Elizabethan Drama Essay Research Paper Beyond New (стр. 1 из 3)

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


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