatt breezily rewrites Tamburlaine in terms which implicitly argue the

perspicuity of Deleuze and Guattari: `Tamburlaine is a machine, a desiring

machine that produces violence and death.’ (p. 195) Hence the terms of

Tamburlaine’s dynamic occupation of stage space are further abstracted from

Marlowe’s theatrical allegory of history, and dramatised in Greenblatt’s

anachronistic allegory: `Space is transformed into an abstraction, then fed to

the appetitive machine. This is the voice of conquest, but it is also the voice

of wants never finished and of transcendental homelessness.’ (p. 196) While

Greenblatt’s analogue indicates the dialectical relation between culture and

barbarity suggested by Walter Benjamin, he does not use it to examine specific

power struggles in history, but rather as an anecdotal allegory to suggest the

historicity of power. Greenblatt’s conception of theatricality is nevertheless a

sophisticated one. This is salutary amid the prevalent reluctance to recognize

the centrality of theatre and theatricality for Elizabethan drama, a reluctance

which reflects the dominance of print-culture perspectives on drama and more

recent attempts to conceive history as a form of textuality. However, his

account of theatricality risks remaining immanent within the metaphors generated

by theatricality in Marlowe’s plays. Comparing `the violence of Tamburlaine and

of the English merchant’ (p.197) this leads Greenblatt into an alarming

aestheticisation of their respective representations and experiences of stage

space and geography: experiencing this limitlessness, this transformation of

space and time into abstractions, men do violence as a means of marking

boundaries, effecting transformation, signaling closure. To burn a town or to

kill all of its inhabitants is to make an end, and in so doing, to give life a

shape and a certainty that it would otherwise lack. (p.197) There is something

chilling in these lines, not least in the trans-formation of violence into

formal patterns and the assimilation of human suffering – `to burn a town’ – to

the perspective of the violent protagonist. For Greenblatt the structure of

limits give shape but no escape: `in Marlowe’s ironic world, these desperate

attempts at boundary and closure produce the opposite effect, reinforcing the

condition they are meant to efface.’ (p. 198) The key anachronism is the

suggestion of ironic and implicitly inescapable reversals of power. Marlowe’s

plays fails to give such intelligible shape or indeed another moral scheme by

which to understand the spectacle of violence because the dramatic presentation

is not restricted to the self-fashioning of the protagonist: we also see the

victims. In the fifth act of Tamburlaine 1, for example, Tamburlaine sacks the

town of Damascus and kills all of its inhabitants, save the father of Zenocrate,

Tamburlaine’s wife-to-be. The play offers the Brechtian possibility that the

audience need not identify with Tamburlaine by offering perspectives on

Tamburlaine’s victims through Bajazeth, Zabina and, most importantly, Zenocrate.

Amid the death of Damascus, so to speak, and reports of the speared and

slaughtered carcasses of the virgins unsuccessfully sent by Damascus to

intercede with Tamburlaine, the audience also sees the laments and then suicides

of Bajazeth, Emperor of the Turks, and Zabina his wife, having had enough of

being paraded as Tamburlaine’s symbolic slaves. As Zabina puts it, `Then is

there left no Mahomet, no God, / No Feend, no Fortune, nor no hope of end / To

our infamous monstrous slaveries?’ (Pt.1: V.i.239-241) An audience might more

easily identify with such a lament than with a man who has killed a town. The

laments of Bajazeth and Zabina are highly charged and, juxtaposed with the

slaughtered virgins, their self-fashioned deaths suggest the extremes of the

social scale to suffer at the hands of Tamburlaine.[21] Their deaths are

immediately followed by the entrance of Zenocrate who laments the sack of her

home town by her supposed lover: Zenocrate. Wretched Zenocrate, that livest to

see, Damascus walles di’d with Egyptian blood: Thy Fathers subjects and thy

countrimen. Thy streetes strowed with dissevered jointes of men, And wounded

bodies gasping yet for life…. Ah, Tamburlaine, wert thou the cause of this

That tearm’st Zenocrate thy dearest love? Whose lives were dearer to Zenocrate

Than her own life, or ought save thine owne love. (Pt. 1, V.i.319-323, 334-5)

Coming after Bajazeth and Zabina, Zenocrate reminds the audience of the

slaughter of Damascus, and highlights the depth of Tamburlaine’s rejection of

the natural pity which might be associated with love. But if this isn’t enough

to suggest that we might identify with the victims of Tamburlaine, Zenocrate

then turns to see the `bloody spectacle’ of Bajazeth and Zabina: `Behold the

Turke and his great Emperesse./ Ah Tamburlaine, my love, sweet Tamburlaine, /

That fights for Scepters and for slippery crownes’ (Pt.1, V.i.354-6). This

suggests the way in which the play might be read as the tragedy of Bajazeth and

Zabina, their history as moral exemplum in the mirror of magistrates tradition.

However, despite the efforts of Zenocrate and Anippe, her maid, to summon the

wheel of fortune scheme this serves instead to highlight the dramatic

ambivalence of Tamburlaine’s unstopped rise to power. Roy Battenhouse offers the

most sustained attempt to reinscribe Tamburlaine in a moral scheme, focussing in

particular on the end of part 2, and reading the play in terms offered by

Tamburlaine’s final words, as the story of a `Scourge of God’ (Pt.2: V.iii.258),

but this reading has to work against the grain of Marlowe’s more ambivalent

moral and theological implications. History itself, as Battenhouse concedes,

makes his case hard to sustain: The tradition of Tamburlaine’s peaceful and

natural death being thus firmly established, we must recognize that Marlowe’s

opportunities to make of the history an example of God’s punishing of sin were

definitely limited. The histories were attributing to this Scythian scourge a

long life of unobscured glory – a career which looked like a blasphemous

challenge to the Puritan dogma of Providence. [22] The approach suggested by

Greenblatt is more convincing in this respect: `Tamburlaine repeatedly teases

its audience with the form of the cautionary tale, only to violate the

convention. All of the signals of the tragic are produced, but the play

stubbornly, radically, refuses to become a tragedy.’ (p. 202) Part 1, in

particular, ends with Tamburlaine triumphant, crowning Zenocrate queen of Persia

and talking of marriage rites to come, presenting the melancholy spectacle of

inhuman, ruthless violence and tyranny unpunished. Indeed the audience are

encouraged to view this spectacle with horror and amazement. For most of act

five of part 1 Tamburlaine is identified with death, entering as the stage

direction puts it: `all in blacke, and verie melancholy’ (Pt.1: V.i.inter 63-4).

In one of Marlowe’s finest theatrical touches he shows the horror of

Tamburlaine’s power through the rhetoric of allegorical reference to his sword

as he claims that death is his servant and dismisses the virgins sent by

Damascus to intercede with him: Tamburlaine: Virgins, in vaine ye labour to

prevent That which mine honor sweares shal be perform’d: Behold my sword, what

see you at the point. 1. Virgin: Nothing but feare and fatall steele my Lord.

Tamburlaine: Your fearfull minds are thicke and mistie then, For there sits

Death, there sits imperious Death, Keeping his circuit by the slicing edge. But

I am pleasde you shall not see him there: He now is seated on my horsmens

speares, And on their points his fleshlesse bodie feeds. Techelles, straight goe

charge a few of them To charge these Dames, and shew my servant death, Sitting

in scarlet on their armed speares. (Pt. 1: V.i.106-118) Tamburlaine’s sword is

more than an object of fear and potentially fatal steel, becoming an allegory in

which the stage property is an object of melancholic perception, a figure of

death. Benjamin comments that `once human life has sunk into the merely

creaturely, even the life of apparently dead objects secures power over it.’[23]

And while the fatal power of swords as objects is evident, the importance of the

stage property here is the significance of this sword as an object of

contemplation into which history has been metonymically distilled. The

illumination of the fateful qualities of the most trivial stage property, such

as a handkerchief or a glove, reveal such props to be objects, often poisonous

ones, which signify the fateful arbitrariness of objective history. Indeed the

relation between protagonists and the fateful objects with which they identify

is a central dramaturgical part of the opening of many of Marlowe’s plays: a

letter for Gaveston; Faustus and books; Barabas and heaps of gold. The

significance of this is highlighted by the insignificance of such stage props in

classical drama. As Benjamin argues: `In moral examples and in catastrophes

history served only as an aspect of the subject matter of emblematics. The

transfixed face of signifying nature is victorious, and history must, once and

for all, remain contained in the subordinate role of stage-property.’[24]

Similarly, sovereignty is given allegorical representation in the metonymical

form of sceptres and what Zenocrate calls `slippery crownes’. All through

Tamburlaine crowns are the sad allegorical tokens of earthly power, but they

become melancholic properties rather than moral exempla precisely when

providential schemes of history as morality fail. Melancholic because the

allegory of the objective world such stage props signify is one in which the

dramatisation of history as evil recoils from the realisation that there is no

evil in nature, only a subjective understanding with no correlative in reality.

A striking passage from Plotinus’s third century Enneads suggests the

possibility of seeing the enormity of history as the pleasurably lamentable work

of a dramatic artist, while suggesting also the risks of failing to recognise

the possible barbarity of neo-Platonist attempts to figure life as play, and so

reduce the historical world to a phenomenon secondary to subjective

understanding: Murders, death in all its guises, the reduction and sacking of

cities, all must be to us just such a spectacle as the changing scenes of a

play; all is but the varied incident of a plot, costume on and off, acted grief

and lament. For on earth, in all the succession of life, it is not the Soul

within but the Shadow outside of the authentic man that grieves and complains

and acts out the plot on this world stage which men have dotted with stages of

their own constructing. All this is the doing of man knowing no more than to

live the lower and outer life, and never perceiving that, in his weeping and in

his graver doings alike, he is but at play; to handle matters austerely is

reserved for the thoughtful: the other kind of man is himself a futility. Those

incapable of thinking gravely read gravity into frivolities which correspond to

their own frivolous Nature.[25] Murder, death in all its guises, and the

reduction and sacking of cities are the spectacles and changing scenes of

Marlowe’s unnatural histories, especially in Tamburlaine and The Massacre at

Paris. The resort to theatrical melancholy need not collapse the world of

suffering into a frivolous nature which corresponds to that melancholy, as

though the sacking of cities were frivolous. Nevertheless, the dramatisation of

such history as a pageant of power invariably threatens to be caught in a figure

which naturalises history as play. Plotinus reminds us that some of the relevant

figures are not as historically specific as they at first seem. The important

difference is that Elizabethan drama, and in particular tragedy, registers an

essential inhumanism, notably in the melancholic, metonymical significance of

crowns, swords and other often poisonous stage properties whose seemingly modest

objectivity overcomes the best efforts of human subjects. Moreover the drama

suggests an unfathomably lamentable quality in the struggle between natural and

unnatural forces, precisely because without eschatology or a modern idea of

natural history, history is reduced to an allegory of natural forces. Thus the

understanding of Elizabethan drama would be furthered by examining the relation

between nature, history and theatricality, so as to reveal its truth as a

cognitive framework which has become historically alienated from the barbarity

it sought to understand. Elizabethan drama attempts to stage history as nature;

not nature in the modern sense, but rather an unnaturally horrific and

lamentable allegory of nature as history. Decoding the history in this nature

involves recognizing the way this allegorical staging of history helps us

understand the necessity for historical distanciation, particularly from any

attempt to displace the horror in its allegory of natural history with new

allegories of the historicity of power and subjectivity. In short, the effort to

rethink Elizabethan drama might restore a sense of the unnatural histories which

divide and rule our historical differences. Rather than rethinking such history

in `our’ own natural interests, such documents might be blasted out of their

continuity and given a sense of unrelenting strangeness rather than strained

relevance. The hermeneutic shibboleths of power, subjectivity and identity may

also have to give way to the rejection or at least melancholic recognition of

the essential inhumanism of a world without grace whose historical nature is a

nightmare from which we are yet to awake.

[1] Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, trans. B. Fowkes,

Surveys from Exile: Political Writings, vol. 2, ed. D. Fernbach (Harmondsworth,

1973). [2] W. Benjamin, ‘Uber den Begriff der Geschichte’, Illuminationen, ed.

S.Unseld (Frankfurt am Main, 1977), p. 254; translation amended from ‘Theses on

the Philosophy of History’, Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (London, 1973), p.

258. [3] See New Historicism and Renaissance Drama, eds. Richard Wilson and

Richard Dutton (London and New York, 1992); and Staging the Renaissance:

Reinterpretations of Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama (New York and London, 1991),

eds. David Scott Kastan and Peter Stallybrass. [4] See Jonathan Dollimore,

‘Introduction: Shakespeare, cultural materialism and the new historicism’,

Political Shakespeare: New essays in cultural materialism, eds. Jonathan

Dollimore and Alan Sinfield (Manchester, 1985); Jonathan Dollimore, Radical

Tragedy (London, 1989), especially the preface to the second edition; and Alan

Sinfield, Faultlines: Cultural Materialism and the Politics of Dissident Reading

(Oxford, 1992). [5] See Peter Dews, Logics of Disintegration: Post-structuralist

Thought and the Claims of Critical Theory (London, 1987); and J?rgen Habermas,

The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, trans. Frederick Lawrence (Cambridge,

Mass. and Cambridge, 1987). [6] Sinfield, Faultlines, p. 287. [7] Walter

Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. John Osborne (London, 1977);

and Franco Moretti, ‘The Great Eclipse: Tragic Form as the Deconsecration of

Sovereignty’, Signs Taken For Wonders, trans. David Miller (London, 1983).

Benjamin’s work has had surprisingly little resonance in studies of Elizabethan

and Jacobean drama. Helpful discussions of Benjamin’s work on ‘Trauerspiel’ and

drama are provided by Charles Rosen, ‘The Ruins of Walter Benjamin’, On Walter

Benjamin, ed. Gary Smith (Cambridge, Mass. and London, 1988), pp. 129-5; and

Rainer N?gele, Theater, Theory, Speculation: Walter Benjamin and the Scenes of

Modernity (Baltimore and London, 1991). [8] David M. Bevington, From ‘Mankind’

to Marlowe (Cambridge, Mass., 1962), p. 161. [9] Tamburlaine, Part 1, The

Complete Works of Christopher Marlowe, 2 vols., ed Fredson Bowers (Cambridge,

1973), vol. 1, p. 79. References to this edition hereafter in main text. [10]

Catherine Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy (London, 1985), p. 4. [11] Dollimore,

Radical Tragedy, preface to second edition, p. xxviii. [12] Radical Tragedy, p.

155. [13] William Hazlitt, from Lectures on the Dramatic Literature of the Age

of Elizabeth, quoted from Critics on Marlowe, ed. Judith O’Neill (London, 1969),

p.17. [14] Helen Gardner, ‘The Second Part of Tamburlaine the Great’, Critics on

Marlowe, p. 42. [15] Harry Levin, `The Jew of Malta: Poor Old Rich Man’, Critics

on Marlowe, p. 51. [16] Radical Tragedy, p. 112. [17] Franco Moretti, Signs

Taken For Wonders, p. 78. [18] Staging the Renaissance, p. 9. [19] See

T.W.Adorno, ‘The Idea of Natural History.’ trans. Bob Hullot-Kentor, Telos, 60

(Summer, 1984), 111-124. [20] Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning:

From More to Shakespeare (Chicago & London, 1980), p. 6. References

hereafter included in the main text. [21] On these laments and lament generally

see Wolfgang Clemen’s neglected English Tragedy Before Shakespeare, trans.

T.S.Dorsch (London, 1961), esp. ch. 14, `The Dramatic Lament and Its Forms’, pp.

211-252; and ch. 15, `The Pre-Shakespearian Dramatic Lament’, pp. 253-286. [22]

Roy W. Battenhouse, Marlowe’s Tamburlaine: A Study in Renaissance Moral

Philosophy (Vanderbilt, Nashville, 1941; revised edition 1964), p. 144. [23]

Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, p. 132. [24] Benjamin, pp. 170-1.

[25] Plotinus, The Six Enneads, trans. Stephen MacKenna & B.S.Page (Chicago,

1952), III.ii.15, p. 90


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